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.

ht_shock_060727_ssv

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.

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.