Sudden Crisis: What to do

First Steps:

(Author’s Note: This is dense stuff, and it’s long. (Sorry) Best to plan the time, grab some “refreshment,” and start reading! – Kevin)

You need to try and remain calm (Duh…I know, but it needs saying.) Young people will immediately look to you, and at you, to get an idea of how they could/should consider

Image of four children holding each other's wrists forming a human bond

Four hands as one

reacting at the onset of a sudden crisis. What to do, and what you do and say though, is really important at this point.  While you don’t want to stand there like a robot like nothing happened, it’s important for you to remain calm and in charge. Whatever you were doing, if possible, can wait or be put aside for now. Stand up, and ask everyone to be seated or to sit down if possible. Seek eye contact with your charges and ask them to all look at you and stop doing whatever activity they were doing. If some children/teens are crying, that’s okay, just ask them gently to try and listen to what you have to share because it will be helpful. As a general rule, it’s a good idea that nobody leaves the area at all. If you have another adult assisting you, great. That person can be dispatched to sit near one or more children who are the most upset and offer comfort, etc.

If one, or a few young people are closely connected to the victim, etc, it helps to get them into another room or space right away for privacy purposes. Their level of reaction will usually be more intense than the rest of the group, which is expected. But if they remain with the group, what happens is that their reactions get picked up by others just as a matter of course and human nature. (Be aware too that some young people who are close to the victim may display almost no reaction at all. That’s not unusual at all, either) If parents need to be called, get someone to do this if possible. If you can, avoid allowing children or teens to call their folks themselves as this frequently dissolves into a real emotional mess once they hear their parent’s voice, etc., and you end up needing to get on the phone yourself, which takes you away from the group.

It can be reassuring to young people for you to tell them that it’s okay to feel a whole range of emotions right now, from feeling afraid, feeling very little, or feeling like they don’t know what to do or how to react. Tell them that having those feelings is natural.  Let them know that more information about what happened is coming, and that things will feel strange for some time too, but that in time, they’ll get more understanding about the “how’s” and “why’s” (making meaning) of the tragedy, etc.Encourage children in your care, including teens, to talk with their folks about what happened too. It’s not uncommon for some young people to say absolutely nothing to a parent when they get home, etc. It’s okay to remind members of your group or class that (usually) the best ongoing source of support is from their parents. Later on, it’s okay too to remind parents that their child would benefit if they, as parents, made it a point to talk with their child! (Again, some children will tell us days later that mom or dad said nothing to them at all about the loss that they’ve sustained.)

Second Steps (And/or, leading to the next day, etc.)

It’s a delicate line between needing to spend some time checking in with how young people are doing on the “day after” a major crisis or death of a friend or loved one, and offering to get back to a routine. Some, often many, youngsters need to have ongoing support available, which your organization should be providing whenever possible. Other young people though, including many who were equally impacted, have a greater need for the assurance of the normal routines that they are accustomed to. So it’s helpful to be mindful of these needs too.

If your agency, program, church or organization has brought in a crisis team from a trauma response network, great. These folks do excellent work. (More on this later.)  Remember too, the best role that you can play here is not to be the professional grief counselor. When they’re available, let others do this. There’s a tendency for us to want to take care of our own charges, especially in times of major crisis and loss. But generally, young people need you more as their “steady-Eddy,” the person they know and trust, the person that they come back to after meeting with members of a crisis team. These units usually assign a team leader who can work closely with the leadership of your organization so that they can more fully support your community during the first few days following a tragic event, etc.

If the tragedy involved the death of one or more people, it’s a good idea to have a uniform, and accurate, statement of the facts of the cause of death. Young people at this stage of their grieving benefit by factual information….in other words…the truth of what happened and why. Sugar coating things, or worse, making up something because we think that they cannot handle the unpleasant truth (if such is the case) doesn’t help in the end and frequently backfires sooner or later. However, with this said, care should be taken to limit explicit details if the death was caused by suicide, out of concern for the family, of course, and, to limit how news of a suicide might impact other youth who may also be at risk for dangerous behaviors.  Larger organizations, especially schools, etc, should try and develop and accurate statement of the facts that gets distributed to staff/teachers, who then are able to communicate that to their students, etc. Not sharing the facts of what caused a loss of life, or saying nothing at all, just leads to rumors and false information from making the rounds, etc.

It is also helpful to find out when calling hours and related services might be held. Young people take comfort in knowing this as soon as it’s available. (These days, teens, using smart phones and social media, quickly find out on their own anyway, oftentimes before many authority figures do. When the local paper has published the obits, making copies of it and distributing it to teens (not younger children) helps to legitimize and make real the fact that their friend has died, etc.

Third Steps (Days after, up to a week or so after a sudden death of a person)

image looking through window of birch tree, gravestone and stone wall in background

Gravestone and tree in fall

Oftentimes, especially when the cause of death was unknown, etc, an autopsy will be performed. This is almost routine today. Required autopsies can also delay somewhat the beginning of calling hours and the funeral, too. It’s helpful to explain verbally to young people what is happening and why at this stage of things. For many youngsters, this present loss may be the first that they have experienced and they may be genuinely confused and nervous about it all and not want to appear that they have no clue about what’s going on, etc. Again, some parents just don’t share anything with their children about how things go when someone dies suddenly,especially if they feel uneasy about it themselves.

I have found that teens appreciate discussions about what to expect at services, even what to wear and not wear, etc. Letting teens know that this is how we process, make meaning and gain understanding of the loss within community and within our culture is helpful for them to hear about from you also.

Overall considerations of this topic:

  • Does your organization, program or school have a sudden death protocol? If so (And all schools should) what is it? Do you have a copy of it, hopefully before it’s needed?
  • If there are any training events on the topic of grief and loss, and how to respond, consider taking one.
  • Where would/will your own supports be when a sudden death occurs that impacts your organization directly?

Resources:
NOVA: National Organization for Victim Assistance
NASP: National Association of School Psychologists: Dealing with a sudden death within a school’s community (for principals)
Social Workers Help | Grief and Loss Tip Sheet (An excellent resource) 

Text by Kevin Lee.
Tree and Cemetery by K.Lee
(Four Hands from Web)

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