Whenever tragedy occurs, communication around us changes. Within our communities, schools, churches, homes, and of course news feeds, the emotions of others erupts. People begin expressing their sorrow and support to victims and loved ones. Some people express anger from an overwhelming place of fear, while others talk about their ideas for a solution. We often hear the question "why" and the many opinions that follow. Tragedy leads to discussion. We are social creatures and this is an inevitable process. We need discussion for decisions to form and for people to feel comfort and closeness.
So, what about our kids? How and where are they receiving the news? Are they having discussions as well? And, do these discussions have structure?
There has always been a concern when bringing up the topic of death with children, but what about mass amounts of mortality? And not necessarily natural disasters, accidents, or illnesses, but from the hands of other human beings-concepts that us adults even have difficulty grasping.
Firstly, children are aware and understand death very early on. They see it all around them with insects, birds and even household pets dying. They see it on TV and hear about death in fairy tales. They already understand that death is a part of life. Therefore, when letting them know that it is ok to talk about, they are more willing to open up and enhance their understanding of death. A child should be informed that their questions, feelings and concerns are normal and acceptable. Showing interest and respect will portray to them that what they have to say is important and that you are listening when they are ready.
"When we can talk about something freely, the many doors of expression open, leading to a deeper understanding of self, life and death."
Developmentally, children will comprehend and speak about death differently according to their age. For example, preschool children view death as temporary and reversible. Think of cartoon characters and their indestructible qualities. In this instance, speaking to your preschooler with a brief and simple explanation is highly important. They will not comprehend complicated responses and long lectures most likely will bore them. Instead, explain death in terms of losing simple life functions such as, the dog will no longer bark or run.
Between the ages of five to nine, children begin understanding that death is final and that it is a part of life. However, they haven't quite grasped that they too can die. During this stage, most children haven't personally attached themselves to death and quite often, use creativity to defy it. Therefore, talking about death while also keeping up with their innovative beliefs is important. Perhaps using play or art to express emotions around death will be effective at this age.
During adolescents, most teenagers have grasped that death is irreversible and that they too will die someday. In fact, at this age, children become intrigued with the meaning of life and begin developing philosophical views. You may notice that they experiment with death a bit more by pushing limits to confront it in attempt to control or face their fears over death. At this stage, talk to your teen with a curiosity. Try to understand their newfound views and again, be interested and respect their findings. Talk about safety for self and the importance of non-harm towards others. This is also an important time to acknowledge, validate and define emotions. Have discussions about why we tend to feel sad about death and even angry.
As we begin understanding how our children developmentally comprehend death, it is important to then ask, what about mass mortality? What about terrorist attacks? The type of death that is often unexplainable yet blasted on TVs, radios, news feeds, etc.
Making sure that your children are consistently happy is not as important as them understanding what's going on around them. Fill them in with facts that are age appropriate. Listen to what they have to say. Listen to their questions. They will often have the same exact questions as adults do and these questions are at times unanswerable- and that is ok. If you can answer them however, do so. A common question would be, "Why do these people commit suicide to hurt us?" Appropriate answer: "There are some people that believe they have to hurt others who don't believe in the same God as they do. It is not right and it is not fair. We don't hurt our friends just because they like different movies or games do we? They were not taught love and fairness very well."
Explain to your child that sometimes bad things happen and we cannot control how others behave. That sometimes there are confused and mean people that will hurt us. It is not fair and it is all too sad and scary. Make sure they feel safe talking about these topics and if they don't, reassure them that it is ok to be scared and that they can talk about it when they are ready. Use age appropriate vocabulary and examples.
Children have an awareness to death, fears of death, philosophies, meanings and certainly, questions about it. Foster these with sincerity and safety. Do not forget that the feeling of acceptance and togetherness during such a tragic time is more powerful than any evil for all ages.