Today’s post is guest-authored by Corrie Sirota-Frankel M.S.W, P.S.W
It’s been a couple of weeks since the Boston bombings occurred and I still find myself mesmerized by the images we saw on TV and the Internet. It can be hard to look away from such scenes of panic, fear and destruction, and many of us feel the need to watch them over and over again as we try and make sense of such random violence? Now, please do not misunderstand me, it is precisely in times of crisis that we seek connection, to equip ourselves with as much information as possible in an effort to process such things, and/or to compensate for our lack of control, or simply to be in the know.
My concern with this behavior is what message are we sending our kids?
When adversity strikes, you tend to see hard-wired patterns of response in the adults. Too many people react with denial when it comes to their kids. They want to shield them from learning about bad things that happen. That’s understandable.
As parents, most of us feel a strong sense of responsibility to help, support, teach and guide our children. However, because we also have an innate need to protect our children, it is only natural that we TRY to keep our kids away from life’s more tragic and difficult moments. It is important to recognize that when we do this, we also rob them of an essential life skill – the opportunity to build resiliency.
Dr. Paul Stoltz, is the originator of Adversity Quotient (AQ). Dr. Stoltz brought AQ to the world through his internationally acclaimed bestselling book “Adversity Quotient: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities” (Amazon, 2002). One of Dr. Stoltz’s main messages is to help people understand that “adversity is not going away any time soon. It is the core human drama. It’s the core of your drama, and if harnessed with superior resilience, it could be the fuel cell of your success.
That said, how do we help our children cope with crisis? The best way for me to answer this question comes directly from my work as a bereavement counselor while supporting children in times of the ultimate crisis – the death of a loved one.
Let’s begin with the understanding of a simple fact: Children are not born with a fear of death and dying. The adults around them teach them this.
We send strong signals when we say, “A cemetery is no place for a child” or model our fears with comments and non-verbal behaviours that send out the message that something bad, or terrible happens at funerals. If we are to truly help the next generation support our elderly and their loved ones then we must begin by recognizing our own behaviour.
Some practical suggestions are as follows:
- We need to use every opportunity to talk about life and death as part of our everyday routine. For example; when you purchase flowers, talk about how every living thing has a life – a beginning, a middle and an end; some lives are longer, others are shorter. It’s important that we use the correct language when we talk about death – as opposed to euphemisms, and slang words. Telling a child that someone died as a result of an accident leaves ambiguity in the mind of the child – the word accident to most children signifies urinating in their pants.
- We need to be HONEST, SIMPLE and say it with LOVE, no sugar-coating things: “Grandma died because her heart stopped working” or “Grandpa was very, very, very sick – a sick that couldn’t be fixed”
- Physically place yourself eye to eye; it is helpful to sit with a child, place them on your lap or kneel down to their level so that you are not towering over them as you talk together
- Acknowledge the developmental age of the child; while I will always advocate that parents know their children best, in general, children over the age of 5 can and should be involved in the funeral process. This is the age where children start to understand that death is irreversible. Unlike the videos they are all too often exposed to where a character dies and then magically comes back to life when they watch the movie again, in real life living things do not come back to life. Keep in mind that some children are more mature than others, some cannot sit though a funeral service while others can sit quietly.
- Children need to have someone they can trust near them explaining what is going to happen. Ideally this should not be one of the mourners (this includes the variety of emotional reactions they may witness or they themselves may have – and remember: feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just are!).
- Don’t wait until a funeral to bring your children to the funeral home or cemetery – Why wait? Often the first time a child enters a funeral home or cemetery is when someone close to them has died. Instead take the opportunity to bring them to a funeral when the service is not for a close relative/friend, or go visit a deceased relative at the cemetery on a nice day when you can explain what happens with a little more emotional distance.
Ultimately, helping children cope when a death occurs is comprised of three basic elements:
- Information: Who died, how did they die, how will this affect me?
- Choice: Should I attend the funeral?
- Support: Who is going to be there for me now?
In order to comfortably respond to our children we need to understand where our fears/phobia’s and attitudes come from. We must find the appropriate people and places to express our concerns, share our thoughts and address our needs so that the future generation understands that crisis/death are simply a part of life. In the words of Morrie Schwartz (from Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albiom) “If we can teach this to our children then we can truly die without every really going away…Death ends a life, not a relationship”.
You can find out more about Corrie by checking out her website at www.corriesirota.com or emailing her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.