A tragedy took place on the morning of December 18 in Brooklyn where four members of a family died in a fire and three survivors are in critical condition. Ohel is providing the information below for families and the communities which may be helpful to you and your children and offer support. Please feel free to call Ohel at 1-800-603-OHEL with any questions.
When tragedy touches our community, it affects all of us. It can make both children and adults feel vulnerable and confused by events that are so devastating and impossible to understand. It may trigger memories of other tragic situations that similarly affected the community or losses that people may have experienced in the past. Everyone reacts differently to a trauma, and there is no right or wrong way to react. Individual reactions will vary and are based on a variety of factors, including relative exposure to the event, relationship to the people most profoundly affected, personality, characteristics, past exposure to trauma, and level of support available. Here are some guidelines below to help both children and adults cope in the aftermath of this tragedy.
- All feelings are legitimate. There is no right or wrong way to react to hearing such painful news. Some people will feel increased agitation and other people may withdraw emotionally. Common reactions are fear, sadness, and anxiety.
- Most people manage to overcome these feelings without outside professional assistance. Putting feelings into words is therapeutic. Parents can express their own feelings of sadness and grief and encourage children to share their feelings with them in turn.
- Children’s coping will especially be correlated to the coping of the adults around them. Therefore, it is important for parents and teachers to pay attention to their own reactions. Young children are reading your voice, tone, and body language even more than your words. Be sure you know what you want to tell them.
- Parents need to speak in concrete terms with preschool-age children. They do not grasp the concept of “rare occurrences” and may need reassurance that a similar tragedy will not happen to them. Parents should show increased affection and assurance to young children during this time.
- Young children may require extra reassurance at bedtime, a time when children’s fears may emerge. Allow children to sleep in your bed, or preferably a parent should stay in their room, but do so with a pre-established time limit.
- When reassuring children, be particularly cognizant of your voice, tone, and body language which is often more attended to at this age than your words.
- Preschool children may demonstrate distress through play and fantasy and sometimes may develop medical complaints or misconduct as a result. Pay attention to children’s play and give them room to work through their feelings through the safety of the play.
- Maintain typical routines and schedules to the extent possible as this promotes a feeling of safety and security.
- Parents should tell children the truth about what occurred, using age-appropriate and concrete language. It is difficult to hide or distort information since children have access to information and feel entitled to know. Elementary-school-age children are often interested in facts, especially boys.
- Parents should assess the need to give more information and don’t answer more than what was asked by the child. Parents can also answer questions by saying, “I don’t know.”
- Elementary-school-age children understand the concepts of a “rare occurrence” and understand death. The message you want to give them is that what happened is rare.
- Limit your child’s exposure to media around the tragedy.
- Don’t worry if your child does not seem to be having a reaction. Everyone reacts differently and it doesn’t mean your child doesn’t care.
- Elementary-school-age children are responsive to themes of hereafter, neshamah, olam ha’ba, and techiyas ha’meisim in discussing the tragedy.
- Parents may want to use this opportunity to rehearse safety measures—i.e., fire-safety plans—as a concrete way of reassuring children they are safe.
- Focus on the helpers—the people who have come to rescue and respond to this tragedy: the firemen, policemen, Hatzalah, first-responders, and community members who are helping the survivors. Give children opportunities for actionable responses such as saying Tehillim, making a get-well card, taking on mitzvot for zechuyot, or giving tzedakah.
- In addition to the above, themes of “why do bad things happen to good people” may emerge, especially with adolescents. The right to have these questions should be validated and adults can agree that we don’t understand G-d’s ways.
- Adolescents may empathize with the suffering of the victims, and may do so especially in groups of peers. They may also have a contagious response that may need to be contained.
Levayah, Shivah, And Accompanying Rituals
- It is generally felt that children eight and older can go to a funeral. For ages 6–8 it depends on maturity and closeness.
- One should prepare children for what they will see—especially caskets and outpourings of grief. The child should be accompanied by a “dispensable adult” at a funeral—one who is not himself a mourner, is totally focused on the needs and reactions of the child, and who can leave with the child if necessary.
- Prepare children for the meaning of shivah.
- Tell parents who are sitting shivah for their child stories about their child.
- Don’t run away from mourners or treat them differently if you meet them on the street. Greet them normally and warmly. The relationship post trauma should be commensurate with the relationship before the trauma.
- It is especially important to continue to talk about children who passed away, because a parent’s greatest fear is that their child/children will be forgotten.
The coming days, weeks, and months ahead will be difficult ones for family, friends, and community members affected by this tragedy. Take good care of yourself—by eating a balanced diet, maintaining a proper sleep schedule, and soliciting support from family and friends. Ohel’s trained trauma-team professionals are available to assist you—to answer questions, support you and/or your children, or provide a listening ear. Please don’t hesitate to contact us at 1-800-603-OHEL.