Tough Conversations - Death, Trauma, and Grief

A tragic loss may affect your child in a variety of ways. In times of need, the well-trained Klein ISD Critical Incident Response Team springs into action to support our students, staff, and community. Should you wish to share this information with your child, the Klein ISD Counseling and Whole Student Wellness Department has enclosed some suggestions that may prove helpful to you as you discuss death:

  • Your child needs to feel that they are allowed to express their thoughts and feelings regarding the incident without the fear that they will be judged negatively. Listen carefully and affirm that you understand what they are feeling and thinking.

  • Continue to comfort your child by sharing you will be there for them, and you will see them through this period of grief.

  • You may need to spend additional individualized time with your child. Try to structure your time with them by playing games, having discussions and going places. During your time together, focus a majority of your attention on your child.

  • Don’t be hesitant to ask your child how they are coping, even though you may expect an answer of, “fine.” The fact that you ask will be important to your child, even though they may not show this.

  • Keep in touch with your child’s teacher to monitor their academic performance.

  • Regardless of your child’s response to you, reassurance is comforting to them that you are there if they need any assistance. You may want to outline just how you can help them (e.g. by talking or getting professional help).

20 Quick Tips to Help Children in Crisis
  1. Be more nurturing and comforting. Respond to your child’s basic needs. Provide him/her with rest, comfort, food, and opportunities to play.

  2. Talk openly with your child about what happened.

  3. Reinforce with your child that you will protect him/her.

  4. Help your child to share his/her feelings in your supportive presence, and acknowledge his/her feelings. Do not tell your child how he/she should or should not feel. Healing takes time - do not hurry your child’s reactions along with comments such as, “It’s time to get over it.”

  5. Understand that physical reactions such as headaches, fatigue, etc. can be normal responses to fear and a child’s attempts to avoid thoughts of the crisis.

  6. Provide labels, especially for younger children, for the feelings they are experiencing, such as sad, afraid, angry, etc.

  7. Encourage your child to let you know when he/she is thinking about the crisis or when new reactions occur.

  8. Give your child special supports by keeping things fairly structured. Adjust for your child’s fears, especially at bedtime.

  9. Help to re-establish a sense of safety for your child. Let your child know where your are going and when you will be back. If you are gone for several hours, call and let him/her know that you are all right.

  10. Reassure your child that his/her feelings may not be the same as those of siblings or friends, and that those feelings are normal.

  11. Be patient with difficulties in concentration, completing schoolwork, etc. It is not unusual for a child’s school performance to decline temporarily.

  12. Recognize that regressive behavior such as nail biting and thumb sucking, as well as acting-out behaviors are normal reactions and should be discussed rather than punished.

  13. Limit tasks and keep them simple.

  14. If the crisis involves a death, help your child to recall positive memories of the victim.

  15. Share your own similar experiences, giving the message that you survived and that he/she can too.

  16. Help your child to understand that angry, defiant, aggressive behaviors, staying away from home, or taking unnecessary risks are ways to avoid feeling the pain, hurt, and fear that he/she is experiencing.

  17. If shame is tied to a physical reaction that your child experienced during the crisis (such as wetting his/her pants, vomiting, crying, etc.) assure your child that unlike television portrayals, many people faced with a crisis will lose control over their bodies.

  18. If your child expresses that he/she is not afraid of anything anymore (“Nothing scares me.”), be more protective of your youngster, as he/she may not act safely in a potentially dangerous situation.

  19. Help your child to understand the relationship between his/her feelings and the crisis and encourage your youngster to find safe ways to express his/her feelings (i.e. drawing pictures, writing, talking, exercise, etc.).

  20. If changes in your child’s behavior or personality concern you, seek the support of a mental health professional.

Ways to Help Your Child and Help Yourself at the Same Time

  1. Trauma is like no other experience. It brings out reactions you may have never seen before, nor your child has ever experienced.

  2. Your child may not have control over his behavior because the terror he experienced has left him feeling out of control. It may be that terror which is driving his behaviors.

  3. As long as a child’s behavior is not hurting others or himself, it is okay.

  4. If your child’s behavior is upsetting to you, it is best to talk with a trauma specialist before reacting because these behaviors need special intervention.
Be Patient
  1. Trauma destroys a child’s sense of safety and security. They will need time to feel again and to feel you can protect them.

  2. As a parent of a traumatized child, it will be very difficult to see your child return to behaviors he engaged in years earlier, to see them act entirely different than the child you knew them to be before the trauma. They need you to be patient.

  3. Whatever behaviors they turn to after their trauma, no matter how strange or frightening they are for you, it is your child’s attempt to feel powerful and safe again. be patient. Do not push them to change or to stop until you have consulted a trauma specialist.
Be Nurturing
  1. Whatever the age, any trauma needs to be followed by a lot of nurturing.

  2. Let your child eat what he/she wants, follow you around or even withdraw for a while. Your child may want to be taken care of, to have fewer demands.

  3. Spend more time with your child the first several weeks.
Keep it Simple
  1. A terrorized child, adolescent, or adult will find it difficult to concentrate and remember even the simplest of things.

  2. A terrorized individual will be forgetful. He can even forget what he was doing or talking about five minutes earlier.

  3. You need to simplify everything for several weeks. Do not expect more. Do not introduce new challenges. This is a time to protect your child from stress. It really needs to be an “all the cookies and milk I want” time for traumatized children.
  1. Reinforce that you understand that his reactions are not unusual following his experience.

  2. Learn what trauma reactions can be expected and let your child know what he may yet experience.

Terror on Top of Grief—Trauma Reactions in Children

Trauma reactions are different from grief reactions. Only recently has it been verified that children are vulnerable to experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a disorder once attributed to only adult survivors of war. These reactions appear in children following disasters, acts of violence, sudden unanticipated death, critical injuries, car fatalities, house fires, drownings and sudden unexpected incidents involving family or friends.

The one word that best describes grief is sadness; the one word that best describes trauma is terror. Terror induces reactions not often seen in children who are grieving.

When Should I Be Concerned?

You should be concerned when your child:

  • Has trouble sleeping, is afraid to sleep alone or be left alone even for short periods of time.
  • Is easily startled (terrorized) by sounds, sights, smells similar to those that existed at the time of the event – a car backfiring may sound like the gun shot that killed someone; for one child, his dog pouncing down the stairs brought back the sound of his father falling down the stairs and dying.
  • Becomes hyper-vigilant – forever watching out for and anticipating that they are about to be or are in danger.
  • Seeks safety “spots” in his environment, in whatever room he may be in at the time. Children who sleep on the floor instead of in their bed after a trauma do so because they fear the comfort of a bed will let them sleep so hard they won’t hear the danger coming.
  • Becomes irritable, aggressive, acting tough, provoking fights.
  • Verbalizes a desire for revenge.
  • Acts as if he is no longer afraid of anything or anyone (and in the face of danger, responds inappropriately, verbalizing that nothing ever scares him anymore).
  • Forgets recently acquired skills.
  • Returns to behaviors he had previously stopped, i.e. bed wetting, nail biting, or developing disturbing behaviors such as stuttering.
  • Withdraws and wants less to do with his friends.
  • Develops headaches, stomach problems, fatigue, and other ailments not previously present.
  • Becomes accident-prone, taking risks he had previously avoided, putting himself in life threatening situations, reenacting the event as a victim or a hero.
  • Develops school problems including a drop in grades and difficulty concentrating.
  • Develops a pessimistic view of the future, losing his resilience to overcome additional difficulties, losing hope, losing his passion to survive, play and enjoy life.

While these changes are not unusual, they often go unnoticed or fail to bring a helping response from adults. These changes can and do become permanent when the child does not receive appropriate help. Often children suffer silently for years with their terror until one or several of these changes become so intense and problematic that someone says something. Unfortunately, years later few people are likely to associate these reactions to the child’s earlier trauma. The help given often misses the mark. This further increases the child’s sense of helplessness and failure.

Signs That a Child Needs Professional Help

Any of these signs may be present initially in attention if these persist over time.

If your are concerned about a child, talk with the school counselor and parents to see if they are seeing the same signs. Try not to overstate your case. Most parents will welcome the honest observations and concern. It is helpful to have a list of resources for them, should they concur and wish to seek professional help.

Any signs of long-term or clinical depression are red flags, as are your own “gut feelings” about whether a child is really struggling with more than just the profound sadness which typifies “normal” grief.

Physical Signs
  • Changes in eating (less or more)
  • Changes in sleep (less or more)
  • Significant loss of energy
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
Emotional Signs
  • Persistent anxiety
  • Hopes of reunion with deceased
  • Desire to die
  • Clinging to others
  • Absence of all grief
  • Strong resistance to forming new attachments
  • Expression of only negative or only positive about the deceased
Behavioral Signs
  • Aggression, displays of power
  • Withdrawal; regression
  • Overachieving syndrome
  • Inability to focus, concentrate
  • Self destructive behaviors
  • Excessive daydreaming
  • Compulsive care-giving
  • Accident-prone
  • Stealing, other illegal activities
  • Use/abuse of drugs/alcohol
  • Unable to speak of the deceased
Cognitive Signs
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Confused or distorted thinking

What Students Need in Times of Tragedy

Honest answers
There is no way to begin to grieve without understanding how someone died or what the reality of the situation is...consider how differently you feel if a loved one is killed in an unavoidable accident or a reckless incident or an intentionally perpetrated act or a suicide. Our grief is dependent upon the circumstances of the loss, and the only information to ever give children is the truth. The only variable in that element is the amount of detail. It is not necessary to give gory or frightening details. But if there is information you are choosing to withhold, be honest about that. This is respectful of their integrity and the only way to maintain trust.
Reality checks
The reality will sink in at different rates for different children. Because of denial, a common initial response to tragedy, it will be necessary for adults to repeat details of the event until the children really grasp it.
A variety of ways to do memory work
Some students will want to talk about their favorite memories of the person who has died. Some will do better drawing pictures, doing collages or writing a letter to the family. One suggestion in either leading classroom discussion on this or encouraging writing/art is to suggest that they focus on their regret and appreciation about this person. With younger children choose simpler words or define the meaning of regret and appreciation. This is an essential part of grief work.
A means to say good-bye
We grieve in the environment of the loss...that means that the children may not be able to go home and process the loss with parents, who didn’t know the deceased in the context of the school in the way the student did. For youth to really mend from the loss, the school needs to facilitate a means for youth to have a period of grieving as well as a time when that formal grieving is over. Reminisce, say good-bye, and get on with life. This may be as simple as tree planting or as organized as a memory activity for the school. Remember that doing this is the statement that the community of the school as a whole is done with the formal period of grieving, but that this in no way suggests that individuals are over their grief.
The younger the student, the more there may be need for reassurance. When one person dies, it is not uncommon for children to generalize and fear that other special people will die in the same way. We cannot promise children that another person won’t die, but it is reassuring to point out that it makes sense to us that they might have that fear, but that we do not expect this kind of death to happen again soon to anyone we know. Of course, if the death were one in which you anticipate other deaths to follow, you would be honest about that. All reassurances must be honest and without promises of things over which we have no control. point out that it makes sense to us that they might have that fear, but that we do not expect this kind of death to happen again soon to anyone we know. Of course, if the death were one in which you anticipate other deaths to follow, you would be honest about that. All reassurances must be honest and without promises of things over which we have no control.
No comparisons
It is not helpful to idealize the person who has died. If students (or staff) are painting the deceased as a superhuman angel of some sort, it is helpful to point out that he/she was just human like the rest of us, with strengths and weaknesses. Help them realize that making someone else sound perfect is not what makes us miss is the love and caring that was shared that brings about the pain of grief when we lose someone special
To continue to be...just who they were before!
Often a family will redefine a child’s role when someone dies. If a father dies it is important not to expect the oldest son to be the man of the house. He is still just the oldest son. The child may have more work to do at home, but he is still just a child, and needs the support and room to be so. Watch that this general caution is also respected at school, and that we do not lay additional expectations on grieving students, but instead that we support them in their grief.
Opportunities to move in and out of the grief process
Children move in and out of grieving, sometimes rather quickly with many transitions in a single day. When they are playing and laughing, it is not disrespectful – it is a healthy reprieve, though temporary, from the pain of the loss. Encourage them to go outside for recess and enjoy the parts of life they can... and be there to support them when they move back into the tears and sadness.
To know that they do not have to protect you
Children often choose their words carefully if they think that what they are saying might make you cry – they think that their words are adding to your grief. They do not understand that they are just providing you an opportunity to let out a few of the tears you already had inside you. Model for them that sadness and tears are a part of grief and that there is nothing they might say or ask that you would want them to withhold.
To be included
Any memorial activity you plan will be more effective for students if they feel some sense of ownership. Ask them for their ideas of what a most fitting tribute might be. If you are aware that a student who has experienced a family death is not being included in the planning of the family memorial service or funeral, and if you know the parents well enough to do so, consider suggesting to them that they include the children in the planning.
For you to do your own grief work
If you are stuffing down your unresolved grief, it is awfully difficult not be giving children nonverbal messages that we would rather they did not talk about the tough stuff. Realize that the more of your own grief work you have done, the better you will be at supporting them in theirs.
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