Talking with children about loss

LACONIA — Less than a month after a Laconia Middle School student Lily Johnson died after being struck by a car as she was walking home for school, sessions have been scheduled as a way to help young people cope and rebound from such a loss.
Parents are often unsure about how to help children cope with death, but it can be even more challenging when it's a friend or classmate who has died. Experts say communication is the key to helping children navigate their emotions.
While the sessions which New Hampshire Catholic Charities will offer starting Thursday in Laconia are designed to assist young people coping with different types of loss, the announcement from the social service agency says that youngsters who are coming to terms with the death of a classmate could find the program especially helpful.
"The recent death of Lily makes offering this program more poignant," said Leonard Campbell, who handles parish and community outreach for the New Hampshire Catholic Charities Laconia office. "We are making the sessions available to the churches and the school as a resource."
The pupose of the sessions, said Campbell, is to give young people a chance to better "articulate what they feel and that it's OK to be angry."
"It was such an overwhelming event," Laconia Assistant School Superintendent Terri Forsten said of Lily's death and the anguish the community felt during the aftermath.
Counselors from Genesis Behavioral Health spent time at the Middle School in the days following the tragedy to assist students with their grief. And a week after Lily died hundreds of youngsters lined up outside St. James Episcopal Church to pay their respects and file silently past her casket.
When a child's friend dies suddenly, the children may become fearful of this happening to them or someone they love.
"As a teen you tend to think you're invincible. For someone to be struck down can give [a young person] pause," explained Ken Norton, the executive director of NAMI-NH, a statewide organization that helps people and families facing mental illness or other kinds of emotional challenges.
Norton said parents need to be there for their children when as they ask questions and talk about their fears and anger. And parents also need to understand that the process can take time.
"It's not just one conversation that you have once at dinner, [parents] are going to find out they've got to revisit it," Norton said.
If a youngster seems to be uncomfortable taking about the loss, Norton advised that parents choose a more relaxed, or less intense setting for the conversation.
"Instead of talking to your child face-to-face across the table, try bringing up the subject while riding in the car or taking a walk," he suggested.
Forsten agreed. "In our house we shoot hoops," she said. "Sometime the most poignant things are said after we've shot a few baskets."
Forsten sees the sessons that are being offered as another example of the ongoing community response to Lily's death and the serious injuries suffered by her classmate Alyssa Miner, who was walking with Lily when the two were struck.
"Any of those venues for group conversations is a good idea," Forsten said of the six-week seesions which will be held at the St. Andre Bessette Conference Center on Gilford Avenue. Su McKinnon, of the Catholic Charities staff and a social worker, will help  Campbell conduct the session.
Forsten said that the fact that Lily died so suddenly makes coping with the loss especially hard.
"A fifth- or sixth-grade student can experience death of someone who dies in a flash, or it can be one who is very ill. That time to prepare (for a person's death) can be a gift."
Forsten said that given the circumstances surrounding Lily's death school officials have taken a number of steps to keep parents informed about this issue as well as to offer helpful advice on ways parents can help their children at this difficult time.
Norton pointed out that just as adults deal with death and loss differently, so too with children. He said parents also need to understand the importance of routine and structure for young people at a difficult time like this.
If a youngster is having difficulty getting back into a familiar routine after a tragedy that could be an indication the child is having difficulty coping.
Campbell said the sessions will be helpful both for youngsters who want to talk about their feelings as well as those who want to keep their thoughts to themselves.
"Even if they come and sit there they will walk away knowing that others are going through what they are," he said.
While the sessions are currently schedules to run for six week, Campbell said that program could run for two additional weeks if the participants wish.