Talking to children about tragedy and disaster

After the tornado in Moore, OK. Photo by Sue Ogrocki via

Talking with children about tragedy, especially if there is death and destruction, is a moment fraught with both possibility and danger. What follows is counsel from Hollye Jacobs (a mother, breast cancer survivor, nurse, and social worker) on her blog “The Silver Pen.” Hollye writes,

Begin-quotex7152In the aftermath of the Oklahoma tornado tragedy if you’re wondering how to talk to children about tragedy and natural disasters, you’re not alone. It’s totally normal to be bamboozled by such catastrophe. The key, however, is including children in the dialogue.

Many of you already know how important it is to me that adults talk with children and keep lines of communication open. Silence is NOT golden especially when television and other media are depicting graphic scenes of devastation. Children are being exposed to stories and photos of dislocated families, destroyed homes and a rising death toll. UGH. We MUST talk with children about natural disasters.

The thing of it is: when children are left alone with information, they have the capacity to imagine far worse than reality (even when reality is awful!). For example, young children often confuse facts with fantasy and may not realize that the same images are shown over and over again on television. Rather they may think that the disasters are happening over and over again. Yup. How awful is that?

Read the entire post: How to talk to children about tragedy and disaster

Hollye then goes on to detail 10 ‘simple’ concepts to put into action if you are called upon, or if you volunteer, to speak to a child or children about the tornado. She offers sound advice, good counsel, and counsel filled with hope. In her post she expands upon an earlier summary of how to speak with children after a disaster.

Infographic: Helping children cope with a natural disaster by Hollye Jacobs

More from Hollye Jacobs on speaking with children

  • Helping children cope with a natural disaster } a precursor to the post cited here about Oklahoma
  • Discussing cancer with children | addresses the broader topic of talking with children, especially Preschool children, in the context of Hollye and her husband talking to their daughter about Hollye’s breast cancer
  • The Silver Pen. Hollye’s website (which includes her blog posts). In her own words, ” The Silver Pen began as a way for me to document the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and oftentimes hilarious journey through, with, over and around breast cancer. One year later I’m still in recovery but now on a journey to find Silver Linings in all aspects of life.”

Image source. “A woman carries her child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma on Monday, May 20, 2013.”


Ways to help children understand death

I have often been asked by parishioners for advice in helping their children or grandchildren understand death. My responses have been as varied as the people asking questions, the age of the children involved, the circumstances of death, the role of faith in the lives of the children, and so on. Today I found a blog that deals sensitively with a very sensitive matter–how to help a child understand (and cope with) death.

Judith Johnson, author and speaker, provides a brief introduction to her “12 ways to help children understand death” photo essay.

One piece of fallout from our taboo against talking about death is that we don’t effectively prepare our children to deal with death. They are much more aware of death than we realize and need our support in developing a healthy understanding.

While age determines to some extent how a child will respond to the death of a loved one, each child has a unique journey of learning about death. Apply the guidelines listed below with sensitivity to the child’s individual level of development, environment, ethnic, religious and cultural background and their exposure or lack thereof to the reality of death. Regardless of religious beliefs, death is about loss and children need our help to accept loss and to grieve.

I found her succinct notes to be helpful as a starting point if you are a parent or grandparent. I agree that, especially as men and women of faith, we have a responsibility to our children so that they can develop a “healthy understanding” of death and how to move forward after a death of a loved one, even a pet.

Be aware of your own needs and questions. Let your faith be expressed. Be sensitive to the child. Be age appropriate in your comments. Let your love shine through what you say and do.

For further reading and reflection

  • Childhood loss: The untold burden — an essay written by Lynne Hughes whose mother died when she was 9 and whose father died when she was 12. She states that “New national research we conducted shows that one out of seven kids will lose a parent or sibling before the age of 20.” Her essay invites careful consideration of our responses to this as we take responsibility for helping our children grieve.
  • Hello grief — a website for adults and children to “share and learn about grief and loss”
  • Comfort Zone Camp: A fun & safe place for grieving children — the website for a camp and organization founded by Lynne Hughes to begin to meet the needs of children who are grieving
  • Children’s grieving — a CBS Sunday Morning piece featuring Katie Couric (who has had to help her two children deal with the death of their father in 1998)