1. When such events happen, what’s the best way to “break” the news to the children?
This is such a difficult question as it depends to a large extent on the circumstances surrounding the specific situation; but I think most important advice I can give here is to try and keep it age appropriate. This is often hard to do, but don’t give too much or too little information. Listen very closely to their questions regarding the situation or event and answer as honestly as possible. If they don’t ask questions out of their own, really encourage them to do so, as the assumptions they make are often really scary.
Also, be wary of the information you give. When someone dies, don’t for example say; Granny went to sleep. The child might be scared of going to sleep or fearful of Mommy and Daddy not waking up again.
When someone died in hospital, make sure that the child understands that it’s not the going to hospital that is the cause of this person never returning, it’s the being so ill that no one was able to help.
In other words it’s really important to create an atmosphere where open communication is possible.
2. People generally react in different ways when it comes to tragic events – are children the same?
Very definitely yes, we are all different and our coping mechanisms differ as well. It also depends on the emotional bond the child had with the person who died. If it was someone very close to the child, the impact would probably be bigger. Some children might act out, anger tantrums, rebelling, violence, others might become very quiet and withdrawn, some might seem to be perfectly okay, but very definitely trust your gut – if you feel your child is not okay, rather make sure.
3. Do such events have a potential of affecting the kids through to their adult life?
It most definitely has the potential to influence children in a big way, affecting their adult lives as well. The manner in which the child is able to deal with the trauma/situation to a large extent determines the impact it will have on his/her adult life. If the child is able to work through it in a healthy manner, with the help of adults who are patient, understanding and supportive, the impact will most definitely be less severe than if the child is not allowed to express emotion, ask questions, talk about it.
4. When and how do I know when it’s time to seek professional help?
It’s perfectly normal for a child to display a change in behavior when something emotionally devastating has happened. So give you child some time to adjust and to get to terms with the whole event and the impact thereof. If however you can see that your child is not coping, that the change in behavior is not letting up, that your child stays withdrawn or angry for an extended period of time – get professional help.
There are counselors specifically trained to deal with Trauma situations and they are very well equipped to help you and your whole family work through the trauma.
I would just like to add one thing.
Death is not a normal occurrence for children anymore. Way back when, people used to die in their homes and children were a part of it and the process it entailed. Now a days; we as parents try to protect our children from the grief and the heart sore surrounding it.
So very definitely use situations in your everyday life to prepare your child for death. When a pet dies, talk to your child about it; so that when a family member dies, your child has at least to some extent dealt with the concept of death already.