Helping Children Cope with Sudden Loss

imagesOctober 23 marked the one year anniversary of the horrific death of Colleen Ritzer, the beloved teacher from Danvers high school. Many teachers, students and parents are still struggling to accept the sudden loss of such a young, committed teacher.

An unexpected loss such as Colleen’s can shake an entire community, and it is especially difficult for those closest to the departed. After the sudden death of a loved one, it is challenging for parents to care for their children while experiencing the same loss. Such a tragedy is something that people cannot prepare for. However, understanding what to expect in the wake of an unexpected loss can help parents help their children cope.

Here are some things for parents to consider in the wake of sudden loss of a loved one:

  • Emotions are extreme. Reactions in most people include denial, intense, unpredictable emotions, and feelings of extreme vulnerability including feeling unsafe in familiar surroundings. It’s important to normalize a child’s intense reactions to the tragic loss.
  • Adults have perspective that children don’t. Sudden losses are rare, and although adults recognize when someone they love dies suddenly that the event is unusual, children do not and fear it happen again to someone else they love. Children will fear that one loss will lead to multiple losses, including the loss of those they love the most.
  • Adults need to manage their emotions. Common adult reactions include denial, fear, anger, difficulty focusing, feelings of helplessness and need for more information. Accompanying these early reactions can be symptoms of sleep and appetite disturbances, depression and anxiety.
  • Adults need to be extra present for their children during the healing process. It is imperative that adults are able to manage their reactions and get support from other adults in order to do so. It is human nature to be resilient to loss; however, children are only as resilient as the adults in their environment.
  • Listening is paramount. Younger children will be able to cope with sudden death more effectively if they feel listened to, understood and attended to during this time of emotional crisis. As for teens, when adults understand and listen without judgment, teens will more readily open up and share their feelings. With support and encouragement, teens will be able to return more quickly to a sense of normalcy.
  • For children ages 4 to 11, expressing feelings through words is a challenge. That doesn’t mean their feelings aren’t intense and that they’re not even more overwhelmed by them than older people. Children may express their feelings through play, drawings, fantasy, nightmares or fears, and adults need to be looking for signs of these emotions.
  • Children’s reactions can also be seen through behavior changes such regressing to an earlier stage of development, having difficulty at bedtime or other times of separation, crying easily, clinging more excessively and having fears of being alone and abandoned. Children may not attribute these behavior changes to the loss; however, parents have the foresight to make that connection.
  • Older children, ages 11 and up, demonstrate symptoms of extreme sadness — even wishing to be dead and unified with the person they have lost; appetite and sleep disturbances; school avoidance; withdrawal; decreased interest in activities; and behaviors such as acting out, aggressiveness and experimentation with drugs and sex. Teens may feel unable to discuss their feelings with family members, and may decide to discuss feelings in the context of a group with the support of a trusted adult facilitator.
  • Adults can relax the rules during the time of high stress in the wake of sudden loss; however, routine must be maintained. For example, students must attend school, however, perhaps they miss a few extracurriculars to spend more time with family and friends. When aspects of the routine are relaxed, it’s important to let children know that it’s because of the unusual circumstances and not a permanent change.
  • Help children to talk about the loss. Most of us don’t know what to say to friend who has lost unexpectedly lost a loved one. Children especially need help knowing what to say to a friend who’s lost a loved one. Children can say something like, “I’m sorry for what you are going through. I’ll always be your friend, and I’m here to listen or just blow off steam, whatever feels best to you.”
  • Get professional help if your child is not moving on from acute signs of grief after a couple of weeks. There’s no need for a child to suffer longer than necessary as professional help can often provide much needed support in the wake of a traumatic loss.

Every child grieves in a unique way. Once parents know what to expect from their children in the midst of a sudden loss, they can figure out how they can best help them. Parents need to send a message of reassurance and remind their children that though loss is extremely painful, together it can be endured. Through loss, children learn that suffering is part of life and can be managed if processed correctly. The grief of losing a love one never leaves for good, and yet children who are properly supported can manage their grief quite well while they resume a normal life.