We need to help children make sense of tragedy and to reassure them they are safe
Dr Marie Murray
Some things in life are inexplicable; we can't have answers for everything, or solutions. But there are times when there are no answers at all and the aftermath of tragic death is one of those times.
When death visits a family unexpectedly especially in a close, caring community, or when parents and their children die, then we grieve in multiple, complex and highly personal ways even for people we do not personally know. This is because we do know how deep the loss must be for those who are personally bereaved, for family and friends, for the local community and the network of people who surround tragic events and we feel for them. We all share, to some extent, the human puzzlement and compassion that tragedy evokes.
In this time of continuous and evolving news loops bringing global events into our consciousness almost as they occur, we live with stories of distress as they unfold, in ways not previously experienced. We now encounter more often, more intensely, more visually and more closely everything that happens. Repetitive images of a place or repeated narratives of events drill the details into our minds and draw us in.
The immediacy of information means that even news about the death of our own family, our neighbours or friends may be conveyed on social media before personally hearing it in a more gentle, sensitive way. Even children may learn about the loss of someone close through the media rather than from a parent in an age-appropriate way.
The rapidity of media presence at the scene of tragic events also intensifies the alarm, distress and disruption for a community whose private grief becomes public before they have absorbed the shock themselves. Tragic unexpected events shatter normality and alter everything for a while. Research shows that shock is the first reaction. That first shock is intensified when information crashes into normal daily life as a news item so it is important that we attend to our responses and especially to those of children. So how do local and the wider communities come to terms with tragedy? It is important to accept that tragic death distresses us with incredulity and guilt - what has happened, how could this happen, should we have noticed, could something have been done? Grief is different when tragedy occurs in a community because there are group emotions as well as individual ones; community distress as well as community support and the need for communities to set aside time to meet and talk to each other.
Stories of tragedy also enter our lives when other people experience them. This means that we need to find ways to cope with being distant witnesses to multiple media accounts of tragedy with less psychological resources to make sense of them because of the cumulative and sequential processing of news reel shock. We also have to monitor the information children absorb when they hear about tragedy, help them to make sense of it and reassure them that they are safe. Simple truth, minimum detail and maximum reassurance work best.
Of course the key to talking to children lies in first finding out what they know and helping them to put words on how they feel. We reassure by our calmness and normalise grief by not being afraid to show it so that children know that expressing feelings is acceptable.
When children hear of sad events, depending on their developmental age and their proximity to what has happened, they may become anxious, act out or behave as if nothing has happened. Reactions can be delayed.
Grief itself is a process that takes time. Any child who has lost a friend of their own age can be expected to be shocked by death's finality. Understanding that everyone is upset can help children realise that what has happened is tragic and unusual. Concerns about their own and especially their parents' mortality need gentle reassurance and children need time to absorb emotions and to have the presence of adults while doing so. Routine reassures children too.
Adolescents are helped by being with each other to cope in their own style. Being with friends is therapeutic so let it do its own healing with guidance but without intrusion. Listening without interruption is crucial. Sitting in silence and helping young people not to be afraid of the pain of grief or of being overwhelmed by it is always helpful. The message is that it is safe to grieve. The most therapeutic intervention for people is to grieve in community, talking and receiving support from each other. When people have a designated place to go to such as the local church, school or hall to be with people who share their shock and sadness, it is especially supportive and formal community ceremonies, services and rituals are part of coming to terms with tragedy.
Dr Marie Murray is a clinical psychologist and author and former director of the Student Psychological and Counselling Services in UCD. @drmariemurray