This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. Kate has written here before about her experience and reflections on tragedy, and offered this insight for the CT shooting. I waited a little bit to post because I needed some time and space from it. I felt like it fit this Merely Beloved series because it feels applicable to spiritual practice. So thankful for her unique experience! For more information, click here.
A lot of people have asked me about how to talk to children about ugly incidents like the tragic events that occurred in Newtown, CT, on December 14th. There are many good articles out there . . . and also poor ones. Here’s one that I agree with. For me, talking to children about murder, and other challenging topics, comes down to a few basic elements.
Be a reliable, trustworthy adult for a child. Children need reliable, trustworthy adults in their life in order to grow well. These adults are not just parents, but other adults (family, friends, neighbors, community members) who are consistently a part of their lives.
Tell the truth. When you are discussing a tragedy, stick to basic facts of the case. Do not embellish, do not use euphemisms or metaphors. Be specific and simple. Here are the words I used with my children (ages 4, 7, 9): “Something very sad happened today. A man who seems to have been very sick inside, came into a school. He had a gun and he shot people.” [Note: if a child among you is younger than three years-old, this conversation is not necessary. If the child is two or three years-old and knows a person intimately who died suddenly, you can discuss the fact that the person is no longer alive and discuss the concept of death. I use pastoral counselor Wayne Oates’ practice of describing death with children as the experience where everything on the outside and on the inside stops moving.]
Let the child(ren) guide the conversation. A child’s age and development will influence how they respond to your sharing with them. Preschoolers tend to be very concrete. My four-year-old son asked, incredulously, “Did he shoot kids?!” This kind of bluntness can be jolting for adults. Remember that this conversation is not about you, and that it is helpful if adults are mindful of finding safe forums with other adults for their own struggles with grief and sorrow. Elementary school kids most likely will express more empathy and make more connections. My daughter commented, “How sad . . . .” My oldest son asked, “Was it like when [another person who struggled with mental health] shot [some other people]?” Here are my responses: “Yes. He shot kids. Yes. It is very sad. You will see today and these next few days that many adults right now are very sad about this. And, we don’t know yet if it was similar to that other situation. We don’t have enough information yet.” If they ask a question that you do not know the answer to, remember to be truthful. Say something along the lines of, “That’s a good question. I don’t know.” You may suggest how the answer might be found, “Perhaps we could ask . . . about that.” Or, as a faithful adult, you may suggest that you pray together to ask God for answers. If they don’t want to talk, allow the conversation to end by letting them know that they can talk with you any time. Eventually, move on to other activities together – playing, making meals, home chores, etc.
Encourage safety. Following their comments and questions, speak to their safety. For example, you may describe how rare this act of violence was. Whether it is rare for your community or not, you may speak to helpers who are around, including other trustworthy adults such as police officers, firefighters, nurses and doctors, counselors, church members, pastors, government leaders. You may speak to how people are working to make sure this does not happen again or begins to stop happening so much. You may remind them how you are together right now, and how safe you are together right now, how safe your home is. You might encourage them to locate the things that make them feel better – for young children, their security toys or blanket, for older children, their favorite music or activities. Sometimes children will just want to be together, quietly. Consider finding a cozy spot together, perhaps playing some gentle music and lighting a candle – creating a sense of present peace together for some time.
When it comes to healing after trauma, spending time together and sharing your stories of hurt together can be very helpful. Stories can be shared by talking, and also by doing things together. You may pray together, listen to music, draw or paint together, play, or exercise together. You may sing or play instruments together, or incorporate special foods into your mealtimes. Your children may reenact violence in their play or art – this is a common way that children make sense of what has occurred. Invite them to share their creations with you. They also may share their joyful memories. There feelings may seem out of sync with your own, as an adult. Again, be mindful of finding meaningful places for your own healing, beyond healing with children. Finally, consider having children participate in creating responses to tragedy both by incorporating their spontaneous gestures and interest into ordinary experiences, as they come up, and also through intentional community memorializing.
Whatever you do, do not try to pretend away or ignore the truth. Avoiding the truth, especially when children are in close proximity to a tragic event, produces deleterious effects on family and social systems and on children’s senses of well-being. Kids experience adverse and extreme results when they grow up sensing truth among adults who refuse to speak of or acknowledge what has occurred. Emotional residue permeates, no matter how hard someone tries to reduce or ignore it. We do our children no favors by avoiding difficult or challenging topics. In effect, we do something worse. We avoid the vital relationship that occurs during pain, a relationship that children and the adults around them need greatly. The building or relational construction that comes about during the sharing of emotive content – sorrowful experiences, joyful experiences, boring experiences, and so forth – creates the substance of what holds us together – trust, reliability, emotional safety, and forgiveness. What occurs when two or three are gathered amid ordinary and extraordinary times becomes foundations for the next times that we encounter adversity or joy. Being in these relationships with children is not about having answers. It is about practicing whole-self living within the frameworks of faith, hope, and love.
Practicing presence is hard. This discipline is hard when things are not stressful, let alone amid the chaos of tragedy. Yet, true to our faith tradition, incredible strength and well-being grow from remnants after sorrow and destruction. As adults show up and companion with one another, as they stand ready to include children in the experiences of grief, mourning, and lament, we go about the work together of growing new life.
Kate Wiebe is the Executive Director of the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth (ICTG) and a National Responder for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. She is someone who has had to discuss murder with her own children at young ages when people they knew well and associated with frequently were killed. She is a trained pastoral psychotherapist and traumatologist. Kate lives with her family in Santa Barbara, CA.