When a Public Figure Dies

Helping Children Cope

As we mourn and react to the death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and fellow helicopter passengers, we at OUR HOUSE are struck by the ways feelings arise when a public figure dies.  The initial shock that many experienced upon learning of his death was followed by feelings of grief by those who felt a personal connection to Mr. Bryant.

When a favorite musician, TV personality, sports figure, or other public figure dies, adults struggle to find the words to comfort and support their children because we may feel a closeness despite never having met. The acquired intimacy from growing up with these public figures and following their careers makes their death a personal loss. Unsure of the “right” words or fearing strong reactions, adults may avoid the topic altogether. Far too often children are left alone, struggling to understand why bad and scary things happen and searching for ways to cope.

One of the most important teachings grief specialists want others to know is that grief doesn’t conform to any uniform stage model, it is instead a unique experience for each human being journeying through it.
The following are some suggested ways to approach the subject, address feelings, and provide a sense of safety and comfort for children:
  • First, determine if your child learned about this traumatic event by asking, “Has anything happened today that you have questions or feelings about?” It’s okay for them not to know, especially if they are very young.
  • Respect your child’s need to know and assess their level of exposure to the facts. Be prepared to add information if the child wants to know details. Answer in an age-appropriate and honest way, e.g., “He died in a tragic accident,” instead of “Your friend is no longer with us.
  • Provide a safe environment for your child to express their concerns and feelings. Let them know that all of their feelings are okay. If you’re feeling general sadness over the death, it’s okay for the child to see it. Just reassure them that you are strong enough to support them when they experience their own feelings related to the death.
  • Address your child’s fears for their own safety by offering reassurance that this was very rare occurrence and most airplane/helicopter flights are very safe.
  • Limit exposure to news coverage and adult conversations about the traumatic event as much as possible. Turn off the television and monitor internet usage.
  • Decrease night-time anxieties when preparing your child for bedtime by turning off television and computers and engaging in soothing activities such as listening to soft music, warm baths and for young children, reading bedtime stories.
  • Seek professional help if your child exhibits extreme changes in their sleeping, eating, mood or if you are concerned about the way your child is behaving.
  • Model healthy ways to cope including talking to someone you trust, exercising, listening to music, eating healthy meals and knowing that all feelings are okay.
  • While it’s a normal response to search for a reason and/or place blame when something bad or scary happens, understand there will be times when we can’t.
  • Honor the memory of those who died and decrease feelings of helplessness by making a card or sending a donation to the families and schools affected by the tragedy.

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