In the aftermath of Newtown Tragedy—Supporting our Children

At our weekly staff meeting yesterday we began with a check-in time concerning the Newtown tragedy and how heavily it weighs on us. After sharing our personal reactions, we looked at each other and with our eyes speaking louder than words we in unison began “what do we want to say to our children and families? In the face of helplessness, what can we say? What can we do?”

So to families, school staff, neighbors and to all of Newtown, CT., we say “we are painfully aware that we grieve with you. We send not just our sympathy, but our compassion and hope for your healing. We are connected to you and all who are wounded by this and other tragedies of violence. We pray for your healing and healing for all peoples.”

What do we say beyond that? Well, there are numerous “how to talk to your children” resources in the aftermath of the horrific shooting, but of course there is no “one approach serves all” when dealing with children. Each child will respond according to his/her age, personality, family background, previous experience with tragedy and world view. It is most important to be present – listen to and observe the ways each child is working through the tragedy and then work to include and support them.

A few thoughts to adults on supporting our children through a difficult time:

1. Take care of yourself first. As a parent and grandparent I know that I carry a lot of feelings, perceptions and biases that I don’t want to project on children. I need to be aware of the difference between what I need to do vs. knowing, seeing and recognizing what children in my care really need in order to handle the crisis. How do I deal with the intense feelings of sadness, outrage, anger and despair? I need to be aware of my “stuff” so as to not let it ooze into my professional or personal role with children. I need to allow myself to mourn, to feel what I feel, and to curse the darkness. I need to be present to my beating heart.

2. Listen, listen, listen. Not just with our ears, but with our hearts. What are our children feeling, thinking and saying? How will each child find his/her way through this? Check in with your child and be available to them. Be present with them, but let them lead what they want to talk about or if they even want to talk at all. Listen without judgment. Don’t assume that they need the same level of “dealing with it” as you do.

3. Limit the amount of exposure your children have to news and repeated images of the tragedy. While children do need honest answers and information, too much media hype can increase levels of fear and anxiety.

4. Provide a sense of security and give extra attention to being re-assuring. We can’t make claims that are not true, like “I can protect you from anything bad ever happening.” However we can talk honestly about what we can do to be safe and secure. Balance the tragedy with reminders of the positive parts of life. By all means be honest with them. And, most importantly…love them.

5. Check in periodically to let them know that you care about how they are doing. Watch for red flags and seek help if they seem to be potentially harmful to themselves to others, or if after many months they still seem overwhelmed with the incident or if they are not getting back to their normal routines, attitudes and activities.
Molly Fumia, a bereaved parent, wrote years ago something that keeps me going. It reads:

“Surprisingly enough, we are more than sorrow.
We are breath and beating heart.
We are spirit resilient, and possibilities simply unexplored.”

December 17, 2012
Rob Sheesley, Executive Director
The Center for Grieving Children
Philadelphia, PA

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