As French officials narrowed their investigation of the slaying of a Toulouse teacher, his two sons and the daughter of the Ozar Hatorah high school’s principal, parents and students faced their first full day since the bullets of a suspected serial killer rained down chaos on their tightknit Jewish community.

“I’m still living through the story,” said one parent, who couldn’t bring himself to talk about the horror that his daughter witnessed as Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, sons Aryeh, 6, and Gavriel, 3, and seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego were gunned down while waiting for a bus to the Chabad-Lubavitch run Gan Rashi elementary school. “Maybe later on things will start becoming more calm and clear.”

Through forensics tests, investigators linked the assailant, who pulled up on a motorcycle early Monday morning before opening fire, to two other fatal attacks on French paratroopers in and near Toulouse. In those attacks, the victims were of minority North African or Caribbean descent, leading some to speculate about a racist motivation behind the violence. French Interior Minister Claude Gueant, meanwhile, revealed that Monday’s killer probably recorded the shootings in real time from a high-definition camera he had strapped to his body.

On Tuesday, when schools throughout France observed a moment of silence for the victims, the gunman was still at large. Schools and Jewish community centers elsewhere in the world, including in the United States, beefed up security, and many parents – like those in Toulouse – were left with the prospect of explaining inexplicable tragedy to their children.

A funeral for the victims was scheduled for Wednesday in Israel.

In New York, Jewish grief experts offered advice to anyone facing such issues with their own kids.

Moshe Borowski, a grief counselor who serves as director of New York-based SSTART, school and synagogue trauma and resilience training, said that for the Jewish community of Toulouse, it would be difficult to find balance in trying to manage the unspeakable trauma.

“This is unfortunately the ultimate in trauma for a child; the three safest places for a Jewish child should be home, school, and synagogue,” he said. “And now school, which takes up a major portion of a child’s day, may no longer be perceived as a safe place.”

It’s important to first let children talk about what’s going on so they don’t suppress or feel like they are supposed to suppress their emotions, though not to the point where they overwhelm themselves, he explained. “You’re trying to strike that balance almost from minute one.”

Parents, teachers, administrators and even rabbis can be honest with children, showing that they too are emotional and connected to what happened, asserted Borowski, as long as children don’t feel they’re out of control.

“They’re looking for safety,” he said. “How you assure safety in an unsafe world can be tricky, but they’re looking for safety.”

Explaining that the police and school are working on finding the bad guy, that the school is available and that school resources are available if they want to talk can be helpful, he said. So can just the reassurance that their parents are there.

A Process of Healing

While parents shouldn’t force their children to talk, checking in once a day to see how they’re feeling can be helpful in not ignoring the issue, added Borowski. Depending on their relationship, they can ask the kids how they’re eating and sleeping, or ask them how they imagine kids in other schools are doing. Letting them project their feelings, or starting by asking where they were when they first heard are safe ways to start a conversation without pushing, he explained.

There’s also the issue of talking to kids about death.

“You want to explain to kids that death is so powerful that it can impact a person on many levels, including physical, emotional and spiritual,” he said. “It was designed that way by G‑d.”

David Pelcovitz, Ph.D., a Yeshivah University professor and trauma expert, said there’s no exact right words to say, and hence no real way to mess up the conversation.

“They shouldn’t think of it as being a single event; it’s a process,” he said of parents’ worries about how to talk to their kids. “It’s really less about what you tell them, more about hearing what their concerns are.”

He spoke of the need to shelter kids of all ages from too much media exposure – television news, radio reports and newspaper stories related to the events tend to heighten the impact, he said. Still, if a child is going to be hearing about it outside of the house, parents should talk to them about it.

“You can’t lock them up and throw away the key,” he said, explaining that some children cope by not wanting too much information and others by needing the maximum. “See what their understanding is and build on that; you don’t want to put them on overload.”

Another way for parents to take care of their children is to take care of themselves, said Pelcovitz, explaining that children, especially younger ones, will emulate their parents. Taking the time to share their feelings as a couple or find someone to talk to isn’t being selfish, he emphasized, and does help kids.

Down the road, people will find their own ways to create meaning, individually and as a community, and offering the support that can lead to healing. They don’t have to think alike, he said, just together to figure out what works best for them. In terms of children, the most important thing is to make them feel safe and protected, and to surround them with love.

“People have to give themselves permission for it to take a very long time before you go to the new normal,” he said, adding that increased Torah learning and the giving of charity may also be part of the process. “It’ll be a new normal: It’s not going to be the way it was before.”

The proximity of parents to their children over the next few weeks could be important, added Dr. Brian Trappler, who served as an associate professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York. “They’re in a state of chaos, confusion, distress and dread, and there has been a significant loss to various degrees at the same time. It’s like a double whammy because you are dealing with issues of loss and bereavement, and something that is completely unexpected, so it’s a traumatic loss.”

National and political support will be helpful in creating a complete reassurance that the environment is safe, that this was an isolated event and that there is no continued risk, he said, adding that a public narrative will contribute to providing closure. There is also a need to recreate the sense of good in the world that people feel was shattered by such events and for them to feel justice has been served.

Above all, stressed Trappler, is the need to acknowledge the trauma at various levels.

“Most victims and survivors will show some signs of stress, and that’s normal for the first month,” he said, adding that most recover, even if at first they have trouble sleeping or concentrating.

It’s all the part of normal trauma response, he said. But, he explained, first things first.

“The first thing is to be put in a safe environment,” he stated, “and the safe environment is the home surrounded by close family and friends.”