On Tuesday the day broke with bright sunshine. The grass was rimed with sparkling frost and the air was sharp and fresh. It was a perfect morning in early spring.
And the contrast was stark with the devastation and horror that was unfolding across the world in Japan.
While we as adults attempt to make sense and cope with the scenes presented so dramatically and graphically our minds also turn to our children. As we cope with our shock and disbelief, we also consider our students and how they cope with disaster on such a scale.
Such terrible and tragic events have their impact on us in different ways. As adults we seek different solutions. Some of us follow the news with close attention to each unfolding moment. Others immediately reach for a personal connection to make sense of it all. And others need to find a distance from the details as a way of grasping the magnitude while managing the personal and emotional impact.
And all of us have the impulse to take action and help by whatever means we have.
Meanwhile, life in school goes on and it must.
When adults cannot make sense of the scale of the loss and the disaster, it is hard to know what to do for the best. But think of it we must. Much depends on the developmental level of each child and age group. We worry about what to share and how much to explain. Beyond the immediate human concern it may be appropriate to focus on the science, geopolitical implications or global politics. With younger children it is quite another matter to even raise such abstractions.
Loss of any kind reverberates within a community. There is no a simple answer or formula or script for what to do or how to make sense or manage the emotional impact. The fundraiser, the bake sale response has a place and doing something, anything, is helpful.
But we must also pay attention to that which speaks to the human need to cope, build resilience and expand our emotional capacities for empathy and action. There are people now in Japan with the courage, fortitude and selflessness to endure unimaginable hardship and risk their lives for the good of others. The human capacity for altruism and survival is immense. How can that be?
So we worry about whether we doing too much. Or too little. About what to say and what not to say. About what and how much children need to know. And about what will help them remain resilient and optimistic in the face of such loss and suffering.
Our mission calls us to develop educated citizens with global awareness who act with empathy and understanding. But here is a whole nation facing a crisis of unimaginable proportions. And here are our children full of hope and optimism from age 3 to 18.
I share here five points from the psychologist Rob Evans written in response to 9/11. They have relevance now. I wrote to him then asking his permission to quote them. I am assuming that his permission to share still stands:
- It is helpful not to over-assume what the tragedy means to children. They react differently depending on their age, their closeness to the situation, their own personalities, what they hear and are told, and their family’s pattern of communication. Some may be deeply moved, others less so. Some may have many questions, others fewer. Not all will be intensely affected. Showing little reaction does not automatically mean a student is hiding or denying his or her feelings.
- Young people are remarkably resilient. They may become quite upset, but given a chance to express what they feel, they usually resume their normal lives–and often do so more rapidly than we adults. Tragic deaths can actually hit adults harder than they do teenagers or young children. Most young people do not benefit from extensive, probing adult-led questioning about their reactions. They do profit from simple, direct information and from adults being available to respond to their questions and to listen.
- If you receive difficult questions from children it can be useful to understand these before answering them. Often a request for information is spurred not only by curiosity, but by a feeling. Usually, the child already has some idea about this. We may be more helpful if, rather than plunging into an immediate answer, we learn what motivates the question. This is particularly true if the question is a difficult one. Parents can say, “What made you think of that?” or “Can you tell me what you were thinking about?” Also, it can be good to ask “What ideas do you have?” Once you know the meaning of the question, it is easier to answer effectively.
- There may be questions we cannot answer, which can make us feel inadequate. But children and teenagers are typically more comforted by straight talk than by false assurances. Rather than to invent a response, it can be much more helpful to say, “I don’t know,” or, “I’ll try to find out.”
- Coping with a tragedy is not primarily a matter of technique, not something best handled by a “strategy” that deviates sharply from a family’s or a school’s familiar patterns of communication. The routines of school, for example, are all by themselves a source of comforting continuity and assurance. Parents and teachers both will rarely go wrong by relying on what is most basic between them and children–caring and connection. At these times, even if everyone feels deeply upset, your presence–your simply being with them, their knowing that you are available–will be reassuring.
Our hearts and minds go out to the people of Japan.
I welcome your response and suggestions.