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What do we tell children about earthquakes?

Four and a half years ago, I wrote a column about dealing with tragedy and loss in response to Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, I received a phone call from my congregation, asking to reprint the article, to provide it to parents of Sunday school children. With this in mind, I am rewriting that column:
Dealing with tragedy and loss and positive parenting sound incompatible. But they are not!
None of us want our children to know loss or pain, suffering or tragedy. We’d like to insulate them from illness, injury, death, terrorism, and natural disaster. We’d love to preserve their innocence. But that isn’t possible.

Marilyn Sharpe

Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster of staggering and mind-numbing proportions, struck the Gulf Coast. Pictures, stories, and concern for family and friends became all absorbing.
What about all of the other tragedies? The tsunami that devastated the South Pacific the Christmas after Katrina; war in Iraq and Afghanistan; terrorism; plane crashes; school shootings; injustice; death of a loved one; the end of a relationship; or death of a dream.
Now the horror of such enormous magnitude in the aftermath of the earthquakes in Haiti — photos of desolation, stories of heartbreaking loss, the sheer scale of the devastation.
And, what about the children?
As parents, we have no control over the losses our children will experience, but we can be present with them in times of loss and sorrow, teaching them how to live in and through the hardest times. Adults must be their age-appropriate filters and wise guides.
What better gift can you give your child than helping them learn to handle loss and tragedy: Name it, grieve it, find hope in God’s presence and promises, and respond with generosity and care. But, how? Here are a few suggestions:

Try to avoid …

* Telling them that this is God’s plan. (God does not cause death and destruction, but promises to be with us in the midst of loss. God brings hope and a future.)
* Watching televised accounts, hour after hour. Young children, not understanding replays, assume that the tragedy is happening over and over again.
* Talking about it obsessively within earshot of children.
* Assuming kids won’t hear, see, or understand the tragedy.
* Denying, diminishing, or demeaning the loss.
* Insulating them from the loss.

Try to incorporate …

* Telling children, simply, in age-appropriate language, what has happened. (Let them hear it from you.)
* Naming the loss.
* Being present with them.
* Listening to them.
* Answering their questions honestly. (Sometimes, that answer is “I don’t know.”)
* Naming their feelings and giving them permission to feel what they feel.
* Grieving about the tragedy together.
* Imbedding them in a community of love, hope, and faith.
* Sharing and modeling the hope we have in Jesus Christ, who has promised to be with us always, that this life isn’t the end of the story.
* Praying.
* Doing service that makes a difference to others.

Family activities

1. When a tragedy occurs, gather as a family and pray for all affected.
2. Plan one concrete thing that you can do.
3. For a public loss or tragedy, gather names and stories of specific people and pray for one each day.
4. Select or make a special Christmas tree ornament to commemorate a loss, a concern, or a sorrow your family has experienced this year.
5. As a family, donate whatever you can afford to a charity or cause that is making a difference in healing a tragedy the world has experienced this year.
Sharpe is an author, teacher, presenter, and congregational coach for Marilyn Sharpe Ministries, LLC. Her recently published book is For Heaven’s Sake: Parenting Preschoolers Faithfully. Email:; phone: 612/202-8152.

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