When Disaster Strikes
By Thomas Haller
and Chick Moorman
A six-year-old has just seen video footage of students
being carted away to the morgue. A teen sits transfixed watching
images of parents wailing as they describe their shock and horror
of hearing their child was one of the dead at Virginia Tech. At
the dinner table your 5th grader asks, “Can anything
like that happen to us, dad?”
How is a parent to respond? What should you say? What
should you do? How do you deal with your child’s fears without increasing
them? Is it possible to reassure your child at a time when you,
yourself, are horrified by the images of intense pain and grief
you see in the hearts and on the faces of parents just across the
Yes, you are filled with empathy for the survivors
who have lost loved ones, homes, and jobs. Yes, you are extremely
grateful that your children are safe in your comfortable home as
the horrific images continue to flow onto your television screen.
And yes, you can use this incredibly tragic situation to help your
children learn lessons of love, compassion, and of the indestructible
nature of the human spirit.
Once children have seen the images of tragedy and
suffering it is necessary to debrief it with them. The sooner the
better. By debriefing, we mean answering their questions, providing
information, asking questions, and reflecting their feelings.
Provide the scientific information for which they
are asking. Tell your children in age appropriate language what
you know about how nature can create a tornado, hurricane, volcanic
eruption or whatever the tragedy might be. Keep this part factual.
You can even use books or magazines to assist you in providing information.
Tell your children the effects of the natural disaster.
Talk about the destruction that was created as a result of nature’s
fury. This is a good time to make the connection between cause and
effect. Limit what you say to what was seen on TV or directly questioned
by your children. Too much information at this point can increase
their fright and worry. The goal here is to be brief, accurate,
and provide them with the specific information for which they are
looking. If you fail to give them information, if you fail to debrief,
children’s brains will fill in the blanks. Better to fill in those
gaps yourself with factual knowledge than to have your children
fill them with their imaginations.
Concentrate on feelings. Your children will be seeing
a wide variety of feelings expressed on TV. They will see sadness,
panic, grief, relief, joy, depression, frustration and desperation,
among others. In addition, they will personally be full of unexpressed
and often unrecognized feelings.
When you sense they are feeling empathy, sadness,
or pain, say so. Tell them, “You seem deeply saddened about this,”
or “You sound scared and frightened that this might happen to us.”
Children are starving for feeling recognition and this is a great
time to supply it.
When strong emotion is shown on TV, honor it by talking
about it. Mention the extreme sadness and grief that is shown there.
Refrain from being an adult who ignores the grief of others and
refuses to acknowledge it. Do not treat hurting human beings like
they are invisible. Talk about your feelings. Tell your children
about the sympathy, empathy, and pain you feel for the loss of others.
Allow your children to hear and see you express feelings. In so
doing, you are helping them acquire a feeling vocabulary that they
can use their entire lives.
When you communicate your feelings and honor the feelings
of your children for people around the world, you teach them important
lessons about the human condition. You help them appreciate how
we are all more alike than different. You help them see that we
are all connected, no matter how distant we seem. You help them
learn we are all one.
As you go through this debriefing process, encourage
your children look for the helpers. Helpers always come. There are
always people who step forth to help. In the case of a major tragedy
there will be many helpers, playing out a variety of roles. Point
them out to your children. When small problems occur in their own
lives they will have learned to look for the helpers. There are
helpers at school, on the playground, in the mall, and on the highway
when our car breaks down. Learn to look for helpers and they will
be more likely to show up when you need them.
Discuss with your children how you as a family can
be helpers during this tragedy. Perhaps you can send money, give
blood, say prayers, send love, or call the Red Cross to see what
kinds of items can be donated. Choose one or more ways to be helpers
as a family and allow your children to help implement that strategy
with you. Pray together. Let them observe as you give blood. Take
them shopping for the toiletry items needed by the Red Cross. Let
them help you address the envelope that sends the check. Get them
involved in the process of being a helper. Let them see and be love
Our deepest sympathies and heartfelt prayers go out
to the families directly affected by the events at Virginia Tech.
The scope and depth of the pain and heartache of catastrophic tragedies
like this are not measurable. Yet, those same horrific events can
be used for good if we help our children learn about feelings, looking
for the helpers, appreciating the connectedness of all human beings,
and the beauty of one heart reaching out to another across the country
and to other continents. We can help them learn that around the
world is a long way away and still very much a part of our neighborhood.