Q: Our small Mississippi town was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. My brother's children are nine, six, and four. Their home was reduced to rubble, as was their school, their church, and both sets of grandparents' homes. My brother and his wife want to know if taking his kids back to the site of their former neighborhood is a good idea. The children have asked to go back, and the oldest has seen pictures of the devastation. Would seeing the real thing be too much for them?
A: Despite a general perception to the contrary, created in large part by a trauma-counseling industry that has arisen over the past twenty years, children generally handle major life disruptions more effectively than do adults. Quite often, in fact, adults who have experienced such disruptions report afterwards that their children were a major source of comfort and stability.
It goes without saying, however, that in situations of this sort children look to adults for affirmation that their lives will eventually return to a state of normalcy. As a rule, the better a parent handles a life-disrupting event, the better a child is going to handle it.
The prerequisite conditions for taking the children back to their old neighborhood are that your brother and his wife have visited their former home site, grieved sufficiently, and moved on with plans for their family's future.
I take it that those things have taken place, in which case it's now time to give the kids opportunity to grieve over their loss. To bring that closure, it will be necessary for the children to see first-hand that their former house is no longer livable and many of their possessions are gone forever or damaged beyond repair. Photos cannot adequately convey what the children need to experience in order to release their attachments to the old and move ahead into the new.
In taking the kids back to their former neighborhood, the parents should give them complete permission to express whatever emotions they need to express, including anger. Your brother and his wife should prepare the children beforehand by showing all three of them the pictures that only the oldest has thus far seen and talking about the fact that their loss was shared by neighbors and friends, some of whom they may never see again.
The parents may feel that one way to help the kids get over their grief is to buy them replacements for things they lost. I would not recommend that for a number of reasons.
First, it might give the children the impression that their needs take priority over everything else. Second, hastily buying new things for the children implies that they are not emotionally sturdy little people. Third, there is value in learning that things "don't grow on trees." Fourth, for the kids to grieve sufficiently, they must do without for a sufficient period of time.
Just as they are capable of dealing with their loss without falling apart, they are capable of understanding that replacing their toys is not high on the list of priorities at the moment. This is an opportunity for your brother and his wife to strengthen their kids. I hope they maximize it.