Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter

When Tragedy Strikes

Eliana Cline

When tragedy overturns a child’s world, it’s up to his parents and caregivers to help him navigate the maelstrom of emotions — and the new reality

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

 Mishpacha image

No parents want their child to face tragedy. But with the right parental response and guidance, a child can gain tools and depth for life. He can grow through his loss into an adult who is sensitive and empathetic

W e kiss their boo-boos and wipe away their tears. Whether we’re dealing with a scraped knee or an argument with a friend, as parents, we’re confident in our ability to smooth life’s rough edges and provide comfort and stability. But there’s one experience parents cannot diminish: death and bereavement.

No parents want their child to face tragedy. But with the right parental response and guidance, a child can gain tools and depth for life. He can grow through his loss into an adult who is sensitive and empathetic. A child can be strengthened by the lifelong lesson that while grief may feel insurmountable, it can be worked through and eventually transform into sweet sorrow and appreciation.

No Single Formula

“There’s no textbook answer for how to support a child who has experienced tragedy,” says Atara Weinstein, a Jerusalem family therapist who specializes in working with adolescents and survivors of trauma. However, she emphasizes, there are useful contexts to keep in mind that can help a parent make educated decisions in supporting the grieving process. Specifically, she suggests looking at the child’s state of development — physiological, cognitive, psychological, and social.

“Does he or she have the capacity to tolerate strong emotions? And is he capable of verbalizing these emotions?” says Weinstein. Additionally, she suggests considering several important factors: what type of death was it — expected, or traumatic? What was the child’s relationship with the deceased?

The next thing to consider is the child’s relationship with his parents. “The deeper the parents’ understanding of the child’s emotional makeup, the easier it will be for the parents to create an individualized path to support their child.”

Shanna, a stay-at-home mother from Los Angeles, says that her 13-year-old son’s previous struggle with anxiety actually empowered her to help her son grieve after he witnessed a close friend’s fatal accident.

“One afternoon, I received a call from the school that there had been an accident and my son was very upset. They asked me to pick him up. It turned out that my son and his friend had been standing together at recess, and, out of nowhere, a boundary wall collapsed. Miraculously, my son wasn’t harmed, but the concrete panel fell on his friend. My son watched the whole thing happen — his friend lying unconscious next to him, Hatzolah rushing in and trying to stabilize him. The boy was in a coma for four days before he died.”

“The Torah allows for periods of pain. We are allowed to feel pain, anger, and grief. When a child is in the throes of these emotions, it’s not the time to give chizuk or teach emunah”

When Shanna arrived at the school, her son was in the classroom, crying hysterically. “Watching your child in such pain is a heartrending experience,” she says. While Shanna couldn’t change what had happened, she did have a solid and in-depth understanding of her son’s emotional landscape.

“We’d been working with therapists because of his anxiety; therefore, I knew how best to deal with him. I knew how far I could push him and how much space he needed. I had seen how he responded to extreme emotion.”

Shanna knew that her son would need his space, and that he’d resist pressure to talk. “I watched closely from the sidelines and showed him I was present. When I pushed too hard — like trying to take him for trauma debriefing — he got angry, and I realized I needed to step back.” Knowing her son’s emotional limits, Shanna insisted that he not attend the levayah. “It turned out that he didn’t want to. He knew he couldn’t handle it. But he did want to go and talk to his friend’s mother after the shivah.

“I’d knock on his door and ask him if I could come in and sit. Sometimes he’d open up and sometimes not. If he’d let me in, I’d just sit. If I wanted to give him a hug, I’d ask him first. I was very present, very aware of his vulnerability, but hugely aware not to overstep.”

While Shanna was fortunate to have such a close and trusting relationship with her son, she still admits that she wasn’t sure that she was doing the right thing. “I mostly just trusted my gut and figured it out alone.” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 561)

Related Stories

Sparks in the Sky

As told to Rivka Streicher

We land and head straight for Ichilov hospital. Shealtiel is frighteningly still, white, surrounded ...

Tempo: Shades of Regret

As told to Rachelli Saffir

“She’s for sure a BT,” I heard someone nearby whisper as we waited for her to finish davening, long ...

Lifetakes: A Yid’s Place

Faigy Schonfeld

They simply didn’t know how to pray. And yet... they came to shul. Just because. Because it’s Friday...

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.

Using Our Free Will Effectively
Yonoson Rosenblum The image we carry of ourselves is key
Eytan Kobre The ripple effects of one Jew’s kiddush Sheim Shamayim
Living the High Life
Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger It is exhilarating to matter, to be truly alive
It’s Time for Us to Speak Up
Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie We must speak out proudly for the values of Yiddishkeit
Kiruv Is Not Dead
Rabbi Meir Goldberg Do these sound like uninspired or closed students?
Frosting on the Cake
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman “Let’s not let a missing chocolate cake ruin our siyum!”
A Warm Corner in Flatbush
Yosef Zoimen It was a simple shul with a choshuve leader
Out of Control
Jacob L. Freedman “That’s illegal, Dr. Fine. I can’t have a part in this”
Song of Reckoning in the Skulener Court
Riki Goldstein “It’s awe-inspiring to watch the Rebbe sing this song”
“U’teshuvah, U’tefillah, U’tzedakah”
Riki Goldstein Throughout the Yamim Noraim, three words accompany us
The Rebbe Held His Gaze
Riki Goldstein A moment etched in Reb Dovid Werdyger’s memory forever
The Road Taken
Faigy Peritzman In the end it’s clear who really merits true happiness
Sincere Apology
Sarah Chana Radcliffe A heartfelt and complete apology can turn things around
Power Pack of Mercy
Mrs. Shani Mendlowitz The 13 Attributes of Mercy are “an infinite treasure”
The Appraiser: Part II
D. Himy M.S. CCC-SLP, and Zivia Reischer “Eli needs to see people who struggled to achieve”