Death of a Child Due to Trauma

BY: Diane Snyder Cowan
CATEGORY: Grief and Loss

​There are distinct differences between trauma and grief. When a child dies due to a tragedy or traumatic event, the whole community mourns. Some children are directly impacted. They may have witnessed the event or have known the deceased. Some are indirectly impacted. They heard about it at school, saw it on the news and can see that their parents are visibly upset.

Whether you and your children are directly or indirectly touched by the event, here are some themes to consider about grief and trauma reactions:

When you are grieving, the generalized reaction is sadness. When you are traumatized it is TERROR.

When you are grieving you can usually talk about what happened. When you are traumatized, you do not want to talk about it.

Grief reactions stand alone. Trauma reactions include grief reactions.

Guilt that accompanies grief includes thoughts like “I wish I would have…if only I…” Guilt that accompanies trauma feels like “It should have been me. It’s my fault. I could have prevented it.”

When you are grieving, your dreams may be about the deceased. When traumatized, your dreams are often nightmares where you are the potential victim. In addition, your child may have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep and may want to crawl into bed with you.

Grief does not include flashbacks. Trauma includes flashbacks, startle reactions, hyper-vigilance and numbing.

The pain associated with grief is about the loss. The pain associated with trauma triggers tremendous terror and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.

What can you do?
  • Give children opportunities to ask questions and talk about what happened.
  • Be honest. Use simple language that is appropriate to your child’s developmental level.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have answers to their questions.
  • Listen, don’t lecture. Use phrases like “We’ll get through this together.”
  • Monitor television watching and video games.
  • Help children understand that there is no right or wrong, good or bad emotion.
  • Model and encourage healthy ways to express feelings such as through exercise, art, music and nature.

As a parent you model effective grieving. Remember that you are grieving too. There are resources and help available in your community. You do not have to go through this alone.


About Diane Snyder Cowan​
Diane Snyder Cowan is the director of Western Reserve Grief Services.

She oversees the hospice and bereavement programs and expressive therapy. Diane is a Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Administrator and a Board Certified Music Therapist.

She currently serves as the Section Leader for the Bereavement Professional Section of the National Council of Hospice and Palliative Professionals and previously served on the Board of Directors of the Certification Board for Music Therapy.

Diane has presented on music therapy and grief and loss throughout the country and has written for many publications on music therapy and on grief and loss.

She strives to provide support and education to grieving individuals and those who work with them.