In the wake of media attention to tragedy around the world and in our backyards, it is often tempting for adults and caregivers to shelter children from the reality of death. But shielding kids from tragic death can be just as (if not more) damaging to children. Parent and caregiver support after a tragedy provides a teachable moment for kids to express their feelings with a trusted adult, learn coping strategies, and become resilient in the face of future losses.
The TALK acronym gives caregivers a way to remember four fundamentals when speaking to kids about tragic death:
T: Tell the truth
- Find a time and comfortable place where you can give your child undivided attention.
- Ask gentle, open-ended questions about what they saw or learned about the tragedy, for instance, "Is there anything you learned about at school today that was scary or confusing?"
- Be honest about what you know about the tragedy using simple, general terms.
- Provide reassurance. Children may fear that something similar might happen to them. Children need to hear from trusted adults that most people behave responsibly and do not hurt others, no matter how angry they feel. You might say, for example, "The person who killed those people made a bad choice to use violence to hurt others. In our family, we know that it is always best to talk about our feelings and we do not use violence to hurt others."
A: Acknowledge feelings
- Children need to know that they are heard and loved despite having difficult feelings. Encourage them to express their feelings and model this by sharing that tragedies are hard for adults to manage as well.
- Provide ways to let out feelings: talking, drawing, music, playing, exercising, spending time with friends and family, journaling, etc. Kids also may need more comfort or physical affection than usual.
- Take care of your own needs—when kids see adults taking care of their grief needs it gives them permission to do the same. Children whose caregivers take care of themselves often cope better than those who don’t.
- Allow kids to share their questions, concerns, and feelings with you without minimizing or trying to fix them. For instance, when a child tells you they are hurting you might say, "You feel so sad right now. I’m here to listen and sit together when you need me." Or don’t say anything at all and give a hug instead.
- If your child asks a question and you don’t know the answer, it is ok to say, "I don’t know the answer. Let me find out and I will tell you what I learn." Or "That is a good question. Let me think about it."
- Try to limit screen time and exposure to news media—for kids and yourself. Children may look for information about the tragedy and, in doing so, be traumatized by graphic images or descriptions of the event which may make them feel as if they’ve done something wrong. Normalize their curiosity and check in daily with children about what they have heard, seen, or read about the tragedy.
K: Keep routines consistent
- Knowing what to expect can be reassuring when tragedy turns our worlds upside down. Continue doing the same routines as before the tragedy: bedtime at the same time, getting ready for and going to school, etc.
- If you anticipate a change in routine, let children know what to expect and tell them ahead of time.
Transitions GriefCare provides individual and group counseling services to adults and children grieving the illness or death of a loved one. We are also available to consult with parents, caregivers, communities, and school personnel to provide quality grief education and support for bereaved children. To learn more about our services, contact Transitions GriefCare at (919) 719-7199.
-by Kate S., grief counselor