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6 ways to help children during times of tragedy

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IDAHO FALLS — Many people are in mourning after the loss of nine eastern Idaho family members who died in an airplane crash over the weekend.

When a tragedy like this happens, the grieving process can seem unbearable for adults and children.

EastIdahoNews.com spoke with two local counselors about ways to help children cope with devastation.

Geoff Winfree owns Centerpoint Counseling Services and is a licensed marriage and family therapist. He has been practicing since 1996 and is certified in the grief recovery method.

Katie Barnes is a licensed professional counselor at Integrated Counseling and Wellness. She started practicing in July.

Here are six ways they say children can be helped during a tragedy.

1. Let the child grieve

First and foremost, Winfree said it’s important to allow the child to grieve. He describes grief as conflicting emotions that are caused by the end of a familiar pattern or behavior.

“Whether that is caused by the death of a loved one, life as we know it has changed at the loss or the death of that person,” Winfree said. “I think what’s really helpful is when you’re approaching someone who’s grieving, whether it’s children, a child or an adult, is to give them permission to grieve. It’s natural and normal.”

Grieving doesn’t appear the same in everyone, but he said it might manifest itself in ways such as the child wanting to be alone, exhibiting self-destructive behaviors or having conflicting emotions.

2. Listen and encourage expression

There is an icon Winfree uses that shows a big heart and ears with a closed mouth. He said sometimes people are uncomfortable with other people’s grief and they don’t know what to do to help.

Instead of throwing in an opinion or saying things that may be true, but aren’t relevant, Winfree goes back to the meaning behind the icon.

“The best thing to do is to ask what’s going on and listen. Just listen,” Winfree said. “Helping people grieve is a matter of allowing them to take the emotional experience, put it into words and communicate.”

He also said that the listener needs to be okay with the conflicting feelings of grief that can be present.

“If someone dies who has been struggling with an illness, there might be a part of us that’s glad that they’re not struggling anymore. But yeah, we still really miss them,” Winfree said. “Sometimes it’s a person who maybe we’ve had difficulties with and there is a struggle with conflicting emotions in their loss. So it’s just allowing people to be able to express the full range of emotions that come with grieving.”

3. Don’t criticize, analyze or try to fix

Along with listening, Winfree said it’s best to avoid judging and analyzing during conversations because that can do more harm than good.

“Grief is an emotional experience. It’s not an intellectual one,” Winfree said. “Sometimes we can analyze or try to assess. Oftentimes that appears to be critical or judgmental.”

Barnes pointed out that adults have a tendency to want to give advice or fix the problem. Rather than taking those routes, she said affirmative and validating language is key. But don’t be overly positive.

“Just allow that feeling of sadness, those feelings of loss and grief into the room,” Barnes said. “And allow the youth to feel, instead of encouraging them to shove it down.”

4. Talk to the child

Barnes believes it is crucial to talk to the child and open up communication channels about the person who passed.

“I think sometimes people try to avoid talking about the loved one because they think that’s going to be easier for everyone,” Barnes said. “But in reality, it’s the elephant in the room if you don’t talk about it.”

Starting a ritual is a way Barnes said can help bring comfort to a child in need of healing. From lighting a candle or setting a place for their loved one – whatever it may be – a ritual of remembrance can be soothing. Remember it’s important to talk to the child first and ask if they would like to do a ritual.

5. Don’t let the child isolate themselves

In a culture where people seem to want life to get better immediately after a tragedy, working through the grieving process doesn’t come at the snap of a finger. He said the “weird cultural notions” society has regarding how much time is expected for one to grieve and leaving the person alone to work through the hardship should not be the norm.

“When is it too soon to reach out to someone who’s grieving? If you’re walking by someone and they’re bleeding on the side of the road, do we say, ‘Oh, we’ll wait until you stop bleeding and then we’ll help you?’ No,” Winfree said. “You reach out to people when they’re in trouble, and we offer our support. Of course, we can’t force it. But at least they’ll know we’re there and we’re willing to help in a non-judgmental way.”

6. Be honest about how you’re feeling

Some adults may try to remain strong during difficult situations, but Winfree and Barnes said that can be confusing to children. They suggest adults express their feelings. If something bad took place, it’s okay to feel bad.

“Be honest about how you’re feeling,” Winfree said. “It’s important to allow kids to see, especially if it’s a relative and it’s a loss you’ve experienced, to let them see you grieve.”

Barnes said doors may open for sharing thoughts if the adult doesn’t hide their feelings in front of the child. But if not, the example from the adult can be helpful down the road for the aching child.

“At the very least, it’s modeling so that the child learns that now or even later in their life, that it’s okay to express sadness and not be afraid of expressing their emotion,” Barnes said.

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