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Talking can help community with grieving process

As the first police officer on the scene of last week's murder-suicide in Park Rapids, Mike Mercil must not only deal with his own memories, he must now explain to his young daughter why her beloved daycare provider is not around any more.

For two communities grieving the loss of Greg and Dawn Anderson, both 45, and Kyle Vredenburg, 4, it will fall to the adults to help their children make sense of two tragic events.

The Andersons died Tuesday night in a domestic incident on their front porch in Park Rapids.

Kyle Vredenburg died two nights later when he was accidentally run over by his dad, who was plowing snow in the family driveway in Akeley.

"The community is in need of understanding how to deal with children and how to handle their own grief, primarily understanding that, through a saddened time or tragedies they're going to continue to occur," said mental health clinician Jessica Burkhamer of Lake Country Associates, Inc., in Park Rapids.

An outpouring of grief for the three families involved, for Greg Anderson's, for Dawn Anderson's and for little Kyle's, is to be expected, three mental health professionals say.

Burkhamer, Jean Greseth and Dawn Pappas are all Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers with Masters of Social Work degrees at Lake Country.

Talking is good for the community, they said Monday. Dealing with grief and loss issues is hard for adults, who must deal with their own emotions while helping their children.

A wealth of help is available online, Pappas said, particularly from the National Center for Grieving Children and Families.

Generally the experts recommend:

n Deal with grief and loss as quickly as possible.

n Understand that kids need "facts that are developmentally appropriate, that they can understand," Greseth advises.

Although toddlers and pre-schoolers can't grasp the finality of death, they will pick up on the emotions of the adults and sense something is wrong.

n Tell the truth.

"I think you do say, 'No your daycare provider is not coming back, she's not on vacation,'" Greseth said. "Something bad happened and she's not coming back. They don't need the details because that would be too traumatic for them."

Don't tell kids the victims went to sleep or were taken by God or children will fear both, the social workers recommended.

Pappas said "if parents told their children something in distress last week, there's no reason" they can't re-visit the topic for fear of re-injuring the child.

"It's never too late" to correct the record, Pappas suggested.

"It's all about the fact you go back to," Burkhamer suggested. "She (or he) had an injury and she couldn't recover from it and she passed away."

And the women suggested parents use a deceased pet or relative to put the loss into perspective.

Both adults and children will manifest symptoms of grief, the women said, in sleeplessness, loss of appetite, anger, and vocal outbursts. Stay on schedule and try to maintain a healthy lifestyle, complete with exercise, to curb the stress hormone adrenalin.

n It's OK to cry in front of your child.

"Absolutely," the women said in unison. What's most important is to open the lines of communication between adults and children and listen, they suggest.

Children who have lost a playmate or teacher might become clingy and insecure. Assure them they're safe, the women suggest. But if kids keep pressing for details, it's OK to tell them sometimes bad things happen.

And particularly with younger kids, have them "draw pictures, make cards, do things that are symbolic of getting their feelings out," Greseth said.

n Be patient. Sometimes when you least expect it, kids will bring up a sad event out of the blue, even weeks later. Adults regress when they're sad. Children will, too. Kids may wet the bed or cry more.

"It's not a reason to ask for help at that point because that's where family support is very important," Pappas said.

n Keep the person in your memory without dwelling on the loss. Plant a tree with a child to take care of over the years in the deceased person's name.

Burkhamer said although some may disagree, a balloon release is often therapeutic for smaller kids.

Adults attend funerals to give them closure. Kids may need their own ceremonial gesture depending on their culture and religion.

n Watch what you say and who your audience is. Don't bring up gruesome details around children who can't absorb them. Don't let older siblings discuss tragedies with younger siblings in graphic detail. Kids can be overwhelmed, the women suggest. But it's OK to express anger, disappointment or frustration.

n Take advantage of crisis lines. For adults, dial 1-800-422-0863, for kids dial 1-800-422-0045.

n Monitor children's behavior. If the symptoms of grief or loss persist weeks or months, it could be reassuring to bring them to a professional for an initial visit if family, a pastor or a close friend can't provide the support they need.

"It's OK to talk about it and talk about it as long as you need to talk about it," Greseth said. "As long as it's on your mind."

"We're a very strong community," Burkhamer said. "The unfortunate thing is that two tragedies occurred in the same week."

"It tends to overwhelm people when you have them so close together and so severe so it challenges most people," Pappas said. "That's why I think it's unified that the community as a whole is going to be feeling some level of distress."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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