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A Child’s Death

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When a child dies, families experience trauma that’s devastating
and unimaginable to most. A child’s death wounds many — family,
peers, teachers, ministers, community members — some of whom will
never fully heal or return to life as they knew it before the
tragedy. Joanne Cacciatore, Ph.D., is a researcher at Arizona State
University and CEO of MISS Foundation (www.missfoundation.org),
an organization dedicated to providing crisis support and long-term
aid to families after the death of a child. Cacciatore knows
firsthand what it means to experience this tragedy. After the death
of her daughter in 1994, Cacciatore dedicated herself to
researching and supporting families in this situation. “I said to
myself,” recalls Cacciatore, “If I get through this — if I
actually survive this — because you really do question whether or
not you’re going to live, the pain is so physical — I’m going to
help some people.” Here’s her advice.

Good Move

  • Seek education and professional support. Educate yourself, your
    ministry team, and the parents of surviving children on grief.
    You’ll be dealing with grief from all sides — the family’s,
    classmates’, teachers’, and yours. The better you understand it,
    the better you’ll be able to help others.
  • Be age-appropriate in your response. For younger kids, it’s
    important to include all children — if they want to participate –
    in rituals such as the funeral. Provide access to information for
    parents about children’s grieving. When an adolescent dies,
    surviving peers turn more to friends than adults. Adolescents are
    very reliant on their peers for support. Facilitate discussion or
    support groups so kids have an opportunity to talk. It’s absolutely
    critical to have a skilled facilitator present for this, someone
    with specialized training in children’s grief. Counselors,
    therapists, and other mental health professionals can actually do
    more harm than good if they’re not trained.
  • Create a circle of unwavering support. It’s a myth that most
    families split up following a child’s death. That myth isn’t
    supported by research; conversely, most studies suggest that
    families stay together after the death of a child. What’s really
    important to these families is social support. We know that
    families who have good social support tend to have better
    outcomes.

Bad Move

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  • Don’t ignore it. It’s wholly inappropriate to pretend this
    tragedy didn’t happen. If a child dies and you go back to business
    as usual, you’re being very unwise. In order for families, you,
    your team, and the children in your ministry to move forward,
    engage, and function, everyone needs to identify his or her
    individual loss.
  • Don’t offer lopsided support. Don’t focus all your care,
    compassion, and support on surviving children and forget about the
    parents. Entire family systems are adversely affected by a child’s
    death. You can provide all the help and support in the world to a
    grieving child, but if you send him or her back to a family that’s
    not been supported, the result is dysfunction.
  • Take care of practical needs. It’s hard for parents to cook,
    clean, or focus on the day-to-day, mundane things of life.
    Ministries must come together to provide for the family while not
    intruding on private time. Make meals, deliver them, and leave.
    Take surviving siblings to the zoo for the day so parents can have
    quiet time to grieve. Clean their house. During this emotional
    tumult and trauma, practical interventions can be extremely
    helpful.

Welcome Words

The baseline for understanding how to talk to a family is that
this is a tragedy that’ll last this family as long as they’re on
earth. The effects of a child’s death are forever. Do say, “I’m so
sorry,” “I can’t imagine” and “I’ll be here for you now, six months
from now, and six years from now.”

What-Were-You-Thinking Words

There aren’t words in the English language to describe what
happens to a family when a child dies. There’s nothing you can say
to fix the situation. Don’t try to come up with wise words and
avoid platitudes. Avoid saying things such as “God only takes the
best,” “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Time will heal all
wounds.” Those are trite attempts to justify why this awful,
unthinkable tragedy could’ve struck. It’s best for people who are
trying to be of support to not say anything at all, but to instead
be wholly present.

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