Tt was a traumatic experience for nine-year-old Dippu to watch the funeral ceremony of the royal family members on television. He was restless, and couldn't sleep properly for
days. Only when his father stayed in the room did the child start sleeping normally again after a week.
Across Nepal, thousands of children have been silently affected by news of the royal tragedy, shocked to see the funeral on television with the late King Birendra's wide-open jaw, the late Queen Aishwarya's vacant stare, and Princess Sruti looking like she was asleep. Then they heard the gruesome details of the probe panel report, and watched assault rifles being displayed. Many, like Dippu, were deeply disturbed. Older children suffered anxiety attacks, worried about the fate of the country and their families. But because Nepali family units are closely knit, there are support mecahnisms for such situations, even if professional counselling services are grossly inadequate.
Kedar Rayamajhi, a clinical psychologist who regularly counsels victims of domestic violence, believes that letting a child see a death, or even a funeral or a dead body for that matter, could have long-term implications. "Seeing death, a young child might develop a pessimistic outlook on life and living," Rayamajhi told us. He also cautioned that disturbed children who do not receive counselling in time may sometimes develop suicidal tendencies.
But other child psycholgists say children's power of resilience is underestimated, and that glimpses of deaths can actually be a lesson in mortality if parents and teachers discuss it properly with children. Dr Dhruba Man Shrestha is a senior psychiatric consultant at the Patan Mental Hospital, and says most children are unlikely to be traumatised by news of the royal massacre. "Television viewers were spared the gruesome details of the shootout, they did not witness scenes of bloodshed and the horror of people being gunned down. There is little chance children will be disturbed," he said.
But his experience with older people is significant-all older patients he has counselled after the royal massacre complain of depression and mental stress. Dr Shrestha is not surprised by this seeming contradiction: the perspective children have on death is too limited for an incident like this to disturb them. "Reacting to the death of public personalities is a purely adult phenomenon," he says. And in this case adults were particularly shocked because the royal palace incident broke taboos about filial piety and respect for elders. For many, one defence mechanism has been taking refuge in conspiracy theories .
Raija Kiljunen, a clinical psychologist and programme director with United Mission to Nepal's Mental Health Programme agrees that adults were more affected by the news of the massacre than children. "Children will feel sad because the adults are shocked and confused. They will suspect something wrong and sad has happened because their daily routine has been disrupted and adults are disoriented," she told us. However, Kiljunen says children should have watched the funeral and other coverage with parental presence.
Both Rayamajhi and Kiljunen agree on one point: discussing conspiracy theories in front of children might scare the older children and trigger behavioural abnormalities. Children listening to endless rumours and conversation among adults about the massacre may also develop a cynical and distrustful nature in adulthood. Most school principals we spoke with said that when schools reopened two weeks after the massacre, children were repeating in school rumours they had heard at home. Children were encouraged to keep journals of their feelings, and older children took part in class discussions in which they talked about the future of the country.
Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital is the only Nepali institution that runs a child guidance clinic where the services of psychiatrists and psychologists are available. A few institutions like Richmond's Fellowship Nepal and Sahara Counselling also provide counselling services to children.
Whether or not mental health professionals agree that children have been disturbed by the last few weeks is moot. Parents we spoke with find cause for concern in their children's reactions, and worry about the lack of counselling facilities available. One distraught parent told us: "I have noticed my son being moody, and staring into space. We have tried to draw him out to talk about the royal killings, but he still finds it too painful." In many schools, some parents said, teachers aren't much help because they repeat bazaar rumours.