Helping Kids Cope with the Death of Friends and Classmates

by | Dec 14, 2012 | Depression and Suicide, Trauma, Grief, Post-Traumatic Stress

How to explain a tragic death of a classmate to their peers and friends

Last year a  tragic fire touched the Windward School community in Connecticut –three children and their grandparents perished. This week a gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut killing twenty school children and their teachers. Our hearts hurt for these children, their families and these communities. A sad truth is that children’s lives are cut all too short and for many reasons–but each time a child dies, families, teachers, and adults grieve, but so too do the child’s friends and classmates.

How to explain tragedy to children and help classmates and a community grieve is written by Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, President of the Child Mind Institute, child psychiatrist and director of the New York University Child Study Center. I’ve reported with Dr. Koplewicz on the TODAY show and serve with him on the advisory board for Parents magazine. He is a true leader in the field. The Child Mind Institute gave me permission to print this after so many parents and educators asked me for advice.

by Harold S. Koplewicz, MD


My heart goes out to all of you struggling with the tragic death of three children in your school community, along with their grandparents, in the fire last weekend.

I wish I could tell you how to spare your own children the pain of this news, both the loss of their friends and classmates and the frightening knowledge that such terrible events can occur, and so close to home. I can’t do that, but what I can do is share what I’ve learned about how to help children process disturbing events in the healthiest way.

As a parent, you can’t protect children from grief, but you can help them express their feelings, comfort them, and help them feel safer. By allowing and encouraging them to express their feelings, you can help them build healthy coping skills that will serve them well in the future.

Break the news

My first and most important suggestion is that you don’t delay telling your children about what’s happened: It’s much better for the child if you’re the one who tells her. You don’t want her to hear from some other child, a television news report, or the headlines on the front page of the New York Post. You want to be able to convey the facts, however painful, and set the emotional tone. And you want to give your child as much time as possible to process the information, and her feelings about it, before she returns to school. Difficult conversations like this aren’t over in one session; expect to return to the topic as many times as your child needs to come to terms with this sad reality.

Answer questions

I suggest that you begin the conversation by telling you child that you have very sad news you need to talk about. Tell him that five members of a family at their school have died in a fire. Tell him their names. Let him know that you feel sad about it—tears are okay, but not hysteria.

Where the conversation goes depends a lot on how old your children are, how well they knew the children who died, and how many questions they have. You want to be prepared to answer (but not prompt) questions about whether the children suffered. You can tell them as calmly as possible that most people who perish in fires die of smoke inhalation, which is like falling asleep. Your goal is to avoid encouraging frightening fantasies. If they ask questions you can’t answer, it’s okay to tell them you don’t know.

Be reassuring

Talking about death is always difficult, but this kind of tragic accident is especially tough because of how egocentric children are: they’re likely to focus on whether something like this could happen to them. So it’s important to reassure you child about how unusual this kind of fire is, and the safety measures you’ve taken at your house or apartment.

Help them express their feelings

In your conversation (and subsequent ones) you can suggest ways your child might remember her friend or classmate: tell stories about things you did together, draw pictures, or write a letter to the girls’ mother. You want to let her know that there will be some kind of service for the children at school, and that she’ll have a chance to share her feelings and memories with other kids at that time. She might want to write letter to the children’s mother; if you’re religious, going to church or synagogue could be valuable.

For Windward Parents: Signs of Trauma

The Teacher’s Role When Tragedy Strikes

What Makes an Event Traumatic for a Child?

Finally, here are some general guidelines for talking to kids about traumatic events.

1. Take your cues from your child.

Invite her to tell you what she has heard about the tragedy, and how she feels. Since many children aren’t able to express their emotions through words, other helpful outlets include drawing pictures, or telling stories about their memories of the classmates who died.

2. Be developmentally appropriate .

Don’t volunteer too much information, as this may be overwhelming. Instead, try to answer your child’s questions.  Do your best to answer honestly and clearly.  It’s okay if you can’t answer everything; being available to your child is what matters.

3. Focus on safety.

A child’s primary concern after this kind of tragedy may be whether it could happen to him. You can let him know that such events are very rare, that you place a high priority on fire safety, and are confident that he and your family are safe. You can also assure him that this kind of tragedy is investigated carefully, to identify causes and help prevent it from happening again. It’s confidence-building for kids to know that we learn from negative experiences.

4. Be calm. 

It’s okay to let your child know if you’re sad, but if you talk to your child about a traumatic experience in a highly emotional way, then he will likely absorb your emotion and very little else. If, on the other hand, you remain calm, he is likely to grasp what’s important: that tragic events can upset our lives, even deeply, but we can learn from bad experiences and work together to grow stronger.

5. Be available.

If your child is upset, just spending time with him may make him feel safer. Children find great comfort in routines, and doing ordinary things together as a family may be the most effective form of healing.

6. Memorialize the children.

Drawing pictures, planting a tree, sharing stories, or releasing balloons can all be good, positive ways to help provide closure to a child. It’s important to assure your child that a person continues to live on in the hearts and minds of others.  

One good way is to plan a school activity in memory of the children who died. Whether it’s planting a garden, or organizing a bake sale to raise money for children in need, it’s helpful for them to feel part of a community that shares their feelings. And in doing something for others they will not only feel good about themselves but will learn a very healthy way to respond to grief.

Published: December 27, 2011

Read Helping Children Deal with Grief for more information.