How can we help children cope with natural disasters?

Answered by
Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, L.C.S.W.

Hearing about and seeing images of people weeping, clutching loved ones in relief or in grief while standing in front of devastated homes and schools evokes painful feelings of sadness, fear and helplessness. No matter how old or young we are, we imagine ourselves in the same situation, imagine losing our lives, our loved ones or our homes. Even more troubling is the loss of a sense of security; try as we might to convince ourselves that this event could not happen where we live, most of us are plunged, briefly or more enduringly, into an awareness of the fragility of life.

How can we help ourselves and our children not to stay in this place of anxiety and doubt?

It may seem like a paradox but acknowledging the reality even to young children can be the first step in moving forward. Often, when bad things happen people try to shield children by acting as if they don't know about the events or by moving steadfastly forward with routine as if nothing had happened. We adults may actually be trying to shield ourselves from the pain of not being able to totally protect our children and from feeling our own fears magnified as we see the more visible terror in the eyes of children. Yet, most sadness and fear can be better borne when the feelings are named and when we can offer one another an embrace, an acknowledgement of how hard it is to know such things can happen and when we can resolve together to do something to comfort and help those who have been affected.

We are all helped by determining what measures we can take to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe when disaster threatens and by doing what we can to take the steps that may limit the impact and frequency of even natural events like hurricanes and tornadoes. We can't control weather, we cannot always be made safe, but we can work together to be sure safety codes are enforced, can lobby for measures to limit global warming and we can have plans for how to respond if we hear a siren or weather warning.

These steps - compassionately sharing and naming our fears and sadness, helping ourselves and helping others - all contribute to an ability to shift our focus back to living in the present and to enjoying the times of relative security and wellbeing that most of us do have in our lives.

Children and adults alike may question how God could allow such things to happen. Some may conclude there is no God, others may conclude that God might exist but is not involved in each disaster because God has set natural forces into motion but does not now control weather or waves. There are those who are taught or who decide for themselves that God is punishing individuals or the the world for misdeeds. Many give up on the question of why and instead focus on how the idea of a loving God can be a source of comfort or inspiration to do good.

Difficult as it may be, allowing children and adults to express what they are thinking about God without challenging or correcting them in the direction of belief or disbelief seems to be the most helpful approach in reducing isolation and despair. What seems to matter most in restoring faith and trust is the way human beings move forward to help and comfort one another. The most important question for most of us appears not to be will bad things happen but rather will anyone be there to care, comfort and help.

Many of us will come to associate that with the Presence of God, others with the goodness in people - but, in either case, certainty of loving care is what enables people to go on with courage and hope in a world in which bad things do sometimes happen.