Two Items of Business for Secular Parents

calendar-1Okay, people, a couple of items of business on this fine Monday morning. 1. Mixed Marriages: If you happen to be in an "interfaithless" marriage — one partner is religious, the other isn't — you'll want to keep an eye out for Dale McGowan's newest project, a book called "In Faith and In Doubt." McGowan, who announced the book title on his blog last week, promises to show "how religious believers and nonbelievers can create strong marriages and happy families." The book is slated for release around July 2014, but McGowan (author of Parenting Beyond Belief: Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion) will be blogging about the process in the meantime. Best of luck, Dale!

2. Secular Parents: For those who live anywhere near Long Island, the local branch of the Ethical Humanist Society and Long Island Center for Inquiry are hosting an all-day seminar for secular parents on Sept. 21.  The seminar, titled "Raising Kids to Be Good Grown-Ups," is focused particularly on instilling kids with strong moral character. Segment titles include: "Without God, Will My Kid Grow Up to Be a Criminal?" and "Morality, Religious Concepts and the Cognitive Development of Children." The conference is billed as helping to "foster a society that encourages open debate and critical thought, as well as investing in the future for our children." Speakers include Lenore Skanazy, author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), Dale McGowan (!!!), and Dr. Alison Pratt, a clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive therapy and behavioral analysis, among others. For a schedule, visit: secularparentingforum.org.

Crucifixion Story, As Told By a Freethinking 7-Year-Old

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A couple of weeks ago, while walking along a gravel road in the French countryside (!!!), my 7-year-old daughter, Maxine, decided to tell her 4-year-old cousin the story of Jesus' death. It hadn't been a recent topic of conversation in our house or anything, but we'd just passed by a very old, very Christian cemetery, so that must have been what prompted the storytelling. The narrative was classic Maxine — relatively accurate, deliberately paced, full of distractions and incredibly amusing, with an editorial comment or two thrown in along the way. After the story was over, my nephew had A LOT of questions for his mom. I'd like to apologize for that, Jen. But what could I do? It was blogger gold! Oh, and a special thank you to the iPhone for allowing me to both record the conversation and get this shot of Maxine in a field of sheep.

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Maxine: Once upon a time, Jesus... well, you know the story of Christmas. Do you know the story of Christmas?

Jack: No.

Maxine: Well, we’re not going to tell the story of Christmas. Okay, so one time there were some men. Or maybe there was one man. Or some men. I don’t know. So this man was a mean man. He wanted to kill Jesus. And he wasn’t very nice. So he went after Jesus and got Jesus and he put him in … jail? Well, I think it was in jail. And he wanted to kill him, so this is what he did:  He nailed him to the wall. Nailed him to the WALL. He nailed his hands and he nailed his feet. I would think it would be really hard. And he left him there for three days, or five days, something like that. Three days, yes. Yes, three days.

[Gets distracted by a loose-gravel sign on the road.] 

So. They nailed him to the wall. They left him there for three days. He died. Of course. Well, it’s not the end of the story yet. You THINK it’s the end of the story. Don't you think?

Jack: Yeah.

Maxine: Yeah. But it’s not. People believe in God. You believe in God. Also, even if you don’t believe in God, you believe that someone nailed him to the wall and he died. People HAVE to believe that because if they don’t believe that, they’re wrong. Okay, so whatever. Now.

[Gets distracted by a car driving by.] 

Okay. So. He, of course, he died. But some of his relatives, like his mom and...  I’m not sure if he saw his dad or not. Oh well. His mom and maybe his dad, I’m not sure, whatever, his dad, whatever, I'm not sure, and his relatives, his friends —

Jack: Or maybe Jesus didn't have a dad.

Maxine: Yeah, Jesus had a dad. Mary and Joseph. Okay, whatever.

Jack: Hey, my grandma has a toy about that!

Maxine: Oh yeah! She does! She absolutely, positutely does.

[Gets distracted by a goat tied up in someone's yard.]

Okay. So, anyway, back to the story.

Jack: Is this a true story?

Maxine: Yes, true story. But some people don’t believe this part: Everybody put Jesus in a cave.

Jack: All the mean mans?

Maxine: Yes, there were mean men. Oh, who put him in the cave? Well his mom, his friends, his relatives, or even people who believed in him. Okay, so they put Jesus in a cave and they left him there for another three days. And guess what happened?

Jack: What?

Maxine: He came back alive! Remember, Jack, some people don’t believe this part. [Whispers] It’s probably not real, just to let you know. But people do believe in it.

Jack: When he came alive, is that true?

Maxine: Jack, I just told you the answer to that question. I’m not sure. People believe that it's true. Also, people believe that it’s not true at all. My parents believe that it’s not true at all. But I believe in ghosts, so I believe it is. Maybe. I’m not sure. I still don’t believe in God, though.

Jack: My grandma has an angel in the Jesus toy.

Maxine: Yeah, uh-huh. Okay, so we’re getting to the end of the story. Jesus came back alive and — BABY COWS!

[Gets distracted by cows in a field.]

 Okay so then Jesus came back alive and said, 'I’ll be back to visit you.’ And he floated up to heaven. The end. I can't believe I memorized that whole — BULL!

Daddy, Daughter Discuss God (Again); More Cuteness Ensues

Charlie_Maxine_MountaintopMy husband and 7-year-old daughter had another totally awesome conversation about God a few days ago. They used to do that from time to time, but it's been a while since the subject has come up in much detail. I sure love it when it does. The talks are always fun, insightful, thought-provoking and, frankly, cute as hell. They also present Charlie with golden opportunities to teach Maxine about honesty, diversity  and the importance of kindness. Anyway, this one's particularly good, so I wanted to share:

Maxine: Where do you think God is? Like, which house or school...

Charlie: I don't think God is anywhere. I don't believe there is such a thing as God.

Maxine: But if you did, where do you think he is?

Charlie: Well, people who believe in God believe he is everywhere and see everything. They believe he is with everyone, watching over you.

Maxine: Is he with bad guys?

CharlieThey think he is everywhere.

Maxine: God is with bad guys?

CharlieYeah. They think God wants you to make good decisions, and even if you are making bad decisions, God is with you so when you are ready to do good things, he'll be there. They think God is there to help you and protect you. (Pause.) Other people who believe in God think he made the world and then kind of stepped back. He just watches from heaven to see what we'll do, but he doesn't interfere or help. Like the whole word is a big science experiment.

Maxine: A HUGE experiment.

CharlieWhat do you believe?

Maxine: (Exasperated, like "I've told you a hundred times") I believe in God on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Charlie: But what do you believe about God? Is he everywhere?

Maxine: (Pause) I think he stepped back.

(Pause.)

Maxine: I believe in God on Sundays and Wednesdays because Sunday is the day for church, and Wednesday so I can have a school day.

(Pause.)

Maxine: Is God good or bad?

Charlie: Everyone who believes in God believes he is good.

Maxine: I wish the biggest policeman in the world climbed a huge giant ladder up to heaven and there was a huge microphone as big as five million houses stacked on top of each other and the policeman said into the microphone, "God is real!" or "God is not real!" and then everyone would know and everyone would believe the same thing.

Charlie: It's hard not knowing, isn't it?

Maxine: Yeah.

Charlie(Pause.) What I think is it doesn't really matter what you believe. What you think doesn't matter. It's what you do that matters.

Maxine: Or say.

CharlieRight. You can think whatever you want. I can think someone is stupid —

Maxine: But don't say it to them. "Hey, you're dumb!"

Charlie: Right. It's what you do and say that matter. Think whatever you want.

Maxine: Because we don't want to hurt their feelings.

Charlie: Right.

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.

The Best Thing About Being a Secular Parent? You Tell Me!

Not long ago, my sister and her husband invited an old friend over for dinner. The friend is a talker, so their nights with him usually require a lot of generosity on their parts. He tends, my sister tells me, to drone on endlessly about inane topics — including, but not limited to, good meals he's eaten recently. You know that guy too, don't you? Yeah. Well all do.

Anyway, on this particular night my sister's 4-year-old son was sitting at the table with them. He apparently had taken his cue from his parents because he was being very patient and respectful throughout most of the meal. But finally he'd had enough. In his adorable little 4-year-old voice, he started saying BOOORING as the friend was talking. Luckily (or not), the friend is a loud talker, too, so he kept going, oblivious to the review he was getting. But at least three times Little Guy punctuated this man's story with BOOORING before my sister was able to quietly  hush him.

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I talk a lot here about the unique challenges of being a secular parent — from interacting with judgmental or aggressively religious relatives to dealing with religious bullies at school to just knowing how to approach religion with little ones — and I don't often focus on the good stuff. The fun stuff. The easy stuff. Because, well, as Little Guy would say: BOOORING.

But today I'm making an exception. The truth is, for all the challenges that come with it, being a secular parent is so damn fulfilling. It can make many conversations so much simpler and easier. And secular parenting seems to have so much in common with good parenting, too. The way we respect all of our children's feelings, for example, not just those that embrace a certain God. Or the way we encourage kids to think independently and follow no one without question — whether it be Jesus, Muhammad, the local drug dealer, or a libidinous high school boyfriend.

But before I drone on and on — BOOORING — I want to hear from you:

What do you think is the single best thing about being a secular parent?

Feel free to comment below — or on Reddit or Stumbleupon, Facebook or wherever else you see this post pop up. Or you can e-mail me privately at relaxitsjustgod@gmail.com.

Then be sure to check back! I'll publish the list in May.

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.

Honoring Guru Nanak — And Whoever's Hanging On Your Wall

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guru_nanak_dev_jiIf Guru Nanak were alive today, the Sihk leader would be turning 544 years old — a mere child compared to Islam's 1,400-year-old Muhammad, Christianity's 2,000-year old Jesus, and Buddhism's 2,500-year-old Buddha. Still, as Guru Nanak would undoubtedly be keen to point out, he still has more than 300 years on Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of Baha'i. Whenever a religious leader's birthday rolls around, I try to think about them in human terms. About who they were during their lives, whether they were out for any glory or money, or whether they were surprised when their innermost passion brought them fame. All these men had something remarkable to offer the world; they wouldn't have gathered so much momentum if they hadn't. Nanak was devoted to providing an environment of inclusiveness — regardless of race, color or creed — and emphasized that there was but one God who dwells in all people.

One of the great recurring ironies of religion, of course, is that each time one of these visionary spiritual types waves off religious leaders and institutions of the past and discovers a new, purer version of truth, he later find himself  in the role of religious leader and his ideas the basis for a religious institution. As a young boy, Nanak was quite taken with spirituality and was encouraged to pursue his "divine" path. Around the year 1500, when he was 30 years old, he reportedly gave a speech, in which he said:

There is neither Hindu nor Mussulman (Muslim) so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God's path. God is neither Hindu nor Mussulman and the path which I follow is God's.

Five hundred years later, and the path that Sikhs follow is Nanak's.

I wonder how many families have pictures of religious leaders in their homes — a reminder, perhaps, to act according to the values they hold dear and give thanks for the opportunity to hold such values at all. Born in a different culture at a different time, the religious influences, and thus the pictures, would undoubtedly be different. But the importance of such physical reminders of devotion would probably remain. It's the same reason humans possess Bibles and create shrines and visit places of worship, I suppose — so they can more easily "access" the universal element that allows them to breathe and love and be.

I'm an aesthetic minimalist, so I don't have a lot of photographs hanging in my home — religious or otherwise — but I have occasionally thought of creating a space for pictures of the people to whom I'm devoted. The people who remind me to be the person I want to be, and who are, quite literally, responsible for my existence. The people who help shape my thoughts and lead me in the direction I want to be going.

There would be my parents and grandparents and great grandparents as far as I could trace them. There would be my sister and brother and their families. My husband and in-laws. My daughter. There would be my friends and mentors and godparents (who did a very poor job at helping make me godly but a very good job of helping make me happy.) And there would be people I don't know but who have helped me think more deeply about who I am, how I am, and why I'm here. People like Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, KierkegaardNeizsche, Sartre, Freud, Darwin, Piaget, Einstein, LincolnMLK Jr., TwainHawking, Sagan, Goodall, Friedan, Steinem, Colbert, Oprah, E.T.the Buddha, The Beatles... Looks like I'm going to need a bigger house.

How about you? If not Nanak, who's on your wall?

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?