Parents struggle to explain shooting deaths: 'They look like my children' 

Parishioners pay their respects to the victims of an elementary school shooting while arriving for mass at St Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Connecti...
Parishioners pay their respects to the Sandy Hook victims while arriving for mass at St Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Conn., on Sunday.EMMANUEL DUNAND / Today

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By Kavita Varma-White

A smiling 6-year-old girl who loved everything about horses. A big sister with a wide grin and dimples who was excited about making a gingerbread house. An outgoing 7-year-old boy who loved to ride his bike.

As the stories and photos of the faces of the youngest victims of the Connecticut school shooting have been released to the public, parents around the country are trying to shield their own children from the images of sweet-faced, smiling girls and boys who could easily have been their friends or classmates --and who are now dead.

“Looking at images made the whole thing that much more devastating and more real,” says Kim Reiner, a mom of kids ages 6 and 4 in Sunnyside, Queens, N.Y. One of the victims was a boy who used to live nearby and moved to Sandy Hook last year, so her community has been reeling.

“You look at the pictures and you think, it could have been my child. They look like my children. The children look like angels. They are more beautiful than you could have imagined.”

Related: How to talk to your kids about school shooting

Many parents are still wondering how to –- or even whether they should -- explain the tragedy to children who may hear of the funerals and memorials in the coming days and yet may be too little to understand what death even means.

Parishioners pay their respects to the Sandy Hook victims while arriving for mass at St Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Conn., on Sunday.EMMANUEL DUNAND / Today

Kathy Burstein of West Palm Beach, Fla., says the TV has been turned off all weekend so her two young sons, ages 5 years and 22 months, would not be exposed to the horrific news or see the faces of children who look just like her oldest, Andrew. Burstein is especially concerned about Andrew, who recently asked: “Mommy, 5-year-olds can’t die, can they?”

“I have not been able to figure out how to tell him [about the shootings],” says Burstein, who works in the county clerk’s office in Palm Beach County. “I know he’s going to hear about it eventually. I do want him to hear it from me. But I also don’t.”

For parents of preschool and elementary school age children who don't have a direct connection to Sandy Hook, but are aware of the shooting and seeing images of the young victims, a general, unemotional conversation about death may be the best approach, suggests Robyn Silverman, Ph.D., a child and teen development specialist in New Jersey.

While preschool-age children become aware that things in life die, like flowers, leaves on the trees or bugs, often they don’t grasp the finality. Many engage in "magical thinking" and believe that someone who dies may  come back, says Silverman. Parents should tell the child that someone who dies is not coming back and that all living things like plants, animals and people die, Silverman says.

In elementary school, at around age 5 or 6, kids start to grasp the finality of death. Silverman says it’s best to be honest, and keep facts concrete and simple. “Don’t say things like, ‘he went away,’ or ‘she went to sleep.’ That is very abstract speaking and it’s confusing for kids. Use the word. ‘She died,’” Silverman said.

One explanation is to tell children that when a person dies, the body stops working. Silverman says to then ask them, “What does your body do?” and let them explain. They may say they run, jump, skip, eat and breathe. After they respond, parents can say, “All of those things we do when we are alive. All of this stops when we die.”

Or parents can show the child a toy car or robot that has stopped working because the batteries have died. You can explain, “Once our bodies stop working, we can’t replace the batteries.”

Kendra Ramos Velasquez, of Bellevue, Wash., has talked to her 14-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son about the shootings, but can’t bring herself to share anything with her daughter, 6, who has never been exposed to death and has not even experienced the death of a pet. 

“I don’t see any reason to tell her. She’s so innocent and pure and good,” says Velasquez. “I don’t want her to go to class worrying about some bad man coming into class. She would not want to go school then.”

Jennifer Hartstein, Psy.D., a child, adolescent and family psychologist in New York, says it’s important for children to not confuse death with sleeping, as that can create unnecessary fear for kids.

If a child asks if such a thing can happen to them, Hartstein suggests you reinforce to your child that he or she is safe, and that you are safe, and that you don't plan on dying any time soon. Death can create a fear of this for children, she says.

And if kids ask about what happens to a person after death, Silverman says that it’s best to turn the question back to them. “You can say, this is what I was taught, what I believe. Other people believe this. Then ask them, ‘What do you believe?’ They might say, ‘I believe you become Superman.’ Let them process it in a way that’s healthy to them,” she said.

Hartstein agrees and says it’s OK for parents to sometimes say they don’t have an answer. “It's OK to tell children that people have all sorts of different ideas, and review those with them. Ask them what they think, too. They may have an idea that works for them and that provides solace.”

Dr. Bob Hilt, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, says to not be surprised if your conversation about death lasts over a longer period of time.

“You may not see an immediate, dramatic negative reaction in your child because they are processing it in a different way than you are,” Hilt said. “It may be they pop up with questions days, weeks later.”

The parents of children who witnessed and survived the Sandy Hook shootings have a tremendously difficult situation. Jeff Dolgan, Ph.D., chief psychologist at Children's Hospital in Denver, worked with a team of mental health experts to help parents deal with the aftermath of the Columbine school massacre in 1999.

“That kindergartners and first-graders witnessed the killings and were whisked to safety creates an enormously complex issue for their parents: Children in that age group simply don't understand death,” Dolgan said. “They will not be able to grasp that some of their schoolmates are gone forever.”

NBC correspondent Bill Briggs contributed to this report.