"We do not have to rely on memories to recapture the spirit of those we have loved and lost – they live within our souls in some perfect sanctuary which even death cannot destroy."Nan Witcomb
According to New York Life Foundation research, a parent’s death usually severely impacts a child. 85% of children experience difficulty sleeping, angry outbursts, worry, depression, bed-wetting, and thumb-sucking. Some of these behaviors may fade, but in time other problems, such as lack of confidence and preoccupation with illness, are likely to continue. Research also shows that unresolved childhood grief can lead to higher rates of depression, anxiety, behavioral issues, recurring illness, decreased productivity, substance abuse, and suicide.
The Morgan Ashlye Fox Foundation is committed to assisting families with young children impacted by murder to receive proper age-appropriate support.
A death of a loved one is always difficult. But losing a loved one to murder or manslaughter is exponentially more difficult. Not only is it a sudden and unexpected death, but how the person died is naturally more troubling than an illness or accident. As tempting as it is to shield children and young people from the details of a violent death, the police, and media involvement makes it very likely they will hear the disturbing details. It’s best if they find out from you. Below is some information and guidance on how to support and talk to children about murder and what resources there are to help cope with grief and loss.
When a child or young person has been bereaved by homicide, they must cope with emotions such as fear, anger, vengeance, blame, guilt, and confusion. They may also have to deal with a police investigation, an inquest, a trial, public scrutiny, and intense media interest. This comes all at a time when they are feeling confused and vulnerable. The impact of a murder will, of course, be different on who the victim is and your relationship with them, but it will also be affected by who killed them. It is shattering when a stranger kills a child’s parent or another sibling, but it is doubly so when they are killed by another family member or someone the child knows
You will want to protect your children and let them know they can trust you. If possible, a parent or caregiver is generally the best person to tell their children this difficult information. It also allows you to reassure them that they are safe. If you cannot do this, you need to be with the child when someone else, for example, the police family liaison officer, tells them.
In the case of the child who has witnessed the murder, it is imperative to talk clearly about what happened and acknowledge the truth of what they saw and heard. It is also imperative to reassure the child that the death was not their fault and that there was nothing they could have done to prevent it.
It is vital that children have a clear understanding (as far as their age allows) that the person has died. Even young children need an explanation about what happened to someone who is important to them. The worst has already happened. Nothing you can say can make it any worse.
Very young children are helped by having a simple story that they can use to re-tell and slowly make sense of and accept what has happened. Use words they understand. It’s essential to ask them what they think about what they’ve been told to ensure they have understood. For younger children, information in small chunks may be easier to process.
Young children may not need to know the exact details of how the person was killed when it first happens. You will have opportunities to return to this vital conversation as the child’s understanding develops and they seek more information. Always convey the idea that they can continue to ask questions.
It’s essential to ask the child’s permission to give them more facts. “Now that you’re a little older, I’d like to tell you more about how your Aunt Debby died. You know she was killed by the man who was her boyfriend. Would you like me to tell you what happened that day and how she died?”
Events surrounding homicide often become very confusing. Facts may be changed to become more comfortable to live with or to make them easier to explain. For example, it may be the case that the children were previously unaware of the parent’s activities, which have since become public knowledge. It may seem like the worst possible time to talk about this but giving the child an honest explanation will help them make sense of what they are hearing and what is happening.
“I haven’t told you before, but your dad was using drugs and selling them to other people. That’s why we were arguing a lot, and that’s probably why he was killed.”
Experience shows that there may be stages involved in telling children that someone has died due to violence. These stages may happen anywhere from minutes to months or even years. The pace between the stages is often indicated by the child’s needs and ability to understand. This, in turn, is affected by their developmental understanding. The situation also affects the pace, for example, the possibility of your child finding out what has happened from other sources or from older family members.
Possible stages may be:
This all takes time. Obviously, it needs to be handled with care, giving children the chance to say how they’re feeling. A mental health professional may be of great help at this time.
Leaving the subject of the murder open for more conversation is essential. Often, a child may not have more questions but need to talk about what they already know. Other times, they have more questions. As an adult, it’s important to gauge whether the child can handle more information at that time. It’s vital to let them know you will tell them more at another time and then follow through.
If a child asks a question about what has happened, they are usually ready to hear the answer. However, supportive adults may need to anticipate the questions and anxieties a child may develop in their mind and take responsibility for initiating those conversations.
Children may ask the same questions over and over. Giving honest, open, and transparent answer, again and again, is reassuring to the child. The child isn’t testing you or trying to push your buttons. They heard you the first time but need to hear you again, as often as it takes them to process this horrible event. Your calm, honest answers are helping the child get through this very difficult time.
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.
The difficulty of supporting a child in their grief and loss is that you’re also processing your own. Be aware of your own sense of discomfort and be open about it with the child. But do not lean on the child for support. That is considered emotional incest. 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 they have to regularly comfort and encourage the adults they rely on for support.
It’s important to understand that a child may not ask a question, talk about the person, or even express emotion because they are concerned about upsetting you or other family members. Without these chances to vent their emotions, their anxieties and feelings may come out in different ways, for example, in behavior, withdrawal, or risk-taking.
It’s also essential to engage the help of your child’s school and even church to give your child’s peers tools to help cope with the disturbing facts of the murder. Often, the other children will withdraw from your child because they are confused about how to act and what to say.