When Tragedy Hits Close to Home

Chazal in Bava Kama discuss the differences between serious problems which are entirely unexpected, and those which are somewhat more easily anticipated. When our community experiences a tragedy which is bizarre and fully unexpected, the shock waves can affect children and adults with fear, worry, anger and sadness.

Here are some important guidelines to consider in speaking with your children, and with your students, when crisis and trauma explode within our community in ways which no one ever expected.

  • Children have heard rumors, and some facts, and may need to share with you what they have heard. Be prepared to listen, and give them an opening to tell you what they heard.
  • It is important to ask children how they are reacting to what they’ve heard, and to give them permission to share their worries and their fears.
  • Clear up all rumors and all distortions, especially when the facts remain unclear. Help children contain their fears by instructing them not to listen to rumors and not to repeat them. Gossip spreads like wildfire, and during a crisis, gossip and rumors only add to the crisis by creating more fear and worry.
  • Use simple, plain and clear explanatory terms if your children are confused about what happened. Give them reassurance, when reasonable, that they and their families are safe and that these frightening events are not normal and seldom recur. Help reassure children that they and their parents and siblings can continue with their regular routines.
  • Emphasize safety. It is important not to promote excessive fear and anxiety but it is still helpful to instruct children in precautions and safety guidelines to avoid unfamiliar places and persons.
  • Validate a child’s feelings — their fear, their sadness, their shock, their anger — and do not try to talk them out of it with logic nor embarrass them if they are feeling anxiety in a regressed form
  • Offer children the opportunity to turn to you, or to a trusted helpful adult, for reassurance and clarification. Open lines of supportive communication and keep them open by staying available.
  • Encourage children to come to you if they hear, or think, or feel, anything that troubles them. Ask them to approach you (parent or teacher or rebbi) first before dwelling on information alone, or with their friends. It is perfectly fine if a group of friends or classmates speak together with you, or they can approach you individually.
  • “Introduce” Hashem. It is helpful at many levels for children and for adults to discuss, at their level, tefillah, Tehillim, bitachon and emunah during times of tragedy. Let them know that their prayers are important, and let them know that Hashem remains close during these times, and that they can feel close to Him.
  • Make sure that “blame” does not enter into a child’s thinking. Coming up with “the reason” that something horrible happened to anyone is not a healthy or useful direction. If we do not know “why” something happened, we learn to say “We do not know.” Help children take that approach too.
  • For those who know a victim or a victim’s family, offer them Project Chai guidelines regarding how and when to contact and interact with those family members following a tragedy or loss.

 

Rabbi Yaakov D. KLAR, LMSW, is Associate Director, Crisis Intervention, Trauma and Bereavement Department, Chai Lifeline