How to Talk to Children about Tragedy

Just about a week ago, our nation experienced another unspeakable tragedy when a disturbed young man entered an elementary school and gunned down 26 people–most of them small children. These horrific events test us in many ways, but perhaps the most difficult is when we try to explain to our children something even we can’t understand.

About four and a half years ago, I had to tell my daughter that her best friend’s family had been brutally murdered. Later I had to tell her that her friend had been implicated in the crime and was facing charges of capital murder.

Telling her was difficult.

Trying to explain how someone could do something so awful?

Difficult doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Here’s how the story unfolded:

My cell phone buzzed about halfway through church on Sunday morning, March 2, 2008. I recognized the number, a friend from Emory, Texas, but couldn’t understand why he would be calling me on Sunday. I taught a class of homeschoolers at his karate school and assumed that the call had something to do with my class. Since my homeschool class wouldn’t meet till Tuesday, I decided to return his call later. By the end of the service, my phone showed two more missed calls, both from my friend. I knew that something had to be wrong, so when I had a chance I went out to

the foyer and called him back.

“Somebody attacked the Caffey family and burned their house down,” his wife said. “We don’t know the details yet, but some of them were killed.”

I couldn’t process what I was hearing.

Terry Caffey, his wife Penny, and their children were friends of ours. We met when Penny enrolled their daughter, Erin, and their youngest son Tyler in my karate for homeschoolers class. Tyler quit the class after several months, but Erin continued for quite a while and became close friends with my daughter, Charlene.

Charlene spent a lot of time at the Caffeys’ home, and it was one of her favorite places to go. I do a fair amount of speaking, and she was at that age where traveling with Mom and Dad wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world. So whenever my wife, Laurel, and I were on the road, Charlene would stay at the Caffeys.

And even though we lived in Greenville, Texas, about 45 minutes away from their home in Alba, Erin spent quite a few weekends at our place, too. The girls were so close that we invited Erin to go to church camp with us in the summer of 2007.

When we came back from camp, we dropped Erin off at the Caffeys’ home. It was a beautiful little house tucked away in the woods. Laurel and I drank coffee and visited with Terry and Penny for a while before we continued on to our home near Greenville.

That was the last time I was ever in that house.

Now, less than a year later, as we were driving home from church, Laurel called our friends again to see if they knew any more details. At that point, we didn’t know if anybody had survived.

We wanted to get home before we told Charlene, so Laurel didn’t speak out loud as she relayed the horrible news. As we drove from our church in Rowlett back to Greenville, Laurel wrote down on a church bulletin the names of the family members: Terry, Penny, Erin, Bubba, Tyler.

And then, as our friend relayed the news, Laurel quietly marked an X over Penny’s, Bubba’s and Tyler’s names.

I can’t even begin to describe how I felt as I saw her mark out those names.

We drove the rest of the way home in silence, as I desperately prayed for wisdom.

How was I going to tell Charlene that someone had murdered her best friend’s family?

We drove home from church in silence.

Charlene knew something was wrong—but she didn’t have a clue how terrible the news would be.

Minutes earlier I’d gotten a phone call from a friend, telling me that several members of the Caffey family had been murdered in an early morning home invasion. Details were sketchy. All we knew was that some of the family had been killed, but we didn’t know who, if anyone, had survived.

For the last few years, Charlene had been best friends with Erin Caffey. Now, somehow I had to find a way to tell her that Erin’s family—and maybe Erin herself—had been brutally murdered.

How do you break that kind of news to your daughter?

As we drove back toward our home in Greenville, my wife called our friends to see if they had any more information. On the back of a church bulletin, she wrote down the names of the Caffey family members: Terry, Penny, Erin, Bubba, Tyler. Then, as our friends relayed the terrible news, Laurel quietly marked an X over Penny’s, Bubba’s, and Tyler’s names.

I can only describe my feelings as a mixture of overwhelming sadness and relief.

I was deeply saddened that Penny, Bubba and Tyler had been killed but relieved that at least Terry and Erin had survived. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to tell Charlene about this tragedy, but now at least I could soften it a bit.

I could tell her that her best friend had survived.

When we got home, Charlene followed us into the living room.

“What’s wrong?” she demanded. Her face was etched with fear and worry.

I motioned to my recliner. “Sit down.”

I sat down opposite her and told her what little I knew.

“Erin’s parents made her break up with her boyfriend, and I guess he didn’t like that. So he and another man broke into their house last night. They killed Penny, Bubba, and Tyler. Erin and Terry survived. I don’t know much more than that.”

Charlene began crying.

And I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.

As a dad, you want to protect your children from the painful parts of life. You want to shield them from sickness and pain and death and grief. But sooner or later, no matter what you do, the evil of this fallen world breaks through.

When it does, you hope that your kids will be able to cope. And you hope that you’ll have the wisdom to help them.

Charlene’s tears passed, but I knew that there were open wounds that would take a long time to heal. I felt that since Erin had survived, perhaps Charlene would find healing in helping her friend come to grips with her own grief.

But it wasn’t long before I knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Only a few hours after I broke the news about the Caffey family murders to my daughter, I saw a headline on The Greenville Herald Banner’s web site.

Erin Caffey had been implicated in the murders and was under arrest.

We were going to have a long road to walk in the months to come.

Bottom line?

There’s no good, easy, or even satisfactory way to explain to your children what you yourself can’t understand. The best you can do is tell them, then hug them, love them, cry with them, and be there for them.

And it’s okay to tell them that you don’t understand it either.

After many years as a pastor, I learned that when someone is facing tragedy, your presence is 1000 times more valuable than your words are.

* * *

On Saturday, March 1, 2008, at 3 a.m., two men broke into the home of the Caffey family in Alba, Texas. They shot Terry Caffey five times and left him for dead. Then they murdered his wife, Penny, and their two young sons, Matthew and Tyler. After that, they set the house on fire. Terry regained consciousness, escaped the burning house and crawled 400 yards through the woods to a neighbor’s to get help. Later he learned that his 16-year-old daughter, Erin, was involved in the murder plot.


After these tragic events, God did an amazing work in Terry’s life and it was my great privilege to help him tell his story in the book Terror by Night.” Earlier this year (June 26 & 27, 2012), Terry recounted his story on Nightline, Good Morning America and The View. His story was also retold in ABC’s new summer series, “Final Witness.”

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