Friday, July 16, 2010

Recovering from the Traumatic Death of a Child

A two-year-old child died in my township this week.  A relative was watching the boy and several other children with another adult when he disappeared.  They called 911, then called back to say they had found him -- in the swimming pool.  He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Generally speaking, when people react to a story like this, they go in one of two directions.  The first is what I'll call the "safety first" direction.  People take this opportunity to remind others (or themselves) to keep a close eye on little ones around water.  The extreme form of this is blame -- how could someone have a pool outside and not be watching it or the kids around it?  The second, and perhaps more compassionate, response is what I'll call the "I can't even imagine it" response.  This takes the form of "How awful," "How sad," and the perhaps most honest, "I don't think I'd ever get over it" responses.

While the latter response is more compassionate, and therefore maybe less actively harmful, it actually isn't all that helpful, either.  "I don't think I'd ever get over it" is not what a parent needs to hear in what is, for obvious reason, their darkest moment.  It's somewhat like going to the doctor and telling her about this terrible stomach pain you have and her responding, "Yep, sucks to be you!!"  Sympathy and empathy are nice, but they don't solve much.  This may seem a little harsh on my part, and if so, I apologize.  It is absolutely true that people don't know what to say at moments like this, and I can hardly blame them for that. 

I was recently asked to expound on why we, as a society, don't more fully embrace early trauma response for mental health care.  Why isn't it part of what automatically happens, as first aid and calling 911 are for early intervention in physical trauma?  The answer to this is complex.  It has a lot to do with how we view medical care and mental health in general, and the stigmas we still attach to these topics.  But I also think you can trace the lack of early care for traumatized people directly to people saying, "I don't think I'd ever get over it."

If you honestly don't believe you could ever recover from a traumatic incident, then there is no purpose to early trauma intervention.  The fact that we as a society do not envision recovery from critical incidents means that we don't set up systems to help that recovery happen.  We expect people to fall into two categories -- those who are unaffected by trauma (and we think way too many people "should" be in this category) and those who will be permanently debilitated by it.  In physical trauma, we imagine there are those who will be seriously injured, recover and, while perhaps not be the same as before, be in reasonably good shape.  We have no vision of this middle group when it comes to mental health.

There are two things I find myself saying the most often to people following critical incidents.  The first is some form of "what you are feeling is typical and you are not crazy."  The second is, "you will not always feel as awful as you do right now."  Can I imagine coping with the traumatic death of a toddler child?  No, I can't.  Do I know exactly how I would recover from it?  No, I don't.  The key distinction, however, is that I know that somehow I would.  It would be awful.  It would be painful.  And I would survive.  So will these parents.  Someone needs to tell them that.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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