Child death calls: How to talk to your family and support your mental health

It is important that you process the loss and what you experienced with your support network


By Rachelle Zemlok, PsyD, and Robin Black, Ph.D.

If you are reading this, it’s likely that you or someone you care about recently responded to a crime scene, accident scene or mass shooting that involved the death of a child or multiple children. Most people on the job will tell you these calls are the most difficult. They are the ones that stick with you, the ones that make you hug your children and the ones that haunt you. Simply put, they are tough on us emotionally, cognitively and spiritually.

Why child death calls are so tough 

Sometimes returning home and facing your spouse after a critical incident involving the death of a child can be more intimidating than responding to the incident itself.
Sometimes returning home and facing your spouse after a critical incident involving the death of a child can be more intimidating than responding to the incident itself. (Photo/Getty)

All at once, child death calls are too close and too much for our systems. Our minds have difficulty processing what we see, what we feel and the pain we know the victims’ families are feeling. We enter a no man's land that drives professionalism in the moment, and stalls rational emotions, only to find those emotions rush forward and demand attention. And as a parent, how do you go home and not see what someone else has lost forever? Even if we were fast, responded without delay, or were brave, an innocent life was lost. It is important that you process the loss and what you experienced with your support network.

This article is designed to help first responders with the tragedy of child death despite our best efforts.

How to process your experience

The goal: Actively engage all the best coping skills you know.

You and your brain have experienced something traumatic, and your brain needs to process what it experienced. Because it is an unusual event, your brain must process the event more deeply. While thinking about the details of the scene can be upsetting, when it happens near the event, this is a sign that your brain is trying to understand what it experienced, and you want to let the process happen.

You may experience strong and unexpected emotions in the days following a critical incident involving a child’s death (anxiety, anger, confusion, fear, grief, sadness). You are human and this is a normal response to a very abnormal event you experienced. Allow yourself to experience whatever comes up for you. This will help your brain do what it needs to do to process the experience.

Here are some other things you can do in the immediate days following a critical incident that can decrease the long-term impacts that it may have on you and increase your ability to bounce back in a healthy way.

Physical care

Like a high-performing athlete before game day, you want your body and mind to perform at their best. Therefore, this is a crucial time to take your health and wellness the most seriously.

  • Avoid drugs and alcohol (these can interfere with your brain’s ability to process the information in the right way and might prolong distressing symptoms).
  • Exercise regularly, emphasizing cardio and depleting activities (e.g., HIIT, weights).
  • Get plenty of sleep and rest.
  • Maintain a healthy diet.
  • Engage in quiet activities that promote downtime (e.g., stretching, walking in nature).

Connect with others

  • Avoid isolating and digital/online coping.
  • Reach out to and remain connected to those who love and support you.
  • Engage in activities with family and friends or coworkers.
  • Engage in spiritually meaningful activities.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Accept help and support from those offering it.

During this time, do not hesitate to connect with peer support, a close friend, religious provider or qualified therapist. Immediately seek assistance from a professional, or a peer supporter who can connect you to a professional if you find yourself with any thoughts of suicide or desire to die.

How to communicate with your spouse, significant other

The goal: Get both of your needs met and remain connected throughout the experience.

Sometimes returning home and facing your spouse after a critical incident involving the death of a child can be more intimidating than responding to the incident itself. You assume that they will have many questions and concerns, and you may not have the capacity to answer or help reassure any of their concerns. Needing space following a traumatic call is a valid experience. Communicating that to your spouse in the right way can be hard. Here are four tips for communicating with your spouse or significant other.

  1. Give them a heads up before you get home: If returning home feels overwhelming, the easiest thing to do is to communicate before you get there about where you are mentally. You can do this through text or phone call based on what feels most comfortable. Use the next three tips to develop what you say.
  2. Acknowledge their experience: People want to be seen and acknowledged and it’s harder for them to see your point of view and support you if they think you don’t get it. Start your conversation with your best guess as to what they must be going through.
  3. Be direct and ask for what you need: People want to support you and only you know what you need. Consider exactly what that is (space, time together, time alone, time with the kids, a workout, to spend time on a favorite hobby) and ask.
  4. Identify a better time when you will talk about it: Your spouse or significant other may have also been significantly impacted by the event you responded to, and they may need to process it with you. If they know there will be a time soon when you both get to discuss the event together, they will be more willing to give you space now.

Here’s an example: “Hey, I’m on my way home now. I’m exhausted. I’m still taking it all in. I know you must be too. I know you worry about me, and this must have been hard for you as well. I’m sure you have 100 questions. I could really use some space with it when I get home. I was thinking that going on a run might help clear my mind. Maybe we can find a time this week for the kids to go to your parents’ and we can discuss things more then? I think a couple of days to come down from it all would do me some good.”

When you do talk about the event with your spouse or significant other, both of you should get really clear on what information feels OK to share and what is uncomfortable. Not every detail is needed. The most important parts are the impacts on each of you. The most helpful tool will be simply listening and validating each other’s experiences. This means you “put yourself in their shoes.”

How to communicate with your kids

The goal: You want your kids to know that they can talk to their parents and that they have a safe space (home) where they can process the world around them.

Kids pick up on stress within the household. They overhear things (more than you think). They see things on the news and social media. People outside the family say things to them or around them. Sometimes other kids say things to your kids. You can’t control what information they take in, but you can have a significant impact on their view of the world if you walk alongside them while they take it all in. Here are four keys to creating a safe space for your kids to process tragic events that involve children.

  1. Create space: Ask them things like what’s on their mind, how they are doing, what they are worried about, and what they have heard other people say. Don’t give them answers just yet. You are “creating space” for them to express and explore whatever is in their head.
  2. Validate: Let them know you understand where they are coming from, or that you understand why they might think that or feel that way. Let them know that you have similar thoughts or feelings if you do. No one wants to be told they shouldn’t feel a certain way or that they are wrong.
  3. State the facts: You can jump in and fill in some gaps of information they may be missing and help them better understand. Do NOT overload their brains with details. Keep it simple and age-appropriate (different ages deserve different levels of information). Don’t be pressured into having ALL the answers. It is OK to say, “That is a really good question! But I don’t know.” Remember, even though kids have adult questions, it doesn't always mean they are ready to process adult answers. If it's not developmentally appropriate it could be more harmful than helpful.
  4. Reassure: Children look to their parents for guidance. It is important to reassure our kids and let them know they are safe or that we are safe. Focus on all the safety measures you take at work to protect the community and stay safe: Training, safety equipment and gear, partners/team members, not doing things alone, and the fact that you have a whole team of people who all do their best to protect one another.

Conclusion

Child death calls are consistently reported by first responders as the most challenging calls they respond to throughout their careers. We cannot predict how this call will impact you and the effects will be different for everyone. There is no single best way to care for yourself, but we know that attempting to avoid or outrun your thoughts and emotions has the potential for greater long-term impacts. You do not have to go through this challenging time alone. Use your department resources and allow those around you to support you during this time. Now is the time to take particular care of yourself and engage in supportive relationships for the best chances of reducing the short and long-term impacts.

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About the authors

Dr. Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist from California and specializes in supporting and educating first responder families. She is the Strategic Wellness Director at Lexipol and Cordico. Her role supports the content related to first responder mental health and wellness, with a special focus on supporting the spouse and family directly. Dr. Zemlok is married to a fire captain and currently raising two kids under five years old. She is also the sister of three retired law enforcement officers. Prior to joining Lexipol, she founded First Responder Family Psychology which provides culturally competent therapy to first responders and their family members. She is the author of "The Firefighter Family Academy: A Guide to Educate and Prepare Spouses for the Career Ahead."

Dr. Black serves as executive director of Cordico, where she creates wellness programs, training and coaching for individuals and teams working in high-stress professions. Dr. Black specializes in helping people understand themselves, other people and why people do what they do. Dr. Black has developed active shooter, targeted violence, emotional intelligence, and resilience training and programs for organizations spanning public and private sectors, including consumer goods, government, information technology, manufacturing, pharmaceutical and transportation. Dr. Black previously worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for nearly two decades and has worked extensively with local and state first responders in support of Executive Leadership, Tactical & Targeting, Crisis Negotiation, Interview & Interrogation, and Incident Command teams to help them respond to and heal after traumatic job events. In addition, Dr. Black has extensive experience working with veterans and children in a variety of settings.

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