Im scared too. What can I do to feel safe?
Children experiencing traumatic grief need to know their life will return to a calmer place. It takes patience and perseverance. Sometimes children are so shocked and frightened by a sudden or terrifying death of a loved one - they can hardly find words to talk about it. They are scared the same thing will happen to them or someone they love. They may seem frozen in time and unable to grieve.
As girls and boys begin to feel safer they can process their event. With reassurance and reminding that the difficult event is in the past, they are more capable of staying in the present and coping with their challenging thoughts and feelings. Reinforcing that they have survived a very difficult occurrence helps children feel stronger and more able to cope.
It is important to know the common signs of traumatic grief:
hypervigilance or staying up all night
nightmares and sleeplessness
stomachaches and headaches
regression - bedwetting, clinginess, fear of being left alone
over and over repetitive thoughts
reoccurring visualizations and re-enacting the traumatic event.
George (6): a case study
George witnessed the death of his older brother Tyrone. The whole family was eating at a fast-food restaurant when someone from Tyrones school approached him and called him a name. They started yelling at each other and the manager told them to go outside.
Mom, Dad, and George could see them through the window. They began pushing each other and the other guy pulled out a knife and stabbed Tyrone. The rest of the family witnessed the murder, including George.
This sudden and traumatic death terrified George. He began showing signs of traumatic grief. George was hypervigilant as he incessantly looked out the window petrified something bad was going to happen. He had difficulty going to bed and when he did fall asleep, he would often wake up crying and sweating and calling for his mom. Every time he passed by that restaurant he would burst into tears: Mommy, Mommy, I am so scared someone will die here like Tyrone did.
Why am I always so scared?
You witnessed a very scary thing when you saw your brother killed. It is hard to get it out of your mind and common for children to think about what happened a lot. But we are going to work together to help you not feel so scared.
Its so hard when a bad thing happens. You might feel life will never be the same again and dont know how to stop all of the sad, bad, and very big feelings you have.
You need to remember that the frightening thing that happened to Tyrone happened in the past, many weeks ago. It is not happening now. The person that killed Tyrone is in jail. He cant hurt anyone now. I will remind you when you get scared to check what is really happening now.
If my mom is late, is she at the restaurant where Tyrone got murdered?
George, I know you worry all the time about Mom and Dad. If Mom is a few minutes late to pick you up from school you often cry and begin to call her name. Your teacher told me you ran out of school to look for her. Thats called getting panicked something bad is happening. Its not. You are remembering the past and thinking it is happening now. The bad guy isnt at the restaurant and your mom could just be stuck in traffic.
But I think the bad guy is at the restaurant with Mom.
Why dont you get her mobile phone number and call her if shes late? Then Mom can tell you right then and there she is safe and not at the restaurant. I know she will be glad you called to check, so that she can reassure you she is all right.
Every time I realize Mom isnt at the restaurant, I feel better. But I still stay up at night and cant stop the bad thoughts. How could this have happened to me? What should I do?
You and your family are all in shock. You witnessed the killing together and it is hard for everyone in your family to sleep. Staying up and guarding the front door so that nothing bad happens is something children do when they have gone through a very hard experience.
Will these bad and sad feelings and thoughts ever stop coming?
The answer is yes. You have experienced a difficult thing and you are trying your best to get through it. You will. It might help you to know that the signs of trauma that you are showing are common. Staying up all night, having nightmares or stomachaches, thinking over and over thoughts, picturing the killing, and even bedwetting often happens.
I hit a boy on the playground, because I knew he was going to hit me. 1 hit him before he could. Do other children feel like that after something bad happens?
Yes, George, it is all too common. It must be hard for you because you never hit children before Tyrones death. The way you act has changed because you get afraid and think someone will hurt you or your family the way Tyrone got hurt. Remember, the boy on the playground isnt the bad guy. It is not happening now.
I get angry a lot. I feel like punching someone.
I dont blame you. I cant imagine how mad I would be if someone killed a person I love. But we cant hurt other people. There are safe ways to let go of your anger. You could punch a pillow, shout in the shower, take karate, or hit a punching bag. It might make you feel better.
Sometimes it helps to re-enact what happened to Tyrone and what you saw. It is something children might do. You could take toy figures, puppets, or play animals to show me what happened. I would like to hear about it. You could draw it on paper too.