by Sarah Montgomery, LCSW-C
Several months ago, I received a call from an elementary school counselor who was concerned about one of her students. Her student, “Mark,” had experienced the death of his sister who died by suicide. Mark had been the one to find his sister, immediately after she had died, in the home. In his deep grief, he was processing traumatic images of how his sibling had died.
As children often do, he brought his concerns to school and began sharing details about his sister’s death with his classmates. His classmates became uncomfortable with some of the graphic details and began to avoid Mark. So on the playground and elsewhere, he felt left out at a time when he most needed support and companionship.
Some children refrain from sharing any of their stories with others. Other children feel a need to “tell their story” frequently. This retelling is often how a child processes a traumatic loss. Yet, it may be hard to regulate words or make instant judgments about what, where and when to share. Therefore, children may need strategies to help them determine when to tell their story and to whom. One such strategy involves talking with kids about the distinction between “private” and “secret.”
I spoke with the counselor about this idea of “private vs. secret”. For example, how Mark’s sister died, or even the specific circumstances of her death, are not secret. There is nothing to be ashamed of and nothing that needs to be hidden. However, there is some information in our lives that we keep more privately. An example I use with kids (kids love anything to do with “going to the bathroom”!)—is that of having a bad tummy ache. If I had a bad tummy ache and needed to run to the bathroom frequently, it is certainly not a secret. But, I may only share the details of my bathroom visits with a few people—maybe my parents, my teacher, maybe the nurse.
So paralleling this, how someone dies is not a secret—there is no reason to be ashamed. But, like other private situations, you may want to choose only a few folks with whom to share these details. We want children’s first experiences in telling their trauma narrative to be met with support and kindness so they do not shy away from sharing other painful personal feelings. It is important to reinforce with your child that it is okay to talk about anything at all–even uncomfortable or scary things—with you or their special helping hands people.