American Hospice Foundation, Washington DC, USA

Grieving Children

Helping Your Child Cope In Times of Terror

by Robert Zucker, MA, LCSW, FT

To paraphrase Thomas Paine during another troubled time in our nation’s history, these are times that try all of our souls. In fact, as I write this article, I can hear the TV playing in the next room reporting on the ongoing manhunt in Watertown, just miles from my Weymouth home. Ever since the Boston Marathon bombings and the horrific manhunt that followed, parents across the country, and particularly those close to Boston, have been handed the double-whammy of facing their own fear and grief while determining how, when--and even whether-or-not--to inform their children.

As a grief counselor in hospitals, hospices and in private practice, I have often worked with adults struggling with whether or not to include their children and grandchildren in honest conversations about dying and death. In order to help you consider how to talk with your children about the Boston Marathon bombings, I’ll discuss my work with grieving families following violent deaths.

But first, you may be asking yourself how you can effectively shield your children from the recent tragic events. Hopefully, you can shelter the very young from frightening news by not playing the television or radio news reports while they are awake. Older kids, however, have easy access to radio, television, Facebook, twitter, etc., and, like it or not, they hear everything. If you can’t shield them, I believe that you must attempt to have meaningful conversations with them in order to help them understand what is happening and manage their fear and grief. Once you’re aware that your children have learned about the terror around them, whether directly or as a result of media exposure, your children need you to be truthful, protective, honest and supportive. In order to accomplish this, the information you share with them should be properly distilled and carefully paced.  

I will explain these two concepts by telling you about Mary, whose husband died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Almost immediately after the death of her husband, Mary had to tell her eight-year-old son what had happened. First, she chose appropriate language to provide her son with the most “necessary” information. Then she listened and watched carefully for his reactions, in order to effectively pace their conversation. Finally, she found a helping professional to collaborate with her for the long and difficult road ahead.

At first, Mary desperately wanted to hide the suicide story from her son, but she quickly realized that he’d eventually hear about it at school or on the news. Unsure how to proceed, she called friends for help and eventually was referred to me.  By the time we talked, Mary was ready to tell her son that his father had killed himself, but she had no idea how to begin the conversation. I coached her over the phone, and that evening their conversation went something like this: “Daddy died. That means that his body totally stopped working.  He died from suicide.  A suicide is when someone makes his body stop working.”  Then she paused and asked, “What more would you like to know?”

Let’s consider what we can learn from Mary’s initial conversation with her son. First, she distilled the story of her husband’s death by explaining the suicide story in the simplest language: “Daddy made his body stop working.”  Then she paced the conversation by letting her son choose what he wanted to do next.

If her son didn’t want to ask any more questions and indicated, either verbally or non-verbally, that he needed to end the conversation, I advised Mary to sit a little while longer with him and, perhaps, make a list together of the safest grown-ups he could turn to if he had questions later.  I also told her to prepare for two questions that, sooner or later, her son would probably ask her: How and Why.

How did it happen? If he asks how, I advised Mary to use the least overwhelming language possible.  She told me later that when he did ask her, she told her son that his daddy made his body stop working with a gun. Of course the entire story was much more graphic than that, but Mary wisely used the least overwhelming, yet truthful, explanation she could think of.  This is what we mean by distilling.

Why did it happen? I suggested to Mary that if she didn’t know why her husband took his life, it would be fine for her to tell her son that she simply didn’t know why he did it.  However, if she felt that it was the result of a mental illness, even a young child is usually able to understand that mental illness can cause great emotional pain, which might lead to suicide.  I also advised Mary to tell her child about alternatives to suicide--such as seeking professional counseling, receiving group support, taking medication, and psychiatric hospitalization.

it was troubling and painful for Mary to tell her son the truth, especially since the story of his father’s suicide would likely be deeply challenging for the rest of his life. Yet, by distilling the story of her husband’s violent death to its least overwhelming truth, by patiently pacing their conversations, and by reaching out for support from a knowledgeable counselor, Mary established herself as an invaluable resource for her son for the months and years to come. 

Hopefully, Mary’s story will help you plan a meaningful conversation about the recent terrorist attack in Boston with your child. Here are some final tips:

  • Start your conversation by asking your child what s/he has already heard about the events in Boston. Carefully correct any misconceptions, remembering to distill and pace your conversation.

  • Provide comfort. Give lots of hugs! Provide reassurance regarding safety measures in your home and community. Talk about the good work of area police and area officials. Remind children of their friendly neighbors and loving family members. Encourage your children to be kind, loving and caring.

* Your child’s reactions to events may reveal themselves over time, so remember to monitor any changes in your child’s behavior, changes in sleep patterns, and any appetite changes.

* It is not unusual for children to regress during times of high stress.

  • Children or adults who have suffered previous traumatic events are particularly susceptible to re-traumatization during subsequent frightening times. They may experience flashbacks and/or heightened fear and anxiety.

  • If you are concerned about your child having a difficult time coping, seek advice from your pediatrician and/or a counselor specializing in family grief or trauma.

  • Seek support for yourself from your friends, loved ones, clergy and/or a counselor. Be patient with yourself and your significant other. Get adequate rest. Avoid alcohol. Eat well. Get exercise. Be grateful.

As I complete this article, I can hear on the TV in the next room that the 19-year old bombing suspect has finally been apprehended. I breath a sigh of relief, but know that this disturbing story will continue to unfold. Your child will have more questions and concerns and will need you to provide loving support in the days, weeks and months to come. You can do it!

- Robert Zucker is a nationally known grief educator, author and counselor. He is author of The Journey Through Grief and Loss: Helping Yourself and Your Child When Grief Is Shared (St. Martin’s Press). His private counseling practice, called Counseling for the Journey , has offices in Weymouth and Kingston. Contact Rob by email: robzucker@gmail, or phone: 413-695-4572. Visit his website at: www.robertzucker.com. “Like” his Facebook page, Counseling for the Journey.

© 2013 Robert Zucker.  All Rights Reserved

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