WHAT can we possibly tell our children about the murder-suicide that led to the deaths of two sisters and their father in Cork?
What we cannot tell them is the truth for the simple reason that we do not know the truth. Indeed, murder-suicides are extremely difficult to understand because the perpetrator dies by his or her own hand as part of the terrible act.
The other difficulty is that we ourselves as adults struggle to understand and to make sense of what went on -- so we don't have a coherent explanation for ourselves, let alone for our children.
My own belief as a counsellor and as a parent is that if you are not in a community directly affected by this terrible event, then be slow to raise the matter with the children unless they actually mention it themselves.
I would certainly turn off the news when it comes on if they are in the room. This is not really the sort of information I want them to be getting at this stage of their lives.
We must remember though that children have their own ways of making sense of things. We think of childhood as a time of innocence but children also know that there is danger in the world. The fairy tales which they read and listen to so eagerly see to that.
Stories like the Gingerbread House and Jack And The Beanstalk tell children from the youngest age that there are figures out there who, if they can, will kill them.
In the stories, the children get away but the implication is that there were previous children who did not get away.
In other words, these stories put children wise to the fact that they live in a world in which terrible things can happen. If a small child was to ask me about the events in Cork, I would probably give them an explanation that attempts to fit in with what they already know from stories and fairy tales.
So I might say that a very bad man harmed the children but that I have checked with the police and there are no men like that in our town or city or parish.
(I am not passing judgment on the murdered children's father here but simply suggesting an explanation that might be understandable to small children).
With children who are older and who have developed reasoning ability, the conversation would, of course, be very different. You might say the person was sick and this led them to behave the way they did.
For still older children you might explain that it is, in fact, impossible to understand such acts while reassuring them that they are extremely rare.
People who do such things are not necessarily, or even usually, insane which is why I would tell older children that the act is impossible to understand. It is usually the sane and not the insane that we have to fear in this world.
It's a different matter in the communities in which these children were known. There the children and adults have suffered a deep disturbance to their world.
Some may hide it successfully as children often do with grief. Others may have nightmares, intrusive distressing thoughts and other symptoms.
This will most likely die down in almost all cases over a number of months.
Of course the sadness and sense of bewilderment will remain but we cannot protect our children from everything.
Children who are still disturbed a few months later could benefit from some specialised counselling help or some other form of assistance.
The bottom line is that if your child wants to talk, then take the time to listen to what he or she has to say. That may be the best therapy of all.
Padraig O'Morain is accredited as a counsellor by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy