Peter was seven-years-old. He died of a brain tumor soon after he fainted on the school playground. Peter had first complained to his teacher of a bad headache, then fell off of the swings and become unconscious. His parents rushed him to the hospital, where the doctors discovered a brain tumor.

He died after an unsuccessful emergency operation. Peter’s classmates and siblings had lots of questions about his death. They worried a lot about what could happen if someone gets sick. They worried their parents could die. They worried they could die too.

Children are often worried after a sudden traumatic death such as Peter’s. Immediately they may ask themselves the question, “How could this happen to me?” Their safe world is suddenly shattered, and the assumption that the adults around them can keep them protected is destroyed. Some kids may begin to have nightmares, sleeplessness, and feel anxious or fearful and aren’t really sure why. Others regress or panic when Mom or Dad are out of sight. So often they worry about their own health or that of a loved one.

Giving children reality checks about their own health can be reassuring. The pediatrician and school nurse are good resources and allies to ease their minds. The doctor can take their temperature, give medicine, and answer medical questions to help comfort girls and boys. Educators can also provide extra support for children. Interventions such as calling home, having a safe space to go to, picking a class buddy, and allowing extra teacher time create a tangible plan with student involvement.

When a death occurs children may worry about other family members dying too. Many girls and boys question, whether outwardly or unspoken, what would take place if their parents died. Asking the question out loud is an opportunity for parents to reassure their children that they will be taken care of, and invite them to be part of the decision-making process. In this way they may feel they have regained a sense of control after a traumatic death.

Scottie (7, Peter’s friend in second grade): Now I get headaches a lot. Will I die too?

You seem very healthy and that means you will probably live for a long time. Usually when we get sick we get better all by ourselves or with the help of medicine and a doctor. If you get a headache it doesn’t mean anything bad will happen to you. Let’s ask your mom if you can visit your pediatrician, Dr. Jones. He can give you a physical exam and reassure you that you are OK. If you have any questions about your health or Peter’s death, bring them along to the visit. Dr. Jones is a good person to help answer those questions.

I have one question: Can I catch what Peter had?

Peter had a rare illness that usually doesn’t happen to children. It is called a brain tumor. You can’t catch a brain tumor the way you can catch a cold. You can’t get it from your parents the way you get blue or brown eyes from Mom and Dad. You can’t get it just because you have a headache or fall off a swing.

Sometimes I think about Peter at school. I don’t feel like eating and my tummy hurts. What should I do?

Scottie, the next time your tummy hurts you could visit the school nurse. She is a good helper right at your school that you can talk to. She might understand it is common for kids to get stomachaches after someone dies. Sometimes their hurt or worry goes right to their tummy.

My worry does go right to my tummy. It hurts.

It is normal for worries to go to your stomach or another part of your body. Show me just where the worry is in your tummy. Point to it for me. Take a deep breath right there, and then let it go. Put your hand on the sore spot and rub it a little. That might help to rub the worry away.

It is hard for me to pay attention in school. I daydream a lot and think I am going to cry when I think about Peter. Then I want to call home. What should I do?

I understand you have so many feelings in school, and you don’t know when you might feel sad or worried. That makes it hard to concentrate on schoolwork and do your work at school. It might make you miss your mom a lot too.

Your mom and dad and I had a conference with your teacher, Mrs. Novak. We made a plan to help you with all of these hard feelings in school. Here’s what you can do. Call home once a day to touch base with Mom if you start to worry. You can pick the time. If you feel worried or upset in class you could pick a person to talk to, like the school nurse. Mrs. Novak will know where you are going if you suddenly feel sad and leave the room. You can choose a class buddy to make sure you got your homework assignments and help you with schoolwork. Mrs. Novak said she would give you special time to help with assignments.

Concluding thought:

Children are impacted death. Regardless of their age, it is natural for them to worry after a sudden trauma. Interventions that allow young people to release their worry can be very helpful in placing these worries outside of themselves. Actively involving children to explore thoughts and feelings, expressing pent up emotions, asking questions, and using reality checks can help to release these worries in safe and meaningful ways.

 

Copyright (C) 2014

 

Linda Goldman

Linda Goldman

Linda Goldman has a Fellow in Thanatology: Death, Dying, and Bereavement (FT) with a Master of Science in counseling and Master's equivalency in early childhood education. Linda is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor and a National Certified Counselor. She worked as a teacher and counselor in the school system for almost 20 years. Currently, she has a private grief therapy practice in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She works with children, teenagers, families with prenatal loss and grieving adults. Linda shares workshops, courses and trainings on children's grief and trauma and teaches as adjunct faculty in the Graduate Program of Counseling at Johns Hopkins University and King’s University College in Ontario, Canada. She has also taught on the faculty at the University of Maryland School of Social Work/Advanced Certification Program for Children and Adolescents and lectured at many other universities including Pennsylvania State University, Buffalo School of Social Work, University of North Carolina, the National Transportation Safety Board, the University of Hong Kong, and the National Changhua University of Education in Taiwan as well as numerous schools systems throughout the country. She has taught on working with LGBT youth and working with children's grief and trauma at Johns Hopkins Graduate School, the University of Maryland School of Social Work and the Child Welfare Administration. Linda is the author of “Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children” and “Breaking the Silence: a Guide to Help Children with Complicated Grief”. Her other books include “Bart Speaks Out: An Interactive Storybook for Young Children On Suicide”, “Helping the Grieving Child in the School”, and a Chinese Edition of “Breaking the Silence: A Guide to Help Children With Complicated Grief”, the Japanese Edition of “Life and Loss: A Guide to Help Grieving Children”, and "Raising Our Children to Be Resilient: A Guide for Helping Children Cope with Trauma in Today’s World" and a children’s book “Children Also Grieve”, Chinese translation of “Children Also Grieve” and “Coming Out, Coming In: Nurturing the Well Being and Inclusion of Gay Youth in Mainstream Society”. She has also authored contributing chapters in resources including Loss of the Assumptive World (2002), Annual Death, Dying, and Bereavement (2001-2007), Family Counseling and Therapy Techniques (1998), and The School Services Sourcebook: A Guide for School-Based Professionals (2006). She has written many articles, including Healing Magazine’s “Helping the Grieving Child in the Schools” (2012), “The Bullying Epidemic, Creating Safe Havens for Gay Youth in Schools” (2006), “Parenting Gay Youth” (2008), “Talking to Kids About Suicide” (2014), “Helping Kids Cope with Grief of Losing a Pet” (2014) and “What Complicates Grief for Children: A Case Study” (2015). Some of her articles on Children's Grief and trauma have been translated into Chinese for the Suicide Prevention Program of Beijing. She appeared on the radio show Helping Gay Youth: Parents Perspective (2008) and has testified at a hearing before the MD Joint House and Senate Priorities Hearing for Marriage Equality (2007) and the MD Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee for the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act (2008).

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