by Jillian Roberts
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Originally Published: February 2018
The tragic loss of Chloe and Aubrey Berry over the holidays impacted our entire community. While the effects were more acute for those who knew the girls directly, the ripple effect of such a tragedy reaches far and wide. You may be experiencing this yourself with your own children.
Knowing how to respond to questions your child may have, and how to support them through the grieving process, isn’t always easy. Here are some effective responses:
How much do they need to know?
There are likely two types of questions your child may have about this situation—what happened and how it happened. As a parent, it’s important to explain what happened so you child can learn proper coping strategies. Rather than avoiding the topic or thinking your child is too young to understand, or leaving it up to their teachers to address it, take the initiative and talk with your child.
Younger children may not have been exposed to conversations about the “how” on the playground and it may not be necessary to explore that territory with them. Older children will likely have at least some information they have heard from the media or peers, and may be upset and confused about what they have heard. Sometimes children will not ask any questions right away or may even seem disinterested. These are all normal reactions and part of the way different children process challenging topics; the child may come back days or even weeks later with questions.
You may be wondering how much is “too much information,” and how to approach giving answers without burdening your child with painful topics they don’t need to be carrying yet. Understandably, your first instinct may be to try to protect your child by diverting their attention or maybe even avoiding the question, saying “you don’t need to worry about that yet.” It’s normal to have this inclination—you want to protect your child.
However, when your child asks a question, I believe it is best to always answer, taking into consideration their age, while acknowledging how smart and intuitive children can be. It is better for your child to get the facts from their most-trusted source—you—rather than remain confused, which can lead to worry and fear.
How do I start the conversation?
It’s best to set aside specific time to discuss this with your child as soon as possible. Ensure they aren’t distracted by any toys or devices. Use simple language to explain what has happened. Provide “just enough” information. It is okay to use common terms like “passed away,” but don’t use factually incorrect expressions like “has gone to sleep.” Though your intention may be to avoid upsetting your child, using abstract terms is likely to cause more confusion.
Whenever possible, focus on what happened, rather than how it happened. Lots of detail and additional information isn’t necessary. Stick with the basics and then follow their lead, continuing to provide just enough answers as the conversation progresses. Some responses could include:
• I understand how you feel. I feel the same way.
• The world can be a very complicated and confusing place. It is hard to accept that sometimes very bad things happen in the world around us.
• I don’t have all the answers, but you can always talk to me about things that are upsetting you, any time.
• Would you like to think of some ways we can help?
Often when children are processing difficult news, they may ask the same question several times or need to repeat aspects of the discussion as they process what they’re hearing. This is completely normal. They may need time to process and then come to you with questions later. Reinforce to your children that they are safe and loved and what happened was a rare, isolated incident.
Do I need to hide my emotions?
It is okay to show your child that you’re sad about the situation too. If you’re tearful while speaking with them about it, be tearful. It’s important to show your child that it is healthy to experience emotion and that this is a normal part of the grief process. In honouring your own emotional experience, you are showing your child it’s okay to honour theirs.
But if this situation has affected you more directly and/or deeply and you are completely inconsolable, you need to get help for yourself. Being completely distraught in front of them will be upsetting and confusing. Instead, get the support you need before having the conversation with your child. Counselors, family doctors, faith leaders and family or friends can help you. Once you feel in greater control of your response, then you can sit down to speak with your child.
What happens next?
It can be helpful to encourage your child to express their emotions outside of conversation. Younger children may want to create artwork while older children could benefit from a journal. Ensure that you are validating your child’s emotional experience by telling them grief is completely normal when something like this happens. They may feel a little “numb” or have difficulty talking about their feelings. They may be okay one day and then upset the next.
The key to explaining difficult situations like this is to be truthful, but end on a hopeful note. Aim to empower your child; reassure them that they are safe, show them there is a way to help. You can discuss the purpose of the vigil that took place, and even hold another one of your own. They can get involved in fundraising activities that are taking place in honour of the girls. Show them how we can thank our first responders and health care providers for their role. These are powerful ways for a community to heal after a tragedy and children can be included in these types of events where appropriate.
Does my child need more support?
If your child knew the family directly and you are seeing ongoing symptoms of grief or avoidance that appear to be getting worse, it may be time to see a grief counselor or child psychologist for additional support.
To access two free online courses that provide further information on discussing tragedy and death with your child, visit FamilySparks.com. Dr. Jillian Roberts’ “Coping with Death” and “Coping with Terror and Tragedy” are available at familysparks.com/courses and include downloadable activities you can do with your children to help them process what they have learned.
Dr. Jillian Roberts is a child psychologist, professor and mother. She is the founder of FamilySparks.com and the author of What Happens When a Loved One Dies: Our First Talk About Death.
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