Hello Nicole - February 2001

Dear Nicole,

Recently, my brother was in an accident and became quadriplegic. He is still in ICU on a ventilator in critical condition. I have a five-year-old son who is very worried about his uncle. My brother is like a second father to my son. I don’t know how much to tell my son. I don’t know if my brother will be the same person with different abilities, or if this accident will change his personality. I know my brother won’t be able to do a lot of the activities with my son that they love doing. So far, I have told my son that his uncle probably won’t be able to walk anymore. But when I told my son this, he broke down crying. He cried so much I felt like this was too much to tell a little five-year-old boy! Please advise on how and how much you think I should tell my son.

Sincerely,
Sister and Mom

Dear Mom,

Accidents, especially those causing major life changes, are traumatic for everyone involved. It shakes us at our foundation and causes us to question our basic safety. We feel a great lack of justice in the world and may feel overwhelmed by our inability to control the situation or turn back the clock. It takes time for us to digest and “really” believe it. Of course, you want to protect your son from the intense grief, fear and uncertainty that you must feel. Unfortunately, the more you try to shelter your son from grasping the magnitude of this tragedy the more difficult and long lasting his emotional trauma will be.

Most children haven’t had time to learn our society’s rule of “staying strong” in difficult situations. Children don’t hide their feelings and often react in ways that are disturbing to the rest of us because we have grown so accustomed to minimizing our feelings and keeping our own grief and anger “under control.” But real strength means having the courage to let ourselves (and our loved ones) go through intense pain and express it. Pain is a normal reaction to life and expressing it is allowing ourselves to be the human beings we are. Your son is following the beneficial natural grief and healing process that we have so stunted within ourselves. He is feeling the grief, he is questioning events and letting out his rage. Don’t hinder his process because you are uncomfortable seeing him express pain. There is nothing wrong with him crying uncontrollably because his uncle can no longer walk — that sounds like a perfectly understandable reaction to me! Trust your son and learn from his process. He knows the way to healing.

Likewise, it’s really important that you answer ALL of your son’s questions. His inquisitiveness is his way of trying to integrate this event into his life and make sense out of this very confusion situation. By giving your son simple and honest answers, you will be including him in the family’s process of coming to terms with the accident and all of it’s implications. You will be honoring that he has some power in this event, and that even in the face of this grand injustice, he still has the right to have his questions answered.

Answer his questions as simply and completely as possible. Try not to get impatient with his questioning. If he repeats the same questions, ask if there is something particular about that question that he wants to know — you might find a deeper question that he needs your help to verbalize. If he asks something you might be able to find out from a doctor, then you ask the doctor and relay the information to your son. If he asks uncertain questions, such as what his uncle will be like when he recovers, tell him the whole range of possibilities. I would prepare your son for a personality change by explaining that Uncle is going to be very upset for a while because he can’t walk anymore. This will help your son accept and make sense of future emotional outbursts he may witness in his uncle. If your son asks if his uncle is going to die, tell him his uncle is very seriously ill and there is some chance he could die. If your son asks questions no one can answer, tell him that no one can answer that question. You can share your own frustration over all the unknowns by saying, “I know how you feel!” or, “I wish I knew the answer to that one!”

The more you open up to your son, include him in the family’s discussions and allow him to go through his own grief process, the more trust and safety he will feel as he faces this most unexplainable tragedy.

–Nicole