Parents Can Manage Traumatic Grief in Kids with Finesse

Children overwrought with the murder of a family member, friend or other close adult too often grope in the dark alone. They’re seldom allowed to process their grief with a trusted adult in the family, or even observe healthy grieving from older loved ones around them.  They’re at risk of being lost in the shuffle. It doesn’t have to happen.

It’s strange.  Most responsible parents wouldn’t think of overlooking a severe cut, high fever, or injured eye in their young son or daughter.  But somehow an emotional emergency is dismissed much like a mildly bruised knee.

Have We Learned from the Past?

Back in 1978 an eighth grader murdered his teacher, Mr. Grayson, in plain view of 20 horrified classmates inside Murchison Junior High School with a Browning .22 caliber rifle.  What did the Austin school administrators do to help the traumatized students?  Nothing.  They released them early.  And what did the majority of the parents do to help them?  Nothing.  Most went about their business.

Although it made the newspaper, there was little follow-up.

The students weren’t recognized as crime victims, as homicide survivors, so they were denied the pain that came with it.

This happened even though resources were in place to help the young students.  Both the National Organization for Victim Assistance and Victim Support Services were a phone call away. 

The students recollect that they sat alone in their respective homes that fateful afternoon feeling terror, disbelief, and isolation.  Most parents advised them to simply “move on.” The message was clear.  “No wallowing.  No discussions.  No honesty.”  The young teens just had to play along in a game of “let’s pretend it didn’t happen.” 

These children-witnesses carried their grief indefinitely. Some developed panic attacks they couldn’t explain. All experienced intense reactions to the Columbine shooting in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook in 2012, and those that followed.

Unaddressed grief in a child scars them emotionally and is completely avoidable with proper and timely intervention.

But, you may argue, “Things have improved, right?  That was then!  We know better now.” No.  We haven’t; not according to my experience interviewing homicide survivors.  And not according to longitudinal research carried out in 2018 by Rachel M. Hiller (et. al.) which found that “parents encouraged avoidance without attention to how it would influence the kids in the future.

Three Reasons This Happens

There are many reasons for this oversight in parents.  Let’s take just three of them.

First, when a parent has just lost a spouse, sibling, child, friend or parent to murder they are beset with their own grief.  They’re overwhelmed and they’re exhausted. This is almost always tethered to multiple demands on their time: funeral planning, greeting out-of-town relatives, dealing with their job, planning for unplanned expenses, speaking with the prosecutor, the investigators, and maybe the media.  In all the “noise” the child can be overlooked.

A second reason that we don’t help children through this difficult time is that our society does a superb job of censoring grief.  Perhaps it’s inevitable in an impatient, youth-oriented culture.  We don’t like thinking about death.  We seldom plan for it.  We get tongue-tied around it.  Only 20% of adults under age 30 have a will although many of them are parents. Most people do not communicate with their loved ones what their wishes are after their death until they are in hospice.  Very few have collected all relevant documents to make it easier for whoever will take care of the funeral and beyond.  Why?  It’s not like anyone gets a free pass. We now even have drive-through funerals.

Unlike previous centuries we’ve become estranged from death.   We have outsourced it, sanitized it and kept our distance.  (See post from January 4, 2024 for more information.)

A third reason children are left to fend for themselves following homicide is due to myths about childhood.  Too many adults think children will magically “just outgrow grief in time” or that they “won’t remember this later.”  A few even think that somehow talking about it will make things worse.  Yet the very same parent would vehemently disagree that a child will just “outgrow” a broken arm and not remember the pain it caused one day in the future. This is no different.

(Are they merely absolving themselves of the responsibility?) 

While children may not have the vocabulary to have a dialogue, they can certainly communicate.  Watch their art, their play, and their behavior with the family pet.  It will speak volumes.

In all the interviews I have conducted for my podcast of a child who lost a sibling, friend or parent to murder, only one received appropriate assistance from her parent.  One.  (Kudos to you, Terry!)

What’s The Harm?

This means that these overlooked kids grew up with an invisible backpack of misery.  They felt different, empty, robbed, sad, and just out of sorts with their peers. And most have had to combat disabling anxiety.

Children who have unresolved grief are at higher risk for defiance, substance abuse, hoarding, anxiety, avoidance, clinginess, early sexual behavior and depression.

Take Action Earlier Rather Than Later

So, what to do?

  1. Make time without interruption to talk about the death.  And it’s always the right time if they bring up the subject.  (Yes, even if you’re driving.  Pull over!)
  2. Don’t mince words.  Use the word “die” or “is dead” rather than “is asleep” or “at rest.”  It’s better to say a “bad person hurt Jamie” rather than “a felon broke in, used a tire iron and hit Jamie in the throat.”  They don’t need or benefit from unnecessary details.  Let them lead the depth of the conversation.  It may circle around again in the future.
  3. Do understand that whatever an older sibling or friend knows, will likely be shared with a younger child in private.)
  4. Be approachable. You should pat yourself on the back if a child seeks you out for help.
  5. Always tell the truth; always.
  6. Use age-appropriate words to answer a question. When in doubt about how much detail to go into, err on the side of less. If you aren’t sure they’ll understand, keep it simple. (Example: “What is cremation, Mom?” “Well, for right now I’ll say that cremation means that their body will be taken to a special place to people who know how to turn it into a special powder that is kept in a pretty container which will be given to us.  It is not going to hurt because they cannot feel pain anymore.  There’s more to cremation and later we can talk about this again.  It’s okay to remind me.”

7. Check in with them now and again “How are you doing about the death of ____?  Do you have any questions?

8. They may temporarily regress.  Don’t be too surprised if preschoolers stop eating with utensils, if kindergarteners no longer bathe themselves independently or if junior high aged kids aren’t interested in visiting friends after school. Little ones may temporarily revert to thumb-sucking or become fussy.  It’s an indication they are anxious or depressed and that they prefer how life was “a while ago, back before it happened.” It is common for them to develop stomach aches, nightmares or to lose their appetite for a bit. This is doubly likely if other stressors are going on near the same time – such as the divorce of their parents, moving, death of a pet or an older sibling moving away.

9.  Enlist the help of the school principal or counselor.  Let them know what happened and ask for input on how your child or children are doing in school and with friends from time to time.

10. Elementary-age children may benefit from making a “memory box.” This is a special container they can decorate that safeguards items connected to their loved one who died. It’s best if the items aren’t valuable, fragile, have sharp edges, or are perishable. Items like a copy of a photo, a ponytail holder, sunglasses, an old keychain, a bandana, a guitar pick, a wrist cuff, an entertainment ticket receipt, or a rock from the path they often took together are tangible and valuable. It should be kept in a safe place and for their use only.

11. It’s helpful to keep photos of the deceased displayed around the house. It sends the message that this person isn’t forgotten and that it’s okay to ask about them. Some families even set a place for them at major holiday family dinners. It’s a symbolic way to remember.

12. If the boy or girl asks to go to the cemetery, meet the EMS worker who tried to help, or see the spot where their loved one died, make it happen and go with them.

13. Never allow a young child to become a part of a media news interview.

14. Try hard to keep the regular home routine as much as possible, such as bedtime, what they eat, when the dog goes outside, and so on. It will be soothing to them.

15. Don’t force a young child to go to the funeral service or view the body if they resist. If they want to come with you it’s a good idea to enlist the help of another adult so that your time won’t be spent fully on them. Another option is to take them before or after the service (rather than during the formalities).

16. Reassure the child that the reason you wear your seat belt, eat vegetables, insist on locking the doors at night, go to the doctor and gym, and try to get enough rest is that you want to keep everyone safe and yourself healthy and around for a long time.

If you’re in doubt about what to say or do, just stop and ask yourself “What would I have wanted at their age?” and “Who can I contact for assistance?”

For expert help, contact The Dougy Center at (503) 775-5673 or visit them online at www.dougy.org

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6849512/

https://www.texasmonthly.com/true-crime/the-school-shooting-that-austin-forgot/

For more detailed information and for other resources, please refer to my book What Now? Navigating the Aftermath of Homicide and Suicide, available now on Amazon.

Click this Amazon link:   https://www.amazon.com/What-Now-Navigating-Aftermath-Homicide-ebook/dp/B0BXND9DQR

I’m Jan Canty. Psychologist, author, podcast host, speaker…  and homicide survivor.

I am passionate about finding ways to support and help other so-called “homicide or suicide survivors.”

No one should have to go through this kind of loss… but if you do, I want you to know… YOU ARE NOT ALONE! 

You aren’t crazy. It’s not your imagination! Society does not know how to comfort us. Fortunately, we know how to comfort one another.

Check out my books and get tools and resources to help you or someone you love!