Coping with the Aftermath of a Tragedy

Coping with the Aftermath of a Tragedy

On Saturday, January 8, 2011, our nation suffered devastation with the shootings that occurred in Tuscon, Arizona.  Jared Loughner killed 6 and injured 14 others at a gathering for constituents of Representative Gabrielle Giffords.  Rep. Giffords was severely wounded by a bullet that passed through her brain.  She is currently in intensive care, has been responsive, but has an unknown future.  Christina Green, a 9 year old girl was among those killed.

Yesterday, there were many moments of silence observed … at the White House South Lawn, the U.S. Capitol steps, the Supreme Court, and at the BCS national championship to mention a few.

How can we make sense of this?  How can we make sense of this to our children when we don’t understand it fully ourselves?  There are several guidelines as to how you can best help your child, regardless of age, cope with the aftermath of a tragedy. 

First, you may want to consider supervising or limiting what your children see on TV regarding this and other traumatic events.  Your actions will depend on the age of your child, the level of understanding, and maturity of your child.
Second, and most important of all, communicate with your child at a level appropriate to his/her age.  If you decide to watch the news coverage with your child, discuss developments with them. Give your child the chance to ask you questions.


Next, be prepared to discuss their emotions.  Ask them what they think and/or feel.  Allow them to express fear, confusion, etc.  Let them know that a variety of thoughts and emotions are normal.  In addition, sometimes, a tragedy can bring up other thoughts and emotions from an unrelated difficult experience.  Be aware that this can occur, so that you can best handle the other issue as it arises.
Remember to be honest.  It is okay to admit to your child that you don’t understand how such a tragedy could occur.  It is important to know that you might not have all the answers, but that everyone involved in the tragedy is working at getting the answers (investigators, school officials, family, friends, etc.)  You can tell your child that as more answers are available, you can talk about this again.
Be prepared to revisit the tragedy.  Keeping the lines of communication open is also important.  The reality is your child’s awareness may change in the next few days, months, or even years, especially as more information becomes available over time.
Lastly, if possible, end the conversation on a positive note.  There usually are heroes in every tragedy as there are this one.  Point out the 20 year old intern, Daniel Hernandez, who at only five days of being an intern, sprung into action, applied pressure to Rep. Giffords wound, preveting excessive further bleeding.  Point out other four people in the crowd that worked together to stop the gunman from reloading, preventing more death and injuries.  Point out the masses and prayers that are being said for all these people.  Point out the moments of silence throughout the country.  Point out the communities that are uniting to help out the families of those directly injured or otherwise affected by the shootings.  At the risk of sounding corny, that’s a lot of love and goodness in people’s hearts.  Our children need to know that despite the evil in the world, goodness remains.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a free downloadable guide available online regarding coping with the aftermath.  It is called, Tips for Talking to Children and Youth After Traumatic Events: A Guide for Parents and Educators.”  This is an invaluable resource.  I recommend you print it out and use it; it is helpful for any traumatic event.
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About Nancy M. Silva, MD, FAAP

I'm a Board Certified Pediatrician. I've been in practice since 2000. I'm happily married with two children. I graduated Medical School from the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate College of Medicine in Brooklyn, NY. My Pediatric Residency training was at University of South Florida, College of Medicine. I've been in private practice since 2000. As a medical student, I had the privilege to care for children at Kings County Hospital & Downstate Medical Center in urban Brooklyn. As a resident, I cared for children at Tampa General Hospital & All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. These experiences helped shape the Pediatrician I am today.

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