Families: Dealing with a Community Tragedy/Death
I originally wrote this post about Sandy Hook in America for another site. Recently in Australia we have had a tragedy surrounding a primary school in Devonport, Tasmania. Although I have changed up some details here, the principles of the post are intrinsically the same – feelings of grief and worry or anxiety. A few things may happen within a family after tragedies involving young children occur:
1. The parents of children of a similar age can become highly anxious, even obsessive about their children’s welfare, and
2. Children can become disturbed about the event and, depending on their age, they can become fearful themselves or fixated on death, often their awareness about death may be for the first time.
Everyone reacts differently to traumatic events. Some people can be upset but are quickly able to compartmentalise it, keeping most everything ticking over as per usual after the initial shock. Other people can be affected at a deeper level as they process, but soon afterwards it can manifest itself through everyday stress, anxiety, depression, or plain fear. Everybody has their own way of reacting and processing the information of a traumatic event.
While it is understandable at times such as these that we feel an even greater need to protect our children, it is also important to maintain as much normalcy as possible in our lives, not sending out worrying, anxious vibes throughout the family, fuelling our own intense worry which (quite unintentionally) ripples down to our children. Children pick up on their parent’s body language, mode of behaviour, voice tone, and household differences. So it’s important that parent’s feel more at ease first of all in order to talk to their children and support any worries or concerns they might have.
There have been several events that I can recall with the utmost clarity that have unsettled me quite deeply and made me, as a parent, very worried for my children and their safety. They can easily be remembered to this day if I choose to pull the memories to top-of-mind. I’m not going to talk about what they were because I don’t want to talk about further traumatic events. I don’t want to give them a voice here. I just want to say that as a parent, now grandparent, I understand how easy it is to become worried, fearful, and to allow something like this to more than sideswipe you. It can feel like a collision with your psyche, if you allow it to take over. If you don’t actively look for something to ground you, and to dispute negative thoughts, they can easily become all consuming.
I thought I would add some general tips. And they are general because I’m addressing people of many beliefs, ideas, and personalities. I’m also talking generally about children who can range in age from, say, four upwards, so the information is very generic. These tips are intended as a guide and are aimed at people removed from the event but still worrying and scared. Which is what happens after a trauma so close to home, one that you can sympathise deeply with as a parent, as a family, as a human being.
For parents –
There may be a very strong desire right now to keep your child/ren close to you. Wanting to keep them away from some events you may never have thought twice about previously as you work through some worries and emotions of your own. For a few days this is not a problem; believe me it is understandable. However, after more than a few days, if you are still having problems letting your child/ren do what they ordinarily do it starts to become more problematic. If you are lying awake thinking about it, can’t seem to put it to the back of your mind for the most part, and it starts to impact your work, your family, your life in general, it may well be excessive worry now. Talking to a therapist/counsellor would be a good idea so you can function without this excessive worry taking over your everyday life. No-one can wrap their children up in cotton wool. You cannot always be there by their side, and after a tragedy, parents understandably want to keep their children close and feel as if they are safe. Children need to socialise and work their way through life as they grow and mature into resilient adults. Our role as parent’s is to love them and guide them, and children need a guide who is not full of worry.
Some tips –
1. Be as calm about life as you can. It is important to allow your children to vent. If they sense that you are fearful, they won’t feel like they can talk about their feelings to you as they don’t want to upset you. Believe it or not, children do worry about upsetting their parents and if mum or dad seem upset, they will likely keep information inside. If that happens, you won’t know what might be going through their minds – their thoughts, their worries, their needs, their questions.
2. Be honest if/when questions arise, within reason. Every discussion you have should take into account the age of the child, their level of maturity and what you feel is relevant or too traumatic for them to know. Don’t avoid questions because you feel uncomfortable, be open but do it in a calm, appropriate manner. Validate your child’s feelings without allowing them or yourself to get anxious over a question or answer. As adults, we don’t like to feel our questions are silly or irrelevant or are dismissed out of hand. Children feel like that too. They should be allowed to be feel a particular way. It is our job, as adults, to comfort and nurture them, especially during times of crisis, trauma or uncertainty. Explain things in a clear, kind way that they will understand and that will help soothe. If a question takes you by surprise take your time to collect your thoughts before you answer, there’s nothing wrong with that. You can always say “that’s a very good question, I’m not sure of the answer right now. Let me think about that” or “we can think about it together.” Ask them their opinion if it warrants one because that can often get the ball rolling on a good discussion.
3. If God or religion or spirituality is a part of your household, you can certainly utilise it to comfort your child/ren. There are many kind words in scriptures, look for those. Jesus was particularly fond of children, reprimanding the Apostles when they tried to ‘shoo’ some children away. Once again, the age of the child determines the way you deal with it. Angels are generally ethereal, often comforting images for young children to understand and relate to. Using prayer to send positive messages and to allow your child/ren to speak their own words is also comforting and a means of them having some control. But not everyone is religious or spiritual, find what works for you and for your child/ren.
4. Plenty of (appropriate) hugs and kisses are fine. Children may be more clingy, needing tactile support just a little bit more now. They may need to be reassured by seeing you, touching you. That is fine. Don’t force children to have to hug or kiss if they don’t want it or need it, though, just be aware. They just may need that extra comfort for a little while to feel safe, secure, and grounded.
5. Children may feel like they need to be around you more. They may follow you or want to be involved in some of your activities like cooking, housework, shopping, gardening. Let them, engage them in activities to help or just feel good being around you and feeling they are doing something productive. Planting a tree or flowering plant can be a terrific way of remembering negative situations in a positive way. “We’re going to plant this tree to remember….”
6. Pets often play a big part in comfort because they love unconditionally, they don’t ask for much more than a pat or tummy rub, to be around us. They can give a real sense of protection and joy. Animals also ‘listen’ when children talk to them without the child feeling judged. Sometimes you can get a child to open up to you via your pet and you can listen discreetly to what they may keep inside otherwise.
7. Art is often a way for a child to express inward emotions that they can’t verbalise. If your child/ren wish to draw, or if you are worried, get them to draw how they’re feeling at the moment. Do they have a sad face in the picture? A happy face? Are family members missing from the picture? Is the picture a happy one, a sad one, or angry? If the picture(s) concern you, you can use them to show a therapist.
8. Routine is good. Showing that their part of the world is still doing the same things and their family are still doing the same things says, ‘there’s no need to fret’. Empathy is a good thing. Life does have some ups and downs. We can care for others without being overwhelmed.
9. Reassurance is a good thing. Reassuring children that things are okay. That family members are still here, that we love them and are not planning on going anywhere is a good, solid platform for children to feel anchored to. Reassurance is generally only required if you can see that your child is needing it or asking for it. Don’t make a fuss about something that they aren’t worried about. No need to ask unnecessary questions when there doesn’t seem to be a concern. Younger children – in particular – don’t do very well with a lot of direct questions or fuss.
10. Keep up activities that your child normally takes part in because it gives them a strong sense of their everyday life, friendships, teamwork and community.
11. Don’t stop having some fun. The world keeps on going after any death or tragedy, and while that can upset people at times, it isn’t disrespectful, it’s important, for you and your family to enjoy your life.
12. I know it can be hard to not know what the latest development is sometimes but stay away from the news for a while. Do not allow young children access to upsetting pictures or details. Protect them. As a parent, you cannot change the outcome of what has happened, but you can keep yourself in a more positive frame of mind. The news is full of sad stories with images which make it so much more real and unsettling. If you are profoundly impacted, it can make you feel decidedly worse. You need a breather and to watch things that are neutral for a while.
Seek professional help if –
- You, as a parent, find it hard to leave your children at childcare, school, or other places where this has never been an issue for you before. If you are having frequent worrying thoughts about your child being harmed. If you are more worried and need to be closer to your child, you are more tearful around them, you are anxious about them, perhaps talk to a professional therapist/counsellor to help you through it. It is not a sign of weakness it is seeking support for a short period of time after a difficult or worrying event.
- Your child is suddenly fearful of going to school, or other events, and this is out of character for them. Or they seem scared to leave your side, and this is unusual for them. If your child is suddenly withdrawn, not wanting to eat, not wanting to socialise, and this is out of the usual for them. If they are suddenly fixated on death, talking about it – whether it be them, a friend, the children of Devonport, or a family member, and the things you say don’t seem to be helping, then seek a family therapist/child and adolescent psychologist to help them through it.
Just a few extra things to think about. Love your children, show them you care, you are always available to listen and support them, that they are “allowed” to have concerns, but don’t let those concerns bloom into something that is anxiety driven. The same applies to you as a parent. It is easy to become unsettled and increasingly frightened that your children are unsafe, however it isn’t emotionally healthy to become so upset that you act out of character, becoming depressed or anxious. There are people available who are trained to listen and help during tragedies where children are involved, at different times in our adult life as well. We all need a little extra direction and care sometimes.