Helping children impacted by homicide
Losing a loved one to homicide can be devastating. Trying to make sense of the event and the aftermath is often overwhelming. This is especially true when there are surviving children who no longer have an available parent.
Homicide has a lasting impact on children. After a violent death, kids experience a wide range of emotions. They may feel afraid because a world that once felt safe is suddenly dangerous. They may feel sad because they really miss someone they love. They may feel worried about the other people they love – fearing that a bad thing might happen to them.
As parents, caregivers, teachers, family friends or someone involved in the life of a child who has experienced a trauma, it can be hard to know how to provide help. Whether it happened five days or five years ago, it is important to know that there is help available.
Here are some answers to basic questions that adults have about supporting children who have lost a loved one to homicide or other violent death. For more in-depth information online regarding child trauma, visit the Child Trauma Academy. For more details about supporting grieving children, visit The Dougy Center.
What can I do to help?
1. Be honest, open and clear.
Give children the facts regarding the death. While there is no need to describe every graphic detail, the important details should be given. The details may be horrifying, and you may want to protect the child from the information, but it is vital to give factual information. The imagination of the child will “fill in” the blanks with details from the child’s own imagination if the details are not given. Too often these imagined details are distorted, inaccurate and more horrifying than the actual details.
If you do not give the facts, it can interfere with the child’s long-term healing process and even undermine your credibility with the child. Remember that with the advent of the internet, very specific details of a crime can be available online. It is much better for a child to get the facts from someone who loves them rather than hearing the facts on the playground.
2. Do not avoid the topic when the child brings it up.
Like other kinds of traumatic situations, the adults around the child need to be available when the child wants to talk, but should avoid probing when the child does not want to talk. This may mean answering one hard question such as “Does it hurt when you burn to death?” Or it may mean answering a lot of small questions, “Was Mommy going to stop at the grocery store on her way home before her car got hit? Didn’t Mommy always get me special treats at the store?” Answer the questions the child asks. The child may just want a reminder of their mother’s love and an answer of “Yes, Mommy bought you special treats at the store. Mommy loved you very much” will be very comforting.
Don’t be surprised if the child returns to play or starts to act disinterested while you are answering the questions. It may be that the child has all the information he or she can handle at that time. The child will return to the topic when he or she is ready.
Children sense when topics are emotionally difficult for the adults around them. Often, children try to please caregivers – either avoiding emotional topics or following up on topics that caregivers enjoy. Be aware of your own sense of discomfort and be open with the child about it – but do not lean on the child for support. It can be reassuring to children to know that they are not alone in dealing with grief and other feelings. It is overwhelming to children to feel that they have to regularly comfort and encourage the adults they rely on for support.
3. Be prepared to discuss the same details again and again.
Children may ask the same questions over and over again. You should answer honestly, openly and clearly again and again. The child isn’t testing you or trying to push your buttons. The child did hear you the first time, but needs to hear you a second time, a third time and perhaps many more times. The child is trying to process a traumatic event, and your calm, honest answers are helping the child get through a very difficult time.
4. Be available, nurturing, reassuring and predictable.
Do your best to be available, loving, supportive and predictable. The loss of a parent, sibling or other loved ones can be extremely traumatic. As the child grows, he or she may continue to re-experience or question the traumatic event at each developmental stage.
In some ways, the child faces a lifelong journey of interpreting and re-interpreting the trauma as they pass through developmental stages. At five years old, the child may accept that the emergency responders could not get there “in time” to save the loved one. At 12, the child may want to know how many minutes it took for the emergency responders to get there. The child is not interrogating you by asking new questions about how long things took. Rather, at 12, the child has a more developed understanding of time, and may bring that new understanding to questions about the traumatic event. Being available and open to the child will make the child’s journey easier.
5. Take advantage of community resources and supports.
There are many well-trained professionals in your community who can be a support to the child, or to the adults in the child’s life. Take advantage of them.
At Kids Matter, our trauma specialist is available to help. We have materials on-hand to support grieving children, written for children. There are many local therapists and resource centers.