Blogger Supa Dupa Fresh had an opportunity to preview Sesame Street's special which premieres tonight at 8:00 p.m. In addition to her fabulous review of the special at her blog, Fresh Widow, Supa agreed to talk to us a little more about how she and her daughter dealt with the grief of losing her husband to terminal cancer in 2006.
Your blog recounts stories of your journey as a young widow and mother. It is, dare I say, irreverent at times. You actually printed up widow cards which you described as "not as useful as a 'get out of jail free' card, more powerful than a hall pass." By virtue of being a mother, we are all open to everyone's opinions and judgment. I can only imagine how magnified that is when you are overwhelmed with grief. Did you find acceptance or judgment in how your grief was perceived by others?
You say irreverent -- thank you! -- but I think, even stronger, contempt is a really common response for folks who are widowed because our experience seems, to most people, just inconceivable. Of course, I got rude looks from others when my kid was having a fit in the checkout line... so I'd just say, "Her father just died," and boy did that change the mood in the room. It doesn't occur to anyone that you could be widowed with a 2-year-old, that there could be an explanation for my inability to cope with a grocery store. I liked being able to force compassion in public in this way. So the widow card is both a handy excuse (when I was doing badly, I needed every excuse I could get) AND a tool to turn people's minds around.
In general, people who've lived through a major loss reserve an even higher level of contempt for those who judge how we grieve, but that's a whole nother topic. Let's just say that if you think there's a right way to grieve -- or a schedule -- you haven't been there. Consider yourself lucky and keep your thoughts to yourself if you want to retain your friendship.
On the other hand, I can be just as catty as anyone if I don't approve of what another Mom is doing. I suppose I'm less likely because I've practiced all the laziest techniques and cut all the corners already -- so there are fewer parenting shortcuts left for me to criticize...
In a way it's a relief to not make some tiny detail into a source of stress, like, silicone or rubber pacifier, or OMG, none at all? Even in the depths of my grief and disability, I knew that caring about little junk like that was out of my life forever. It's been four years and I'm remarried, and glad to say I spend a lot less time on keeping a clean house or selecting consumer goods than I ever did before.
At 2, she would have understood the basics, that Jesse's father died too, and that people were talking in a friendly way about it. Like now, I would have hugged her and listened closely to her questions. But two year olds don't understand permanence, and no matter how well it's stated or presented to them, the idea simply can't sink in. The validation of seeing another kid who's lost a parent (even if they are a Muppet) would have been good for her, and she would have caught other bits, the concrete parts, like the memory box with the light-up bow tie in it. She'd see all these different families sharing stories and pictures of the loved one.
Kids' grief is interesting, we all know how kids watch a show over and over again: sure, Cinderella has a cute dress, but part of it is that as your child grows, she learns something new each time. My daughter and I would likely have watched this show over and over again (as we watched everything), and as she entered the stages where is learning rapidly, at about 3 and a half, she'd have started to ask different questions. As she began to understand what it means to not come back, she'd start to "get" some of the other conversations in the show.
I think our experience would have been almost the way it was, only with this show as another, very focused topic. But I am unusual in that I sought out and received expert advice and reassurance about my grieving child. I knew what her limits were and learned to listen to her really well. (I blog about this a lot. She taught me many things about loss!)
Most widowed parents don't get this information and reassurance, either from school, peers, family, or church so this show is really, really valuable. People are really, really scared of talking to kids about death. Adults magnify everything. Children observe, and are 100% honest. Your goal in talking to them is to keep them that way and not project your own needs! The book, "How to talk so kids will listen, and how to listen so kids will talk," based on the work of Dr. Haim Ginott, is probably the best guide to low-pressure, child-led communication and I encourage all parents -- and all people involved in stressful communication -- to read it and keep it close.
Many communities have terrific resources for grieving kids, but people don't know how unique kids' needs are -- or even that they need special support, especially if they appear to be developing normally. But kids really do need more information about these programs such as grief camps, in-school programs, and counseling. I encourage folks to reach out to counselors, school system experts, non-profits and community organizations to find appropriate help for their kids. It's never too late: kids benefit even ten years later and a lot of programs are even free.
One in twenty kids will lose a parent by age 15 -- families like yours will come out of the woodwork if you look, and you'll feel less alone. A recent study showed that the effects of parental loss affect children through adulthood, but it's never too late to talk and listen.
These conversations are really vital and I think people will be surprised, once they start to talk, at how easy and fun it can be to share this stuff with a child. It's not all heavy and dark. It's just real.
Is there a "right" time for children to see this special? (right after a loss, years after a loss, somewhere in between?)
For kids, this show is appropriate at any time. It's important to remember it's just a first step, but you can learn a lot about what your kids need from listening to them. It's also good viewing for other family and community members, and families of your child. Most people think widowed people are cocooned by our families and close friends and "don't want to bother (them)." But actually, we often have big differences with those people, who may also be grieving and are often judgmental. In our contempt, we break a lot of ties, or they get broken for us. An "end" is a very large turning point and changes everything. Emotions run high. A surviving parent is doing double duty WHILE severely impaired AND tackling paperwork that you wouldn't believe. Many families face bankruptcy after a loss. It is BIG STUFF and there's no time for the niceties of thank you notes or the norms of polite society, sometimes. And we know our kids come first.
Because of these massive disruptions, a neighbor, a cousin, a classmate you weren't very close to may turn out to be your family's superhero or your new best friend. That's why I *encourage* everyone to learn more about grief and get more comfortable with grieving people. It isn't contagious!
If you could give one piece of unsolicited advice to another widow or widower about helping their children deal with the loss of a parent, knowing now what you didn't know then, what would it be?
Meet some peers -- online or in person -- they will help you realize you're not alone, you're not crazy, and serve as evidence that others have survived.
According to Supa, "loss is something you get through -- not over. "Closure" is so Hollywood. Some of us may turn lucky enough to use what we've been through as a springboard for revelation, renewal, or reinvention." Thanks so much for sharing just a small part of your journey. We are glad you are a Supersister!
For more resources on families dealing with grief, PBS Parents provides a place for you to share your story, tips on how to open the dialogue with your children and caring cards to use as a family to find strength together.
"When Families Grieve" premieres on PBS tonight, Wednesday April 14, at 8 p.m. EST and runs for one hour. Check your local listings. It's appropriate for all ages, even grown-ups.