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Helping Our Children Navigate Grief

Just over a year ago I posted a similar version of this post in response to the Oxford High School shooting that left four people dead. In recent days another mass shooting at Michigan State University claimed three more young lives, two from our Grosse Pointe community. Just this year there have been 71 mass shootings in the United States, leaving devastated families who lost loved ones and communities struggling with the emotional and psychological fall out.

There are way too many iterations of articulating how heartbreaking this is, none of them satisfying.

Many of us feel incredibly powerless right now. Clearly, as a society, we are failing to keep our children safe. All of us need to fight for that safety moving forward, but with the widely varying views of how we might get there and the depth of all this grief, it can feel there is little we can impact.

As a beginning, let's start with our families and our homes by making them a safe place for our children and our grieving. This is what we can control can right now.

Helping our Children Navigate Grief

It is important to start a conversation with children and adolescents about how they are doing. Don’t assume that if they aren’t talking about it that they don’t know what’s going on they don’t need to. Parents may be concerned that they will bring a difficult issue to the forefront, but many times children are already pre-occupied with the violence – and are experiencing the loss of security that comes with it.

Before you talk with your children, be aware of your own feelings, vulnerability, and the charged emotions that come up for your as a parent. While it is okay for children to see you emotional, because it normalizes their experience, too much intensity may overwhelm them. You want to ensure you can communicate calmly.

How you talk about this issue with your children will depend on their age, temperament and how closely they are impacted by event.

With younger children:

• Start by asking what they know, rather than guessing. Children pick up a great deal of information even when we are careful about what we disclose. Assess what they’ve learned from social media, TV or conversations around them. A good starting point is: What do you know about what is happening and do you have any questions about it?

It is generally best to start with the least amount of information needed to give them a sense of security, and then disclose more in degrees. Assure them you will be honest with them and take your cues about what they can handle by the questions they ask or their level of engagement. Even if it seems they don’t know about the incident, it may be important to discuss it if they can learn of it in the future.

• Provide information about the event using simple, honest, age-appropriate terms. Don’t use euphemisms or half-truths – it only frightens and confuses them.

• Allow kids to talk about their response repeatedly if they need to. This won’t make it worse. It helps them dismantle their grief. They need frequent reassurance and you should check in often.

• Give them time and space to recover. Let them know it’s okay to grieve, but it’s also okay not to grieve – to laugh, play, enjoy friends and forget about their sadness. Children especially move in and out of grief frequently. Encourage expressive outlets through drawing, writing or play.

• Provide structure and routine. This instills safety, normalcy and a sense of control. Parent the way you have always parented as it reinforces predictability.

• Orient your children to safety and security. Remind them of what is being done to keep them safe at home and in the community. Reinforce the goodness in people by identifying the “helpers in a community.” Especially in tragedy we need to be reminded of all the ways people are working to keep us safe and that there are good people all around us.

• Review coping strategies with children. Remind them what helps them to self-sooth when they are anxious or upset and reinforce they have good skills for taking care of themselves. Degrees of self-care matters and small things make a difference.

With Older children:

• Help them separate facts from the misinformation that often comes with a tragedy.

• Encourage them to limit media and social media consumption. While having information may give them a sense of control, or a context for trying to understand something, it can also exacerbate anxiety, powerlessness and fear. Monitor how much media they are consuming and help them disengage.

• Validate their response to this crisis and that their emotions are normal. Adolescents will sometimes believe their feelings of vulnerability mean that they are overly sensitive or not coping well. Reinforce that they are having a reasonable response to a crisis, which many of us are struggling to process. Kids may assume that their family members or peers are not having the same difficulty so it can be helpful to know that grief isn’t always visible, and everyone navigates it differently. Reinforce that no questions are off-limits and it is important to talk about their thoughts and feelings, no matter what they are.

• Encourage adolescents to maintain their routines and stay connected with peers, allowing for some adaptation based on their needs. Help them to assess what is the best balance for them in terms of structure and downtime, solitude and socializing, and attending to their grief versus compartmentalizing it. This balance will look different for everyone, so try to approach these conversations around how they can best take care of themselves, rather than problem solving for them.

• Identify where kids have some control. Because it is typical to feel powerless in response to a crisis, making informed choices for themselves, even in the smallest of ways, will help them to resume some sense of control. Allow them autonomy whenever you reasonably can and help them to understand that they can take the time they need to respond in their own way.

• Encourage a sense of agency. Some young people will seek a sense of purpose right now. Encouraging this is an important way we can support them. If our students are activated around the desire to do something within the community you can support them with questions like: What might be the consequences of doing this? What are you hoping to accomplish? Who are the friends and supports you can access for this? What are you doing to educate yourself and others around this? And are there additional, or alternative ways, to pursue what you want to accomplish.

• Instill hope in our children and adolescents. While we don’t want to discount the complex emotions they may be feeling by moving them through them their grief too quickly, it is helpful to reassure them that - whatever their recovery process looks like – they will not always feel like this.

It is typical for children and families to experience a wide range of emotions after a trauma. You may see behavioral changes that include distractibility, disruptions in appetite and sleep, somatic complaints or changes in mood. While this is not unusual, if this this persists past four to six weeks it may be important to seek professional help. Every person is different, but if your child is suffering, especially if the trauma hit close to home, it may be important to seek a consult with a mental health professional to help navigate their grief and develop a plan for moving forward. (Community resources available through The Family Center of Grosse Pointe & Harper Woods.

Praying for the families devastated by this violence, as well as all those struggling with the aftermath of this tragedy, especially the families of

Brian Fraser, Arielle Anderson, and Alexandria Verner



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