Grief counselors help parents in North Hero discuss death with kids

Published: Oct. 20, 2019 at 8:02 PM EDT
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Grief counselors are stepping in as the North Hero community continues to mourn the death of two young boys who died in a house fire on Saturday.

Professionals from the Northwestern Counseling and Support Services met with parents at North Hero School Sunday to give them advice on telling their kids what happened. One of the boys who died was a student at the school, according to Grand Isle Supervisory Union Superintendent Michael Clark.

“I’m heartbroken and I know that the thing we need to do is, we need to support the other adults, the children, and the community through this process,” said Clark.

Clark says teachers and faculty are preparing for a wide range of emotions from students on Monday. Counselors from the NCSS say that’s normal.

“Some kids are going to withdraw and some kids are going to have really big energy. So you’re going to see some kids that are crying and some kids that are running around,” social worker Matthew Hogan said.

As part of the counseling, Hogan walked parents through talking to their kids about death. He gave suggestions based on the different age groups. Hogan says younger kids, between the ages of 2 and 8, may have difficulty understanding that death is irreversible and they may ask follow-up questions that can be hard for parents to answer.

“They might be asking, ‘When is the child coming back?’ ‘When do I get to see them again?’ ‘If my friend can die, can I die?’ Answering those questions can be very challenging and heartbreaking, as a parent to be honest and say, ‘Yeah, we’re all going to die someday,’” he said. “Death is permanent. Talking to children about death is challenging. For a 5-year-old to understand ‘forever’ is a hard concept.”

Hogan says some parents may want to tell their child that their friend is just on vacation and will be back soon, but he says the best thing to say is the truth.

Counselors recommend providing a short, honest explanation of death by saying something like: “Your friend died. His heart stopped working.” They encourage you to avoid using euphemisms for death such as gone, passed on and lost. Instead, use the words dead and died. They also suggest offering physical and emotional nurturing, providing opportunities to play, setting limits but being flexible when needed, and sticking to the child’s daily routine.

Hogan recommends parents be true to their personal emotions and show their child it’s OK to be upset.

“Being able to demonstrate what it is to emote is important,” he said. ‘Mom, why are you crying?’ ‘Well, I’m crying because I’m sad.’”

Some of the common responses to grief in children ages 2 to 4 are anxiety, crying, irregular sleep, clinginess and temper tantrums. Grieving kids ages 5 to 8 often have concerns about safety and abandonment, nightmares, disrupted sleep, changes in eating habits,and complaints of stomachaches, headaches and body pain.

Hogan says there’s no appropriate way to grieve but he suggests taking your child to see a professional if you notice any behaviors that your child has never shown before. You can get help by calling NCSS at 802-524-6554.

Clark says grief counselors will be at North Hero School on Monday talking to students.