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Ask Dr. Mike: Grieving Hwang’s Loss

The local psychologist responds to a question about the community’s recent loss.

Dr. Mike,

My son’s principal, Ms. Kathleen Hwang of Sanders Corner Elementary School, was killed this past week when she was hit by a car while crossing the street. We told our son about the news, and he is very upset. He is so upset that he doesn’t want to return to school on Monday. Do you have an advice on how to get us through this difficult time?

L in Loudoun County

 

L,

First of all, Ms. Hwang’s tragic death is a tremendous loss to the community. She was an excellent principal, and was very well liked by her colleagues and students. We all process traumatic news differently, and while there are some well-proven predictable stages for loss and grief, expect your son to experience a varied set of emotions over the coming days and weeks as he processes and makes sense what has happened. 

As an elementary school child, I imagine that the tragedy has initially brought on very real fear and anxiety for him, as well as sadness, worry and perhaps shock.  Prior to sitting down with him to discuss what has happened, be aware of your own emotions. You do not want to burden your son with your own upset, so be prepared in advance for the heavy conversations on the topic that may still come.

Also, engage openly in communication and be curious about what he is feeling and thinking. Your son is relying on you to be a pillar of support for him to lean on right now, and he will also need your full interest and investment in him. Do not be concerned if and when your son’s emotions fluctuate inasmuch as this is not uncommon after a traumatic event.

You also want to validate your son’s emotions, and you might even consider talking about your own upsetting feelings in support of his. It is okay if you do not have all of the answers for your son; it is more important that he sees you feelings badly alongside him.

Also, you might want to model some coping skills for him. For example, you can encourage your son to practice visualization and relaxation strategies to calm himself. The two of you may practice some of those strategies together. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is an easy-to-do and excellent calming and centering strategy that you could research online. Remember, there is an old saying that “Time heals all wounds,” so try to keep things in perspective. The upset your son is experiencing now is temporary and should pass over time. If, however, he continues to struggle with his feelings several weeks out, I recommend you contact a child psychologist to determine if your son requires therapy.

I would encourage you to send your son to school on Monday, since avoiding school may only complicate his feelings further. It is my understanding that Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick has already notified parents of Ms. Hwang’s passing via email. So your son is not alone in the news. I am sure that many of his classmates and friends are experiencing very similar feelings to those of your son’s. Hatrick also intends to have a Crisis Resource Team on duty Monday morning for students in need of additional support.

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