Talking to Kids About Death and Dying

To Prescott, From a Sojourner on the Sidelines of Route 89


Just over a week ago more than 275 children’s bereavement professionals descended on Tempe, Arizona, for the National Alliance for Grieving Children’s annual Symposium. Following the conclusion of this conference with my colleagues, I spent a week touring Arizona’s many wonders, including Sedona, the Grand Canyon, and the magnificent view from Snowbowl. I was on-top of the San Francisco Peaks when a lightning storm rolled in; the same storm that is believed to have caused the deadly fire in Yarnell.

On my way back to Phoenix, down route 89 yesterday, I saw smoke. From miles away, black smoke billowed upward like incense. As I got closer to the fire, the smoke turned amber in color and created a haze that covered the sun. Everything around me had an autumn hue. Flames peaked over the mountain, and while I joined other spectators on the side of Route 89, cows lay by the road peacefully as if nothing was happening.

In the thirty minutes I spent watching the fire consume a hillside, I saw four planes douse the land in red chemicals. It was a spectacle to see commercial-sized planes descend a few hundred feet above the ground and work to contain the fire from spreading. Locals gathered with their binoculars. All of us, much like the cows, were unaware of the fire’s severity. As I watched the fire move forward, I did not realize that I was witnessing nineteen firefighters perish.

The grief that I imagine is filling Prescott and neighboring communities today is probably thick and palpable like the autumn haze that covered the sky yesterday. As the “world’s oldest rodeo” starts today, less than 24 hours after this tragedy, a community is facing its collective grief. Prescott is a place filled with strangers and tourists at this time of year. And now, surely, spectators and do-gooders have arrived on the town square.

It is important to note that public tragedies can complicate things. Nineteen individuals died together while fulfilling their public duties. Often times, the individual can get lost in the collective whole, but nineteen families will be approaching this event, these deaths, and their grief, in different ways. There is likely to be a lot of ideas about what to do after this tragedy and, most likely, a lot of people will want to be helpful by providing their input. Here are a few brief things to consider when thinking about this week and the years ahead:

Remember the individual stories and grief – although nineteen professionals died together, each of them has their own story. Give space for individual stories to emerge. We are not defined by how we die. Families and the lives of those who died may have a special story to share that doesn’t involve how they died. Find ways to give space for families and friends to express their individual grief in a way that is meaningful to them. Such expressions do not always include public mourning. Some families may want or need privacy. Respect each individual’s grief experience.

Trust yourself and rely on your policies – enact any policies and procedures you have put in place for a tragedy like this. You can modify previously decided bereavement practices, but know that you can also modify these procedures at a later time. Your preparations may not be perfect. Few seldom are, and you don’t have to do it all. Make room for families to provide feedback and follow their lead the best you can. The days ahead are about them finding stable footing among the chaos.

Create space to remember, express, and be together – death happens within a context. The rodeo is in town this week, while many residents will have experienced the grief of a loved one or friend or simply experience grief from the communal loss. Creating a place for everyone to gather and express themselves will help those who want to process their grief and this tragedy. The power of community is an important one for those who seek it. The power of community is most helpful when it is well-facilitated by leaders who listen to the needs of the people.

Be honest with children – I imagine children lost parents yesterday. Go for resources on how to support a grieving child. Inevitably, children throughout the community will know about these deaths. Being honest and open, giving children a space to process how they understand this tragedy, will be critical. A child may overhear conversations, watch the news on tv, or see signs and memorials around town. Prepare children for what they might hear or see by having a conversation in advance. Be cautious not to project your own angst or grief onto a child. Instead, provide a safe space for children to ask questions, explore their feelings, and gain a better understanding.

Don’t assume – Don’t assume that what works for one family or one community works for all.

Ask the family – Don’t assume how a family is feeling or what they want. Take the time to be with them, ask them their needs, offer support, and listen to their grief. Modify rituals and procedures when you can in order to support a family. There is no one right way to offer support. Listening carefully will help facilitate how to provide support.

Be consistent – grief is not a onetime event. This tragedy will be with this community and these families for a lifetime. True helpers are those who are consistent and offer support over the long-haul. This grief will not pass when summer ends or when next year arrives. Plan to provide support for many years in the future, as this tragedy is now a part of your community’s story.