This is the first of two posts in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting. You can also read the second post on teaching about appropriate and fallacious arguments and the Second Amendment.
In the wake of another all-too-common American tragedy, we, along with our students and children, search for answers. This is meant to be a guide on speaking to children who are not directly affected by the loss. As for speaking to siblings, spouses, parents, or children who directly lost a loved one…I really have no good answers. My mother is a certified grief therapist, I’ve read the literature, and I have dealt with students who lost a parent violently, but I still don’t think there are good answers. They’ll be angry, sad, confused, and so much more. Allow them to feel it and grieve in whatever way they need and just be there with open arms. Be constantly available and consistently caring and know the stages of grief don’t ever include in “getting over it” or “being okay” but only acceptance of what has happened. There is no being “over it” especially after so violent a loss. Hopefully, for adults trying to have the still difficult conversations about loss with all other children, I can provide some help or, at least, guide you to some good questions to be asking.
Let’s begin with the premise that I have always been against hiding important ideas from children because they’re not ready for it. That doesn’t mean I’m sitting down a toddler to watch Schindler’s List or having an intricately detailed discussion of sex with my 7-year-old son. I do, however, believe in answering children’s questions openly and honestly in an age-appropriate manner. Teaching in New York City this may take the form of frank discussions and activities as we remember September 11th or discussing personal health and puberty issues with older students (you’d be surprised at the lack of knowledge and fallacious ideas even ‘experienced city kids’ have). The first time I recall having one of these serious discussions about a tragedy was with my oldest son after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (an event that some idiots, like with the current tragedy, now deny even happened or claim it was an unsuccessful government gun-grabbing effort).
My son was in kindergarten at the time and I wavered on whether I should say anything as I was welling with sorrow and confusion myself. I’m a teacher. What choices would I make in that situation? Should I prepare my son for a similar experience or would we now do something to prevent this in the future? Was it right to burden him? Should I let him continue to dwell in blissful unknowing? Kids are more perceptive though than we often give them credit for, and my son was aware. We sat for a moment with the tv off after he had come in and seen me watching the news. I started with the simple easy-to-understand premise that a lot of young students and teachers were killed by a man that day. It’s very sad and scary, and I don’t know a lot about it but I would answer any questions he had.
These 6 keys to talking to children about tragedies are:
- Be honest and open. They’ll know if you’re hiding something and then you’ll just have to deal with trust issues.
- Keep it simple. Don’t over complicate with larger political or philosophical discussions even for older students/children who are capable of a greater understanding. You can address those later but start simply with the loss.
- Don’t be graphic with details. We sometimes stare at the screen looking for detailed answers to the whys. Kids don’t need all of that, and I could argue neither do we. Are there good answers as to the why? They’re never completely satisfying. Knowing the types of weapons, victims, or building layout won’t alter a child’s feelings, so don’t get into it unless they ask and then keep it simple.
- Let them ask questions. They may wonder about a number of things. You don’t have to have all the answers. It can be good for them to see you unsure and questioning. Make them sure of the things they need to be. Let them know you’re you’re there, available, and caring for them.
- Don’t shy away from the uncomfortable. Be ready for difficult questions and remain open in the face of them.
- Allow yourself to feel and let your child see it. Yes, you do need to try to be strong and remain a functional adult, but that doesn’t mean you can’t mourn and cry and express your frustration. Just make sure they know that your feelings of care for them remain in the midst of all others.
So first my son asked me why. At the time I said I wasn’t entirely sure, but that it seemed the man was angry about life and depressed and wanted to die. Maybe he was so angry at the world though that he wanted to strike out and hurt it the way he felt it had hurt him. So he caused the most pain he could by killing the most innocent and hopeful before he killed himself. I naively said, maybe we can learn about why and how so we can stop this from happening again. I wasn’t yet fully aware how rusted-shut the heart of our government was.
Gladly he didn’t ask me if he should be worried because it would have probably broken me. I told him he didn’t need to worry about his school even though I probably was despite it being statistically rare (though not nearly rare enough for any parent who has suffered loss). My students at the time were mostly non-verbal students with disabilities who couldn’t comprehend the experience, so a discussion wasn’t required then. Since then though I have had a number of conversations about the tragic and joyous events of the world with students and my son. It doesn’t necessarily get easier, but over time you learn the words better. I wish that learning wasn’t necessary.
The death of a beloved is an amputation.
—C. S. Lewis