Supporting Yourself & Your Community After Tragedy

Written collaboratively by Katie Allen, LPC, Alicia Hannigan, LMHC, Portia Hines, LPC, Brendan Duffy, and Kristen Eccleston, Ed. D, NBCT.

When a tragic event happens nationally or in your community, you and your community members may be left unsure how to manage emotions such as fear, grief, sadness, or anxiety.

Many of us struggle to identify what we are feeling, and different people may have different degrees of comfort reaching out to others for support. Additionally, many of you may be struggling to know what to do or say. We’ve assembled some tips for supporting you and your community below.

For Rhithm customers, click here to view a version of this resource that contains additional information on how to use Rhithm alongside these tips.

Get a sense of how your community is doing

Being aware of students and staff who are having difficulty adjusting after exposure to tragedy is essential, and this adjustment can vary from person to person, even presenting in unexpected ways. Signs and symptoms to be mindful of include:
• being easily startled
• overly on-guard
• self-destructive behaviors
• trouble sleeping
• trouble concentrating
• irritability and/or aggressive outbursts
• feelings of shame or guilt
• feelings of numbness and avoidance behaviors

Help support well-being

The videos linked here can specifically help you and your community regulate or understand your feelings.

Primary students
• For regulation: Favorite Things, Beach Getaway, Rainbow Breath
• For understanding: What Are Feelings, It’s Ok to Feel, Connecting When Stressed

Secondary students
• For regulation: Balloon Release, Send Compassion, Neck Stretch Series
• For understanding: It’s Ok to Feel, Tough Times, Connecting When Stressed

Educators
• For regulation: Breath & Reset, Balloon Release, Accepting Help
• For understanding: Tough Times, It’s Ok to Feel

Reach out to students

Without clear communications, fear can quickly spiral out of control. Speaking with your students and community, even if it’s to say that more information is on the way, is a great first start in letting them know they are not alone.

Know that there is no perfect thing to say or “right” way to respond to a tragedy. It is important to allow space for processing and talking about the event, instead of ignoring it or pretending it did not happen. If you are worried about a student, you can always refer them to your school counselor. And, if you are wanting to support your students directly, here are some examples of what a check-in might sound like.

Note: Prior to engaging students in difficult discussions, it is important that you have attended to your own mental well-being needs first. See below for tips on how to do this.

Tips for communicating with students

Ask open-ended questions
• “What feelings are you having about this?”
• “What types of things are you thinking about this event?”
• “What questions do you have?”
• “What are some things that might make you feel more safe?”

Note: If you are asked a question you are unsure of the answer or not prepared to answer, it is always OK to say, “That is a good question. I don’t know the answer”, or “I want to make sure we talk about that, let’s touch base after class.”

Model & normalize feelings
• Children and adolescents look to adults to understand how to emotionally regulate after a tragedy.
• It is healthy to allow your students to see you express emotion, including showing sadness and crying.
• Modeling emotions, and emotion regulation skills can be a powerful way to show empower students to work through their own feelings.
• Normalizing feelings may sound like:
– “It’s ok to feel sad. I feel sad too.”
– “I can understand feeling worried. Something really scary has happened. I’m here with you now to support you in any way that I can.”
– “You might be feeling mad that this has happened. That makes a lot of sense. This scary thing isn’t fair or right. It’s ok to feel mad.”

Use developmentally-appropriate, accurate language
If death has occurred, it is appropriate to be direct and use words such as “died” or “kill” instead of phrases like “not here anymore”, “gone to a better place”, or “At peace now”.

This may sound like:
• “A very sad thing has happened at a school. It is very sad because many people have died.”
• “Someone who is unwell has made an extremely bad choice and killed a lot of people. It is very sad. It’s normal to want to talk about it, so you may hear other kids and adults talking about it. If you have any questions I want you to know you can ask me.”

While honesty is important, sharing excessive details about the event and associated losses is not always helpful

Avoid platitudes
Certain phrases, while they may be helpful to you, are not always helpful to others. Examples include:
• Everything happens for a reason.
• We are never given what we can’t handle.
• Try to look for the good in this situation. Be positive.
• Time heals all wounds.

Book recommendations

Using books and storytelling can be a powerful way to help young students process their feelings and understand feelings of grief and loss. The following are just a few recommended titles.

For primary students

“A Terrible Thing Happened” by Margaret M. Holmes.
This book is about a raccoon, Sherman, who witnessed something “terrible” (the book doesn’t specify what the “terrible” event was) and talks about the physical and emotional ways Sherman was affected.

“The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst
This book can help affirm the connection between a parent and child and explains how we are connected to those we love, even those who have died. (Note- this book does mention heaven). This book has an accompanying workbook of grief and coping skill-related activities to offer further support.

“The Memory Box: A Book About Grief” by Joanna Rowland
This book is about a child who loses a loved one, worries they will forget them, and creates a memory box of the loved one to help cope with their feelings of grief.

“The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn
This book is about a young raccoon who becomes anxious and afraid when the Mother raccoon is not there. The Mother kisses the young raccoon’s hand as a reminder of her love and support. This book can help affirm the parent/child connection and feelings of safety.

“The Rabbit Listened” by Cori Doerrfeld
This book is about a young child experiencing feelings of sadness, frustration, and pain, and the power of listening as a form of support. This book can encourage children to talk about their feelings and sends the message that it’s okay to embrace their emotions.

“Always Remember” by Cece Meng
This book is about a sea turtle who dies and the sea animals remember the ways in which the turtle touched and impacted their lives. This can be a resource in talking about how we can honor the memories of those who have died.

Support yourself as a teacher or administrator

Below are some recommended strategies you can use to care for yourself after a tragedy. It is important that you attend to your own well-being needs before trying to engage in the support of others.

Take space to check-in and sit with your own thoughts and feelings about the event. You can do this by:
• Journaling
• Meditating or Breathing Exercises
• Talk with a trusted colleague, friend, or family member
• Utilize any available PTO or advocate for time off as needed

Be gentle with yourself
• Remind yourself you are human and affected by these events as well
• Remind yourself that you are not alone in having to help your students process these events
• Notice how watching the news is impacting you and know that it is OK to take a break from media and screens

For regulation in-the-moment
• Utilize deep breathing
• Tense and release your muscles in sync with your breath
• Engage in grounding skills
• Splash cold water on your face
• Take a drink of water
• Anchor your feet firmly on the floor and notice the sensations of your feet connected to the solid ground
• Name one thing you can hear, feel, see, touch, and smell

Additional tips and resources

On Media Exposure
• Limiting media exposure is important – for you and your students. Our brains are not able to process the difference between what we see on TV and what happens in real life, and watching news coverage of tragic events can activate a stress response.
• Younger students may have difficulty understanding that the images they see on TV are not live.
• Even if you take efforts to limit media exposure in your community, assume students are aware of the events to some extent.

Awareness of Diverse Needs
When supporting students and staff through trauma, it is important to know how cultural, ethnic, religious, racial, and learning differences impact how individuals process their feelings and emotions. When we account for individuals’ needs in times of stress, students and staff will be better prepared to cope with the stressor of ongoing changes.

Providing Additional Resources
When dealing with the aftermath of tragedy, it is always a best practice to bring in additional support to aid the school community. Access to grief counselors and other outside providers can be critical in ensuring that the school community has access to the level of support they require to help navigate the stress and emotions resulting from the trauma of the event.

Recovery & Rebuilding
Tragic events impact academic and social achievement. Creating a recovery plan that includes interventions to address student and staff mental health is critical in ensuring mental health needs do not go unaddressed. Providing counseling and services directed towards student and staff mental health needs should become part of the daily school culture during the recovery process.

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