Dr. Thomas Demaria, director of the Psychological Services Center, which is the training facility for students in the psychology doctoral program at LIU Post, gave a speech at the Legislature Capitol building in Connecticut to help those affected by the Sandy Hook shooting.
He was accompanied by students Nicole Nadell and Michele Conti, both from the LIU Post Clinical Psychology doctoral program, on February 22, 2013.
Demaria was asked to speak at the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission by Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy. The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission is a group of 15 people, including principals, professors, public safety personnel and psychologists, who were appointed by Governor Malloy to make recommendations about public safety, school safety, mental health and gun control for the state of Connecticut.
The goal of the commission is to look at the state policies and procedures for helping children deal with traumatic events so the state, and perhaps the rest of the country, can learn from Sandy Hook Elementary where 20 children and six school staff members died on December 14, 2013.
Malloy wanted influential people from outside of the area because, according to Demaria, the staff in the Sandy Hook school district was feeling emotionally burdened with the tragedy.
A psychological trauma is a stressor that is experienced when people feel their life is threatened. When a person is traumatized, they have frequent flashbacks of the memory because their mind is still trying to process it.
Demaria, who has been a New York State-licensed psychologist for 26 years with experience in schools after tragedies, was asked to speak about psychological trauma. The goal was to find an efficient way to help the children cope with their trauma. Demaria has over 20 years of hospital behavioral leadership experience. In addition, he has won numerous awards for his practice and founded LIU Post’s trauma response team when he came to Post four years ago.
One of Demaria’s topics at the commission discussed how memorials in remembrance for the children who died should be used to help those affected grieve. “Memorials should be done for children with a sensitivity that should only remind children of what they want to remember. Not all children should have to participate. Sometimes people make mistakes by putting memorials where students can see them all the time and care has to be taken so that children who don’t want to see it, don’t have to see it all the time,” he said.
The challenge with helping children deal with their trauma is that not every child is going to grieve the same way. Demaria, who visited Sandy Hook Elementary in the days after the shooting, saw children running out of the school for recess, many wearing New York Giants football jerseys in remembrance of one of their classmates who was a Giants fan.
Some students show grief externally, while others internalize it, according to Demaria. In order to see how the child is feeling, Demaria encouraged people to observe a child’s artwork, play and writing.
Demaria added that one of the components of helping the children grieve is having everyone in the school prepared to talk to them if approached, whether they are a cafeteria worker, teacher or a janitor.
“Schools are an ideal place for people to learn how to grieve because you have a chance to talk to parents, teachers and staff about the rules for grieving,” Demaria said. “And a lot of times people have a lot of ambivalence or fear about talking to kids about grief but grief is a natural emotion, and schools can treat it like a natural emotion just like anger, fear or happiness. Then students will learn how to talk about it and move past it,” he added.
However, adults must be careful about how they explain something to a child because they might unintentionally confuse them more. “Some parents or teachers tell a child that their grandma is sleeping forever when their grandmother died. According to your spiritual belief, your grandma might be in heaven but she is no longer around. Sometimes kids will come to me and say ‘my grandma is asleep forever.’ And I say no, she died,” Demaria said,
“Schools don’t want to use the word died because kids get traumatized but that’s what it is. When someone dies, you tell kids everything stops that makes you alive—you do not breathe, you do not think. Because children will think for example that grandma’s trapped in the ground and kids will get frightened by it. We think that’s silly, but kids are very literal,” he adds.
Demaria also said that schools must pay attention to how they recognize anniversaries. Some students will react well to sitting in an auditorium talking about it, while other students might be bothered by that. He said that schools should try to be sensitive to the individual wishes of each child.
The biggest obstacle for a psychologist, according to Demaria, is recognizing that “there’s a limit to what you can do [to help].” He added that it is also important to know how much a child can handle so that he or she does not become a victim.
Demaria was in East Moriches, N.Y. after Flight 800 crashed in 1996. He was asked to work alongside the disaster morticians. “I said I’ll work with the disaster morticians as they come out of there but I won’t go in there. I don’t think that’s the place I want to be. And one person said ‘I’ll handle it,’ so they walked in, and 20 minutes later they walked out. They looked sick and they had to be brought off the scene because they weren’t used to seeing that,” said Demaria.
Taking a break, enjoying the weekend and spending time with family are ways that Demaria copes with witnessing so many tragedies.
Demaria said that the staff and students who went back to Sandy Hook Elementary School after the murders are true heroes. “A hero is someone who goes someplace where no one wants to be. Imagine how hard it was for these teachers to go back to that school district and work with those kids. They’re heroes. Look at these families that have to trust the school enough that they can send their kids back to school knowing that this happened in this school district. They are heroes.”