After a Tragedy: What Kids Can Do

By Helen Fitzgerald, CT

After a terrible tragedy, many people experience an intense emotional reaction that may not show up for weeks or even months afterwards. Mental health clinicians call this reaction Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If you have suffered a traumatic loss, you may feel numb right afterwards. But later, many confusing and debilitating feelings may come up and you may not link it to the tragic event. Even if you were not on the scene of the tragedy, you may still be traumatized. You may be terrified it could happen again. You may not be able to sleep by yourself and need lights on to chase away the darkness.

If you are experiencing some of the following symptoms, tell your parents and/or school counselor and get help immediately:

• Recurring nightmares of the event.
• Flashbacks and hallucinations.
• Intense anxiety whenever you hear of a similar event.
• Avoidance of any feelings or thoughts concerning the tragedy.
• Avoidance of any activities or situations that would remind you of the tragedy.
• Preoccupation with the tragedy many months after it occurred.
• Lack of recall; blank spots in your memory.
• A significant decrease in your interest in normal activities either at home or at school.
• Depression combined with increased feelings of sadness, loneliness and hopelessness.
• Detachment and withdrawal from your friends and family.
• Feelings of "survivor guilt." Feeling you should have died or perhaps taking chances and doing some self-destructive or self-defeating behavior.
• Inability to experience emotions, to feel happy or to love someone.
• Avoidance of close relationships out of fear that you will be left alone again.
• Being overwhelmed with emotions -- tense, angry, scared and out of control.
• Feeling like you have no future, are unable to date, to marry or have a career.
• Problems with increased use of alcohol or drugs.
• New problems not previously experienced in falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much.
• Irritability or outbursts of anger directed at your family, friends, or teachers.
• Difficulty in concentrating on things you usually enjoy such as reading and listening to music.
• Easily startled, jumping at any unusual or loud noise.
• Physical symptoms such as cold sweat, rapid heartbeat, or shortness of breath whenever you are reminded of the tragedy.
• Recurring recollections of the death/trauma that are disrupting your home, school or leisure time.

Keep a journal and record and date your symptoms. You can use it to document your most private feelings and also to track how you are feeling over time. If you feel any of the above symptoms right away, it is a normal part of your grief. But if they persist, do get some guidance. It is of utmost importance to find people you can talk to. Talking about how you feel may help you feel better. Talk about what you saw, what you heard, what you smelled and what you feared. Don't hide your feelings or they may come back at a later time to haunt you.

Here are some other things you can do to help yourself:

• Talk about the event as much as you are able to and urge your friends to do the same. Ask a counselor to set up informal talk groups. Every time you go over the event, it loses some power and the hold it has on you.
• Have patience with yourself; the healing may take a long time.
• Learn to meditate, lose yourself in some music, take walks, visit a peaceful place such as a park, church or library.
• Take care of your physical needs. Eat healthy foods, keep up with your exercise program and get enough rest.
• Stay involved with your family, friends and school. Keep up a regular schedule and stick to old routines, as best as you can.
• Have patience with your parents; they are not going to let you out of their sight. Time will help them relax their need to control.

The After a Tragedy: What Kids Can Do article was originally published on the American Hospice Foundation website. © 2003. American Hospice Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Related articles:
Writing a Condolence Note to a Grieving Child or Adolescent
How Can We Respond to the Grief of Children?
Family Reorganization After a Loss

Also by Helen Fitzgerald:
Helping Your Bereaved Friend
Helping Children Through Grief
You Know You’re Getting Better When...
Writing a Condolence Note

Helen Fitzgerald is a Certified Thanatologist, author and lecturer. Her books include The Grieving Child: A Parents' Guide, The Mourning Handbook and The Grieving Teen. She has appeared on the CBS Morning Show and the NBC Today Show and was previously the director of training for the American Hospice Foundation.

Photo by nazreth/StockXchng


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Comment by Dignity Memorial NC on July 8, 2010 at 8:41am
Thanks for this very thoughtful post. Helping children understand grief and loss can be one of the most challenging things that comes with the loss of a loved one. One of our funeral homes recently posted on our blog tips for talking to children about death, for anyone who is interested. It's so important to help them not only understand, but to also deal with their emotions and come to terms with their feelings.
Comment by Andria on September 11, 2009 at 8:57pm
thank you. this helps me alot. my grandfather just passed away on the sixth of september. its very hard for me. i broke down and cried. just remembering all the great times. i know its wonderful to talk about the situation. its like, i dont even want to go outside. i dont want to do my homework anymore. i just want to sit and think. is this right or wrong?

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