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Helping Kids Through Tragedy

My heart is heavy as I process the loss of a young, precious life. Whether you knew the child or the family, the loss is felt all across Central Illinois. The community is mourning and our brains are trying to make sense of what has taken place.

During times like this, our brains kick into overdrive as we try to problem solve to try and make sense of what took place, but there is no making sense of this loss. It is devastating. It is heartbreaking. Our hearts are all broken for this family and community. As a dad I tucked my boys into bed last night and I cried. Life just does not make sense at times and as a parent I started thinking about how there is no road map or plan for a tragedy like this. Nothing is going to make this easier or go away, but as I woke up this morning, I began thinking about a few things for us as we continue to grieve and mourn this loss.

Allow your child(ren) to see you grieve.  I often hear, "I've got to be strong and hold it together for my child."  This results in parents, grandparents, caregivers feeling the need to hide their grieving process because they worry it will burden their child(ren) with more sadness. This shows up as us hiding those tears, avoiding conversations or situations, etc. While I totally get the need to "be strong" for our children during this time, I want to encourage us to consider the ways in which we can "be strong" for them as we all grieve together.

When we hide our own grief, we are communicating a few things to our children:

  1. Grieving is wrong. Grieving is messy and if we are honest, no one is good at it. Facing a tragedy like we have, we need to normalize being sad, confused, angry, etc--all of the emotions that we are going through--they need to see that. We have a chance to model for them how to grieve. This is not easy because during times of grief our default patterns kick into gear. Take a quick look--do you retreat during times of grief? Do you get so busy that you distract yourself from the emotions? Do you numb yourself with substances? A question that I think is important for us to keep in mind--do I want my child(ren) to grieve like I am right now?

  2. We are sending a threat signal to our children. Children are highly perceptive and their bodies are made to pick up when things do not feel safe. This means that when you are experiencing intense sadness on the inside and on the outside you are acting like everything is "OK", their body is going to detect the incongruence there. This will then send a threat signal to their brain & body. Their brains are going to see that we are hiding it and that implies that it is wrong to be sad and grieve.

  3. When we hide our grief, we are also communicating it is shameful. We hide things that are shameful and wrong. When we hide our grieving process, our actions are telling our children--those emotions you are having, those are wrong, shameful and should be hidden. It is OK for them to see those tears. We are not burdening them with our emotions when we cry in front of them. In fact, for many it will help them know what to do with all of those emotions that are swirling around inside.

The grief process will be different for each child.

Parents and caregivers will often request counseling services and say something like "I need my child to talk about their grief." This makes sense because as adults we try to reason and talk about what is taking place. However, a child's way of processing is often done in their primary language--play. In situations of grief and loss, there are not a lot of words for them to reason/process and so they will use the language that is familiar to them.  Play is their language.  We can anticipate some of their processing to show up as they play. You may see more aggression than usual in play--they are trying to get their anger out. You might see themes with heroes/heroines trying to rescue others--they are bargaining and trying to problem solve this complex situation. You may see themes of sadness. This is the way our children are going to try and process the flood of emotions that they are experiencing internally. Allowing the space to do this and then provide those gentle check-ins. "Do you want to talk about what's going on?" "I am here if you want to talk!" "That made me _______ (what emotion did you experience--sad, mad, scared, etc) watching that happen." In this we are avoiding labeling their grief in a negative way and providing insight into the emotion we experienced as we witnessed their play. We then provide them with an opportunity to talk about what is going on, but we are not going to force it. We are also providing some emotions to connect with what is taking place internally.

Give a little more grace as we mourn.

Many of you will see behaviors from your child(ren) that you have not seen before. You might see a level of irritability, back talking, yelling, hitting things or even breaking some of their stuff. The ability to manage stress and frustration will be compromised. While this is not a time to give a free pass to do whatever you'd like, we also need to be prepared that this may be how the grief comes out. Anger is a secondary emotion--meaning that it is the tip of the iceberg that we see and the driving emotion is buried beneath the surface. Allow for opportunities to re-do situations. "Let's try that again..."

We cannot reason or rationalize with emotions.

We want to avoid the attempt to rationalize or reason with emotions. We need to allow our kids to experience and express their emotions in appropriate ways. When we try to reason and rationalize their emotions, it will often put the lid on the emotions which works temporarily, but eventually those emotions will come out. I like to think of this like holding the beachball under water. Have you ever done that? Yes, we can do it for a minute, but eventually our arms get tired and that ball eventually pops up and makes a big mess. If we are going to prevent that from happening, we have to allow air out of that beachball a little at a time. When we are able to help our kids express their emotions we are able to let a little bit of that air out. Something that we have to keep in mind for this to take place is to avoid telling them that their emotion is wrong. "Oh don't be sad." "Don't think of that..think about this."

Normalize talking about the loss.

Creating a sense of normalcy around talking about the loss, as well as telling stories of the past. This will not be easy, but we have to create that safe space for them to process when they need to. Also--I think of what a professor said, "Grief is like a friend with bad social skills, you never know when they are going to act up." Be prepared that those comments, stories and questions might come up at tough times. I can recall the story of a young client was standing in the line at Walmart and asked their caregiver one of those questions about death. It left the cashier and caregiver frozen in the moment. The caregiver called as soon as they got into the car, "what do I do?" I think it is appropriate to acknowledge the emotion, question or story, then if needed we can say, I would like to talk more about this later when I can really be focused on you. Also--in this situation at the store, the caregiver was put on the spot and the child wanted an answer. An answer no one could provide. In those moments it is OK to tell your child you don't know and are wrestling with that question too.

Are you a person of faith? Can I share one more thing as a former children's pastor?

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone tell a child, "well God must have needed them right now." I cringe when I hear that because of what that communicates. I think in our own level of discomfort around loss we say things to try and make it easier and trust me, I have said my fair share of awkward statements in those moments when sitting with loss. However, this one has a way of shaping their view of God in a negative way. Let's face it, our kids still needed their friend. Why would God take my friend away from me? I think it is totally appropriate to say that we do not understand why things like this happen. It is OK to share that you have questions for God as well. There are things that can be shared in these moments too about the character of God--He comforts us when we are sad. His love for us does not change even when things do not make sense.

I wish with all of my heart that I did not have to write this. I wish that we could protect all of our little ones from tragedy and loss. Parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers, pastors--my heart is with each of you as we walk along side our kids and families during this tragedy. As we navigate this difficult road, keep in mind of a few things.

  1.  Words are not always needed. Sometimes someone to sit with and cry is all we need.

  2. Keep in mind your own grief and take time for you to grieve as well.

  3. We need each other during this time. Reach out to your friends, family and loved ones for support.

We are in this, grieving together.


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