OPINION: How do we communicate tragedy to children?

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the principal of Sanders Corner Elementary School in Ashburn was struck by a vehicle while out walking in the neighborhood around the school and listening to music through headphones. Hit by a teen driving a Dodge Durango, Kathleen Hwang was pronounced dead later that afternoon at an area hospital. Amidst the outpouring of support for this beloved principal, an interesting phenomenon emerged: the adults and students were grieving in different ways.

The parents took to the internet, proclaiming diatribes against the immaturity of young drivers, the distractive nature of technology, the hazardous conditions of walking in suburbia and the unnecessary dangers of an SUV. They pointed fingers at the driver’s ignorance and Mrs. Hwang’s negligence, action that's instilled the general suffering of a community burdened by a tragic and unexpected loss. In short, the adults sought to find the blame for this tragic loss and place it wherever it seemed most logical in light of their emotional condition.

The children, raised by this principal to know the values of community engagement, took a different approach. The four Nealon kids, who have all had Mrs. Hwang as a principal, made memorial placards and placed them outside the school’s main entrance after their mother told them what had happened. These few cards soon grew into a heaping pile of cards, flowers, posters, stuffed animals, balloons and many other expressions of grief over the loss. Some of the kids, particularly those who had known Mrs. Hwang for their entire five years at the school, wrote condolence letters to her grandsons, having been inspired by their relationship to Mrs. Hwang and the school. Where the parents wanted answers, the children sought ways to heal: amidst the intense grief of sudden and unexpected loss of such a beloved figure, the children wanted to help each other.

In a larger sense, this speaks to how we, as a society, engage tragedy. Be it as national a tragedy as 9/11 or as local as the death of a principal, schools face a balancing act when it comes to communicating tragedy to students. On the one hand, it is nearly impossible to ignore the death of a ubiquitously known community member. At the same time, schools do not want to interfere with decisions parents make in regard to their children’s access to information. Therefore, the conundrum facing schools becomes how to heal as a community while still respecting the individual needs of those community members, a sensitive issue complicated by the context of that community including children.

Is someone right here? Are the parents correct to attempt to locate blame? Are the children more mature or more naive for turning to memorialization first? In many ways this divergence reflects the uniqueness within our common humanity, the idea that each of us responds differently to stimuli. And while the responsibilities associated with driving and the role technology plays in our lives are worthy topics of discussion, something must be said about the children who so innocently and organically express grief without anger.

Should we treat children differently when communicating tragedy? No parent wants to scar their children, causing more pain in ways that cannot necessarily be seen; too often, then, the solution becomes to avoid having conversations with children about sensitive subjects. Yet omission of truth is as false as the commission of a lie, both compromising the incident’s verisimilitude. And as demonstrated earlier, a parent simply communicated the untimely death of a beloved mentor, and did not need to take steps to communicate how to respond to that tragedy. Considering the reaction of many of the students from Sanders Corner Elementary, the point can hardly be argued that these children should have been shielded from knowledge; if anything, reticence on the part of the adult community may have itself been more detrimental to the children.

Nothing can be done to change the facts of a tragedy and the loss of a devoted principal. Yet the community that this loss has most affected can alter how it internalizes and communicates that tragedy and others that may arise. As demonstrated, learned adults and innocent children dealt with such a tragedy in vastly different ways, shedding light on how a community can properly heal. In other words, we have a lot to learn from those we want most to protect.

Opinions expressed in this column are solely the beliefs of the writer. 

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