After a traumatic event it is normal to feel distressed and to experience symptoms of stress.
After a traumatic event, for people directly involved, who have family and friends involved, who work in services that are part of the response to the event, and for the wider community, it is normal to feel distressed, and to experience symptoms of stress. You may have trouble sleeping, feel tense or irritable, or find yourself having repeated thoughts of the event, or images of what you saw. You may also have physical stress symptoms such as being jumpy and easily startled, having headaches or pain from tense muscles, and feeling your heart pounding.
These kinds of feelings and symptoms are part of our normal reaction to a traumatic event, and for most people they pass over several days or weeks. You may find yourself fearing you are “going crazy” – this is also common, but remember these feelings pass with time.
The following dos and don’ts reflect our understanding of what helps recovery, and what doesn’t:
For people who have had a family member or friend injured or killed in this tragedy, the thoughts and good wishes of all Kiwis are with you at this time.
You will likely be experiencing a mix of trauma yourself, plus grief. Trauma and grief are different, but together can mean a mix of complex thoughts and feelings. It is common to find yourself having persistent thoughts such as “why did this terrible thing happen?”, “why was this not prevented?”, “what did my loved one suffer?”, and “what is the meaning or purpose of this tragedy?”. You may find yourself questioning your faith.
It is also common to feel a range of changing emotions.
It is also common to feel a range of changing emotions from numbness and a feeling of unreality, to anger, to grief and sadness, to hopelessness. You may feel guilt that you survived and your loved one did not, or blame yourself for having not been able to protect your loved one. You may find yourself struggling to sleep, withdrawing from others, and you are likely to also experience a range of physical symptoms. Feeling a weight in your chest – literally a “breaking heart” – is a very common symptom of grief.
Coping after a traumatic death is difficult for everyone
Coping after a traumatic death is difficult for everyone. The general advice above will be helpful. We know that support from others is critical, so take time out when you need it, but make sure reach out especially to those family and friends who have not lost a loved one, and accept offers of help and support. Grieving is a process that unfolds over a number of months and sometimes years, but with time it does get easier. It is important to remember it is a very individual process – we all go through it at some times of our lives, but how grief affects us is very individual. Staying active in your faith, whatever that may be, and prayer, are helpful and protective – even if you do find yourself questioning your faith – “Why did this happen?”
How children react to trauma is different from adults – they may withdraw or behave in a more “babyish” way, seem anxious or clingy, be preoccupied with the event in their play or drawing, have problems sleeping or nightmares, or may get physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches.
As with adults, most children will recover with support and love from those around them.
As parents or caregivers you will know your kids best, and what works for them. Some simple dos and don’ts to guide you support a distressed child are:
As with trauma, how children react to grief differs from adults, and is affected by their age. When a death is traumatic, as with adults this can make their grief process more complex.
Children’s beliefs about death change as they grow up
Pre-school children may see it as temporary – that the person is “asleep” but will wake up. Primary school children start to think of it more like adults, but often believe it will not happen to them or anyone they know.
Children do not always have the words to talk about how they are feeling
Children do not always have the words to talk about how they are feeling, so tend to express their feelings through behaviour – being withdrawn, sulking, being naughty, tantrums, refusing to go to school and so on. Children tend to grieve in “bursts”, so may go from seeming completely back to normal, to being distressed, repeatedly.
So it is important to be more than usually patient
It is important to be more than usually patient, and to check out how they are feeling and try to talk to them about this. As with trauma, while it is natural to try to protect your children from pain and grief, this is not helpful. Children look to adults to learn how to behave, so asking how they are feeling, asking what questions they have, and explaining things in words appropriate to their age, is key.
Sharing some of your own sadness, while also showing them that you can cope and life can go on, is helpful. Explaining death in words they will understand is also helpful. Avoid using words that may confuse them, such as “gone to sleep forever”, or “passed on”.
It is also common for children experiencing grief to become more clingy or anxious, and fearful
It is also common for children experiencing grief to become more clingy or anxious, and fearful that other important figures in their life may die. It is also, as with trauma, common for them to develop physical symptoms – stomach aches, headaches – and to also have usual sleep routines change. Reassurance and comforting are important for them to feel safe and loved.
These practical tips will help
The practical tips above are helpful for supporting your child through grief after a traumatic death. Maintaining usual routines, and ensuring they are encouraged to play, and express themselves through drawing, are all good strategies. It is also helpful to ensure their teacher and school are aware of what has happened to your child, and to agree with the teacher how they can support your child, how this information is shared with their classmates, and what to do if your child becomes distressed at school.
As with adults, grief in children passes over a number of months, your love, consistency, and care of your child, along with continuing to encourage them to talk, and sharing information in words they understand, is what is most healing for them.