Jack (9): a case study
Jacks mom died in a car crash. She was driving too fast and hit a bus head-on. Mom had just dropped Jack off at school and was rushing to an appointment. She never saw the bus coming. Jack, like many kids impacted by traumatic grief, experienced over and over visualizations about the accident. He had repetitive thoughts too: Why didnt I take the bus that day? Mom would still be alive.
Time went by and Dad began to go out with someone. Her name was Ann, the same as Jacks mom. It made him angry when Dad was with Ann. He missed Dad and he told a friend, Im afraid I will lose my dad too. This fear grew when Dad said he was taking Ann on a weekend camping trip in the mountains. Jack stormed out of the house, slammed the door, and screamed, I wont let you! When Jack calmed down, he went back in the house. Dad asked why he was so upset. Im afraid something will happen to you in the car, like Mom. Dont go. Dad suggested they brainstorm ways Dad could help Jack feel he would be safe. They made a plan.
I dont want my dad to go camping. I am afraid he will get killed too. What can we do to help me feel he will he safe?
Jack, your moms death was so sudden it can be hard to think the world is safe. If your mom can get killed in a car crash, it makes you worry other people you love can get killed that way too. That is scary.
You asked a good question and I know we can think of some ideas to help you feel safe. Because you are very concerned about car safety, you could ask Dad to have the brakes checked, and the tires, and promise to wear seat belts and use air bags. Do you think that will help?
I like that idea. I want them to take the van. It is the safest. But will they call me?
We can ask Dad to call, and you and Dad can choose a good time. You can be sure to have Dads mobile phone number in case you need to reach him, and Aunt Janes or Grandmas number in case you want to talk to someone close by. We can make a schedule of Dads trip and you can mark off the days as they go by. You could even keep Dads picture by your bed and remind yourself he is OK. Lets make a list of all the ideas and give them to Dad. If he agrees, you both can sign it.
Dad and Jacks list
1. Dad drives a car with air bags.
2. Dad and Ann promise to wear their seat belts.
3. Dad will call at 7 p.m. every day.
4. Jack can have Dads mobile phone number in case he needs to call.
5. Dad gives Jack Grandmas phone number and Aunt Janes too.
6. Dad gives Jack a schedule of the trip.
7. Dad brings Jack a surprise.
Dad said OK to everything and was happy to do it. We even added that Dad would bring me back a surprise. I feel better now. But I still get scared something bad will happen again.
Jack, when your mom died suddenly in a car crash you experienced a trauma. A trauma is a sudden and very difficult thing that happens which is shocking. You, like so many children who go through trauma, feel bad things will never stop happening and your world will never be the same. But in time that feeling will get less.
I want to help you feel as safe and comfortable as I can. I want to help you feel you still have choices in life and can do things to help yourself feel stronger and less afraid. Why dont you try and use visualizations? This is when you imagine a happy place, using all of your five senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. Decide if you would like to keep your eyes open or closed. You could visualize a beach, feeling the sand on your feet and the warm sun overhead or a peaceful forest with birds chirping and a rainbow bridge to walk across with Mom.
Or you could try drawing peaceful pictures. Draw something that makes you feel calm. It could be sky with birds or a lake with blue water. You can keep the picture in your room and look at it when you feel afraid.
I think 1 will draw green trees with beautiful birds of every color flying in the breeze or perched on a branch. I think I will feel happy when I look at that picture. What else can I do?
One thing you can do to feel safe is to create an emergency plan. You can decide where everyone would meet in case of a traumatic event, and make a list of important phone numbers to have. You could even design an emergency kit for home, and think about what would be helpful to put in there.
You could also try making a safe box. Cover a box with your favorite color and decorate it with stickers, words, and pictures. Then you can put in favorite pictures of Mom, a comforting toy, a special card from Mom, or a list of your top five things you loved about her. You can put anything meaningful inside. It could be the prayer you and Mom would say at night or her lucky penny. The safe box might fit in your backpack or under your bed.
Comfort food is nice too. Sometimes a fun snack or a great meal can make you feel cozy inside. I call that comfort food. Comfort food can be vegetable soup, mashed potatoes and meatloaf, with apple pie for dessert. We can make a menu for a comfort food dinner and ask your aunt if she would make it.
I want roast beef, baked potatoes, and cherry pie. It makes everything seem normal again to think about having that dinner with everyone. Mom used to make that for all of us and it was delicious!
Children experiencing traumatic grief often feel frightened. This fear can override grief and stop their grief process. Providing safety for children is essential. Sometimes it takes time and distance. We can give them activities that help create the feelings of a protected atmosphere - like safe boxes, emergency plans, peaceful pictures, visualizations, and comfort food. As children realize their overwhelming thoughts and fears wont last forever, they can begin to explore their grief process. This process can be unpredictable and sometimes messy - as there is no correct order or timing for a childs grief.