Dealing with kids during times of tragedy

By Julie Stafford • Last Updated 1:00 pm on Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Devon Morrison’s death touched an entire community. It wouldn’t be uncommon for area children to struggle either from grief over missing a friend or fear about what might have happened.

Belding Public Schools has enacted its district crisis team to help students deal with emotions having to do with the 10-year-old’s death, said Belding Superintendent Sara Shriver. All school counselors and social workers are in place, with extra support being given to Woodview Elementary School, where Morrison was a student.

Sue Ellen Pabst, LMSW, a therapist and owner of Transitions: Counseling Services in Greenville, offered tips for how parents can talk to kids about what happened:

Parents can offer kids an invitation to talk about what happened, Pabst said. “Do you want to talk about the fact that they found Devon in the river? Do you have any questions?” She said some kids are going to want to talk and some aren’t. “You don’t need to go into a long sermon. And if you don’t know, just say you don’t know.”

“Children take their lead from their parents,” Pabst said. “If the parents are walking around saying, ‘I can’t believe this; it’s so horrible’, children will mimic it and exaggerate it.”

If your kids come home and want to talk about what they’ve heard, let them state it, Pabst said. But remind them that it’s important only to deal with facts. Ask where they heard their information. The police are the experts in this case, so don’t continue talking about what you’ve heard if you didn’t hear them say it or you didn’t see it for yourself.

Parents should reassure their children that this is “a sad event,” Pabst said. “I’m not suggesting it’s not. But it’s not the end of the day, the week or the month for you. Keep it in perspective.”

“Death is a natural part of life, part of the cycle of life. But when it happens to someone so young, it’s really hard. In thinking about Devon, we should think about his life, about him being happy and fishing and playing, rather than thinking about how he died. Honor him with good things. There are going to be questions like, ‘Was this an accident? Did someone do harm?’ No body knows that, but the result is the same.”

Most of the time, people in general and kids specifically just want others to acknowledge their feelings and pain or to validate their thoughts and questions. “You can recognize, ‘This is kind of confusing, isn’t it?’ Just saying, ‘I don’t understand it either sometimes is enough, so the child feels like ‘we’re in this together’. It’s going to be sad for awhile, but life will go on. It always has and it always will.”

One of the things not to do is to pretend you have the answers, Pabst said. “You don’t have the answers.”

If your child seems to be isolating themselves, mopey or having a hard time understanding, Pabst said it’s important to seek help with the school crisis team. “We want to make sure kids are heard, processed and validated, but we don’t want to make it feel like people are dramatically reacting… Whether it was accidental or not is probably unknown, but it doesn’t matter. This is what we now know regarding Devon.”

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