A Child's Experience of Trauma

Author: Lisa Hudson

My son's experience has been unique. Will never knew his father, yet he has experienced the grief of absence, growing up without a father. It surfaced first when he went to first grade and recognized that other boys had dads who went fishing with them, did Cub Scout projects and campouts, let them help around the house, or played football in the backyard.

Lisa Hudson and son Will

It surfaced again between his sixteenth and seventeenth year, following another loss. He actually grieved for a life he dreamed of, a father he never knew and wished to know, for being without a father to do things with, share his life, to guide him, to be proud of, and to imitate. He began to desire to be more like him, even deciding to become a doctor, like his father. 

Will wanted to see pictures, newspaper articles, and magazine articles about the event. We got out letters John had written so Will could see his handwriting, read his words. He even tried on his shoes. Will wanted to be with his friends more, and he wanted to talk to them about it. He withdrew from me. He cried and mourned and, of course, I felt a resurgence of my own grief when he was going through his. Once again, I had to find ways to take care of myself.

What May Help Your Children 

  1. Encourage but don't force them to talk to you, a trusted friend, or a clergyperson. If the details of their trauma distress you, get extra help from a therapist trained to work with victims of trauma.
  2. Let them draw about their feelings. Art is one way children process their feelings of trauma and emotional pain. From their drawings, you may even learn what particular aspects of the trauma are most distressing them.
  3. Let them play out their feelings. One friend of mine whose husband died in a plane crash had a four-year-old son who would play with toy airplanes and have them "crash." This play-acting of the trauma would trigger a flood of emotions and cause her significant distress while he was doing this. She recognized it was his way of processing the trauma. So she would leave the room, but let him keep playing out his feelings.
  4. Help them develop rituals to remember the person who died.
  5. It's okay for them to see you cry and mourn. That gives them permission and freedom to do the same. It's not good for you to hold everything in, or pretend everything is okay, because they won't feel safe to let their feelings show.
  6. It's not good for children to feel abandoned by you too. If you find that you are isolating yourself too much or not being there for them, you need to seek help. Try not to become involved in intense new or intimate relationships too soon after a traumatic loss. It may distract you from your pain and make you feel better temporarily, but will take time and attention away from your priorities: yourself and your children. Children need and depend on you to be available emotionally and physically for them. They cannot do it for themselves. They need to feel secure and safe by your being there for them. If you take care of their smaller fires now, you won't be putting out bigger fires later. If you aren't emotionally and physically available for your children when the trauma and loss occurs, you will pay a higher price later.
  7. Know that you will probably have a higher need for control than ever before, because a trauma leaves you feeling so out of control. You have experienced something unanticipated. You may find yourself being overly protective for a while. Communicate this to your children and explain why you may need more reassurance of their whereabouts than before.
  8. Communicate often to your children that they are loved, wanted, and needed. Hold and hug them frequently. They may feel much more afraid than ever, and the world feels just as unsafe to them or more so than it feels to you.
  9. Let them know it is not their fault.
  10. Provide information as is necessary.
  11. Keep the child a part of the family unit. Don't send them away from home too much. They need to be a part of the grief process, the support, and the healing process.
  12. If you need a break, locate resources to help you find time for yourself. Arrange sitters, family, or friends to keep your children for a few hours every week or even an hour each day at first when you need to decompress.
  13. Do not depend or rely on your children to be your sounding board. They do not need to feel responsible for helping you cope. It is too much of a burden for them. Get your own counselor, and try to journal your feelings or save your most problematic emotional conflicts until you meet with your counselor. It frightens children to see a parent hysterical or losing control. They feel there will be no one to take care of them.
  14. Most importantly, get help for yourself first. You cannot help your children unless you help yourself.

Be aware that a grief reaction may surface years later in children as they go through different developmental stages of understanding the loss. Don't think something is necessarily wrong with their need to process their loss at different times in their life. Get professional help if other aspects of the child's life seem affected (school performance, peer relationships, conduct, mood changes, behavior changes, developing nervous habits like nail biting, hair pulling, bed wetting, picking at their skin, angry outbursts, headaches, stomachaches, frequent physical complaints, or isolation). 

After one year following a trauma, many children show few or no symptoms. But it's not uncommon to observe symptoms recurring years later when they are reminded of or confronted with situations which cause their loss  to resurface. 

Having my son gave me a reason to get up every morning. He gave me a reason for living when I had lost mine, and we have learned a lot on our journey together. He is the greatest proof that one can indeed recover from traumatic loss. In our school of trauma, Will is my report card, and I think I got an A.

[Excerpted from How Do We Tell the Children by Dan Schaeffer]

An Afterword by Will Hudson 

I was three months old when my dad was sent to Beirut and eight months old when he died. I have no memory of him; I have no memory of the day he died; and I have no memory of any of the days, months, and immediate years that followed. I have never heard my father's voice and I have never seen his face. Every joyful milestone in my life has also been a painful reminder of what I was also missing. 

My mom never remarried; I spent my entire life as an only child of a single parent. She was my best friend growing up and will always be my hero. We did not succumb. We are survivors and fighters.   

There are days that I see my son, and I am overcome with such emotion that I sob tears of joy. The person I am, the person I want to be, the husband I want to be, the father I want to be, have all been defined by Beirut.  

Lisa HudsonBy Lisa Hudson, RN, MS, Surviving spouse of Navy Lt. John Hudson: Lisa Hudson raised her son Will in the aftermath of the loss of her husband. She also went on to earn a master’s degree in psychiatric and mental health nursing to add to a bachelor’s degree in nursing. She was Board Certified as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing in 1995 and had her own practice. She also became a licensed esthetician and certified life coach. She is now retired and enjoying her grandson while offering volunteer assistance to those suffering grief and loss, parenting issues, depression, and PTSD.