Don’t Panic, Kids!

It is a beautiful day in Chicago today and this morning I was on my way with all three kids to drop off my daughter at her second day at “Safety Town”. It is ironic to where we were going so let me quick tell you what Safety Town is. 

The program introduces pedestrian, bike, fire, railroad, bus, animal, water, and personal safety. During the week, the children have the opportunity to make real-time 911 calls, participate in a fire evacuation drill and practice pedestrian safety and traffic hand signals as they ride special Safety Town vehicles on the streets of Safety Town.  The Safety Town Summer Program is a weeklong, 90-minute per day program for children entering kindergarten or 1st grade. Throughout the week, stories, games, songs, and videos reinforce the skills being taught. By using a “hands-on” approach, children absorb important information and have fun at the same time.

So, in order to avoid traffic, I decided to take the back country roads as I often do.  Again, it is a gorgeous day!  75 degrees with sunny, blue skies!  As I was driving down one of the country roads, we approached a huge farmer’s field that had a wrecked car in the middle of it.  I would say the car was a good 50 yards from the road.  The car was all alone and the road I was driving on was clear.  The car’s windshield was smashed and the front and back ends were pretty messed up too.  The car was totaled. At first I thought it may have been an old accident and maybe they hadn’t removed the car.  Why I thought that, I don’t know, because when does that really happen?  Until I looked just past the car!  This happened all in a matter of seconds but felt much longer.  When I looked past the car about 50 feet away, there was what appeared to be a middle-aged man laying in the field on his side not moving.  I had to take a double look to make sure that is what I saw.  Maybe it was a bag?  Or something?  I don’t know it could have been but I wasn’t sure it was a person. 

Remember I am driving on a country road doing about 45 mph.  I immediately slow the car down.  Waaayy down to about 20 mph.  I didn’t want to stop at first because there are no shoulders on the side of these country roads and the road dropped off on the sides.  I didn’t want to get rear ended in case another car came flying down the road at 60 mph so I just slowed down.  When I looked to the field again, I was sure this time that there was a man laying in the field and not moving.  I grabbed my phone and hit 911 as fast as I could!  At this point, I shushed the kids and waited for 911 to answer.  I was still driving at this point…driving slow…but still driving.  I needed to find out what road I was on.  I take this road all the time but honestly didn’t really know the name of the road.  It was the “country road” to me.  So, I drove up to the four-way stop just down the road.  No street signs!  What?!?!  What intersection doesn’t have a street sign to tell you what roads you are on?!?!  By this time, 911 answered.  Well, to be honest, they answered right away.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“I’m driving down one of these back country roads and there is a smashed up car in the farmer’s field with a man laying about 50 feet from the car in the field.  There is absolutely no one around and no one has stopped.”

“Okay, ma’am.  What road are you on?” 

“Ummm…I don’t know.  A back road.  A country road.  Wait…there is a stop sign up ahead.  I’ll tell you as soon as I see the sign.  THERE’S NO SIGN!  I am going to turn around. I didn’t stop because I have 3 babies in the car.  WHERE ARE THE STREET SIGNS?!?!”

“Okay, Ma’am.  Where are you headed?  I’ll look at a map.”

“I’m headed north.  Okay, there is a school on my left.”

When I gave her the name of the school, the 911 operator knew just where I was at.  I flipped a u-turn at the school and backtracked to the accident.  It was less than a mile. 

Just when I got back to the scene, luckily two men pulled up separately in pickup trucks.  I was still on the phone with 911 when I got out of the car.  The two men ran out into the field to check to see if the man was hurt, alive or dead.  I walked out just a bit in the field so that I could hear the men tell me if the man was breathing but still be close enough to my car that had my 3 wide-eyed kids in it watching everything. 

“Did the car roll?” asked the 911 operator.

“I don’t know.  It is upright but smashed up pretty good so it probably did roll.”

“How far off the road is the car?  And where is the man?”

“The car is about 50 yards from the road and the man is about 50 feet from the car.”

“Ask the other men if the man is breathing.”


“Nope, he’s not breathing.  They say he is dead.  No one else in the car.” 

“Okay, we already have units on their way.”

Within 2 minutes of being back at the scene, I could hear sirens in the distance.  Within about 4 minutes, we were bombarded with emergency vehicles.  First, the police arrived.  Then the fire trucks followed by the ambulance.  It was like a scene out of a movie with how fast the emergency people arrived and swarmed the area.  And my car was smack in the middle of the entire thing! 

Now, remember those three kids in the backseat?  I have a 2, 4 and 6 year old all strapped into car seats watching this all unfold pretty much in shock. 

“Don’t panic, kids.  There are some people coming to help.” 

Let me just tell you that my 4 year old son has had an obsession with police and firemen for about a year now.  He thinks he is a fireman!  No, really.  Anytime we pass a fire truck or ambulance, he yells “pull over, I have to help my friends!”  He has the entire fireman outfit: hat, coat, and boots.  So, as all the firemen are rushing by the car he couldn’t contain himself. 

“Let me out, mom!  My friends need my help!” 

“Oh, honey, they are good.  Look at all the help they have.  Please, they want you to stay in the car.”

After I convinced fireman kid in the backseat to stay put, the questions from my 6 year old “Nervous Nelly” start. 

“Is that man hurt, mom?  What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s dead” my 4 year old blurts out! 

“He’s NOT dead.  He’s just hurt.  Or sleeping because he’s hurt.  Right, mom?”

“Nope, he’s dead” the 4 year old says again. 

“No, the man is just hurt and they will take him to the hospital to make him better,” I say in response to the look of horror on my daughter’s face.

You see, my 6 year old is a worrier.  Mix that with nightmares from time to time and this situation is my nightmare for her! A crashed car in the middle of a field with a dead man laying next to it?  And she is watching all the emergency vehicles descend on us like she is in the middle of a “Die Hard” movie?  Yeah, we are going to be talking about this one for a while with her. 

And the 2 year old?  He is little but he knows that fire trucks mean fire.  So, he just kept repeating “fire” over and over and over again.  Fire. Fire. Fire. Fire.  You get the point. 

So, I am standing by my car with the rear windows open so that the kids don’t freak out.  About 4 fire trucks, 8 police cars and an ambulance are surrounding us. Every time a police or fire man walks by the car my son yells “hi, friend!”  Remember our car is smack in the middle of it all.  The police come to take my information and to find out “what I saw” because I was the one to call in the accident.  We aren’t allowed to leave yet and really couldn’t because we were blocked in by emergency vehicles. 

“Just hang out for a minute, Ma’am.”

“But we are headed to Safety Town.”

“Just a few more minutes and we’ll get you out of here.”

So, we watch as the paramedics lift the man onto the stretcher and start wheeling him toward the road.  While they are moving him, one paramedic is doing chest compressions in attempt to get him breathing, I guess. 

“What are they doing to that man, mommy?” the 6 year old asks.

“Just helping him, honey.  He’s hurt.”

Luckily, they wheeled the man on the stretcher in front of the fire truck that was parked in front of us so that the show was over for my kids. After a couple more minutes, the police cleared a path for us to leave.  I hopped in the car and we were off to “Safety Town”.  That wasn’t the end of it though.  That is just when more questions began.

“What happened to the car?”

“Was the man really dead?”

“How did he get hurt?”

“Will he be okay?”

“Where are they taking him?”

The entire ride was talking about the scene of the accident.  Luckily, we had left a little early that morning so we made it to Safety Town only 5 minutes late.  And after Safety Town was over (it’s only 90 minutes), the questions resumed. 

“Is the man still in the field?”

“Is that the field that it happened?”

I don’t know what happened after we left.  I do know that the road was still closed and blocked off by police more than 2 hours later.  I can tell my daughter is still genuinely worried about him.  And I understand.  That was someone’s son.  Maybe someone’s dad, brother or grandpa?  And when we found him – his family had no idea where he was or what happened to him.  It’s all very sad and my heart goes out to a family of a man that I don’t know.  My heart is also sad for my daughter who is going to worry about that poor man for days to come. As far as she knows, the poor man is in the hospital and getting better now.  She’s 6!  I didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise. 

How do you personally explain death or trauma to a child?    


Baby Gizmo founder Hollie Schultz is the proud mom of three adorable kids. This certified CPS (Child Passenger Safety) Tech and baby gear expert is the host of the Baby Gizmo video reviews giving moms the inside look at baby products before they purchase them. Hollie is also the co-author of The Baby Gizmo Buying Guide. A former resident of Los Angeles, she and her family now live in North Carolina where she is having a blast designing and decorating her new home.


  1. Wow! Is all I can say!
    To answer your question, honesty is best. I am a Christian and I believe when ppl pass, they are just dead, until the second coming of Christ and they are all gathered to Heaven. There is not a single scripture supporting that they are taken by angels and watching over us. My mother died right after my 4th bday. I was told she was in Heaven, with the angels, watching over me. Every year on her bday, we would buy a helium balloon and release it, and I would watch it struggle to rise in the December air, hoping it would reach Heaven. When I was older and read the Bible, I realized she wasn’t in Heaven watching over me and when I confronted those who had told me so, they agreed with my theology and that they had simply told me that to comfort me as a child. I found that annoying. I would have preferred what they had actually perceived as the truth. It wouldn’t have been too hard. Our believes would have sounded like this “Honey, the man was in a really bad car accident. He wasn’t searing his seatbelt, that’s why he was laying in the field. When someone is in such a bad car accident, they usually get hurt. This man was really hurt. He was hurt so badly he stopped breathing. Sometimes ppl are able to be saved, but he was too badly broken to be able to breathe again, so he died. When someone dies, they don’t feel anything, no more pain. .. and then, if wanted, include your theology on what happens to the dead. I believe that when you die it is as if you are sleeping, but I wouldn’t tell young children that, because then they equate sleeping with death and can experience sleep phobia.

  2. Wow what an incredible and sad story! Good for you though for calling for help and keeping your cool with the kids, I can only imagine how difficult that would be for me. As someone who was always way too impressionable as a child I can say that you also probably did the right thing by not opening the “death” can of worms until necessary…

  3. What a scary situation! It sounds like you handled it great though. I guess it is even tougher because you don’t know what happened and if that man recovered. You never know, they might have been able to bring him back. The fact that they were doing CPR is good, right? So you could tell your daughter that he is getting better or that he died. I would explain death to my child through the lens of our religion. It is very comforting to me that families can be together forever and there is no more pain, fear, etc. in heaven. I don’t know what you believe, but that is how I would do it. One woman above posted about getting some children’s books about death from the library, that’s a good idea too.

  4. Wow! How scary. You kept your cool and did the right thing. I can’t imagine how panicked you must have felt. Way to keep cool and keep ir safe for your little ones. Such a great mom!

  5. You did the ultimate kindness by calling 911. How many other vehicles may have driven by and either not noticed or not want to get involved.

    EXPLAINING DEATH TO CHILDREN by Earl Grollman is a very good resource for explaining death to children. Your local library probably has other such books. It’s best to be honest with children so they continue to trust you.

    There is a form of art therapy where children draw pictures of pain, anger, sadness, etc. Funeral parlors can suggest AFTERCARE resources to deal with different stages of bereavement/loss. Good luck to you.

    That is SO unfortunate!
    You did a wonderful job keeping cool in the heat of the
    moment. I’m sad that your daughter is so worried but I am sure you will find a way to put her at ease.
    Huge hug & high five to you!! I hope the rest of your week is MUCH less eventful especially en route to Safety Town!

  7. My son died when he was an infant, and my older daughter saw the emt’s do their thing. There is not an easy way to explain it … just be truthful. If you belong to a faith then draw on that. My son who was born after the death of my older son will tear up at times thinking about the brother he never met. Death is a part of life. When they are young like this and you have their hearts and their trust is, in my mind, easier than explaining it to an older teen or young adult. The first funeral I ever attended was the funeral of my son. Honesty. It’s the only way. It’s hard though. 🙁

  8. Oh huge hugs!!! It’s hard to have to explain that situation to a child. We had a horrible accident where a semi hit a SUV. The driver (mom) was killed almost on impact and 2 of her children were in the car with her. The 2 kids are ok, but needed to be pulled out of the car. My 8 yr old witnessed the accident while on her school bus coming home.

    I found that it’s best to be honest. If you say that they are ok, they may want to go see that person, send a card, etc.

    Lots of patience and understanding. Hope that the nightmares aren’t too bad for your 6 yr old.

  9. What a horrible thing to have to come upon, especially with kids in tow. Holy moly – you did an awesome job!

    My Mom passed away 8 days before my son’s second birthday and we’ve been dealing with the death issue for two years now. I thought he would have forgotten some stuff by now… nope!

    At the time we explained it like this: Grandma was sick. She was so sick that the doctors tried all their medicines and they just couldn’t fix her. The only way she would get to feel better was to fly up to the stars and watch over all of us. We couldn’t see her anymore but she could see us and she would feel all better.

    It was sweet when we would be outside looking at the stars and he would search for the shiniest one and wave or look out on a really starry night and say “Look at all the Grandmas!” but it was just a temporary fix. It worked for the first few years but now he’s getting older and wiser and we need to come up with a better explanation. It’s such a hard subject!

  10. When my great grandfather died, my kids great great grandfather, we told them that he went to live with the angels so he could watch over us more carefully, and see everything we do. My oldest is 5, and now he makes sure to use his manners because “papa is watching”.

    I know its different because its someone you dont know, but if you HAVE to tell her, tell her that the man was hurt, and the angels had a spot for him in Heaven, and the man chose to go to heaven, so he didn’t have to hurt anymore.

    Hope this helps.


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