Grief and Loss felt by a community

Parenting From A Pro

When a community experiences a tragedy especially one that involves a child, it undermines everyone’s feelings of safety whether community members knew the child or not. When we feel safe we feel that we are secure. We feel empowered to make decisions and we feel like we have choice. Life is predictable and we experience structure and consistency. Essentially, we know what is going to happen now, later today and tomorrow. However, when a crisis hits like the death of a child – it impacts us all and undermines our sense of safety.

First of all, no one wants to see a child get hurt. In small communities it is probable that everyone is connected by directly knowing the child and their family or by being in relationship with someone who is directly connected to the child and or family. This is unavoidable.  However, it can also mean that everyone has an opinion about the tragedy, which often creates another level of uneasiness for all.

It is easy to have an opinion when you were not the one – in the crisis situation. Therefore, opinions (about what should have been done are not done) are not helpful. The surviving family members are unfortunately doing this to themselves and don’t need the judgment from others.

Survivor’s guilt is common especially in the siblings of children who have died. Marriages can be at risk because no one expects to outlive their child or children.

Trauma reactions and vicarious trauma reactions can also develop. The surviving family will be in a state of shock and is fragile in the days/weeks/months of losing a family member. They are often traumatized.

Trauma is defined as a state of terror in which victims feel unsafe and powerless to do anything about their situation (Steele & Raider, 2001). Trauma is an experience that is personal to everyone. We can each experience the event and subsequent symptoms in various ways. Therefore , a community has a whole can experience trauma when tragedy strikes. 

So if we believe this – what are our next steps?

Pray. If you pray, prayer can’t hurt. Pray alone, pray for the survivors and pray in your faith community. Whatever way works, prayer can’t hurt.

Supports for Parents

When we are grieving we can become quite isolated without even realizing it. This is why friends and family often drop meals off to the identified grieving family. It is hard to cook and feed loved ones when you feel like there is big hole in your heart and you feel your grief in your whole body. Dropping off meals is also an opportunity for loved to check in on you.  Words often aren’t necessary. Additionally,

  • doing a load of laundry
  • cutting the grass
  • taking other kids out to activities

These are all important tasks that surviving parents often can’t get energized to do for a while after tragedy has struck.

They may need time to scream/sob/ sleep given surviving children often will stay emotionally and physically close as a death sometimes instills fear of the unanticipated loss of other family members. It is important for parents to recognize that surviving children are always watching for clues of stability however, sometimes parents need to do their own crying so space and time to do this is valuable.

Couple Considerations

Couples often stop meeting each other’s needs so it is important that the couple has time just to go for even a coffee alone. Essentially going on dates walking and not talking will help them to spend time together.  Two people supporting each other is stronger than 1 parent surviving alone. Counselling sometimes is necessary to bring equilibrium back to the relationships.  But there are no quick fixes because no one can bring the child back and essentially why wouldn’t every parents want that?


Siblings sometimes have survivor’s guilt. They will think, “if only I did this”. Or – “I could have stopped bad thing from happening if I was there /not there”.

Sometimes siblings will stop trying to ask for anything from parents or want to avoid needing to rely on parents for anything. They don’t want to be a bother or can conversely be “attached at the hip” because they are afraid that their parents might die next. Both are normal responses that require adults to reinforce for children that it isn’t up to them to make the adults feel better. They are the kids and they are just as worthy of time to grieve their sibling. Parents will need to be extra consistent and predictable and try to provide a home environment where everyone can verbalize /express feelings to the traumatic event.

School Response to a death in the community.

School communities should be prepared to acknowledge the loss to those impacted when everyone comes together. Then could potentially be the whole community. This doesn’t need to be an assembly. It could be an announcement over the P.A. with a reminder that there are helpers all around. It is also good for teachers and administration to remind students on an individual basis that we want to support all in our community who are sad and sadness can feel bigger some days more than others.  School communities then need to  provide  opportunities and spaces for students/ staff/ administration  to express feelings and have quiet times.

Some schools wish to create memorial spaces/ plaques but consideration of these needs should include ongoing maintenance (if the person is truly going to be honored). The same goes for scholarships and awards- they need to continue in order to be meaningful.

Additional things to consider taken from National Institute for Trauma and Loss.

“Should you experience any of these reactions beyond the initial four-week period following the incident, seek additional professional support.”

The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced in at least one of the following ways:

  1. Recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts, other memories of the incident.
  2. Recurrent distressing dreams (nightmares) of the incident itself or any dream content that is terrifying.
  3. Acting or feeling as if the traumatic event were recurring (includes a sense of reliving the experience).
  4. Intense psychological distress at exposure to internal reminders that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event. (Fear, anxiety and anger are possible examples.)
  5. Physiological reactivity upon exposure to internal or external reminder that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event. (Nausea, difficulty breathing, startle reaction and faintness are a few examples.)

Numbing and Avoidance

Persistent avoidance of reminders associated with the trauma, numbing of your feelings or responsiveness to others.

  1. Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma.
  2. Efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that trigger memories of the trauma.
  3. Inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma.
  4. Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities often those having some association with the trauma.
  5. Feeling of detachment or estrangement from others.
  6. Restricted range of emotion (e.g., unable to have loving feelings).
  7. Sense of a foreshortened future (e.g., do not expect to have a career, marriage, children, or a normal life span: cannot even think about a few days in advance).

Hyperarousal and Persistent Symptoms of Increased Arousal (not present before the trauma) 

  1. Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  2. Irritability or outbursts of anger
  3. Difficulty concentrating
  4. Hypervigilance: constant worry about something else happening
  5. Exaggerated startle response (responses to sounds, smells, images, sights, tough that reminds you of what happened)

These reactions are not at all unusual during the first four weeks following a traumatic event. When involved in disasters or other external events in which physical reminders cannot be avoided and/or various aspects of the incident are kept alive such as in the case of media coverage, reactions may extend beyond the four-week acute stress period.

Should any of these symptoms persist beyond a 4-8 week period and/or emerge as delayed reactions months later, it is strongly recommended that you seek  consultation with a trauma consultant.

Note: Trauma can induce biological and neurological changes that play a part in the ability to sleep, levels of anxiety, concentration, and other trauma-specific reactions. Should reactions persist beyond the four-week period, consultation for temporary medication should be considered. The loss of sleep, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and other reactions induced by trauma can deplete an individual of much needed physical rest and inner emotional calmness and precipitate yet more problems for the individual. Medication, at times, is simply a necessity. However, medication should only be temporary.

Lastly this quote is for us all. Look for the helpers….

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother

would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who

are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember

my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there

are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” –

Mister Rogers

Perry, Bruce D. M.D., Ph. D.,[ Video Series #1] “The Fear Response: The Impact of Childhood Trauma”. 2004, The Child Academy, Perry, Bruce D. M.D., Ph.D.; Video “Identifying and Responding to Trauma in Ages Six to Adolescence” 2004, Magna Systems Video Series.

Rothschild, B, (2000) The body remembers, New York: W.W. Norton

Torrejon, V. 2004 High Schools Create ‘Grieving Gardens’. May 10, 200-4:51pm

Van der Kolk, B. McFarlane, A. & Weisaeth, L. (1996) (Eds). Traumatic stress disorder: 
the effects overwhelming experience on mind, body, and society: New York:

Rothschild, B, (2000) The body remembers, New York: W.W. Norton

Torrejon, V. 2004 High Schools Create ‘Grieving Gardens’. May 10, 200-4:51pm

Van der Kolk, B. McFarlane, A. & Weisaeth, L. (1996) (Eds). Traumatic stress disorder: 
the effects overwhelming experience on mind, body, and society: New York:

Theresa Fraser, CYC-P, M.A., CPT-S, RP, is a professor of Child and Youth Work, is internationally renown for her publications and presentations. She has a psychotherapy practice in Ontario. She is a part time Town of Pictou resident until she and her husband can retire here. She is also an ordained reverend and has taken additional certification in the study of death and dying.



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