A Nonbeliever’s Near-Death Experience

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So can we talk about near-death experiences for a minute? You know — the whole tunnels-and-bright-lights thing?

I bring it up because a good friend recently shared with me a YouTube video featuring an 18-year-old with heart disease. In the video, the high school senior, whose name is Ben Breedlove, uses index cards and music to tell the story of his life, his illness and his three near-death experiences.

Viewed more than 2 million times, the video seems to be Breedlove's way of explaining what it's like to pass from one world to the next and back again. He describes the journey in somewhat mystical terms — bright lights, a white room, a feeling of deep peace and calm. He also reports feeling proud of himself, of all he’s accomplished in his life. And he marvels at how good it had felt to be in that calming, bright-white place — so good, in fact, that he never wanted to wake up.

“Do you believe in angels or God?" Breedlove asks his audience just before the video ends. "I do.”

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Unknown

This young man's experience, and his words, are meant to be affecting — and they are. Especially knowing that only a week after Breedlove uploaded that video to YouTube, his heart stopped again. Only this time it didn’t start back up. Ben Breedlove died on Christmas day.

As I watched the video, I was touched by Breedlove's courage, optimism and humor. He's clearly a good person who deserves to be happy. And that he appears to find happiness, even in the grip of death, is both sweet and uplifting.

But to answer Breedlove’s question: Do I now believe in God or angels?

No. The answer is no. Not even a little.

While I truly believe Breedlove saw those bright lights and felt that deep sense of calm, I don't believe that what he saw and felt were "evidence” of another realm. Rather, they were the dreams and hallucinations so often brought on by brain malfunctions, powerful drugs and our own rich imaginations in the midst of life-threatening illness or trauma.

I'm intimately familiar with the phenomenon because I, too, had a near-death experience 16 years ago. Only I experienced it as a nonbeliever.

My own story begins in a restaurant in Lincoln, Neb., on the evening of May 20, 1995. I was in college at the time, and that night I was having dinner with my mom and my boyfriend, Charlie. (If the name rings a bell, that's because I eventually married him.) I started off the meal by informing our waitress that I had a serious allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. But, by the time we ordered dessert, she'd forgotten. I took one bite of our cheesecake and knew immediately there must be nuts in the topping. Soon, I began feeling sick to my stomach. The waitress apologetically confirmed there were crushed almonds on top of the cheesecake, and we left.

About 30 minutes later — after my mom had begun her two-hour drive home and Charlie had headed to a video store to get us a movie — my face swelled up and I began having trouble breathing. Nothing like that had ever happened before, but I sensed that something must be terribly wrong. I called 911, then ran to the porch to wait for help. Charlie met me there, video in hand. Within seconds, I was lying down, struggling against my ever-shallowing breath. The effect was terrifying. I can still feel the chipping paint on the wood slats below me as my body thrashed around, desperate for air. “Try to relax,” I remember Charlie saying, as he held me in his arms. “You’re breathing. You’re breathing. You're breathing.”

And then, suddenly, I wasn’t breathing anymore.

I immediately lost consciousness. As Charlie tells it, my body went rigid and my lips turned blue. He tried to administer CPR, but my tongue had swelled to the point where he couldn't do anything. From the look of it, he said, I was either dead or dying.

By the time the paramedics arrived, I was in full respiratory arrest. Their first rule of business was to get a tube down my throat so they could push air to my lungs; but it wasn't easy. According to the paramedics' report, the first several efforts failed. And when they finally did intubate me, it didn't do much to improve my situation. By the time I got to the emergency room at Lincoln Memorial Hospital, I was still in respiratory arrest. There, I was injected with all kinds of drugs, fitted with a chest tube for a collapsed lung, and given a rather grim prognosis. As I lay in a coma, breathing only with the aid of a respirator, doctors brought up the distinct possibility of severe brain damage.

Obviously — or maybe not so obviously if you believe Fox News fans — I made a full recovery. I remember coming out of my coma, but still not able to speak (or even swallow) because of the tube running down my throat.

The only way to communicate with my parents was to trace out letters with my finger. At first, they didn't know what I was trying to do, but then my dad figured it out and offered me his palm to write on.

GET THIS DAMN THING OUT OF MY MOUTH, I scrawled.

When I got to the word "damn," the smile that spread across my dad's face said it all: Not only was I alive and awake. Not only was I able to form words. But, by God, I was cursing again. All was right with the world.

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NUTS

Now, about that near-death experience...

I can't tell you exactly when this happened, other than to say it was sometime after I lost consciousness and before I was stabilized in the hospital. But, just like Breedlove, I had a vision that accompanied an extreme sense of calm. I didn't see angels or bright lights or tunnels or staircases to heaven, though. What I saw was my own funeral. Or, more specifically, I saw the feet of the people at my own funeral. (Kooky, I know.) It was as though I were sitting under a table. That was my vantage point as I watched these black dress shoes shuffle back and forth on a wooden floor. There was no question that it was my funeral, but instead of feeling depressed or scared or even very sad, I felt a peaceful acceptance. In fact, it was kind of nice seeing all those people getting together to remember me.

And that was it.

Feet. Then nothing. Then cursing on my dad's hand.

I don't tell this story to undercut or minimize Ben Breedlove's experience. I think his visions were profound and beautiful and life-changing and remarkably comforting. Just like mine, but in a different way.

I say it only to show that near-death experiences are colored entirely by our own unique backgrounds, philosophies, personalities and values. When faced with our own mortality, Breedlove and I both imagined what comes after death.

He's religious; I'm not.

He saw an after-life. I saw a funeral.

This post originally appeared in January 2012.

Want Your Kids to Have An Easier Time Dealing With Death? Don't Send Them to Their Rooms to Cry

People never "get over" the death of a loved one. Sadness comes and goes, and that's natural. But  they can, according to Russell Friedman of the Grief Recovery Institute, "complete" their grief. That is, they can grieve in a way that allows for happy memories to reign over painful ones. For life to overshadow death. Despite intermittent waves of sadness, people can recover from their grief and move on with their lives. But grief completion doesn't just happen, Friedman contends. People have to make it happen. Grief recovery, he says, requires that people be fully present and engaged in the memories of their loved ones. It requires that they experience the full breadth of their emotions without guilt or regret or judgment. And it requires that they share these emotions — and the memories that come with them — with other people.

Sounds simple, right?

It's not. Not for many of us anyway. Especially those who were brought up in households where "emotion" was something to be contained. And, let's face it, that's a lot of us.

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How many times, for example, are children told to calm down when they become upset, or sent to their rooms to work out their feelings? How often do we get frustrated or angry with children for overreacting? How many of us have rushed out of a mall in embarrassment after our kid threw a tantrum? How many of us have asked (or demanded!) that our child stop crying?

Hey, I'm not saying we're bad parents for doing this stuff. We're humans. American humans at that. We were taught by example to stay strong, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, work through our problems on our own. And we've readily complied. Most of us would much rather cry into our pillows than burden others with our sadness.

But maybe it's time to stop the cycle. Maybe it's time we tell our kids it's okay to be mad or sad or worried or upset — and really mean it. Maybe it's time we stop judging the validity of their feelings and simply acknowledge them. Maybe it's time we stop expecting their anger or fear or sadness to "end" precisely when we've have enough of hearing it. And maybe it's time we encourage kids to be emotional in our company, rather than in their room. Instead of Go away to do that, maybe the message should be, Stay here or I'll come, too.

According to Friedman, we help our kids deal with the devastating losses they'll face in their lives (including our own deaths) simply by encouraging them to share their feelings with us.

So let's, you know, go ahead and do that.

Memory Candles a Secular Way for Kids to Honor Their Dead

This is how my good friend Katie describes herself: "A confused Catholic married to a cultural Jew, raising a moral, but interfaithless family." You love her too now, right?

So anyway, the other day Katie and I were talking about a recent blog I'd written about the importance of talking with our kids about our dead loved ones in "happy terms." She said she'd really struggled with this herself, having lost her mom nine years ago to cancer. She still experiences lingering pain, and sometimes the loss makes her profoundly sad. (I expect she's not alone in this.) The anniversary of her mom's death has always been a trigger. She remembers that first year and how she felt as though she ought to be "doing something" on that day, but didn't know what that something should be. The unknowing, she said, actually made her more sad.

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Then her husband suggested a custom common in Judaism — a yahrzeit candle. Yahrzeit candles are lit by mourners on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. (The word literally means "anniversary.") It typically burns for 24 hours. It also can be lit on holidays, such as Yom Kippur or the final day of Passover. Now, every year on the eve of her mother's death anniversary, Katie lights a yahrzeit candle. It allows her a formal way to reflect and gives her permission to think (and to cry) and just generally miss her mom. She and her husband usually say a few words as they light it, too.

Just having a tradition, Katie said, is really comforting. Otherwise she'd feel "conflicted and unsettled about the 'right' way to acknowledge the day." She said it's so beneficial to her on a secular level, in fact, that she suggested I tell my readers about it.

So here I am, giving a bunch of atheists and agnostics an idea stolen by a Christian from a Jew. There's got to be a Robin Hood metaphor in here somewhere.

I really do love this idea — especially as a way to involve children in the process of dealing with loss. It would be great to let kids pick out their own memory candles when they lose a loved one — a pet, a grandparent, a friend — and then urge them to light the candle (or have a parent light it!) whenever they want to remember or honor their loved one. Ideally, at least in my mind, the candle would come out at happy times, too. Kids could talk to the candle or just quietly reflect. What a wonderful way to encourage kids to feel the full range of their feelings about loss. And it doesn't have to be intrusive either. You could light a candle for a holiday party, and no one would think twice about it unless you told them.

All places of worship have candles involved, and that's not an accident. (The Book of Proverbs 20:27, for instance, says "The soul of man is a candle of the Lord." This is where, I believe, the idea for the yahrzeit candle came from.) But fire is not just about religious symbolism. In a practical sense, fire brings a sense of calmness and serenity into a room. Fire is warm and comforting. Fire invites us to think — and think deeply. No wonder candles are the way Jewish people have chosen as their way to honor the dead. It makes perfect sense.

If you're interested, I found this guy who makes yahrzeit candles and sells them on ebay. The ones he sells are super-affordable and very simple, much like the one pictured above, with no designs. In other words, secular-appropriate.

12 Tips for Talking to Little Ones About Death

130415173542-32-boston-marathon-explosion-c1-mainWhen American children return from school today, many will undoubtedly have questions about the Boston Marathon bombings — having glimpsed photographs, viewed video clips or spoken to peers. Depending on the age of your child, you might have some questions yourself: How much do I say? How much do I share? Click here for some great advice from Dr. Gene Beresin on CommonHealth for discussing the event — and others like it  — with kids. Or read on for 12 general tips, revised from an earlier list, for talking to little ones about death. 1. Have the talk before your child suffers a personal loss.

It never feels like the right time to broach the subject of death with our kids, which is why many of us put off the initial talk until the conversation is forced upon us — through some sort of personal tragedy. Unfortunately, by that point, we're stressed and sad; our kids are confused and scared; and our minds are flooded with all the things we need to get done. Coping is often the best we can do. Having thoughtful, hopeful conversations with our children about the the cycle and meaning of life requires a clear mind. So, before something happens, be on the lookout for any and all excuses to have these talks. A dead bird in the yard can be a fantastic point of entry. Taking the time to explore the bird's death, what "dead" means, and why the bird died can open up those lines of communication in remarkably effective ways. Of course, many parents put off these conversation because they're children are young and/or they themselves are sensitive to the subject. Each child is different, of course, but generally kids want to hear about death much earlier than we expect. We know they're ready when they start asking questions: "Why is that bird not moving?" "Where did your grandma go?" or "What happened to those people at the Boston Marathon?"

2. Stay away from euphemisms. 

Passed away. Taken away. Resting place. Went to sleep.  Left. These terms are fine for adults, who know the score, but they’re terrible for kids, who might find it really creepy that their uncle was "taken away." These terms, as well as many of them provided by religious imagery, are just too abstract for a young children, says Earl Grollman, who wrote the excellent book Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child. Instead, use the real words: Die. Death. Kill. Murder. Suicide. Coffin. Cremation. Funeral. When we speak directly and specifically — even if the words seem sharp and awkward in our mouths at first — we avoid painful confusion and misunderstandings.

3.  Let them do the talking.

Damn those awkward silences and our need to fill them. As I have mentioned earlier, we parents want nothing more than to comfort our kids. Soothing them is in our nature. To hold back from saying things that will make a child feel better is one of the more difficult aspects of parenting. But when it comes to talking about death, experts say, less is more. Explain death as simply as possible, then step back and let listening take over. Nods and hugs are fine, but parents who try too hard to comfort with words can end up explaining more than than a child wants, or is ready, to hear. (Or they can unwittingly shut down on a child's natural, healthy response to death — sadness.)When in doubt, try turning the questions back on the child, suggests Grollman. When a child asks: “What did Grandma look like after she died?” a parent might answer: “What do you think she looked like?" This gives us insight into our children’s imaginations and helps us guide the conversations where they need to go.

4. Don't shield kids from pet deaths.

One could argue that part of the reason we have beloved pets is to familiarize us with the idea of death, let us "practice" mourning, and remind us that life does go on — and the pain does lessen. But, so often, we shield our children from the reality of a pet death — and, therefore, pass up the chance to introduce our children to the very real sadness that comes with it. We also miss the opportunity to let our kids build up their own coping mechanisms. It may seem harsh, but encouraging our children to be present when our pets are euthanized and/or allowing our children to be involved in the mourning process with us (rather than, say, leaving the room to cry), we are teaching our kids how to mourn and move on. We are teaching them it's okay to cry, and that grief — no matter how painful — is not life-threatening.

5. Give them something to do.

When children lose someone they love, they benefit from being brought into the fray, as it were, rather than sequestered away from it. Modern therapists not only condone taking young children to funerals — they encourage it. Unless the child refuses to go (which rarely happens, I'm told), kids should be able to witness and participate in the catharsis that funerals bring. Also, children need confirmation of death much more so than adults do. Without it, they may view death as something mysterious and temporary, rather than a real, permanent event. They may even await a loved one's return. "Participation helps soften the pain, enhance the healing process, and provide an opportunity for acceptance and transformation," says Lynn Isenberg, the author of a book called Grief Wellness: The Definitive Guide to Dealing with Loss"When a child can participate in a loved one's passing, it creates an action, a sense of doing, a sense of purpose, around the loss. A child can plan a ceremony, create a ritual, write words to share with family and/or friends, design an (activity) around healing... especially if the activity was directly related to the person who has died."

6. Keep heaven out of it.

Even nonreligious parents have a hard time leaving heaven out of death talks with their kids. We use heaven (yes, even Doggie Heaven) to put a positive spin on something heart-wrenchingly painful. But heaven isn't the salve some people think it is — not for youngsters. There is nothing "bad" in nature. And when we offer up heaven as a knee-jerk reaction, we lose out on showing kids the true and honest glory of nature. Things are born, they live and they die — and it is this necessary cycle that makes the world beautiful. Life and death are intricately related. There is no splitting them apart. And if we think about it for any amount of time at all, we realize we wouldn't want to. Heaven can be confusing for kids — do they have a right to be sad when everyone is acting as though there is a "happy" aspect to the death? Reminding a child that everything ends and dies, and that this is the nature of the universe, can and does help, says Eve Eliot, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher living from New York. For example, she often cites "the end of the day when the sun goes down, the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the time in (kids') lives when they have to leave the comfort of being home with their moms and enter school for the very first time. The very next inhale will be 'lost' on the very next exhale."

7. Don't yada-yada over the science part.

Talking about decomposing bodies may seem a ghoulish proposition, but the actual science of death is not only fascinating to children (particularly preschoolers), but can be comforting, too. It's true that adults tend to focus their worry on the emotional aspects of death — how it feels to lose someone we love, for instance. But children of a certain age aren’t as consumed by the grief aspect of death. They are still working on how things die (“Could I have caused it?”) and how it feels to be dead (“Will I be lonely?”) This is why it's so important to explain to kids how we humans work — how our beating hearts are what keep us alive, and that there is a difference between bodies and consciousness. “Most children understand the concept of something that has 'stopped working completely and can't be fixed,'” social worker Debra Stang tells us. “It's also important to reassure children that a dead person doesn't breathe, wake up, go to sleep, or need to go to the bathroom, doesn't hear or see anything, doesn't get hungry or cold or scared, and doesn't feel any pain.” But do remember, adds parent coach Miriam Jochnowitz, there is a limit to how much science to impose on a child. "It can be helpful just to understand more about what happened,” she says. “But follow the child's lead. Do not expound if they are not interested."

8. Expect that kids (and adults!) will have widely varying reactions to death.

For most of us, grief has a certain look to it: tears, pain, prolonged depression. So when people react to death in a way that runs counter to our image, we think it’s strange. We assume something is wrong. We worry. And it’s no wonder — given the popularity of author Elisabeth Kubler-RossFive Stages of Grief, which was introduced in her book “On Death and Dying.” Kubler-Ross said that the stages were denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and that most people go through one or all of the first four stages before reaching the last. Over the last 15 years, this hypothesis has informed how we, as a society, view children's reactions to death, as well as our own. The problem is that it’s all bogus. When it comes to the loss of a loved one, grief doesn’t work in "stages" at all. In an enlightening book called “The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss,” author George Bonanno says that resilience — not denial, anger, etc. — is what truly defines grief. His scientific studies, conducted over 20 years, show that most people weather the deaths of loved ones relatively quickly and thoroughly. Even weeks after devastating losses, many are able to experience genuinely positive emotions, even laughter. And this is not denial or drugs doing the work — but rather their own natural resiliency, Bonanno says. Personality has a lot to do with grief reactions, of course, and there are probably those who experience grief in the Kubler-Ross-created image. But, in general, studies show, grief has an oscillating pattern. It comes and goes in "waves” — which is what, mercifully, allows us to take care of ourselves and those around us.

9. Seek help

Sometimes we just can’t do it. No matter how much we want to, talking about death — or dealing with it ourselves — is a challenge we can’t face. Maybe we have suffered a particularly devastating loss recently, or maybe WE'VE JUST GOT SOME ANXIETY ISSUES, OKAY?! Whatever the reason, there is no shame is handing off the baton to someone (another adult, a therapist) or something (the Internet, the library) better suited to guide children in positive ways. By showing our children that they have lots of resources and support available to them, we ensure that when WE aren’t around, they will still have their needs met. There are some excellent books out there for broaching the subject of death with very young children. My personal favorite is still “When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death,” by Laurie Krasny Brown, which I wrote about here. But I also am crazy about an oldie called “About Dying” by Sara Bonnet Stein. It’s a book for kids and parents to read together, but also has some great information in smaller print off to the side. “When a Pet Dies,” by Fred Rogers, is also awesome (Did Mr. Rogers ever do anything that wasn’t awesome?) and “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages” by Leo Buscaglia is also really nice. None of these books has a religious bent, by the way.

11. Feel free to say ‘I don’t know.’

Not one person in all of history has ever known for sure what happens when we die. So why is that we parents have such a hard time admitting we don't know? When it comes to death — and, frankly, religion in general — we sometimes feel we must be on one side or another in order to maintain stability and consistency in children's lives. But this is one area where saying “I don’t know” will never be seen as a sign of weakness or ignorance. What our children choose to believe as far as heaven/afterlife/reincarnation really has nothing to do with us anyway. We can state what we believe to be true, and we can state what other people believe to be true (to the best of our knowledge), but to think we are “teaching” them what happens after we die is a misnomer. No one can teach it because no one knows. Telling our children we're confused is okay. Telling them we keep changing our minds is okay, too. And throwing up our hands and telling them we haven't got the slightest idea what's going to happen — dammit, that's okay, too.

10. Tell the truth — your truth.

This one comes courtesy of a mother who responded to my survey earlier this year. "When it comes to death,” the woman wrote, “I have allowed my children to believe in a ‘heaven,’ for lack of a better word. I felt that allowing them to believe that ‘people go on to happy place surrounded by loved ones, waiting for other loved ones to join them someday’ gives them comfort about losing people. Heck, it comforts me to make up a place like that when I am grieving also." It’s not uncommon, as I said in No. 6, to gravitate toward the heaven narrative. Even nonreligious parents have a hard time with this one. But we can’t — as in CAN NOT — “make up” an afterlife and ask our kids to believe in it. This is just not cool. As author Grollman says: "Don't tell children what they will need to unlearn later." There's nothing wrong with wanting kids to know about all the "afterlife options" out there, but why not refer them to those who believe? A grandparent, perhaps, or a beloved aunt? By all means, there is rarely harm in encouraging our kids to get religious input from other family members or friends, but don't lie. The stakes are too high, the potential to hurt our kids too great. The litmus test is this: Are we telling our kids the same thing we would tell a trusted friend? If not, it's time to come clean.

12. Talk about dead people in happy terms.

After a person dies, the only thing we have of them is our memories. Yet so many of us don't talk about dead people because we feel even our happiest memories lead us to melancholy. We assume the only way to avoid the painful end is to not begin at all. But honoring our dead and keeping them "with us" is part of how we cope with our losses. Suppressing those memories can deprive us of both joy and comfort. Working Grandma’s favorite recipe into a mealtime, telling Grandpa’s favorite joke, or recounting the copious amounts of liquor Great Aunt Tilly used to consumed at Passover every year are all healthy ways of coping — not just with their deaths but with death in general. Giving memories of our dead a happy "place" among the living benefits us all. Especially our kids.

Don't Just Hang in There: It's Time to Retire Certain Myths about Grief

kitten-hang-in-there-posterIf this poster looks at all familiar, you were probably alive in the 80s. For many years, a kitten hanging from a tree branch with the tagline "Hang in there" was as ubiquitous an image as you were likely to find. The pre-Internet version of LOLCats. (What is up with Americans' weird fascination with captioned cat pictures?) Anyway, the reason I bring it up is because that poster informed how I looked at "hard times" when I was a kid. "Sometimes life sucks and you've just got to hold on," is what I took from it. And it's not bad advice — at least sometimes. After all, tomorrow usually is a new day.

But when it comes to grief, as it turns out, this poster is for the birds.

As I said last week, I've been chatting recently with Grief Recovery Institute co-founder Russell Friedman about helping children deal with grief. The guy is a wonderful resource, as is his book When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving and Other Losses. He and his co-writers talk a lot about common myths associated with grief, and one of them is this one: Time heals all wounds. The truth is, Friedman says, time alone is rarely enough. Grief is not like a cut on your finger. (Or a kitten hanging from a branch.) Waiting for the pain to go away will only prolong the pain.

Friedman makes clear in both his books and conversations that grief is not a byproduct of death. Grief is a byproduct of loss. People grieve numerous losses, both tangible and intangible — loss of life, love, loss dreams, faith, safety, control, addiction. The list goes on. He also makes clear that grief is cumulative. It doesn't just stick around. "It gets worse," he says. Each loss is compounded by the next. If we don't deal with our broken hearts — or, as they say in grief recovery, "complete the grief" — the first loss gets rolled into the next loss, and the next, and so on. Often, Friedman says, when people come to him, they think they're grieving a death but find they're actually grieving numerous other losses, as well. And when they leave the program? "They feel as though a weight has been lifted," he says.

Friedman likes to invoke the image of a flat tire. When you have a flat tire, he says, you don't just sit down and wait for it to mend itself. You fix the flat, or call someone in to help. Either way, you know you've got to get air into that tire if the car is going to get back on the road. "A broken heart," he says, "is remarkably like a flat tire." Recovery requires action. (I'll be discussing more of what Friedman means by "action" in the coming weeks.)

To be clear, this is not an advertisement for the Grief Recovery Institute. I've never been through the program myself. But Friedman's theory — that grief requires action, and that action lessen griefs — is one that, like all his advice, makes sense to me. It makes sense to me that that people need to be able to feel bad when bad things happen. It make sense to me that "staying busy" is not an antidote to pain. And it makes sense to me that grief is something that can be lessened, but not by itself.

What doesn't make much sense to me anymore is this whole notion of just hanging in there. Because, I mean, look at that picture. We all know how that one ends. The cat falls off the branch, breaks its little kitty legs and has to be euthanized.

And who wants to LOL about that?

Thinking About the Best Ways to Comfort Grieving Kids? Think Again.

Grief-woman-on-casket-2

Grief-woman-on-casket-2Ten months ago, I wrote a blog called Heaven Doesn't Help Us: Talking to Kids About Death. It's all about how religious platitudes are useless when it comes to explaining death to young children. In fact, according to numerous child psychologists and grief experts I'd interviewed at the time, talk of heaven is rarely a comfort at all. But what I failed to realize at the time — in fact, what I failed to realize until this week — is that this whole notion of comfort is part of the problem.

Russell Friedman, co-founder of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oakes, Calif., has spent 27 years counseling people in the midst of grief. Friedman talks a lot about the myths associated with death — some of which I'll be addressing in the coming weeks — but one of the most fascinating myths is that it's both good and helpful to comfort grieving people. To be sure, this is precisely why most parents feel compelled to tell their kids about heaven, right? Heaven seems to takes the edge off of death. Heaven gives them an alternative reality. Heaven makes them a little less, well, sad.

But sadness, says Friedman, is such a healthy emotion at times of devastating loss. It's appropriate. It's normal. And trying to remove the sadness — even trying to take the edge off! — from someone who is grieving is both unhealthy and inappropriate. To make his point, Friedman points to the emotion of happiness. Would we ever tell a loved one that they ought to feel less happy about a job offer because they might lose that job some day? Would we tell someone not feel so good about their engagement because 50 percent of marriages end in divorce? So why do we rush to relieve people of their sadness or discomfort when those feelings are normal and appropriate and healthy?

"Why," Friedman asks, "is comfort the goal?"

I must admit, this small piece of insight is probably going to be a bit of a game-changer for me. I always seem to want to make people feel better. And I always feel proud when I'm able to do that. It has never occurred to me that in my quest to keep sadness at bay, I might be cutting off someone else's rightful, natural grief. Or my own.

Unfortunately, none of this is academic, Friedman says. The real-world problem with cutting off grief — AND IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME — is that the grief never ends.

And that may be the biggest loss of all.

Full Disclosure: This is the first of several blogs I'll be writing about death and grief over the next several weeks. As the most universal problem humans face, it still amazes me that we know so little about how to discuss it, deal with it, and prepare our kids for it. I hope by the end, you'll feel more informed, if not more capable. Be sure to let me know if you have specific questions or concerns you'd like addressed, and I'll do my best to address them along the way.

 

Discussing Death with Little Ones (Whose Deaths We Fear So Much)

Not since 9/11 has a tragedy so deeply affected our nation as the massacre of 20 first-graders and six school administrators in Connecticut on Friday. It seems to me, words were not meant to communicate this level of horror. Our capacity for emotional pain is so much deeper than our capacity to verbalize what has happened. Sometimes silence and tears are our only option. Victims

But when it comes to children, we have a duty to discuss death and dying. It is an important part of parenting, and we mustn't shy away from it. Yes, it's hard. Our children might fear our deaths more than anything else, just as we fear their deaths more than anything else. That's only natural. But there are things our children must hear, and they deserve to hear them from us.

Here's a bit of advice, should you need or want it.

• Heaven Doesn't Help Us: Talking to Kids about Death

• 12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids about Death 

As for nonreligious children's books about death, these are the best I've found so far:

When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown. I can't say enough great things about this book, which is why I dedicated an entire post to it.

The Tenth good Thing about Barneywritten by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Erik Blegvad. This adorable classic is about a boy losing his cat. Such smart writing. "Barney is in the ground, and he’s helping to grow flowers," the boy's father says at one point. "You know," the boys responds, "that's a pretty nice job for a cat.”

About Dying by Sara Bonnet Stein. I'm crazy about this oldie, which is a book for kids and parents to read together, but also has some great information in smaller print off to the side.

When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers. Did Mr. Rogers ever do anything that wasn’t awesome? No. No, he didn't. This is no exception.

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia. The main character in this book is a leaf who is coming to terms with the fact that he will fall (die) at some point. It's quite gentle and calming and would be great introduction to death, particularly for sensitive kids who may be prone to anxiety over the subject.

Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie dePaola. Okay, this one is not about death, but about the reality of growing old and getting sick. It is one of my favorite children's books of all time — so sweet and poignant, it is guaranteed to make you cry. And it has a happy ending. My daughter loves it as much as I do. (DePaola's Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs is really nice, too.)