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Matthew – victim of traumatic grief

Matthew’s father went to work one morning and never came back. A New York policeman, he had run into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and died as the buildings collapsed on top of him.

Matthew’s life collapsed, too, under the weight of that awful morning. Just 6 and extremely close to his father, he began crying and expressing anger with alarming frequency. He stopped reading.

Matthew and his mother were assigned to work with Michelle, a therapist trained in Trauma-Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Grief. She taught them skills to handle anger and anxiety. The crying and yelling started to subside.

Part of the therapy was helping Matthew write a book about his father and how he died. He then was scheduled to share the narrative with his mother. When Matthew began to share it, he began to cry and crawled under his mother’s chair. Matthew’s mother responded by reaching out to hold him. He allowed her to soothe him and together, they practice a relaxation skill taught by Michelle. Michelle then encouraged Matthew and his mother to read the book together while she held him.

When they finished, Matthew told the therapist that “sometimes it is just someone’s time to go, and then they die.” He was beginning to make meaning of the tragedy.

Next, Michelle worked with Matthew to create a memory box, filled with mementos of his father. When the box was completed, Matthew took it home and opened it when he wanted to think or talk about his father. Only weeks after shutting down at mention of his father, Matthew started to learn that traumatic recollections can be delicately redirected into memories more warm and therapeutic.

When applied astutely and gently, cognitive behavioral therapy works to help children speak more openly and learn how to heal.