The Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, located in a low-rise suburb of San Antonio, has support groups for kids, adolescents and young adults most nights of the month, each addressing a different topic. Chronic illness. Murder. Suicide. Loss of a sibling. Loss of a parent. There are even “little people” versions of these groups, for children ages 3 to 5.
In support groups, as well as the individual and family counseling sessions, the staff helps kids find ways to express their emotions. For some, it will be in the playroom, using a stuffed animal and a dollhouse. For others, it will be in the art studio, where colors are assigned to emotions. Most of the kids choose blue for sadness.
Who knew we would ever need a children’s support group for “elementary school shootings”? But in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, CT, where 20 first grade students and 6 staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary were gunned down, this is our new normal. When you consider the ripple effect from just one of the lost children—their little classmates, friends, siblings, cousins, and neighbors—the number of young minds trying to make sense of this horror is considerable.
Compounding the issue is that Newtown is a national tragedy. It has turned America, from sea to shining sea, into one big support group for kids. So understanding how a child copes with tragedy, and our role in their recovery, is imperative.
Age plays a big role in how kids process loss. For a preschooler, death is viewed as a “magical,” if not reversible, condition. For a kid approximately the age of the Sandy Hook victims, death is sometimes seen as an actual being, a “boogeyman” of sorts.
“Adults have the capacity to see future events. So for an adult, it’s, ‘There is a future. Things can get better,” explains Michelle Palmer, a licensed professional counselor and play therapist at the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas. “But young kids don’t have the capacity to see future events—it’s all about here and now. They’re also egocentric. It’s all about them. So when they’re grieving something like [the Newtown tragedy], the thinking is, “Am I next? Is this going to happen again tomorrow?”
When feelings like this aren’t addressed or go unnoticed, “that’s when you get the stomachaches and headaches, or it manifests in behavior. Separation anxiety begins. Kids don’t have the tools to work through it verbally,” explains Palmer. She recommends letting your child talk or not talk as needed, answer questions honestly and concretely, and respect their “need to know.” Having information gives them some sense of control.
Creative outlets—art, journaling, play—are ways for kids process their feelings. “Let them explore the options and find the one that they feel most comfortable with,” says Palmer. At the Children’s Bereavement Center, one of their signature creative therapies is the Spin Art Grief Circle. The child assigns a color to each emotion, and adds the colors they’re feeling in representative amounts (a lot of blue, a little red). The paint goes onto a spinning canvas, resulting in a splattered, abstract pattern.
“The artwork turns their grief into something they want to keep,” says Palmer. “It teaches that it’s not about ‘getting over it.’ It’s about being empowered to take over your emotions. They cannot control the loss of their loved one, but they can control their emotions and what to do with them.”
Patrick Ireland is a member of a tragically elite club who can attest to exactly what lies ahead for the Sandy Hook survivors. A junior at Columbine on the day of the 1999 shooting by fellow students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold that killed 13 people, he still has a bullet in his brain and suffers the effects of his injuries. Today, he's a 31-year-old financial professional, married with a two-year-old daughter.
"Now that I'm a father, it has added another level to how serious [the Newtown tragedy] really is," Ireland told the Denver Post.
He stressed that recovery is a daily battle, though. "The thing I always come back to is that as you live your life on a daily basis, you can either be a victim or a victor," says Ireland. "That's a personal choice you can make."
Russell Jones, Ph.D., teaches psychology at Virginia Tech University, and has extensive experience working with traumatized youth, from fire victims to survivors of Hurricane Katrina. He has also worked up close with those affected by school shootings. On April 16, 2007, a heavily armed student killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, VA. Jones was there, counseling grief-stricken students around the clock.
“There is a science to recovery,” says Jones. “We know that if you know someone impacted by a traumatic event like what happened at Virginia Tech or Newtown, it increases the likelihood of things like post traumatic stress disorder and phobias.” He pauses. “But we also know that social support—family support—is critical in lessening the trauma.”
At home, parents must chart the course. “Moms and dads must preserve a sense of safety, calm and comfort," Jones says. "They must let the kids know they are there to answer any questions. And parents must be strong, because children will model themselves after you. That doesn’t mean parents can’t cry. Parents can cry. Their children can see them cry. But let the children know, ‘I’m going to get through it, and so will you.’”
The digital age may spread tragedy faster, but it does nothing to speed up the human recovery. Amidst the makeshift memorials still being built, and the funeral processions still passing by, one bittersweet truth holds fast.
“Death humbles you to life,” says Palmer, “and makes you realize how precious it is.”