- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 26, 2005

Our small Mississippi town was almost completely devastated by Hurricane Katrina. My brother’s children are 9, 6 and 4 years old. Their home was reduced to rubble, as were their school, their church and both sets of grandparents’ homes.

My brother and his wife want to know if taking his children 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, but would seeing the real thing be too much for them?

A: Before I answer your question, thank you for helping me draw attention to the damage Katrina caused in Mississippi. The disproportionate media attention given to New Orleans has overwhelmed the fact that for 50 miles, from Pass Christian to Pascagoula, the Mississippi coastline was swamped by a huge tidal surge — the biggest on record — that destroyed homes for some distance inland and left thousands of people homeless and many of that area’s businesses in disarray.

Despite a general perception to the contrary, created in large part by a trauma-counseling industry that has arisen over the past 20 years, children generally handle major life disruptions more effectively than do adults. Quite often, in fact, adults who have experienced such disruptions report afterward 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 eventually will 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 homesite, grieved sufficiently and moved on with plans for their family’s future. I take it that those things have happened, in which case it’s time to give the children an opportunity to grieve over their loss.

To bring that closure, it will be necessary for the children to see firsthand that their former house is no longer livable and many of their possessions are gone forever or damaged beyond repair. Photographs 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 children to their former neighborhood, the parents should give them 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 seen thus far 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 children get over their grief is to buy them replacements for the 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”; and fourth, for the children 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 children; I hope they maximize it.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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