A Death in the Family: Dealing with Trauma

By Audrey Valeriani

I recently returned from my ninth week-long trip to Aruba with my fiancé.  We spent our time relaxing under a tree and swimming at the beach during the day and then sharing exquisite dinners and romantic walks in the evenings.  We had a lot of fun but didn’t take any photos because since we had visited the island many times before we already have plenty of pictures of both of us posed in front of every restaurant and divi tree on the island.  On our way to the airport we joked that, other than our tanned skin, we would not be able to prove that we traveled here!

As we stood in line at check-in, we noticed also waiting in line was a family who had been on our chartered plane ride down the week before.  This day, however, they all had swollen eyes and seemed upset, some of them wiping away tears and sniffling, and sharing only an occasional whispered comment.  As it turned out, on the plane we were seated directly in back of them: a mother and her four children who ranged in age from 16 to 8, but no dad was in attendance.  We found out that while vacationing with his family that week, he had been killed in a jet skiing accident.  This day, his wife and children had to bravely make their way home without him.
We watched the moods of the children go from seemingly careless while playing cards to quiet sobbing when idle, but the mother’s face was another story.  In between hopping seats in an effort to attend to each of her devastated children, she would sit and stare down at her lap, unable to comprehend what lay ahead for her and her family.  We could almost feel her shock and pain as we realized that this is something that could have happened to any one of us that week.   While we were laughing and playing in the water and eating chocolate desserts to our heart’s content, this poor family was experiencing the tragedy of their lives. The vacation they dreamed about and looked forward to turned out to be a nightmare and something none of them would ever forget – their photographs were these indelible moments that would haunt them forever.

As I turned my gaze away from that lost family and toward my fiancé, I could feel how precious time had suddenly become, and I whispered “thank you” to God for giving me some more of it with him.  For a moment I found myself regretting that we had no pictures from this vacation together, but then realized that whether or not we actually capture our experiences on film, our minds are busy recording images of certain moments throughout our lives – moments that somehow jolt our emotions, have an impact on us, and change our perception and direction. I wondered if that kind of memorialization was only triggered during traumatic events.  What about the good times?  I closed my eyes and scanned my memory hoping that my mind had taken enough time to properly register all the tender, wonderful moments I shared with my fiancé this past week.

Throughout our lives as our hearts begin to show wear and tear from the inevitable mishaps and misfortunes that will befall us, we must remember to offset that anguish and erosion by making it also swell with love and gratitude as we encounter the happy times that bless us.  We must consciously stop time and record with our minds so we can remember and cherish for years to come the intimate moments, the surprises, the hours spent with loved ones and friends… all the times of our lives.

During a Crisis, Don’t…
Panic. If you do, your children will, too, and the last thing you need is mass hysteria. Talk to them calmly, but firmly. Answer their questions honestly. Ask them to follow your instructions exactly.  And reward them with assurances when they do.

After the Crisis, Do…
Allow your children to grieve. Asking them to “buck up” will only mean that their fears and trauma will show itself at a later time.

Instead, encourage them to talk through their feelings, with each other and with you. Also, set an appointment with a grief counselor. Seeing one regularly for at least a year should help both you and your children put the incident in perspective within the context of the rest of their lives. The memory may fade, but the emotions it caused will never fully go away. Letting them know this is okay will help them deal with it—and hopefully, move on emotionally.


More SMW Family Advice

Dealing With the Financial Discrepancies Between You and Your Ex

Daddy Dearest: Three Types of Dads and How to Deal with Them

Setting Up Ground Rules is Vital to Successful Co-Parenting


Audrey Valeriani is an author, columnist, freelance writer, relationship coach, creator and host of TheAccidentalExpert.com and Bootcampforthebrokenhearted.com.  She is also board chair of Self Esteem Boston Educational Institute, Inc.  Her book Boot Camp for the Broken-Hearted: How to Survive (and Be Happy) in the Jungle of Love is on sale now.