When we lost our house in Napa in the 2017 Nun’s Fire, my immediate instinct was to get our children out of the area, away from the smoke, somewhere comfortable and familiar. Fortunately, my sister lives in Santa Barbara and was able to take us in for a couple of weeks. It was a wonderful soft-landing for my kids (Anna, 4 and Willa, 2), especially because they got bonus cousin time and escaping the grim scene and constant radio and TV coverage of the fires bought me some time to figure out how I would communicate the news to the kids on my own terms.
In all honesty, in my heart I wanted to shield them from this news entirely, to walk away from Napa and never turn back, and to pretend the whole thing never happened. But I consulted with every person I could think of who had any experience or expertise in this area and every single one of them confirmed what I’d feared: I had to tell them the truth, no sugar coating.
There are many more knowledgeable people than I on this particular topic but having taken their advice, I’m glad I did. Here in a nutshell is what I’ve learned about talking to children about loss:
- They’re so much smarter and more perceptive than we realize and they can handle a lot more than we give them credit for. On the flip side, holding back information from them risks creating a lack of trust in us as parents, which is far worse than the actual trauma.
- What we as adults experience as trauma doesn’t necessarily need to be as traumatic for a child.
- Children process things through play and creativity. Knowing this, you can help them in this journey by encouraging play and self-expression through art and creativity. And if you hear them talking about the fire or another traumatic event in their fantasy play or expressing it in their art, don’t be alarmed — this is a good thing! This means they are processing their feelings in a healthy way.
- Ultimately, while the loss of their home, toys and familiar things was a loss for the children, where they were most impacted was in the same way we all were — the unsettling feeling of having one’s world turned upside down from one day to the next.While we tried as parents to do everything we could to create comfort and stability for them through this chapter, we also learned it was important to create a safe place to be open about our feelings. Further, if we didn’t show our children that we too felt sad and angry at times about what had happened, we might inadvertently teach them that these feelings are not okay.
Back to having that dreaded conversation. Once it was clear to me there was no avoiding sharing the news at least with my four-year-old, who was capable of comprehending it, the question then became: how do I even broach the subject? Admittedly, I tried a couple of times but the conversation went in a meandering direction, as conversations with four-year-olds tend to do.
And then I was given an incredible gift. My sister, a talented writer and literature scholar, wrote a book called “The Sneezy Dragon” in honor of my girls and it was just the thing I needed to help delicately broach the subject of the fires in a way that they could process.
She would want me to share it on this blog so that any other families can make use of it, if it suits you. We have a printed copy of it lying around still to this day and it’s incredible to me both how fond the girls are of the book as well as how much they 100% were able to connect this fictitious story to their own experience, in a way that gave it an explanation without being scary or unsettling.
So with that said, here is the book — please download a copy for yourself or anyone else you know who can benefit from it.
The topic of childhood trauma is complex and there is so much more to say — more to come on this but in the meantime, here is a resource that I found helpful.