America is again riveted and shaken by the senseless deaths of loved ones in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut massacre that resulted in the murder of adults and young children in the prime of their lives. It is especially unnerving as those who were shot and those who died were doing an activity familiar to all of us, attending school. The press coverage is extensive, as people want to know every detail. What is this fascination? Is it just curiosity? I think not. I believe we are concerned with our own mortality and vulnerability. We look for a sign or a signal that maybe this senseless act could have been prevented. We watch and read about the details of the event hoping that we will find a place to lay the blame with the unconscious goal of decreasing the risk of similar events. We move from personal and local to a national platform discussing possibilities of mental illness, gun control, and bulling. Loss of this magnitude brings us together as a community and we mourn together as nation. However, as with politics, in the end all loss is personal. As a bereaved mother I can tell you that the families directly affected are in total shock and will be for weeks. There are many resources and disaster teams that have come into play; for the moment they are being supported and held in the hand of God. So what can we do to take care of our families, our community, and ourselves? Depending on your proximity to this event and personal experience you will have your own unique reaction. Many people are currently asking us what to tell children and how can they themselves cope. The following are a few ideas that I hope will be helpful:
Regarding children –
- Share any information you have about the deaths in a direct, honest and age appropriate way. Provide a safe, open and non-judgmental atmosphere where children can share their feelings about the death and ask questions. Allow children’s questions to guide the dialogue.
- Talk about common grief responses that children might have, such as feeling sad, angry, anxious, difficulty concentrating or sitting still.
- Reassure children that they still live in a safe and predictable world and that school shootings are very rare. Let them know that they are not in danger, the shooter is dead, and their school is a safe place.
- Children often regress following a traumatic death, such as this one. They may become more clingy, need to sleep with a nightlight, teddy bear or blanket and they may wet the bed. This regression is temporary. Be tolerant and non-judgmental of these behaviors and recognize that children will need a lot of reassurance and love at this difficult time.
- Because children have experienced an out of control event, it is important to maintain familiar routines and structure in the child’s life to the degree that it is possible.
- Consider taking a newsbreak. When children hear about an event over and over they think it has happened at more than one school.
If your child expresses fears of going back to school:
- Talk about the plans for the school day.
- Set out your child’s clothes the night before.
- Talk to them about what they would like for lunch and add a special treat.
- Remind them about events where they have overcome adversity. Build on successes and courageous times.
- Reassure them that there are thousands of schools in the United States and millions of students who attend classes safely on a daily basis
- Be aware that this event may bring up intense feelings regarding past losses. I think of my son, Scott’s death with every Newtown news report.
- Know that during the first year or two after a loss you are highly vulnerable to depression and anxiety.
- Consider taking a newsbreak. Listen to some good music or go to a movie. With the Internet breaking news is available whenever you are ready.
- Remember that how you express your grief will impact how your children will respond to this event so be reactive but don’t overreact. If you do explain to family that the event has brought back past losses. This might be a time to explore where your are in the healing process.
- Consider talking to someone outside of the family about your feelings. Confiding in a friend, minister or professional counselor can sometimes make a huge difference.
- Take care of yourself so that you will be available to others. Remember as they say on the airplane put on your own oxygen mask before you put it on others.
Please share with us your thoughts and comments as we mourn together.
Dr. Gloria and Dr. Heidi Heidi Horsley The Open to Hope Foundation