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Developmental Activity Guide for Families to Deal With Grief and Tragedy

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“When you fall down before God in prayer, become in your thought…like a tiny lisping child. Do not say anything before Him with knowledge, but with a child’s manner of thought draw near to God and walk before Him, that you may be counted worthy of that paternal providence.”- Saint Isaac the Syrian

Indeed it is true when our Lord says that we must be like children. “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)

The innocence of children is a beautiful thing. Our Lord points to a little child as an example of a disciple of Christ. Little children are innocent, simple, humble and loving. An example of this is when a child, in the midst of fear and anxiety, holds on to their parents as tight as they can. A child has full confidence that their parent will protect and watch over them.

As children of God, we too have a loving parent, God the Father, to watch over us and protect us. He will be with us always. Children need to be taught this – and what better example can we share with them than God, our loving Father, protecting us.

Children develop at all different levels and stages. While two siblings might experience the same thing, they understand and comprehend this same event at two different and distinct levels. To help our children better deal with the tragic events that took place on September 11, the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries is providing this Developmental Activity Guide to Deal with Grief and Tragedy for Families. We pray that this will assist you in nurturing your child.

This guide highlights some of the social-emotional milestones that children are experiencing at different ages. Below each stage, we have provided a few activities that may help your child (and you) deal with this tragedy. Some of the activities are appropriate to do with different ages as well-- so use your judgment. You know your child best. We have also provided a suggested reading list for children. This is a small sample of the wonderful resources available through children’s literature to help your child with this tragedy.

General Suggestion that Cross the Ages

Not only is this a stressful time for children but for adults as well. With everything going on in the world, it is easy to forget what matters most. Our children need us more than ever to pray with them, hold them, listen to them and play with them. There are many terrible things going on in the world but in the eyes of your child, you have a reminder of God’s love. Let His love guide you and your family through this difficult time. More than anything our children need our time to help them heal this loss. Below are some general suggestions for all ages.

  • Pray – St John Kronstadt said, “Prayer is the destruction of fear.” Pray for your child and with your child. Teach your child how to pray using prayers, hymns, Psalms and Services of the church. Let them see you praying!

  • Listen – As adults, we often spend time talking to children; now is a time to listen. Don’t try to tell them how they feel or attempt to fix what they are feeling. Just listen and let them know you hear them. Be available to them and talk to them on their terms. If they are not ready to talk, don’t force them to. Listening to children takes special skills. They might not be able to tell you what they are feeling or even know what they are feeling. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart.

  • Read – Reading is a very powerful tool for all ages. Use books to spark discussion and help make sense of this difficult subject. Even if children can read for themselves have them read the books with you. If they are “too old” for children’s books, have them read them to younger siblings. Some of the suggested books are only appropriate for certain ages, but many are classics that transcend age. Read to them from the bible. There are many stories of God taking something bad and making it work for His Glory… just look at the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

  • Hold – Touch is our most powerful sense. During difficult times, it can communicate what words cannot. Holding your child can help reassure them that you are there for them and can help you remember that there is still good in the world. Hold on tight and thank God that He has blessed you with the precious gift of your child.

  • Play – During times of extreme trial, we think it inappropriate to play. Play is how children and adults relieve stress. Even though it will be hard, find sometime to play, laugh and relax for yourself and your children.

  • Turn Off the TV – Many of us have been fixed to the television since the tragedy occurred on September 11th. We spend hours watching the horrible events played over and over again. Seeing this over and over impacts us as adults. The stress felt when seeing this is compounded for children. Very young children should avoid watching these television images. Even though you think they may be too young to comprehend what is going on, they are taking in more than you may think. Elementary age children and adolescents should watch limited television. It is advisable that a parent be present to talk with them afterwards when appropriate.

  • Get Help – This is a very stressful time for families and for our nation. You do not need to live close to the tragedy sites or even know someone affected by this to be having a difficult time. Know when you or you child needs more help. Talk to your parish priest or counselor.

Birth to 18 months

Young children grow and develop rapidly. No time is this more apparent than the first 18 months of life. Think of a newborn and then think of an 18 month old, --total dependence to blossoming and sometimes brazen independence. Newborns enter this world and use their parents to help them make sense and help them participate in the world around them. Their parents are their world. As they grow, day-by-day, week-by-week and month-by-month, their world starts to expand. Little ones don’t understand what is wrong in the world, but they do know something is wrong…even a newborn. They can feel the anxiety in their parents’ touch and voice and in the disturbance of their daily routines.

The most important thing you can do to help children at this age is take care of yourself. Babies are upset when their parents are upset. Try to keep your daily schedule as normal as possible. Take time to love, hold and pray with your baby.

Activities

  • Pray – Gather you little on in your arms as you ask God to guide you through this difficult period and thank him for all of the blessings in your life. As you feed your baby, rock them to sleep or comfort them with hymns of the church like “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal” or “Save O Lord Your People” As babies turn into toddlers, kneel with them by their bed to say prayers. As they become more verbal, encourage them to add their voice to their prayers.

  • Go for a Walk! - Being outside can be relaxing for everyone. Talk to your little one and point out different things you see like flowers, trees and American flags. When you point things out, take them up closer for a better look. Walk by your church and go in and light a candle with your little one. Let them get a closer look at some of the icons and tell them what they are.

  • Parent Baby Groups – See what parent baby groups are offered in your community or church or start one with friends. These groups offer fun and support for parents and their babies. Being around other parents during this tragedy can help alleviate loneliness and fears about the future that parents may be experiencing.

  • Get Moving - Put on a tape of patriotic music, sing and dance around with your baby. If your child is upon their own feet, get on your knees and dance with them. It will lift your spirits, they will have fun and it will begin familiarizing them with songs about our country.

Suggested Books

  • Love You Forever by Robert Munsch The beautiful book is about unconditional love. Even a newborn will understand you as you hold them and repeat the books chorus, I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always forever and every my baby you’ll be” The chorus sounds best when sung. Don’t worry your baby will love your voice because it is your voice!

  • The Big Book of Beautiful Babies by David Ellwand – This is a beautiful photo book of babies. Happy babies, sad babies, awake babies, asleep babies are all in here. Babies love looking at pictures of other babies. This book shows babies experiencing different feelings and is a great introduction into feelings.

18 months to 36 months

Children at this age are developing who they are separate from their parent. They are venturing away from parents more, but from time to time, will become clingy and insecure with previously accepted situations. These 18 months are a huge time for emotional development. They will begin to display jealousy, fear, anger, sympathy, modesty, guilt joy, frustration and pride. As these emotions emerge, children will struggle with how to express them. They understand the concept of being hurt and can sympathize with those who have been hurt.

Although little ones can’t comprehend what is going on with this tragedy, they are more aware that something is up. They will need reassurance of your love and protection. If they ask questions, keep answers very simple; “some people did something very bad and what they did hurt a lot of people.” Reassure them that you are there to protect them and that God is watching over us all.

Activities

  • Pray – Make a photo book with pictures of family member and close friends. You can make this as simple or as fancy as you want. The easiest way is to put pictures in a mini photo book and write the names of the people under the pictures. Keep this by your child’s bed so that when they say their prayers they can flip through the book. You can teach them to say God watch over Johnny” and then sing, “Lord have mercy” after each person they pray for. Older toddlers can add specifics to the prayers, “God watch over Daddy because he is traveling for work.”

  • I Spy a Flag - Have them help you put a flag up at your house. Point out the colors, stripes and stars. Tell them in simple language what the flag is. Then go for a walk and see how many flags your child can find.

  • God Bless America – This is a simple song that young children can learn through repetition. Make up hand motions for mountains, valleys, oceans and other words in the song. The more they get to move while singing the better. Have them march around while you sing together or pull out pots and pans and have them play the drums while you both sing.

  • Baking - Make star shaped sugar cookies with your little one. You can have them frost them with red white and blue frosting. Point out how the stars look like the stars on the flag. Take them to your churches coffee hour or to a neighbor’s house. Children at this age will like to share what they made with others.

Suggested Reading

  • Baby Faces by Margaret Miller – A great book to explore emotions and begin teaching little ones about feelings! Tie it into their life “Oh that baby is sad! She looks like you did when you fell down and hurt your self. Were you sad then?” Little ones love looking at the real expressive pictures in this book.

  • Guess How Much I Love You? by Sam McBrotney – This is a very sweet book that toddlers love. This is a fun way to reassure them of your love. Build on it at the end by asking, Guess how much God loves you?”

Preschool Age Children (3 and 4)

At this age, children have a better understanding that their emotions are caused by something. Their emotions are more diverse and organized. It is not uncommon for children at this age to develop new fears. These fears are cause from a widening understanding of the world around them and increased independence.

Preschool children are probably aware of the tragedy, even if they are not discussing it. It is important for them to have an opportunity to express their concerns; sometimes this can be done through pretend play and drawing. Preschool children probably have some real fears associated with what they have heard. When talking with them, try to first get an understanding of what they know, understand and fear. Then keep things simple; don’t give more details than they ask for. Long explanations of the event will cause confusion and more fear. Reassure them that you are there for them and that God is watching over us all to keep us safe.

Activities

  • Pray - Make a book of fears. This will help preschoolers better understand what their fears are. Once they know what they are, you can discuss how to overcome them and have them pray for help with them. To make the book, you can either have them draw things that scare them or cut pictures out of a magazine. Help them to pray to God for help with these fears, “God keep me safe from…” Have them sing, Grant this O Lord” after each prayer.

  • Draw Pictures - Have them draw a picture of their day, the tragedy or their fears. After they draw the picture, have them tell you about it. Write what they say at the bottom and make sure to put the date. This is a good way for them to express what is troubling them before they are able put it into words and can be a springboard for discussion.

  • Make a Flag - Have them Paint a flag on a white sheet. You can outline the stars and stripes for them and have an example nearby of what it will look like when it is done. Find a book at your local library about the making of the flag. Begin to teach them the Pledge of Allegiance.

  • Give Thanks - If they hear about the rescue efforts going on, have them make a thank you card for the rescue workers, volunteers, government leaders. Make sure you mail it to them.

  • Pretend Play – Pretend Play gives children the opportunity to make sense of chaos. As a parent, you should be there to support their play and follow their lead. Have things that they may have heard about through the recent events available; fire trucks, blocks, dump trucks, ambulances and anything else you can think of. Don’t use playtime to start a discussion; just play. Immediately afterwards, you can reflect back on their play, When we were playing, your doll seemed very scared of the fire truck. Do fire trucks scare you? What do you think is scary about them?”

Suggested Reading

  • The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn This wonderful book helps children learn to deal with fears of separation from parent.

  • My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss – This is a great way to begin talking with preschoolers about feelings and how they change. You can use this to discuss feelings on different days by asking your child, “What color day are you having?”

  • How Do I Love You? by PK Hallinan An adaptation of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s classic. Read through this and afterwards have them tell you, how God loves them and how they love God.

  • Where Do Balloons Go When They Say Goodbye by Jamie Lee Curtis – This book is about saying goodbye and wondering where things go when they leave. It can be a springboard for discussing loss and learning how to say goodbye.

Kindergarten to Second Graders

At this age, the fears children had in preschool have decreased. Categorization of people into race and social status are not something that they fully understand. They will be very aware of what is going on with the tragedy. They also may have a lot of misinformation from friends at school.

Find out what they know and provide them with simple facts. Discuss their fears and let them know that the leaders in this country and other countries are working very hard to make sure this does not happen again. Let them know that you are there for them and that God is watching over us all.

Activities

  • Pray - Teach them the hymn, “Lord of the Powers” (a hymn from the service of Great Compline) to help them in times of difficulty. Get them an icon of the guardian angel. Explain to them that their guardian angel is sent by God to watch over them and keep them safe.

  • Memorial Tree - Plant a tree in memory of those that we have lost to this tragedy. Have them help research what would be the best tree for where you live to pay tribute. They can help you dig the hole and put it into the ground. Decorate the tree with red, white and blue ribbons. Say a prayer with your child for all those we have lost to this tragedy. Read The Fall of Freddy the Leaf while sitting near your new tree.

  • Making Friends - This is a wonderful art project for young children and an excellent way for them to send thought to children personally touched by this tragedy. Children make a paper doll with a message for a young person in crisis due to this tragedy. All the materials are online and it is free. The organization will deliver the “friend” to the child in need. Click here for more information.

  • Lemonade Stand - Some children in New Jersey opened a lemonade stand to raise money for the relief effort. On the stand, was an American Flag and a sign that said “For all policemen and firemen, your lemonade is free!” People were lined up down the block to get the lemonade. What a beautiful way to teach young children to help out! Be it lemonade, cookies or popcorn let the young people make it themselves. It doesn’t matter if they raise $5 or $50, the lesson they are learning is invaluable.

  • Make Memorial Ribbons – Have children make memorial ribbons in red white and blue for people to wear around. Have them pass them out at church, youth group or their school.

Suggested Reading

  • Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou – This is a poem brought to life by wonderful illustrations. This book discusses common childhood fears. It is an excellent preface to discussing fears that children have.

  • Today, I Feel Silly by Jamie Lee Curtis – This book explores emotions and the need to express them. The book lightly dances around all the different emotions people feel. It is a great way for young people to further explore the different emotions they feel.

  • The Fall of Freddy the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia – A classic for all ages! This is a wonderful story of the seasons of life. This book has beautiful photographs about the life of a leaf. This will spark discussion of death and heaven.

Third to Sixth Graders

Children of this age are more logical thinkers. They can take a series of distant events and relate them together. They understand the ability to feel more than one emotion at a time such as love and hate. They are more aware of leadership roles and the world than early elementary school children.

As with younger children, find out what they know and provide them with facts. It is not helpful to give them false reassurance, “Don’t worry we are totally safe now.” This will just make them feel like they can’t really discuss the issue with you. Let them know that the leaders in this country and other countries are working very hard to make sure this does not happen again. Let them know that you are there for them and that God is watching over us all.

Activities

  • Pray – Make sure your child has a prayer book. If they do not, you can help make one using, hymns of the church, Psalms and prayers from Orthodox prayer books. Encourage children to write their own prayers and a list of people they want to pray for.

  • Make a Donation – Encourage them to give to the relief effort. Children at this age are becoming aware of money and teaching them to give of their money as well as their time and talents is important. Have them send money to the relief fund from their allowance.

  • Creating A Story - Children at this age enjoy creating stories. Have them either write or draw a story based on the events that have occurred and their feelings. You can make it a collective family project and have everyone contribute. You can have someone write, someone draw and someone to find a prayer to add to the end of the story.

  • Make an Emergency Plan – As a family, sit down and come up with a plan for emergencies. Look specifically at some of your child’s fears. For example, if they are scared that they won’t be able to get in touch with you to find out if you are okay because the phone lines are jammed, give them an out of state relatives number to use as an emergency check in for all family member (since it is easier to dial out of the area than in).

  • American Caroling – Organize a group of your child’s friends an visit a convalescent hospital. Have them sing American songs such as, “God bless America” and The Star Spangled Banner.” Also have them sing a hymn from the church such as, “Save O Lord Your People.” They could also pass out American flags or make tribute ribbons. In addition, you could call your local fire department and stop by there to sing and drop off some cookies or a cake to say thanks for all they do (make sure to call first).

Suggested Reading

  • What’s Heaven by Maria Schriver A wonderful book that discusses death and what happens to people after they die. The author wrote this in answer to questions her own daughter was having after the death of a loved one.

  • Feelings by Aliki – Another great way to explore what your child’s feelings are. This book explores feelings in a lighthearted way that makes it interesting for children.

  • The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wild A beautiful tale for all ages. This is a story of a mean person turned kind through the love of a child…Christ. This book deals with death, resurrection and love.

  • The Tale of Three Trees by Angela Hunt – Another book that can be appreciated by all ages. This classic shows how God is able to take something that at first seems bad and makes it good.

Junior High and High School Students

Adolescents are able to think more abstractly than younger children. They will have a better understanding of the events that have occurred and an understanding that the impact of them is larger than the tragedy itself. Adolescents are very interested in concepts of justice, equality, power and control. They will also have many more questions regarding these concepts and issues of faith. They probably have many fears about the future but may not want to discuss it or admit that they are scared.

Parents need to be there to listen to their teen. Ask questions and spend time with them. As adults, this situation is frightening and we have many questions. When talking with teens, we should be open and honest about what we can’t answer and what frightens us. We should not belittle their concerns by telling them not to worry or telling them everything will be all right. Be strong in your conviction that God will make this better, “We know that in all things God works for good for those who love Him.” (Romans 8:28)

Activities

  • Pray – Teach them about using a prayer rope with the Jesus prayer, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” Have them attend Paraklesis service (make sure they have a service book to follow along). Tell them that this service is an intercessory service for those who are sick or suffering. Have them make a list of people they would like prayed for during the service.

  • Attend Memorial Services – Our churches and communities are holding many prayers and memorial services. These are important to help remember those we have lost and to help us heal the loss. It may be difficult for some young people to attend these but it is very important (even for young children).

  • Time Capsule – Have them put together a collection of photos, items, writings (both from the paper and their own) on the event. Have them burry this in a garden (or you can store it in a closet). Bring it out next September 11th in remembrance. Add to it reflections on the event.

  • Creative Expression – Writing, drawing and other creative art forms can help us organize our thoughts on a subject that is too difficult to talk about. Encourage your teen to draw and write what they are feeling. Encourage them to share with others who are grieving this loss (friends, parish community, local newspaper). Be respectful if they do not want to share their creation.

  • Volunteer Time – Find out what the Red Cross needs and have your child either volunteer to help or organize a drive to gather what they need. Consider that many people want to help out with this tragedy so the different volunteer coordinating centers are somewhat overwhelmed with the outpouring of help. Perhaps there is a local charity that needs some attention due to a shift in volunteer focus (convalescent homes, homeless shelters…).

Suggested Reading

  • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein Definitely one for adolescents and adults as well a children. This talks about unconditional love and the span of life.

  • Putting together the Pieces of your Life by Anthony Conairis – This book dissects the passage We know that in all things God works for good to those who love Him.” (Romans 8:28). It is a short book that is easy for adolescents to read and helps make sense of bad things that happen in the world.

  • Daily Vitamin’s for Hurting Hearts by Anthony M. Coniaris – The 4th in a series of Vitamin books. This book provides a daily meditation to help those dealing with grief.

  • Sermons & Editorials – As older children are more aware of the whole situation, expose them to different articles and editorials in the paper.