Coping with catastrophic loss

Your Child and Teen
Coping with catastrophic loss

I can clearly remember the Sunday morning during my junior year of high school when I received a phone call that there had been a car accident overnight: three of the boys in the car had passed away, one had critical injuries and the other was safe with only scratches. The experience was surreal and numbing yet excruciating for the families affected, the school community and me. For the weeks and months following the accident, students and the community slowly began to heal through grief counseling at the school, memorial services and support and caring from one another.

What do we say to our kids when bad things happen? How do we tell them that everything will be okay or that there was a reason for it when we ourselves feel confused and scared?

When sudden loss or negative events occur within our families, communities and schools, there seem to be few words to say to comfort or console those affected by it.  As parents/teachers, our initial instinct is to try and solve the problem or make the sadness disappear. When sudden loss occurs, the most important and helpful thing you can do is communicate your support to those in need and provide a safe and non-judgmental space for healing.

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Know your own emotions. Emotional competence is being aware of your own emotions, triggers and feelings regarding a situation and having the skills to manage and express those emotions in a healthy manner.
  • Share your own feelings with your teen, letting him know that it is okay to feel upset. To “stay strong” or “be brave” like many people say after sudden loss implies that it is not okay for that person to feel or share their negative emotions.
  • Demonstrate healthy coping skills to your teen by talking or writing it out, sharing your experience with others, or finding other ways of coping with the tragedy.
  • Provide your child a safe space for talking out her feelings and remembering or celebrating those who have been lost without placing assumptions on how she should be thinking or feeling.
  • Acknowledge that there are many stages of grief and each person’s experience is different than another’s.

When sudden or unexpected loss occurs within a school community, most schools offer grief counseling and support to the students and faculty. Signs that your teen might need additional support might include depressed or irritable mood, lack of motivation or interest in activities, poor appetite and sleep, deterioration in academic, social or recreational functioning and an increase in risk-taking behaviors such as drug use, self-harming behaviors or running away. If you have concerns regarding your child’s emotional well-being, you or your child can seek guidance from the school or a professional within the community.