By Jessica Shannon, M.Div, BCC
Originally published on eCondolence.com, shared with permission
The death of a child shakes the entire family. It is unfathomable even after a long illness, such as cancer or a congenital heart disease. When a child dies due to a trauma or accident, the shock may be even greater.
“Accidents happen” is a common phrase, but it is not a helpful one to hear when a child dies in this way. The accident itself may happen quickly, and the chaos that follows can feel like a blur. The family may or may not make it to an ER, and various scenarios can play out from there. More than likely, chaplains and social workers will be present for the parents and other family members.
As the chaos calms and families try to process the accident and their child’s death, they often look to caregivers, including chaplains, social workers, therapists, clergy and funeral directors to guide them through these horrible moments and their grief.
The Blame Game
It is common for parents, and other adults who were with the child at the time of the trauma, to blame each other and themselves. When comforting the family, it may be helpful for caregivers to avoid saying, “It’s not your fault,” even if they are blaming themselves. Instead, listen to what they say, and let them process the situation and their feelings.
There may be a lot of anger mixed in with the shock and disbelief of a traumatic death. Parents may shout at each other with comments such as, “I told you to fix the gate to the pool!” or “Why was she not in her car seat?” This often happens because they are seeking answers. In these moments, caregivers can be a calming and comforting presence. Validate the need for an answer while using mirroring to lower anger.
What If and If Only
Adults who took care of the child may wonder what they could have done differently. They may ask themselves, “what if” they had locked the backdoor or “if only” they had left the house five minutes earlier. Let them wrestle with these thoughts by being present, calm and caring.
“What if” questions are a part of guilt. These questions often cannot be fully answered. Allow families to ask the “what if” questions and struggle with “if only” scenarios. By having a non-anxious presence and listening actively, caregivers can provide comfort and peace.
It is important to avoid platitudes after the traumatic death of a child. Such sayings as “Everything happens for a reason,” “God needed another angel,” or “She is in a better place now,” can be more harmful than helpful. Instead, offer empathy by listening in a quiet and calm manner. Allow them to process blame, guilt, and anger while they make sense of the tragedy.
Families who were involved in an accident, or who witnessed a trauma that resulted in a child’s death, are in shock. They want to know “why.” A caregiver who can say, “It sounds like you want an answer to why this happened. I wish I knew, and I wish it did not happen. I am right here,” is a caregiver who can be an empathic guide to acceptance and help build a foundation for healthy grief.
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