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sudden traumatic death | supporting youth in grief

Breaking the Silence.jpg

excerpted from: 
"Breaking the Silence" 2nd Ed.

A Guide to Helping Children with Complicated Grief---Suicide, Homicide, AIDS, Violence, and Abuse

by permission of the author, Linda Goldman 

Pages 66-69. Published by Brunner-Routledge | Taylor & Francis. Copyright 2001. 

3 minute read

Normal Responses to Homicide and Other Violent Crimes

The victim of a murder dies once. The survivors of the crime experience the violent act over and over in their minds.

Breaking the Silence - child drawing.jpg

Drawing by Jason, age 8.

I have often found that children show similar signs of grief when confronted with violent crimes. Terrified mothers and fathers question the normalcy of their children’s thoughts and feelings after becoming victimized by such a crime. The following is an example of a situation that is all too common when a homicide occurs:


Mrs. Anderson telephoned for immediate grief counseling for her 16-year-old son, Brian. Brian’s girlfriend, Annie, had been shot and killed by Annie’s former friend who was angry that Annie had taken her boyfriend away. Brian was a good student and had no history of emotional problems. Now, explained Mrs. Anderson, he continually talks about death. He constantly tells the story of the murder, over and over again. He wonders if Annie suffered and tells his parents he is visualizing the murder constantly, over and over in his mind. Violent thoughts against the murderer plague his mind. Brian has recurring wishes to join Annie in death and is preoccupied with questions about the afterlife. Brian’s mom felt horrible watching her child suffer this unbearable pain, and she was relieved to find out that these are all too common responses to tragic circumstances. Recurring wishes to be dead must be taken seriously and professional help must be obtained.




  1. Concerns that the person suffered

  2. Horror over repeatedly visualizing the crime in their minds

  3. Constantly attempting to tell and retell the story of the crime

  4. Needing to reenact the crime through play

  5. Seeking revenge against the murderer

  6. Yearning to join the loved one

  7. Planning their own funeral (especially for teens)

  8. Searching and questioning their beliefs in the afterlife



  • Fear of death

  • Fear of being left alone or sleeping alone

  • Desire to leave school or call home

  • A need to be with people that have been through the same experience

  • A drop in grades

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Physical complaints (headaches or stomach)

  • Clingy behavior

  • Bed wetting

  • Nightmares

  • Fear of sleep



  1. Ask two questions: “How did you find out about the death?” and “What do you think happened?”

  2. Allow children to draw, paint, write, or use clay or toy figures and give them permission to tell and re-tell their story. They can then face the event in the open and see what their minds envision. Usually kids imagine it was worse if they have no avenue to project imagined or real conditions. The drawing shows an example of a child’s perception of the way his dad was murdered as he was driving his delivery truck.

  3. Suggest that children re-create their dreams or nightmares through drawing, using clay figures, or sand table play.

  4. Have children write their worries and fears and put these inside a balloon. Blow up and pop the balloon. The children can choose to share their stories.

  5. Use paper bag puppets or other kinds of puppets to act out what happened with a violent death and children’s feeling towards the victim and the murderer.

  6. Have children write a letter to the person who was murdered or the murderer. Make sure the children know the letters will not be mailed.

  7. Have children draw in a memory book, “One Thing I Wish I Could do Over.” Guilt can  create paralyzing secrets.

  8. Suggest using clay to make someone or something that makes the child very angry. Ask “Why?”

  9. Ask children to write or draw the answer to this question: “If a magic genie could give you one wish, what would it be for?”

  10. Have the child make a memory wall or mural to commemorate and tell about the person and how he or she died.

  11. Have the child use pictures from magazines to create a “feelings” collage or to create a story about the death.

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