We often report that "grief counselors are helping classmates cope" when a school-age child dies.
I said those words today on KING 5 Morning News as we reported the tragic deaths of 7-year-old Charlie Powell and his 5-year-old brother Braden. The boys died yesterday when their father, Josh Powell, slammed the door on a case worker and set fire to his home in Graham.
I've often wondered what counselors tell children when their friends die. What do they say to make sense of something that we adults can't even comprehend? What should we tell our own kids?
I found some answers by talking with the experts at The Healing Center in Seattle, a grief support community.
Tom Freeman, director of children's programs at the center, said that based on his experience of going into classrooms after the death of a child, kids "usually want to know how the child died, and why. Those are usually the top two questions."
Answering the "why" question in the case of the Powell boys may not be easy, but the experts say kids are looking for honesty above all else. Freeman said every situation is different, and so are the questions.
"I tell them every feeling is a valid one, and it's okay to express that feeling," he said.
Freeman also encourages the kids to find a trusted adult to talk with if they have more questions.
Freeman said it's important to answer every question, and always answer honestly.
"But don't offer more information than the child asks," he said.
They'll let you know what they need to know. The questions will be different depending on the child's age. Freeman said younger children may want to know what happened to the body, while older children will have more abstract questions.
And don't expect all the questions at once.
"Kids will often ask a question, go play for a while to process it, and come back with another question," Freeman said.
The experts advise adults to be specific, too. If you're vague, a child's imagination can run wild, sometimes conjuring up a much more frightening scenario.
This is especially important in the case of cancer or other illnesses.
"Don't just say that they got sick and died," said Rebecca Stodola Soukakos, the center's executive director. "If you say that, the child will freak out the next time they get a cold."
Specifics are reassuring.
That's why it's also not a good idea to use euphemisms. "If you say 'passed away,' or 'went to a better place,' children can have a hard time understanding exactly what you're saying," Freeman said.
As a journalist, these are some of the hardest days for me, trying to make sense of the tragic loss of innocent lives. Our kids are trying to make sense of it too. It's comforting to know that there's no complicated formula to follow, no age brackets or personality tests. All we need to do is listen, respond honestly and care.
"The only formula is that you're telling them the truth," said Freeman.