Q. I don't know what to say to my children about loss. Any ideas?
A. What we say to our children in times of loss can be a tough call. Understanding something of how the news of a disaster or terrorist activity can burn itself into one's consciousness, especially when the news is delivered in living color with sounds and emotions, gives me pause. Can anyone who witnessed the Challenger explosion, or the Oklahoma City bombing, or the terrorist attack on the NCY World Trade Center ever forget the horror? Can anyone who repeatedly watched those events replayed on television ever forget those images? I doubt it!
Because of that, I think there's something to be said for limiting our exposure to television coverage in times of horrible disasters. We need to remain updated on current affairs but sometimes it's less frightening to listen to the news over the radio or follow the headlines in the newspaper. How to obtain the necessary information with the least risk to our own brains is at once a gray area and a fine line. It's a challenge to say the least! I limit my own viewing. What must it be like for children and young people whose brains aren't even completely myelinated as yet? For whom the bun is still in the proverbial oven until perhaps their early twenties?
FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has a website that offers suggestions on how to help children feel more secure. And I use the term children, very inclusively. It can extend far beyond biological offspring and include children in the neighborhood, community, daycare centers, schools, churches, you name it. They're the next generation on this planet.
Here are some things to consider in helping children deal with loss.
- Listen to them talk about how they're feeling and listen without judgment. Ask them what they are feeling and allow them to take their time not only in responding but in figuring things out in their own minds. Children can sometimes express their feelings more easily by writing things down, drawing or taking pictures, or even creating things such as crafts.
- Role model using words that express emotions and feelings; words like afraid, sad, mad, or happy. Let them know that expressing emotion through words is desirable, and that expressing emotion through tears is okay, regardless of gender. Grieving is an individual matter. Some individuals tear up or cry easily, others don't. Still others have been shamed for exhibiting that behavior (this is especially true for males in our society). Think of tears as an expression of deep emotion, a tender tribute to mourning. They are the natural reaction of many human beings: men, women, and children to internal stress. Studies show that tears help to remove unhealthy stress-related toxins from the body. So if tears happen, let them happen.
- Reassure the children that you expect to be here to take care of them. They need to hear these words over and over again. In times of loss it can be comforting for family members to stay together as much as possible. Remind the children, remind yourself, that most of the people in the community, country, and even in the world care about themselves AND others. Try to maintain familiar routines much as possible. The presence of familiar routines can help to promote a sense of security and stability.
- Provide opportunities for children to experience a sense of being in control over something. Disasters and acts of terrorism tend to increase a sense of being out of control because they weren’t prevented. To help balance that, consciously provide opportunities for children to experience control over some things. This may be a simple as asking them to choose what clothes they want to wear that day, or allowing them to select the foods for a specific meal. Encourage them to participate in doing something to improve the situation for others. That might be making a phone call, taking flowers to a neighbor, giving a donation to the relief effort, donating blood, or writing a letter to the newspaper or our congressional representative. Almost any caring act can help to restore some sense of choice and control. One act of human kindness can illuminate the blackness of the disaster even as the light from one tiny candle can pierce the darkest night.
- Give the children hope for the future. It may be helpful to write something on the calendar that they can look forward to for next week or next month or even next year. It is important to live iun the present and give them hope for the future. Even for adults, those proverbial carrots on the calendar can be vitally important.
- Include the children in grief recovery as appropriate. But include them and be real. Allow them to see frailty as well as strength, sadness as well as joy. To the extent that you are comfortable with your grief recovery, you'll be able to role model the belief that you can get through this; that there is life on the other side of loss.