In the last year, two McKinney families have been shattered by unspeakable acts of violence. Many of us studied the headlines and mourned for the dead, but eventually the rest of us moved on with our lives.
But what ties these two horrific acts together is that two sets of children either witnessed the act (in one case) or the aftermath (in another). They were also left without a mother or a father. The impact on the children will last forever.
The first of these two well-publicized tragedies took place in March of last year when Mary “Beth” Merz, 44, was, according to McKinney police, shot and killed by her husband, Eric Merz, 42, in the couple’s Mallard Lakes home. The couple’s daughter saw her mother’s body through a window in the house, and ran to a neighbor’s, who then called 911.
Eric Merz was subsequently charged and arrested for his wife’s murder. He later committed suicide after being released on bond.
Last month, McKinney was shaken again by tragedy when Melissa Williams, 36, was fatally shot by her estranged husband, Cedric McFail, outside of the Discovery Learning Center, in McKinney. McFail, 33, then took his own life shortly after shooting Williams.
To discuss the impact on children in situations like these and what the rest of us can do to help, TownSquareBuzz.com contacted two resources that assist children who’ve experienced traumatic situations.
In Collin County, the first step for a child who’s experienced a traumatic event is to go to the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County. Dan Powers is Clinical Director of Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County and he spoke with TSB about CAC’s role in assisting children.
“These children have been through an unspeakable trauma,” Powers says. “We try to do our best to start the healing journey. CAC has a unique relationship with law enforcement in Collin County. We’re their first call and they know that we’re able to respond in traumatic events. Kids can come to CAC and receive everything they need. Long after the story is gone, these kids still don’t have a mom and dad anymore. It’s hard for the rest of us to comprehend what that’s like.”
Powers says that it’s important to “set the foundation for the healing process” by comforting the children and helping them process what happened without making them relive the trauma.
“Long after the story is gone, these kids still don’t have a mom and dad anymore. It’s hard for the rest of us to comprehend what that’s like.”
“When a child loses a parent, they go through a grieving process, but situations like this are much more abrupt,” he says. “The trauma is similar to a soldier in war. The symptoms may be that the child keeps experiencing the trauma repeatedly in their thoughts or in their dreams. In some cases, they deny that it even happened. But it’s very real and very devastating. It alters the direction of their lives.”
TSB also contacted Jeanna Harwood, a licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist, to discuss the ways that the impact of a traumatic situation may manifest itself in a child.
“The impact (of a situation like this) can be felt by children as significant fear, sadness, anger, and anxiety about the safety of their family, or others they are close to,” Harwood says. “This can be expressed as aggression in play, crying that is out of character, hypersensitivity, wanting to be with their caregiver/guardian all of the time, appearing withdrawn, having nightmares, not wanting to go back to a similar environment (like the crime scene), and other behaviors that are out of their usual behavior.”
Trauma’s Staying Power
Harwood says that as the children grow older, the impact may manifest itself in different ways. “As these children grow older, they will have many questions and experience conflicting emotions,” she says. “For example, ‘How can I love my Dad, even though he killed my Mom?’ or ‘Why did my Dad kiss me goodbye that day?’ It is important for children who are primary witnesses to know that it is not their fault and they are not to blame.
“If the subject is avoided, kids will frequently ‘fill in the blanks’ with their own fictive narrative that usually involves blaming themselves, i.e. ‘Daddy wouldn’t have hurt Mommy if I didn’t be bad last night.’ ”
Harwood says that it’s important to give children the opportunity to express their feelings in different ways. “For children who have been traumatized, it is most helpful to provide opportunities for them to talk about how they feel without pressuring them,” she says. “It is important for kids to feel like they have some control in their lives when their lives may feel out of control. Adults should provide ample opportunity for verbal expression, but allow children to disclose as much as they choose, as they are ready.”
Harwood says that consistency is important in situations like these. “Minimizing change, as much as possible, reinforces predictability, which helps support security within their lives,” she says. “Counseling, especially for children who are exhibiting any of the above behaviors, can be helpful in processing, accepting, and moving past the negative impact.”
Harwood says that it’s important for trauma victims and trauma witnesses to “disclose” their feelings. Otherwise, it could have a negative impact on the rest of their lives. “Counseling initially, and at various age points throughout their lives as needed, will absolutely be necessary,” she says. “The children’s emotions should never be minimized or dismissed, even if what they express appears to sound hateful or offensive. They should be encouraged to express their emotions in any medium, be it verbally, written, via artistic expression, etc.
“Without counseling and frequent opportunities to express negative emotions, depression, acting out behaviors (aggression, passive aggression, self-harming, poor self-image, etc.), significant anxiety, fear, and worry, poor school performance, deficits in social and coping skills, etc., are all possible outcomes.”
Without those opportunities to talk about and express their emotions, Harwood says that victims may “grow into adults and are unable to cope effectively with life stressors, maintain employment, complete education goals, maintain successful relationships, seek out beneficial activity versus harmful activities, mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse/dependency, physical health problems, overall unhappiness, and failure to fulfill their individual potential.”
Harwood cautions that these behaviors are not a guaranteed result, but it is a likely outcome of witnessing trauma. She says that counseling and calm, nurturing caregivers who assist in the processing of emotions are critically important.
Where Do The Kids Go?
Powers says that after a traumatic event like this, a child will most likely be placed with a family member. “The worst thing you can do is to put them with a bunch of strangers,” he says. “Child Protective Services will try to find an appropriate relative, like a grandparent or an aunt or an uncle – someone who’s a trusted adult.”
As for the children of Mary “Beth” Merz and Eric Merz and the children of Melissa Williams and Cedric McFail, Powers couldn’t comment on their specific locations for obvious reasons, but did say, “it’s a safe assumption that they’re with family.”
For the rest of us, both Powers and Harwood say it’s important for everyone to pitch in and help a child through the grieving process. “These are kids who’ve lost their primary caregivers,” Powers says. “That healing process is going to take a long time. That involves teachers, leaders, coaches, scout leaders, etc. The bottom line with kids that experience this kind of thing is to get the kids with people who can support them and allow them to be kids.”
Both Powers and Harwood say that it’s critically important for the children to be supported and cared for, but with time they can begin to heal. “Sadly, I’ve had to experience this sort of thing many, many times,” Powers says. “It breaks your heart. But kids heal and they do get better. Does it change the direction of their lives? Yes. But it doesn’t have to control their lives.”