When discussing injury/illness, traumatic stress and children, most people assume the child has the illness or injury. Many times this is the case. However, when a parent or caregiver suffers an injury or illness, children can still experience traumatic stress reactions. Or traumatic grief, which is "a combination of trauma and grief symptoms so severe that any thoughts or reminders—even happy ones—about the person who died can lead to frightening thoughts, images, and/or memories of how the person died".
As a doctor or nurse, you may notice children who have lost a parent or caregiver showing traumatic grief symptoms such as:
- Somatic symptoms severe enough to warrant sick-child pediatric visits
- Presentation of new somatic symptoms with no clear underlying medical cause
- Presentation of symptoms that mimic the deceased person’s cause of death
- Significant worsening of existing chronic medical conditions (diabetes, asthma, and so forth)
- Noncompliance or decreased compliance with usual medication regimens
- Depressed affect, changes in behavior, and other psychiatric symptoms
- Self-injurious or suicidal behaviors
As with traumatic stress reactions, screening and referral to the appropriate mental health services is by far the most effective way to help children make sense of their experiences. Many other resources exist to provide additional support for children, including the newly released "Rosie Remembers Mommy: Forever in Her Heart". In this book, children follow along with Rosie as she expresses common emotions after the death of her mother as well as a visit to a social worker to help her cope with her loss. Make sure to share this resource with your colleagues and join the discussion on our Facebook page.