Q: My youngest daughter is friends with two girls whose mother has been reported missing. The circumstances don’t look very hopeful. I have a background in helping children cope with grief and loss (and teaching others who are helping children cope), but other than advising them to stay away from social media, newspapers, and internet (which may not be realistic), I don’t know what else to suggest to the father of these girls. With the media being so pervasive and kids being online and on cell phones, short of a total unplugging, I am stumped. Sadly, the girls’ classmates have been listening to the news and stating to her face, “Your mom might be dead.” So you can’t even keep other children from saying things that make the situation worse.
–Uncertain How to Help, in CA
A: Dear Uncertain,
This situation sounds frightening and painful for these girls and their father. In addition to the fear, grief, and confusion that they must feel, there is also uncertainty about what has happened and what may happen, and those feelings are only exacerbated by sensationalized media coverage. Here are a few ideas of how to offer support to these girls and their father, or to anyone seeking to relate to tragedy in the news:
First, recommend therapy to help find ways to cope. Whether through talk, play, or art, therapy can help children and adults process uncertainty and tragedy, both individually and as a family. The girls need to be heard more than they need adults to talk at them, so help their father find a place where they can make space for their feelings and work them through.
Turn off the news. In this type of crisis situation, news reporting is often skewed, highlighting the scariest and most dramatic parts of the story. Encourage the father and the girls to unplug from the news and listen only to what facts are being told to them by the authorities. Advise the dad to keep talking about the situation with his girls, and to regularly check in with them about how they are feeling. He is their only parent in this situation and will need to step into the role their mother filled, at least in the short term.
Identify a safe place or person for the girls to go to when they feel upset, especially when other kids say things that upset them. Second-hand recountings of the news by other children can be just as harmful as seeing the news themselves. If the school hasn’t already created a plan for managing this situation, both for the two girls directly affected and for their classmates, call them and recommend that they talk with the girls’ friends and classmates, sensitizing them and eliciting their empathy. Depending on the age of the children and how much they understand of what they see in the news, comments like “Your mom might be dead” may be coming from a place of great vulnerability, as they imagine losing their own mothers. Especially for older children, one strategy might be to use that emotion to connect with, support, and share their classmates’ pain, similar to how they might pull together if a classmate got leukemia. Teachers, coaches, administrators and any adult with whom they interact need to be aware of their situation and prepared to address their fears and trauma. These resources may also be of help:
Finally, recommend an activity that can help them work through their feelings, get away from screens and gossip, and find a safe place: Suggest that dad, or anyone whom they know and trust, take them for a walk in the natural world and let them know he loves them. Nature calms and heals. Let nature, as well as those who love them, connect with and embrace them.
Peace, health, and freedom from fear to you and your loved ones,