So acting on my resolve to build communities, I accepted an invitation to speak to a group of young parents at a local church. The topic was “How to Speak to your Child about Death and Tragedy.” Certainly, life in 2013 has created a sense of urgency regarding safety. Nothing makes a family feel more vulnerable than the darkness of unnecessary and unpredictable violence. Many families spoke of the death of treasured family pets. Some grandparents had died. Others had lost loved ones through divorces.
We started the discussion with Psalm 124. “If the Lord had not been on our side, let Israel now say… He has not given us over to be prey for their teeth. The snare has been broken and we have escaped.” Don’t you love that? I do. There was a time in my life when my enemies rose up against my family threatening to swallow us up alive in their fierce anger. During that time I held this Psalm close to my heart. “Please God, it feels like you have given us over to be prey for their teeth, please God help me escape like a bird from the snare of this fowler.” Please. But I’m here to tell you that it took God and the wisdom of our family about five years to get out from those muddy torrents that were threatening to overtake us. Five long years of hard work and prayer and faith. Life is full of blessings but sometimes blessings take on the disguise of disaster and tragedy. Always and forever, our Lord remains with us, even when we feel the most alone and abandoned, He is there. And that is how we started our discussion. As it was in the Beginning is Always and shall be Forever and all that Amen.
Our conversation centered around several basic premises. First and foremost, less is more and even less is better. Often I see today’s parents explaining and cajoling basic behavioral guidelines that really are better suited to one word, “Stop.” Now, Sally haven’t we asked you not to kick your little brother? Don’t you like it when you are playing nicely with him? Remember last week when he wanted a bite of your ice cream cone and you gave it to him? Didn’t that feel better?” And what has Sally gotten? Exactly what she wanted and was bartering for-her parent’s attention. One point for the child. Zero for Mom and Dad.
The other basic tenet of the talk is that our God is Powerful, All Knowing and endowed with a wonderful sense of Humor, but is also Creator. With his energy, He created us and everything that exists on planet Earth. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God.” He did it in seven days too. Pretty economical. So please believe that our God is never happier than when we are creating. Never. I encouraged the parents to help their children create poems, stories or paintings of their fears and worries, their daily triumphs as well as tragedies. Coloring and giving form to joy or mourning is a beautiful and efficient way for a child to process emotions that may overwhelm them. And as always we emphasized the importance of turning off media.
I told the story of my friend who was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiform weeks before 9/11. We had planned a trip to visit him the weekend after 9/11. My husband was reluctant to postpone the trip as he understood the seriousness of the diagnosis, having the fortune or maybe misfortune of marrying a doctor. This trip put our family in the center of 9/11 just days after the planes crashed into the towers and so many lay dead or dying. Of all the horrors of that weekend, what haunts me the most was the eery silence enveloping that small town just outside the city. And I’ll never forget my daughter, then eight years old, running through the our friend’s den, stopping, staring and then asking, “Why do you have a zipper in your head?” Hearts stopped beating and breath was held as our gracious and wise friend turned to her and taking her in his lap said, “I have a zipper because something was growing inside my head that wasn’t supposed to be there and they had to take it out.” What color was it?” she then asked. “I’m not sure but I believe it was grayish red.” Thus satisfied, so she hopped down and ran off again. Nine young children playing Twister and tag while the adults choked on their emotions and love for each other. She didn’t ask or need to know when his chemo would start or how his business would unwind or who would father his children when he died. She felt secure and confident in her knowledge of the situation. It was enough for her if not for us. And that leads us to the third point. Children will grieve differently based on their developmental level. They will hear and process information uniquely as their object constancy and ability to think abstractly, matures. Note the concreteness of my daughter’s questions and her lack of “tact.” She needs information about shapes and colors and so she asks questions.
During the session, one family shared a comforting story about helping their children put down the family dog. They care for his grave and bring him flowers. They put mementos of him in their rooms. But then they added a poignant reminder that while the death was a terrible loss for them and the older children, the youngest child does not remember this important family pet. For their five year old, the death was less real and they respected that. They celebrated the life of their beloved pet while allowing each child to mourn as developmentally appropriate.
There were questions about how to encourage children to stay connected with a favorite uncle after divorce and how to still a child’s anxieties about the possible death of a parent. How do we give children permission to cry as well as laugh. One mother told a story of lovingly reassuring her anxious son with the concept of a “heart string” that carried from her heart to his forever. Lots of good discussion and definitely a warm, nurturing and supportive community. A community that opened it’s heart, eyes and ears to my wisdom and me to theirs. This fulfills the word that God spoke about my creations. Go forth, be in community with others and share your artistic endeavors. How blessed we were yesterday in this, our togetherness.