We want to shield our children. Protect them. Keep them safe. We want to make the truth of what happened in Nashville untrue. We worry about what to say. We worry because we don’t want to say anything at all. So how do we parent in a moment when our own humanity feels so vulnerable and fragile?
We walk bravely into the face of love.
We talk with our children. Because if we don’t, they will hear the news from a hundred other sources. We need them to know that we are here. That we are bigger and stronger than any disaster. That we will be present for them, no matter how overwhelming life feels. We give them the briefest information, not the gory details. And then, we listen. We listen to their concerns, their confusion, their worries. We allow them the space to weep and wonder, and we model for them the river of tears that is our grief. We cannot solve this for them, nor should we. These are the deep mysteries of life. We can be their guides. We can show them how we wrestle with understanding events that can never be fully understood—for death has come and taken the lives of young children. It was sudden. And unexpected. It leaves us raw and asking why. And our children feel this, too. Why them? When me? How you?
- Tread Lightly. It is tempting as the story unfolds to follow every moment on the news and social media. Don’t. Turn it off. If you want, check in at the top of the hour for updates. Older kids are getting fatigued into numbness and youngsters often think the replay images are fresh events.
- Speak in Sound bites. Just as with grave news stories before, give children brief facts and information. Then listen. Listen to the nuance of their confusion, questions and comments. Follow their lead. Then (re)assure them. Remind them, as Mr Rogers reminds us, to look for the helpers.
- Stay the Course. We all thrive on routine, and this is especially true in times of trauma. Keep children on their regular schedules. Familiarity breeds comfort.
- Look at each Step. Yes, the media will focus injury and death. But we can talk about life. And all the days each person had before today. And all the people who loved them, and whom they loved. And how, even after someone is gone, they are not gone. They are within us.
- Find the Sacred Sweat. Look for those who need support. It may mean donating resources, time or expertise. It may mean doing all these same things in our own backyards. Help your kids find ways to contribute. When we give of ourselves, we learn we are capable. When we realize we can overcome, our resiliency for future events is stronger.
- Answer every why. With each question your child asks, give them the information you have. And when you don’t know, say that. You don’t have to have all the answers. None of us do. But in responding, you are honoring them with your truth, and telling them they matter.
- Sit in silence. Grappling with death is big work. Providing quiet down time allows kids to think. And figure out how they feel about their thinking. Don’t feel pressured to fill the silence with words, simply sit with them. Allow them the space to start conversations. Then ask them how they feel.
- Reach out. Being held is one of the greatest comforts in grief. Give an extra dose of hugs. Ruffle their hair. Hold a hand. Rub a back. Kids open up when snuggled close. So offer couch time, or set bedtime early so they have time to talk before sleep.
- See the signs. Grief may show up in unexpected ways. Your child may now not want to be alone, when before they craved solitude. Or might become afraid of the dark—which hasn’t happened in years. Or your adventurous child may suddenly not want to try new things. A great sleeper becomes restless. A loud child, quiet. A calm child explodes. Expect the unexpected. It’s all part of grief.
- Mourn in style. We grieve the way we learn, because mourning is learning the steps of death. So consider, what is your child’s learning style? Are they a reader? A writer? An artist? One who learns by talking out loud? Or does their best while in motion? Outside? Provide them options that match the way they learn best. Books. Journals. Art supplies. Talk times. Walk times. Nature hikes.
- Ride the rollercoaster. The feelings of grief will sometimes be sharp and at other times muted. And the feelings themselves will change. Anger. Sadness. Confusion. Even envy. All of this is real in grief. You may hear about some mystery aches and pains. It’s hard when we are hurting.
- Playground perspectives. What happens when we die? And what comes after? Talk to your child not only about death, but about your family beliefs about what comes next. Let them know that friends and classmates will be talking about it at school—what happened, how they feel, what their families’ faiths say happens beyond death. Share with them that there are many traditions about our souls, and each one speaks to the heart of the believer.
- Act out. Resiliency grows when we know we are capable of making a difference, especially in difficult situations. Ask your child if they’d like to do something to help. It may be organizing a group–donating new books for the library or raising money for a friendship bench on the playground. It may be on their own–writing a letter, drawing picture, something they may want to send to families. Whatever way gives your child strength.
- Reassure without promises. The response to “I don’t’ want you to die” can be “look at all the moms and dads in the world, look at all the old moms & dads & grandparents. Most people don’t die young.”
- Meet them where they are. Some kiddos know what dying means. Some understand it partially, some not at all. Talk about: leaves changing color & falling, flowers wilting, birds / beetles / spiders, caterpillars become butterflies, pets that have died, neighbors, relatives, friends.
- Somatic responses. what do our emotions feel like in our bodies? Ex: does sad look like? Show lots of faces & body language. What does sad feel like? Heart squeezed, shoulders pressed, etc. Show children that no matter how intense the emotion, we are always bigger than anything we feel.
- Remember that kids learn through play. So you may see them playing death. Playing dying. And it might not look like what you think it should. And it might. Check in with yourself, and have another adult step in if it feels uncomfortable. They are going to play lots of different endings: a teacher who comes back to life, more children dying, what they see as an after life, a soul that returns, ghosts who joins your child.
We will all die. If we are lucky, we will be surrounded by, remembered by, honored by those who love us. Show that. Model that. Help your child walk that path in their mourning. Because when your children know they can talk to you about death and any big event in life, it is one of your greatest gifts.
with deepest empathy & love,
p.s. Please reach out if you’d like additional, individualized support. I am always here. Always.
p.p.s. Please share this. We want parents to feel as much support as our children.