Parents should be open with their children when discussing the tragedy that took place in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.
That’s the advice of Betty Ann McPherson, a Sudbury-based counsellor who specializes in helping people cope with traumatic loss. She said it’s vital not to make the tragedy the centre of attention in the home.
“My advice to parents is to try to minimize their contact with the TV,” McPherson said. “Let them watch TV, but don’t make it the centre of attention. Sometimes when children see something over and over again, it can become traumatizing.”
Parents should raise the issue with their kids and ensure they know that, while something horrible has happened, they are just as safe and secure today as they were before the tragedy happened.
“Be really honest with children — they’re going to have questions like, why? And that’s the unanswerable question,” she said. “We just can’t understand it. There are some things that happen in life that are unpredictable.”
On Friday, a gunman believed to be in his 20s walked into an elementary school and, using a .223-calibre rifle, shot dead a schoolteacher and 20 students between the ages of five and 10.
The gunman also killed five other staff members before killing himself. Another adult was found dead near the shooting, and as of late afternoon Friday, police believed it was connected to the other killings.
McPherson said it’s important that kids under age 10 – who don’t understand the permanence of death – aren’t overexposed to coverage of the tragedy.
“Sometimes younger children will see it on TV and just go on with life and not really be affected greatly by it, as long as they’re not bombarded with images from it, and it doesn’t dominate talk,” she said.
“I think it’s really important that parents highlight the fact that this isn’t the only thing going on in the world right now, that there are a lot of good things happening.”
Older kids who understand the gravity of what happened need to be reassured that they are not in danger.
“Kids can feel a loss of hope, they may develop fears of strangers or going to school,” McPherson said. “It’s really important for kids to understand that they are safe with their families, that their families love them.
“Tell them that this happened quite a far distance away, and that their school is safe.”
It’s one of those things in life that no one can really understand why it happened, she said. That’s something that kids can accept, as long as they are able to keep it in perspective.
“It’s one of those cases where we just have to say that bad things happen sometimes, and we don’t have any control over them,” she said. “All we can do is try and make the world a really safe place where we are, right now, in our family.”
What parents don’t want is to have their kids digesting a steady stream of bad news from the news channels. If kids come home from school and haven’t heard about what happened, parents should tell them.
“It’s important that parents answer the questions, as opposed to turning on CNN,” she said. “I think parents should be proactive and talk about it. Say that something really horrible happened today, and you’re going to hear a lot about it.
“And then take them out skating or go to the movies. But get them out of the house. This should not be the focus all weekend.”
Tragedies such as the one in Connecticut have an impact on adults as well, McPherson said, and it’s import for everyone who’s affected by what happened to be able to take part in a collective grieving process.
In a globalized world, she said this is just the latest of a series of tragedies that reverberate around the world.
“As soon I heard about this, all I could think about was Columbine,” McPherson said. “So every time that a tragedy like this happens, you can’t help but reflect back on all the other tragedies.”
She said the “layered impact” of these tragedies on people can make people feel unsafe. So the opportunity to send the victims’ families condolences – or even just remembering them by lighting a candle in your home – can help with feelings of powerlessness.
“Maybe, with their children, families could light a candle in honour of the people who have lost their lives,” she said. “I think it empowers people a little more. I think it makes people a little more hopeful when they can grieve for people as a community. Then you can see the incredible kindness of people in light of something so incredibly awful that has happened.
“This person did something that is absolutely horrible. But there are so many more people doing amazing things. And that includes the people writing letters of condolences, or lighting candles in honour of these people. It empowers them to feel that there is a lot of goodness in the world and you can have control over this little part of your life.”
It’s important both for the global community to know that they can help the victims’ families, and for those families to know that others care and sympathize with what they are going through.
“The worst fear, as a parent who loses a child, particularly in a horrible, horrible instance like this, is that their child will be forgotten,” she said. “And we can let them know that they will never be forgotten.”
She compared it to the Montreal Massacre in 1989, where female engineering students at École Polytechnique were murdered. The victims of that tragedy are remembered at ceremonies every Dec. 6.
“It’s been years, but people still remember their names.”