As parents and other big people, we want to protect our children from being overwhelmed by life. Life, however, often has another plan. Canada is grieving as we try to make sense of the terrible tragedy that has taken 15 lives of the Humboldt Broncos Junior B hockey team. And our kids are watching and living this, immersed alongside us adults in shock, upset, and sadness.

As adults, we will incorporate the experience of this tragic event into many years of accumulated memories and experiences. This accumulation acts as a scaffold which permits an integration of the tragedy into our life philosophy. Ultimately, as we process this tragedy, having this scaffold is what will allow us to carry to find hope, and maybe even to be that much more reminded of our gratitude for the life we are living.

Our children do not have this same accumulation of memories and experiences, and so do not have such a scaffold. Thus, rather than big traumatic events being incorporated into an existing mindset, for children, these events can momentarily and/or enduringly become organizing forces within their minds. Instead of a tragic event, life feels tragic. Instead of an example of dreams being unfathomably extinguished, life feels hopeless. Instead of a chance accident on a highway, life feels unsafe. For our children then, these kinds of tragic events can be experienced as especially overwhelming and frightening.

With this knowledge, parents and other big people have a very important role to fill right now, and anytime that these kinds of significant events occur. In the absence of our children having the accumulation of experiences and memories that allow them to integrate tragedy and land on resilience, we must provide that externally. From the outside, we are their hope. From the outside, we are their safety. From the outside, we are their peace.

Here are three things every mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, neighbour, coach, and small-town Canadian hockey fan who also happens to love a child reeling from the Humboldt tragedy can think about in order to support them in this upsetting time:

Get your child talking. And listen.

And when you think you have talked and listened enough, talk and listen some more. Encourage your child to share all that is on their mind. Fear of death, worry about leaving you, angst about being on their own school bus – whatever it is: better out than in. As you listen, do not try to fix. Just listen. Hear how upsetting and frightening it all is, and reflect that back to them with understanding and compassion.

Step into your nurturing power.

Your child is going to be frantically scanning to see who is in charge right now. Who can be counted on as that pillar of strength for them to lean into and feel safe? Be that person. Be the one that knows how awful this is and also how rare such accidents are. Be the one that knows there is a nation full of very caring folks who are going to step in and look after all the grieving parents and kids directly affected. Be the one that knows how strong we Canadians are and how Humboldt and the Broncos will live on.

Own your grief.

Even we strong adults will have big feelings about this. Own that and let your emotions flow as they need. While you don’t want to overwhelm your child with your emotion, that they would see you grieving is not a terrible thing. Let them know in your own expression of grief that you’ve got this, that they don’t need to tend to your tears, and that being sad is just part of your job right now. Channel that grief as fits for you. Already hockey parents are organizing jersey days and a host of other tributes.

This is how we process loss and how we hold on. O Canada, the true north STRONG and free.

Dr V