On Jan. 5, the lives of 12 Philadelphians were lost in a house fire in Fairmount, one of the nation’s deadliest residential fires in decades. Nine of those who died were children. That loss reverberates, especially among the kids of our city who might have lost a friend. Other kids might hear about this news and fear that a fire could burn their home, too.
In my role as executive director of Uplift Center for Grieving Children and a former resident of Fairmount, I have fielded calls from friends in the neighborhood who are grappling with how to talk with their children about losing a classmate or even seeing a body bag carried out of a neighbor’s home.
This grief is, of course, only a fraction of the whole. Each of the nine children who died in the fire impacted many young lives around them, and that leaves many adults wondering how they can help. Here are eight tips for talking with kids about the Fairmount fire:
Be a good listener
Research shows that active listening helps children become more aware of their feelings and cope with difficult situations. When speaking with your child, make sure to give them your full attention and respond in ways that show you were listening to what they said.
When it comes to grief, kids want honesty, and they usually know more than we think they do. Have conversations with your child about what happened to the person who died and answer any questions they have as honestly as you can. This will help your child feel supported.
Be aware of developmental differences
If your child is younger than 6, there is a chance that they might not understand the permanency of death. They may make comments about the person still being alive. With children this age, you need to use concrete language like “she died” or “he is dead.” This will avoid confusion and help your child develop language to better understand the permanency.
Some parents of small children use phrases like “gone to a better place” to avoid using words like “dead.” This can be hard for children to understand. For example, one little girl I worked with implored her mom to tell her where exactly her recently deceased father was, because she wanted to go to a better place, too.
Children ages 4 to 12 will ask a lot of questions. Be prepared that these questions may pop up at inopportune times and catch you off guard. Some questions can be off-putting as well. You might be asked about burial procedures, or what happens to a body after it is buried. Try to answer those questions as calmly and as best you can to help them make sense of the concrete details.
Teens will often look to their friends or close loved ones rather than a caregiver during difficult times. While it is still important as a caregiver to reach out to them to support them, allow them to have time with their friends or trusted confidantes to talk about their feelings.
Validate their emotions
For children grieving the loss of a friend, neighbor, or playmate, it’s important to let them know that it’s OK to be sad, mad, angry, confused, or whatever they’re feeling. Acknowledge these feelings and allow them to express them in any way they need, as long as it’s safe.
Reassure their fears
Some children may fear that they, too, could lose their lives in a fire. Kids might voice these concerns out loud, but even if they don’t, they may be harboring these fears silently.
You can open the lines of communication, reassuring them that they are safe and that this will not happen to them. It may be helpful to review your family’s fire safety and escape plan and have them join you in testing smoke detectors. These concrete steps can aid in building a sense of security for your child.
Know that grief is a lifelong journey
Sometimes death can stir up other feelings around loss. At Uplift Center for Grieving Children, we often hear from children that when a classmate dies, they find themselves thinking about a loved one like a grandfather or grandmother who died a few years prior.
Reassure your child that grief is a natural reaction to losing a person
Different people experience grief in different ways, even within families or groups of friends. Each person may feel, react, or express their feelings differently, and we as caregivers need to make space for that.
Seek help if you need it
If you find that you’re struggling to connect with your child or concerned about behaviors in which they’re engaging, seek out the help of a grief counselor. You can reach out to Uplift through the PHL HopeLine at 833-PHL-HOPE, where you can speak with a grief clinician who can offer support and referrals as needed.
As a city, we are facing a time of collective mourning, and we must acknowledge that our children are not immune to it. With these steps, you can provide the support your child needs to get through this difficult time.
Darcy Walker Krause is executive director of Uplift Center for Grieving Children in Philadelphia and the immediate past president of the board for the National Alliance for Children’s Grief. upliftphilly.org