On December 14, 2012, groups of children entered Sandy Hook Elementary School, a place that they and their parents believed to be most safe. But when young students were sent home that day without twenty of their classmates, they were confronted with drastic changes – unexpected physical, emotional, social, behavioral, spiritual, and cognitive changes. How could this tragedy be explained?
“We don’t need to start with death,” explains Dr. Charles Corr, a seasoned professor and author whose books confront the subjects of death education and death-related issues involving children and adolescents. He suggests that grief and loss do not need to be the focal points of a conversation after a tragedy like the Newtown shooting, nor should adults feel the need to explain every aspect of violence or death. A healthy balance can be achieved between confronting grief and delineating a path toward understanding and recovery.
Be prepared for questions.
“Be present, be available, listen to them actively, and try to understand what is behind their questions,” Dr. Corr suggests.
He explains that a child’s curiosity will naturally lead them to question why and what is causing unfamiliar emotions after experiencing loss. The concept of what happens after death can be particularly confusing. Questions like, “What do you do in heaven? Can you bowl? Can you play cards in heaven?” are a few that Dr. Corr has come across in his work and research.
A child’s interpretation may be very unfamiliar for an adult – just imagine how many times you’ve been asked if a deceased relative is in heaven bowling — but this does not mean their questions should be dismissed. The American Psychological Association offers great communication tips for parents on how to talk to a child in the aftermath of a shooting. Adults, whether they are a parent, counselor, social worker, nurse, or educator, should cultivate an active discussion where a child’s most immediate questions and emotions are heard, says Dr. Corr.
“Validate that it is right and normal to be sad and normalize death,” he explains. “You may never have had to feel like they’re feeling at such a young age. Give names to things first and set a common ground for you to discuss what is going through their heads and how they’re feeling.”
Utilize constructive outlets.
Establishing a level playing field with a child can take shape in many ways. Reading a book together like Judith Viorst’s The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, which describes a young boy’s reaction to the death of his pet cat “Barney,” can introduce the concept of death and spark a group discussion.
Art, drawing, and organizing a memorial service or candle lighting are a few other ways you can engage children and establish a shared understanding of death, grief, and loss, says Dr. Corr. All of these outlets encourage children to express their emotions and work through their feelings, while remembering that it is okay to feel upset, distraught or frustrated.
Underlying many of Dr. Corr’s suggestions is the need for adults to remain open with children who’ve experienced death or loss. In fact, shying away from death because of one’s own discomfort with loss can be very destructive. Dr. Corr explains, “If we don’t help them understand death, they may misunderstand.”
He continues to say that hiding your grief could teach the child that it’s wrong to feel sad or that it’s wrong to express emotions, let alone feel them. Remaining honest and open will prevent children from using perfectly logical explanations to arrive at perfectly wrong conclusions.
Always remain supportive.
His approach takes into consideration that children are still developing and that any discussion should be suited to their development level. In the past, people believed that children were not interested or even aware of death, an assumption that Dr. Corr calls “nonsense.”
His book, Children's Encounters with Death, Bereavement, and Coping, offers professionals a broad discussion on issues relating to children and death in a single volume, while acknowledging the latest advancements in the field. Present throughout Dr. Corr’s suggestions is the need to be supportive, understanding, and open with children.
“We need to help socialize them, explain new situations,” summarizes Dr. Corr. “We all need guidance in these kinds of situations. Some of us will do well and some will not. But we hopefully want to minimize that and work on creating ways to work through these difficult emotions together and in a healthy way.”