Today, the news of the tragedy in Newton, Ct., horrified us all. It was all over the news on television and radio with gory details and breaking updates. Soon enough, the tragedy will be eclipsed with talk of gun control and preventing this from happening again. While most of us will go home tonight and hug our loved ones a little harder, most people are not talking about the survivors at the school. Perhaps hundreds of students bore witness to this heinous attack and watched their friends, classmates, and teachers die in front of them. Soldiers face death as an occupational hazard, yet even they can be unprepared to lose comrades in action. The military has a resources for Soldiers to cope with grief and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For the students in Newton, and children all over the country who heard the news today, their best resource is you: their parents.
Less than a year ago, one of my close friends passed away. My son, Yusuf, was only 4 years old at the time, but he noticed when mom and dad were upset and teary-eyed. I learned on the fly that explaining death to a child is a much more difficult conversation then the dreaded “birds and bees.” Today, Yusuf, heard that “a lot of people got hurt,” but he wanted to know more. Helping young children understand and cope with death and tragedy is a crucial part of their development, and parents can guide their children in a number of ways.
First, I asked my son what he already knew. He said, “A bad man came to a school and hurt people. Is he going to come to my school?” Validate what the child knows, then address the issue directly. I said, “Yes, a bad man hurt a lot people, even some kids who are were your age. Don’t worry, the police got the bad man. He’s dead. He’s not going to hurt you or anybody else.” Of course, I had to backtrack and explain exactly the meaning of death.
Yusuf loves dinosaurs, so I tried to use what he already knew. “Yusuf, have you ever seen a dinosaur in real life? That’s because dinosaurs all died a long time ago. When an animal or a person dies, their body doesn’t work anymore and they can’t be fixed. You can’t see or talk to them anymore.”
Depending on your religious preferences, you might explain that the deceased has gone to heaven to live with God. This may confuse some children because they won’t understand why you’re sad if the deceased is in a happy place. The best explanation I could think of was that we miss people when they’re not here, but we’re happy to know that they’re in a better place.
As a man and a dad, it’s important to show your kids that it’s ok to be emotional at times. Talk to them about how they’re feeling and why they feel the way they do. Ask direct questions and give direct answers. The younger the kids, the more repetition you’ll have to do, as with anything. Guide their emotions with activities. Older children may write a letter to their loved one, while younger ones draw pictures of happier memories. In dealing with tragedies such as the Newton today, simply talking to children in realistic terms about the event can help alleviate the nightmares they’re imagining.
Finally, reassure your children that they are loved, cared for, and protected. Allay any concerns they may have about yours or their own mortality by helping them make plans for the future. It could be as simple as, “Tomorrow, you and me will draw a picture of us with Uncle Mitch at his house and hang it on the fridge. That way we can visit him whenever we want.” Of course, a big hug can go a long way in reassuring your child that you’ll be around for a long time to come.
As a dad, I’d like to offer my sincerest condolences to the families of all those lost in Newton. My thoughts and prayers are with all of you tonight, hug your kids close and stay safe.