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The death of a parent can be a life altering experience at any age, but for children there are special challenges. Adults are often at a loss how to best support children and adolescents who are experiencing profound grief while at the same time trying to meet cope with the demands of school, relationships with peers and changes in routines. Grief counselors know that some feelings and reactions are common, but they also know that every loss is unique and presents its own set of psychological and social issues. Please join us to talk about how to help children and adolescents cope with the loss of a parent
- Carole Geithner Assistant clinical professor of psychology, George Washington University School of Medicine and author of a new novel, "If Only"
- Susan Ley Executive director, Wendt Center for Loss and Healing
- Gardiner Harris Science reporter for The New York Times and author of the mystery novel "Hazard."
- Liz Kelly Graduate student, The Catholic University of America,
People say children are resilient, but when a parent dies, the emotional and psychological challenges can be overwhelming. Diane and a panel of guests talked about how children and teenagers cope with the loss of a parent and what other adults in their lives can do to help.
How A Parent’s Death Changes The Course Of A Life
Geithner, who lost her own mother when she was 25, realized at that age how such a loss sets people apart. “Life stops in a way while everyone else’s life is going on…I experienced how awkward it can be for people to know how to react to you,” she said. Harris lost his mother at age 13 and realizes today that if she had lived, he would be a very different person. Harris said he would have much better table manners, but also realizes that he is “fiercely independent” because she wasn’t there. He and his brother even avoided spending time with her in the final stages of her illness, to his shame today. “It’s the sort of thing that I’m never going to get over, and probably never forgive myself for,” he said.
Not Knowing What To Say
Kelly, who is earning her master’s degree in clinical social work, lost her father when she was a freshman in high school. She remembers that few people, her peers and adults alike, seemed to know what to say. “So for the most part, they really didn’t say anything. So part of my motivation for going back to school to get my master’s in clinical social work is so that I can help others who are going through challenging circumstances,” Kelly said. She’s learning that it may be perfectly fine for adults to say to young people, “I’m really sorry you’re going through this, and I know it’s hard.”
Simple, Straightforward Language For Young Children
A listener sent an email to the guests asking what suggestions they had for her 4 year-old niece, who lost her mother several months ago. “I think one of the great gifts that the surviving parent and family members can do is to continue to share stories and memories about the person who died, especially with such a young child,” Geithner said. Ley agreed, and added that the language used needs to be very simple, very clear, and very straightforward. “The irreversibility of death is not well understood at age 4, probably not until 9 or 10, so the question of is mommy coming back or where did she go. So we want to use really straightforward language,” Ley said.
Grief As A Process
Harris talked about the reality of his mother’s death hitting him at different moments – like the first time he was home sick from school after her death and realized she wasn’t there to care for him. Geithner agreed that grief comes “out in bits and pieces and bursts” when young people can handle it rather in the long, profound way that adults might grieve and mourn.
You can read the [full transcript here(https://dianerehm.org/shows/2012-03-05/death-parent/transcript).
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. People say children are resilient, but when a parent dies, the emotional and psychological challenges can be overwhelming. Joining me in the studio to talk about how children and teenagers cope with the loss of a parent and what other adults in their lives can do to help, Carole Geithner, assistant clinical professor of psychology at George Washington University School of Medicine.
MS. DIANE REHMShe's author of a new novel titled, "If Only." Susan Ley is executive director of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. Gardiner is a reporter for the New York Times, and Liz Kelly is a graduate student at the Catholic University of America. I hope you'll join us. 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MR. GARDINER HARRISGood morning, Diane.
MS. CAROLE GEITHNERGood morning.
MS. SUSAN LEYGood morning, Diane.
REHMGood to have you here. Carole Geithner, if I could start with you. The loss of a parent is surely not that rare, but something very, very difficult for especially young people to talk about. I'm interested that you have written "If Only." Tell us a little about the book and why you wrote it.
GEITHNERI really got the idea from two parts of my life. One was, my own mother died when I was 25, and I experienced firsthand how such a loss sets you apart, how life stops in a way while everyone else's life is going on, and it really is a life-changing event. I experienced how awkward it can be for people to know how to react to you, and what do you really feel you want from them, wanting it acknowledged but maybe not in a public way where you might feel taken by surprise or not ready for it.
GEITHNERSo that was one thing. But also, in my career as a social worker, I worked a lot with children who had had losses, parent loss and sibling loss, and they -- it was so powerful for them to know that they were not the only one, to come together in a group and see that other kids had something similar, even if the details were different. And they got a lot out of hearing not only each other's stories in a group situation, but also reading about other kids who had survived this.
GEITHNERIt was a survivable thing, and I thought, how could I contribute to that? Let's see. How could I help them know that there are all different ways to go through this, there's no one right way? There are infinite variations, and I thought that a fiction format might invite more people. Not just grievers, but other people, family members, school members, friends, into that world to know what it is like on the inside. And whereas the grieving child may not show outward signs and talk about this loss all the time, they're trying so hard to fit in and be normal, but their life really has changed so much. So I'm hoping the fiction format will invite more people into that world.
REHMCarole Geithner, her new novel is titled, "If Only." Gardiner Harris, you were 13 when your mother, Sheila, died.
HARRISGreat friend of yours, yeah.
REHMGreat friend of mine. I wonder what Carole says, how that sort of resonates with you back then.
HARRISRight. Well, I think that Carole is talking about resilience, and I think that that is one of the most powerful things that you come out of, a situation like that. I mean, that kids do survive, although they change substantially. You know, what's interesting about Carol's title is, you know, the "If Only," I mean, we all think about that. If only mom was still here. If only things could have been different. But, you know, as I have gotten older, I, of course, realize that I wouldn't recognize myself if mom was still here.
HARRISThat I changed wholly and substantially because of her death, and it made me a very, very different person. Had she been around -- first of all, I would have much better table manners, let me just say, Diane. There are a variety of things that when you grow up without a mother, my wife is constantly complaining about I am, you know, a motherless child, and so there are certain things that I just don't do particularly well because I didn't have her there.
HARRISThere are other things that I, you know, am just fiercely independent because she was not there, and I think also one of the things that I kind of have come to realize is how much this experience is sort of still misunderstood or not understood by others. One of the things, for instance, that struck me most powerfully about my mother dying was the change in her smell. You know, someone who dies, of course, their body changes dramatically during the experience, and I became uncomfortable around my mother as she was dying because she was no longer -- she didn't, you know, I think children are feral beasts, you know, and smell is extremely important.
HARRISAnd I started having dreams that somebody had kidnapped my mother and that -- and, you know, of course, after her death, those dreams kind of changed, but it was that same repeating dream that she had been lost even before she was lost. And that was, I think, one of the hardest things for me, because even while she was dying, I didn't want to be with her.
HARRISMy father installed this buzzer system in our house thinking that, of course, her sons would spring to her aid as soon as she needed anything. She was dying -- she died, and in her last few months, a fair amount of it was spent up her bedroom. And she would buzz for us, and me and my brother would be downstairs and, you know, to my great undying shame, I remember me and my brother doing rock, paper, scissors to see which one of us had to go respond to her.
HARRISAnd it's the sort of thing that I'm never gonna get over, and probably never forgive myself for.
REHMGardiner Harris. He's science reporter for the New York Times. Turning to you, Susan Ley of the Wendt Center, how often does the Wendt Center counsel children and adolescents?
LEYIt's something we do each and every day, and it's at the heart of our work, with our mission being to assist those who are grieving. We also, in addition to individual and family work and group counseling, we also have a summer camp, a bereavement weekend for children 6 through 16. We find that so many parents truly are concerned, often more about their children then they are about themselves, and are very good about bringing them and consulting with staff and working with staff on how best to attend to children.
LEYThe use of language is important, what the children are experiencing in terms of their symptoms or in terms of their reactions, the questions that they ask, the changes that may be going on both at home and at school, all of those are the things that we work with.
REHMSusan Ley is executive director of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. And to you, Liz Kelly, earning your graduate degree at the Catholic University of America, tell me why you have decided you'd like to become a grief counselor.
MS. LIZ KELLYWell, I also lost my father when I was a freshman in high school, so I experienced grief at a very young age as well, and it was really, really isolating to have a parent die at such a young age. None of the other kids at school, or the adults, for that matter, really knew the right things to say. So for the most part, they really didn't say anything. So part of my motivation for going back to school to get my master's in clinical social work is so that I can help others who are going through challenging circumstances.
REHMTell me what you are learning.
KELLYWell, I'm learning that each person's circumstance is unique, and you really have to meet the person where they are and get a holistic vision of everything that goes into their life, their biology, their spiritual life, psychological their education, their socio-economic factors. So many things impact how a child grieves and so it's really important to take all of those things into consideration.
REHMDo any of you think we've really used the wrong approach in how to deal with children?
KELLYI think we really do. I think adults have such -- their hearts are in the right place. They really want to help children who are grieving, but they don't know the right thing to say. And so I think what adults should do is to admit they don't know what to say, and it's perfectly fine to say something along the lines of, I'm really sorry you're going through this, and I know it's hard.
REHMIt's interesting, Carole, because you open your novel with an adult attempting to create a gesture that's meant to be caring and loving with a pink fuzzy book.
GEITHNERRight. Right. It's a very well-intentioned gesture to connect and reach out, and Corinna, the protagonist has a hard time accepting it, but in fact, it does sow a seed for something that is very helpful for her, and that relationship does blossom over time when Corinna's ready. So the message of letting Corinna know that this caring adult is available is an important one.
REHMCarole Geithner, assistant clinical professor of psychology at George Washington University School of Medicine. Her new novel is titled "If Only." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about how to help children who have lost a parent. As I said at the opening, losing a parent is difficult at any age, but especially when one is a child. There are four people here in the studio with me. Carole Geithner is author of a brand new novel. It's titled "If Only" and truly meant for people of all ages. Susan Ley is executive director of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. Gardiner Harris is science reporter for the New York Times. Liz Kelly is at the Catholic University of America getting her Masters to become a grief counselor.
REHMAs you all can well imagine, the lines are filled. Here's a first email from Kate in Dallas who says, "Your show this morning is an answered prayer because I was thinking in the last hour about what we might do to help my 4-year-old niece deal with the recent death of her mother who died on Christmas Day at the age of 37. Her husband is wonderful with the children. He now finds himself trying to help his daughter deal with her grief, which is particularly intense at bedtime." Carole, what can you say?
GEITHNERI think one of the great gifts that the surviving parent and family members can do is to continue to share stories and memories about the person who died, especially with such a young child. They may not have as many memories of their own so that really is a gift to keep talking about the person who died, using their name, letting the child know it's not a forbidden subject. They can ask their questions as they're ready. As they get older, they'll ask different questions and it's important to keep that conversation going.
LEYI think with a 4-year-old, I would absolutely echo what Carole has said, but I would add that the language needs to be very simple, very clear, very straightforward.
LEYSuch as what is death for a 4-year-old? It's when mommy, her body stops working, it stops breathing, she stops eating. The irreversibility of death is not well understood at age 4, probably not 'til 9 or 10, so the question of is mommy coming back or where did she go. So we want to use really straightforward language.
REHMAnd at 13, the language is very different. Your father T. George Harris must have been doing his own grieving.
HARRISRight. We actually had a counselor come in. My mother, like you all were talking about, was extremely concerned about -- more concerned about us than she was about herself. I have to say that the thing that really hit me, and it was a very difficult moment, but we had a viewing. And, you know, there I saw my mother's body. And it is the moment, I thought, when I understood what death was because you look at this body and you know right there that that is not your mother, that that was her vessel.
HARRISAnd, you know, it was one of the few times in my life when I had this keen sense that, you know, that she was there, but not part of her body. And I remember going and seeing the body and then, the next moment I remember being outside on the porch, you know, breathing deeply. And so there was obviously some time loss there and then looking over and seeing my brother breathing deeply right next to me. And we eventually were able to go back inside and, you know, have an easier time of it.
HARRISMeanwhile, my Down syndrome sister was, you know, by the body and bringing people up to the body and, you know, had this extraordinary sense of comfort with it that we, of course, could not have. But it's a cultural thing that some people do viewings and some don't, but it was enormously helpful for me to sort of understand what death is.
REHMInteresting. Liz, what would you say knowing what you know now to a 4-year-old?
KELLYWell, I would echo what Susan and Gardiner said that I think there's sometimes this urge to protect children from the reality. But they really need information and they need honest information about what's going on.
REHMAnd what's going on for one child may be totally different from what's going on for another, Carole.
GEITHNERAbsolutely. I mean, the different factors are age and their developmental understanding about death, as Susan was speaking about. But also had they had any other experiences with death beforehand, how did the person die, is it a stigmatized death or was it a long slow death and what were their personality and coping skills before this event happened? How is the family reacting? Is the family kind of falling apart and all the routine is off, or are they managing to hold on to some routine? Those all influence how a child goes through this.
REHMYou know, it's interesting because in an earlier age, not only in our country but elsewhere, perhaps young children had to deal with death more often, more realistically than perhaps now. Are we over protective of children in regard to death, Susan?
LEYI think we're very protective of children, in general. And death hits so hard that it evokes, I think, in all of us an added element of protection. The issue often is that children are hard to read, they're hard to understand. They're not us. They don't talk the way that we do, they don't think abstractly the way that we do. And their responses are really different. So to see a child laughing and playing on the playground one minute and then the next minute coming in and just being reduced to tears throws us off and makes us wonder about our own capacity to attend to our child and comfort them. So sometimes we might overcompensate.
HARRISThat email struck me, Diane, because, you know, I keenly remember the morning that my mother died. And I remember actually being up at 5:00 in the morning and then, you know, just in my bed. And then, you know, a half hour later the phone rang. My father was downstairs. I remember hearing him answer the phone, not hearing the conversation, but then his footsteps as he went in to each of my brothers' rooms and then finally came into mine, hugged me and said it's over. We knew that she was dying.
HARRISBut I wanted to go to school that day. I mean, I don't understand, why can't I go to school? And I think that this notion that, you know, I sort of cauterized it because I think that kids -- and this is I think why, you know, suicides end up happening to kids. You don't kind of understand that you will survive. You know, as we get older, we all have had experience with tragedy and you understand that you get to the other side of it. And as a child, you really don't.
HARRISAnd I remember that moment -- this 4-year-old, of course, misses her mother the most when she needs her the most, which is at night before she's going to bed. And I remember the first time that I was sick and my father went off to work, I was by myself at home. You know, I was 13. I was perfectly capable of being by myself, but I had a fever. You know, I was in my bed. And it was the moment when my mother would've come up and brushed my hair and brought me soup and crackers and all those things and I lost it and it was the time that I cried the most. And from that moment on I determined that I would not cry again because I was worried really about drowning emotionally, that I couldn't do it.
HARRISAnd so basically I put off mourning her for I would say another five years. And it wasn't until I was 17, 18, 19 that I once again cried about my mother's death. And I don't know how you get through kids. I think that, you know, they're going to cauterize themselves because they don't understand that it's a survivable moment. And it's hard to tell someone that. I think you sort of have to learn it on your own.
REHMCarole, would you agree with that?
GEITHNERI think that going through daily school life most kids will cut it off and protect themselves and put on a shell because they want to fit in. They want to be normal. And it'll come out in bits and pieces in bursts when they can handle it, when it's somewhat safer. And it might be a few years from then or it might be in the privacy of their own room or when they're in the shower alone or when they're going for a walk with their dog. But it's not going to be a long -- profound long thing the way an adult might grieve and mourn.
REHMYour protagonist realizes she has to go to school.
REHMAnd she is very worried about being pitied. She's very worried about feeling like an outsider. She doesn't know what people will say to her, her own colleagues, her own peers. That's a question that profoundly affects, I would think, a teenager rather than a 4-year-old.
GEITHNERExactly. I think she both wanted it acknowledged. She didn't want her friends to forget that her mother wasn't there. And if they made some question or comment about mothers and be so insensitive to the fact that Corrina's mother was not there. On the other hand, she wanted to fit in and not be put on the spot. So she had ambivalent feelings about whether she was ready to share that with them.
REHMAs I said earlier, our lines are filled so let's go to the phones. And first to Mattapoisett, Mass. Good morning, Vicki, you're on the air.
VICKIGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
VICKII was almost three when my father died in 1959. And at the time the way it was handled was that people didn't talk to children about death. So my mother's explanation was he's gone away and he's not coming back. And as it happened, he had yelled at me a few days before so I spent the next 20 years trying to be perfect so people wouldn't leave me again. That's how, in my childish mind, I took it to be something I had done. And that if you weren't hyper vigilant, people could leave you.
VICKIAnd I'm calling to say I agree with what everyone has said about how to handle the 4-year-old, but I think it's also important to make the child realize that it's not their fault.
LEYHow wonderful that you were able to share that with all of us because I think that's at the heart of grief, especially for very young children, but even the teens. Just...
REHMThat sense of guilt...
LEYThat sense of guilt...
REHM...something I did.
LEYWell, and the fact is that none of us is perfect and there are going to be things that we didn't either say or get to or respond to or we wish that the call from mom, as Gardiner was saying, you know, was one that you responded to. There's always going to be something whether we're children or adults. And the egocentrism of children empowers them in terms of magical thinking that this oversight on their part or these thoughts that they have or these experiences that they have actually cause things to happen. And so in her circumstance, being so little, that that argument with dad might've provoked him.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for your call, Vicki. And to Fenton, Mich. Good morning, Mike.
MIKEGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
MIKEI just want to talk a minute about what people say to children after their parents die. My father died when I was three and my mom died when I was six. And so I didn't have a parent at that point to raise me. It was just my mom. And so my aunt and uncle took me in. And I remember going to the funeral and going through that whole process. When my mom died, I remember a lot of the family members would tell me, you know, God took your mom to be in heaven with him and he's got better plans for her and stuff like that. And I just remember that causing such a conflict in me because I was mad at God. You know, they made me angry at God and they made me very bitter towards that.
MIKEAnd when people are talking to children, really try and keep in mind that the things that you say means -- children don't understand what that means entirely at that age.
REHMMike, how long did it take you to get beyond your anger at God?
MIKEOh, it wasn't until my late teens when I got more involved with the church and the youth group and stuff like that...
MIKE...and began to understand that it wasn't specifically the case that God took my mom from me.
GEITHNERI think that often the people who say those comments, it's coming from their own discomfort. And they're so uncomfortable that it's hard for them to say something that doesn't sound a little prepackaged. And I think that, in fact, nothing they say can make it better for you. And if we accept as the consolers that, in fact, walking alongside the person who's grieving, not trying to take it away or fix it, but just being there as a supportive caring presence, that really is the best you can do.
REHMLiz Kelly, how difficult was it for you to cope with the death of your parent and how did you get through it?
KELLYWell, it was really difficult. My father actually died on Christmas Day so -- and Christmas is such a huge Holiday in our culture. I'm 32 and he died when I was a freshman in high school, but even still, every year when I see the first Christmas commercial, I just get this feeling like I've been punched in the stomach. And I kind of have to relive it all over again.
KELLYAnd I definitely agree with the developmental approach to grief. I think for adolescence is that it changes along your life span. So every time you get a new driver's license or you go to prom or you go off to college or even the summer when I got married, each of those events reminds you that there's something missing and that my dad isn't there to be there as well. But I try to use these feelings to help me become a better grief counselor and to help me develop compassion for other people who are also going through difficult circumstances.
REHMWas there any sense of guilt on your part?
KELLYThere were. I remember times when I was being a typical kid and maybe I said something or I didn't appreciate something or -- and I remember just feeling this huge sense of guilt of just not appreciating my dad as much as I could, you know. Or there were times when I was just -- and I realize now that I was just being a typical kid, but...
REHMAnd think of how often typical, especially very young kids, blurt out something like, I wish you were dead, and magical thinking.
LEYAbsolutely magical thinking. I think that going back to the issue of spirituality is that it's often a comfort for the adults and they're trying to pass that on to their children so...
REHMSusan Ley. She's executive director of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. When we come back, more of your calls, comments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. We'll go right back to the phones to Karen in Alexandria, Va. Good morning to you.
KARENHi, Diane, thank you so much for taking my call.
REHMYou're most welcome.
KARENYour show's a lifeline, a lifeline to sanity so thank you so much.
KARENTrying not to cry here, but I would like to offer two perspectives that you haven't approached yet and what it's like for the remaining parents. I lost my husband 22 years ago. I had a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old sons who adored him. That was hard enough. But he committed suicide. And this was in a small town. And so people do not know how to react to suicide frequently. And I have all kinds of compassion for them. I had a hard time myself. But what people, in their best intensions, seem to do is that they don't know what to say, they say nothing at all and they avoid you.
KARENAnd so I want to say to your listeners, if you know someone who has suffered a suicide in your family, to either the parents or the children of this person, please reach out to them. It doesn't matter what you say, just sitting in silence just saying I'm sorry, that's what the children really need, is your presence. They need a normalcy. The relationship that you had with them the day before their parent died, continue to have this relationship with them the day after, as best you can.
KARENAnd to also know that the remaining parents, we do the best we can, you know. I wish I had a rule book of knowing how to raise my sons the best I could. I have no siblings so my kids didn't have any aunts or uncles and I had no help. But we all made it. The boys have graduated from college and have good jobs and we all survived that. But...
REHMKaren, thank you so much for sharing that story. I'm so sorry for your loss. But it's good to know that you made it through. Susan Ley, what's your response?
LEYI think of the various types of death that we all are challenged with in different ways. And I think suicide has real particular uniqueness to it in that it's so very, very hard to understand the complexities of the illness that might lead to a suicide certainly are difficult to relate to children. I think her point about the surviving spouse is magnificent because the strength that it takes to take care of children while taking care of yourself and attending to all of the logistics, all the secondary losses that happen after a death, a loss of income, the arrangements that need to be made, the various just practical concerns that have to happen. So kudos to her for reminding us that...
LEY...we really do need to extend that caring, loving support to the surviving family members. In most particular to that surviving parent who has so much on their plate.
REHMAnd, Carole, especially in a small town where everyone knows what's happened.
GEITHNERWell, I think the caller and Susan both spoke beautifully about the unique -- partly unique issues that come up with suicide and they're even more set apart. I think one thing that happens with suicide is that in an effort to protect the family that sometimes it's not shared with the children, it's not spoken about but then the kids inevitably find out in some other way. And that can cause other complicated conversations in the future where they wish that they had been told in an honest and straight forward developmentally appropriate way by the parent.
GEITHNEREven though it is so hard to understand how a parent could take that route and I don’t want to say the word choice because for the person who does die by suicide, it usually does not feel like a choice. But for the survivors, I think, they tend to interpret that -- it that way. And it's particularly hard for them to get beyond that. We can't talk them out of that before they kind of go through those what-ifs and if-onlys and what could I have done to prevent it.
HARRISI think, Diane, she also brings up -- I mean, death does become isolating because there basically is nothing but negative reinforcement to talking about death when you talk about it. Because the horror that you have as someone outside of the family and outside of the tragedy is that you're going to say something really stupid. And there's no real upside to the things that you are supposed to say. And, you know, nobody ever says oh, well, that person said something really great, you know. It's always, did you hear what that person said to that child? Boy is that stupid.
HARRISAnd so you, I think, to avoid being the person talked about, particularly in a small town, is having said something colossally dumb. People end up not saying anything at all. And I think that that can be a very isolating experience for the child. So that it just, you know, it increases the sense that death is something that is their fault or something that they did wrong. And somehow you have to sort of get beyond that and not see the reaction to the grieving as a fraught experience but rather try to do it with some compassion and some normalcy.
REHMAll right. Let’s take a for-instance. Let’s say a child whose parent has been a friend of yours, dies, and the child is quite young, anywhere between four and 14 or 19 or whenever. What's the best thing to say to that child, very simply, when the child has not raised the issue of the parents’ death? What would your reaction be, Liz?
KELLYThat's a really good question. My reaction would be to just simply tell the child, I'm really sorry this happened to you. I'm really sorry you have to go through this. It's not fair. And I would also tell the child, too, that there's no right or wrong way to grieve. Sometimes you might feel like you want to go out on the playground and play with your friends and other times you might feel like you want to curl up on the couch and cry. And there's no right or wrong way to grieve. And whatever they're feeling at the time is appropriate and it's okay.
GEITHNERI like the way you put that, a lot. Because there's -- play is often the way that children do express their grief. And if you watch them with their Lego figures or their little action figures, often they will recreate some take on what their understanding is. And it may not reflect the adults understanding of what happened but they're trying to sort it out through the play. So that's a really important thing.
GEITHNERAs far as what to say to the child, it would depend on my relationship with that kid. If I was more of a distant friend, I don't know that I would say the same thing as if I was really part of, you know, an aunt or someone who spent so much time with them. But I might acknowledge that, you know, I miss your mom and I'll bet you miss her, too. And...
LEYI would echo the part about saying that you're sorry and the part about acknowledging one’s own feelings of missing because that was also your relationship with the person who died. I think, having shared times with a child are important, opportunities to just enjoy and to be together so that the child then feels a little bit more relaxed and a little bit more comfortable about maybe bringing up that question that hasn't been asked or sharing that reaction that they're having to be able to be responsive. I wouldn't play therapist. I would let those that are trained in that do that particular job, but I would be a very, very good friend and a caring adult presence for that child.
HARRISYeah, I'm not sure that I would even bring it up at all. Like, one of my best friends, whose wife just died a few weeks ago, they have a 9-year-old. The 9-year-old has stayed with us. You know, he's just a great kid. But for me, you know, if I'm with him, it's about playing with him and just being with him. And, you know, maybe if he brings it up, we can talk about his mother and how much I miss her and we miss her, but otherwise, I just want to go back to, you know, set point with him and try to be as normal as I can be with him to make sure that, you know, that life goes on, he understands that.
REHMThat's an interesting point you raise, though, Gardiner. And whether you wait for the child to say something or whether you, as an adult, a dear friend of both the husband and the wife who has passed away, do you take it on yourself to bring that up, Susan?
LEYI think the reason that you would bring it up is to give it permission so that the child would know that, at whatever point they were ready to talk about or share or ask the question, that you would be someone in their life that would be comfortable with that.
REHMLet’s go to Houston, Texas. Good morning, Julie.
JULIEGood morning. I think someone in the panel, I forgot who it was, made a comment about crying. I remember the shortest line in the bible is "Jesus wept." And I also wanted to add on some things that's -- my dad died, my parents were divorced, I had no idea where he was, I didn't know he was alive until someone told me he was dying. I saw him four times in seven years. People, please, do not keep secrets from your children or hide. I never had anyone to talk to because people don't talk. They just shut up. They shut up whenever I get near. Now my family's so small, I have no one -- I have no background in my family.
GEITHNERSecrets are so powerful in families. And we think we're trying to protect our children or each other by not talking about some of those secrets but when they come out in unexpected ways, it does often cause a lot more hurt. So I'm sorry that you missed the chance to have more of a relationship with your father.
REHMI should say. And to Alexa (sp?) in, I gather that's pronounced, Chehalis, Wa. Is that correct?
ALEXAChehalis. Hello, Diane.
ALEXAI wanted to mention another aspect of being motherless in so far as it greatly impacted my own mothering skills. There is certainly of knowledge in women and how to nurture a child. But my mother died when I was nine. My siblings were much older and my father, somewhat, distant. And although we had a fine culture in our family, I was more or less left to fend for myself.
ALEXAAnd I found that when my children became the same age, nine years old, I implicitly thought that they were able to probably function for themselves. And I didn't give them the nurturing and the attention and the support that I should have. And now that they're much older and they're grown, it just hurts -- makes me feel very sorry that I do not have the ability to do that. Thank you.
REHMGosh, I'm so glad you called. Alexa, I think, perhaps many people share those kinds of feelings. Do you think that this has affected, in anyway Gardiner, your parenting skills?
HARRISOh, enormously. I mean, first, I think that there's been an enormously positive thing for me in having kids because I began to forgive myself as being the dumb kid that I was. Once you raise children, you understand how they can be, that they can love you but they can also do some things that will make you crazy. And so I began to forgive myself for the things that I had done to torture my mother, which I think we all end up doing. But the other thing is that I am married, of course, and my wife has a very some different ideas about parenting.
HARRISYou know, I sort of like to say to say that I was raised by wolves. I mean, once my mother died and my father was a very busy, active career man who wasn't there that much and, you know, when I was in ninth and tenth grade, I would see him every other weekend. And otherwise, it was just me and my brother on our own at the house and we, you know, cooked for ourselves and cleaned up and all that sort of stuff. So there's a part of me that sort of expects, you know, that kids can get all this stuff done themselves because, of course, I did so. My wife has a very different idea of childrearing and so it's been part of our negotiation as a couple.
REHMAnd you're listening to “The Diane Rehm Show.” Here's an email from Madeline who talks about the difference between a sudden death versus a death that was anticipated. Does it affect the way a child deals with grief, Carole?
GEITHNERWell, I think, yes and no. Because even if there's been a long illness and you think that you've done this anticipatory grieving, it's still a shock. And it's still a huge adjustment, a lifelong adjustment. And some people talk about whether one is easier than the other. None of them are easy and it really depends on the particulars and your relationship with the person who died and your personality. So it's hard to give, really, a clear cut answer.
LEYI agree that once the finally of death happens, that the reactions can be very similar whether it's sudden or anticipated. I do think that with anticipated death, particularly if we avail ourselves of resources like hospice, that we have an opportunity to say things, do things, tend to the dying person in a way that we don't when it's so sudden.
LEYI think, for children, there's an opportunity to explain the process, for them to see the illness progress, for them to be more involved in the rituals of death, if you will, then when the death is sudden. And often when a death is sudden there are potentially other traumas connected to the death which further complicate our reactions to it and...
REHMOf course the nature of dying and death has changed so dramatically since your mother died, since my own parents died. I mean, just -- even as you talk about hospice, who would've thought of hospice 30, 40, 50 years ago? People died and that was it. I'm so glad we have had this conversation with all of you. It -- I'm sure has been very important to a great many people.
REHMCarole Geithner is the author of a new book, it's titled, "If Only." And apparently is useful for children age 12 and older, all the way into adulthood. Susan Ley is at the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. Gardiner Harris is a science reporter for the New York Times. Liz Kelly is a graduate student at the Catholic University of America. Thank you all so much.
HARRISThank you, Diane.
GEITHNERThank you, Diane.
LEYThank you, Diane.
REHMThanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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