Category Archives: Gratitude

Helping Children Through Grief

A few weeks ago I happened to catch  Episode 557 (Birds & Bees) of This American Life.  The show focused on having difficult conversations with kids. It covered topics such as race, sex and death. The last segment was particularly interesting to me because it provided a unique perspective on helping children manage grief. They featured the Sharing Place, a grief support center for families in Salt Lake City, Utah. I contacted the center to see if they would be willing to continue the conversation with me. Jill Macfarlane, their Development Director and Family Placement Coordinator, was kind enough to share some of her time with me and answered a few of my questions that came from listening to the piece.

 

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I was really impressed by how direct some of your conversations with kids about death and grief are. Can you speak a little bit about your approach to talking to children?

I want to preface the answer by saying that here at the Sharing Place, despite what the piece portrayed, we don’t focus just on “how the person died” but rather, on the person and the memory of that person. We say over and over again that it does not matter how someone died but just that we loved them.

We do talk about the ways in which people die when kids have questions so that that they can process it in the correct way. Developmentally, kids, especially for the younger ones, tend to have imaginative thinking such that they feel they caused the death of a parent or that they are going to catch their little brother’s cancer.

We advise parents that if the child is not asking the questions, don’t give them information that they may not be ready to hear. They will ask you the questions when they are ready. We just have to be there to answer them when they are, not when we are ready to “tell them” but when they are ready to listen.

 

I can imagine that when a parent or another adult is dealing with their own grief that there can be a tendency to sometimes over-share.

So often, the questions will come in stages. The child may ask “how did dad die”. The parent might say, “he died from suicide”. Then the child may ask “what does suicide mean?”. And the parent can offer that suicide means that he chose to make his own body stop working because he had a sickness called depression. Then maybe six months to a year later the child may ask, “well how did he make his body stop working?”. And that may lead to more questions. As the child is ready to learn more, they will ask more questions. You don’t need to sit a four-year-old down and talk about suicide but if the child asks the question, you should definitely answer it truthfully.

 

What’s the best advice you can give for someone that may be more peripherally involved in a child’s life, such as a teacher, friend or even a pediatrician, to express their concern in way that is helpful for the child?

I would say don’t ask questions. Just be validating and supportive vs. peppering them with questions. Using reflective listening is really important so that the child feels heard. Instead of asking questions, we just listen and validate so they feel heard. Sometimes it’s scary for adults to hear children use big words like suicide so they just ignore it and change the subject (maybe to protect other children in the room). So the kids don’t feel heard, and in fact, they feel like their feelings don’t matter.

Another thing I’ve heard from families over and over again is how much they appreciate when you bring their person up and use their name. It can be scary because you don’t want to upset someone or open up a wound. Often times people just won’t mention their person. But really it can be so meaningful to families. So instead of saying “how was it for you on Johnny’s birthday, was it hard for you?” offering “ hey, I just remembered that it was Johnny’s birthday last week and I wanted you to know I was thinking about him”. Again, it’s the questions. People don’t want questions; they just want to know that their person is remembered and that they are loved.

 

I’ve often seen situations where parents will feel they need to keep their emotions in check in front of their children. What’s the best way for parents to support their children when they are dealing with their own feelings of grief and loss?

I think it’s important for parents to normalize emotions in front of kids – “mom’s sad and it’s ok for mom to be sad because mom loved dad very much”. We talk a lot about all of your feelings are ok. The behaviors that may come along with the feelings may not always be ok, but every feeling you have is ok.

We’ve often heard kids say mom didn’t’ care about dad because she never cried, and then, the kids don’t cry. There is a huge disconnect because everyone’s hiding their feelings from one another. Now if the parent isn’t getting out bed in the mornings, that may not be okay, but it’s ok for them to know you’re sad.

 

What’s the typical way in which you work with families in terms of time frame?

It really does vary from family to family. Some families call us two hours after the death, others may call after the funeral, and some families may not reach out to us for a year after the death. I would say after the first 6 months is when we usually see families. There are exceptions but we do have a waiting list for services so that’s when we typically start to see families. The average family stays in our program for about two years, and we’ve really found that kids do their best grief work about a year after the death. That’s when life is beginning to come back to a routine, and that’s when it really hits kids that they are not coming back.

 

Do you manage crisis type situations and what do you do when a family’s needs are outside of the “normal” grief process?

We do not provide therapy. We are a support group, which is completely different from therapy. Therapy and support groups work well together. We have an incredible list of therapists and resources in the Salt Lake area and we refer out for that acute, crisis management. The Sharing Place is here for long-term grief support and not necessarily the acute management. We do also have lots of community resources such as local food banks and mental health specialists.

 

It’s wonderful how you are able to facilitate some of these really difficult conversations with families and be such a resource and support for them during a challenging time.

This American Life did a great job on the piece but in terms of the editing I just wanted to say that with regards to the “way people die”, we don’t speak to every family about how someone died. Many, many families have already done a wonderful job talking to their kids. There are some situations, though, where families have a hard time, and they just can’t find the words. That’s when we are able to help them with the conversation.

 

Are the conversations usually pretty heavy or are you able to bring any joy or laughter into the groups?

That’s the beauty of the group sessions. You have these families that are new and so raw, and then you have these families who are 2 or 3 years out and at point where they can smile and laugh. It’s such a great mentoring system, that these families on this end say “wow, I can get there” and the families on the other end are saying “look how far I’ve come”.

I tell kids all the time, especially the teens, that we have fun here. Our teens tend to stay the longest. They are the hardest to get here but they stay the longest. Our groups always focus on the memories of the people. Sometimes we cry but most of the time we share, we laugh and really get to know one another.

 

Is it hard to say good-bye to the families once they’ve completed the program?

Yes, it is hard. We have a process called a closing. The families have to tell us three times that they are leaving before they leave group. We have a really wonderful ritual where we say good-bye. It’s sad to see them leave but at the same time, we are happy to see them move on without us.

 

Who decides when it’s time to leave group? Once they leave, do they come back?

They decide. There’s no time frame on our end. Once they leave, they’re done. Leaving is about a 6-week process and we are very thoughtful about it. If a new loss occurs, they can get back on the waiting list but that is very rare.

 

What do you think is the biggest misconception surrounding grief, and what do you think kids would want us to know?

I think they would want you to know that they want to talk about it. That they want you to remember their person and acknowledge them. They don’t want their person to be forgotten and they don’t wanted to be treated any differently. Especially for teenagers, they feel like they’ve become “that person whose brother died” and they don’t want to be treated any differently but they still want their person to be remembered.

 

Do you have any suggestions on helping children with loss, perhaps not at a personal level but a more global level like a death in the community or for instance the earthquakes in Nepal?

I would say it’s the same basic message – be honest in a developmentally appropriate way. Little kids may not understand earthquakes and school shootings. When they ask questions be prepared to answer them. If they aren’t asking the questions you don’t necessarily have to sit them down to talk about it. If they do ask, it’s important that the questions are answered truthfully and in language that they can understand.

 

At what age do those sorts of question tend to come up?

Usually 5th and 6th grade — the pre-teens are the ones that ask those sorts of questions. The younger kids are usually focused on their four walls. The pre-teens are beginning to see that there’s this whole world around them.

 

Do you have any resources for parents that may not be in the Salt Lake City Area?

The first group support center for children was The Dougy Center located in Portland, Oregon. We are a Dougy Center model. They have training centers all over the country. They have a tremendous amount of resources on their site – tip sheets, how to talk to kids, a teen section, etc. There’s also the National Alliance for Grieving Children and they have a resource at childrengrieve.org that helps families find local support groups.

 

I hope that this piece brings some insight into the ways in which we can help children manage grief and to encourage families to seek out community resources. I thank Jill Macfarlane for taking the time to speak with me and for the wonderful work that centers like hers do every day. I’m sharing some of the links that Jill provided below, and of course, I encourage you to listen to the original piece from This American Life.

Find local support groups

About Childhood Grief

Should Kids Attend the Funeral?

The “Bill of Rights” for Grieving Teens

Tip Sheets from the Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children & Families

 

Not Your Everday Lentil Soup

With the the Thanksgiving holidays (followed by more holidays!) right around the corner, I thought I’d share this favorite lentil soup recipe with you. A few added ingredients make it a little more special than your garden variety lentil soup and the additionally vegetables transform it into a wonderful one-pot meal. This soup feeds a crowd and would be especially nice served as a “night before” Thanksgiving meal. Easy to put together and not too heavy.

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Curried Lentil Soup (Not Your Everday Lentil Soup)

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 ribs of celery, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 2 medium potatoes, diced with skin on
  • small head of cauliflower, chopped into small florets
  • 16 ounces of dried lentils
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 4 cups vegetable stock plus an additional 3 to 4 cups water
  • 6 ounces of baby spinach, roughly chopped
  • optional garnish
  • chopped fresh cilantro
  • lemon wedges
  • plain Greek yogurt

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large pot.
  2. Add the onions, carrots and celery; sauté until the vegetables have softened and the onions are slightly browned.
  3. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté for an additional 1 to 2 minutes. Mix in the curry powder and cook for another minute or so.
  4. Add the diced potatoes and cauliflower, stirring all of the ingredient together.
  5. Add the lentils, salt and vegetable stock. Start by adding two additional cups of water and gradually add water as needed to thin the soup.
  6. When the lentils are mostly cooked through, add the spinach and simmer until the spinach has wilted and the lentils and vegetables are cooked through.
  7. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Garnish with chopped fresh cilantro, a lemon wedge and a dollop of Greek yogurt.
http://www.thefamily-table.com/not-your-everday-lentil-soup/

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I love the little squeeze of lemon just at the end. I’m usually not a big fan of generic “curry powders” but in simple recipes like these, I think a good curry powder mix is just fine instead of using your own individual spices. Some curry powders (like the one I used in my soup) have a bit of cayenne or red pepper in them. If your curry powder does not have any “heat” to it, feel free to add a pinch of red pepper flakes while cooking the onions down or a splash of Tabasco sauce with your garnishes. Because the soup is made in just one bowl (less to clean up!) and can be made ahead of time, it will leave you with more time to spend with friends and family.

Empathy Comes Full Circle at Big Sur

Empathy is something I have talked about before. For me, it’s a core principle in parenting. Having a connection with our children that allows us to truly understand their thoughts, emotions and feelings not only allows us to have closer relationships with our children but it is the foundation for meaningful discipline. There are many beneficial “side effects” of exhibiting empathy and I wanted to share the story of how I experienced one of them.

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For my husband and I a major draw of relocating our family to California was all of the natural beauty and opportunities for travel that we would have at our disposal. So, when the kids had a long weekend coming up, we decided to take full advantage and planned a weekend getaway for the family. Big Sur is only a couple of hours drive for us and it seemed the perfect little adventure. Work schedules were cleared, research on hikes and where to stay and eat was completed and the car was packed up. We were ready! So, you can imagine our disappointment when the complaining, whining and overall poor spirits emerged from our children. I could see that all of the negativity about how long the drive would be, whether it would be boring, too cold, too hot and on and on was taking its toll on my husband. His shoulders began to droop and the enthusiasm quickly faded from his face.

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I could see that our “vacation” was getting off to a very poor if not downright horrible start. I pulled the children aside.  I took a deep breath and rather than trying to empathize with what they were feeling, I decided to appeal to their sense of empathy. I explained to them that every soccer practice that they were taken to, every game that was watched and  every visit to the playground was fueled by love and a desire to do our part in filling their lives with joy. If they understood that, then I hoped that they could see how a bit of co-operation and a shift in attitude on their parts, could do the same for their dad and me.

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What I was asking of them was to put themselves in our shoes. How would it feel if they were truly excited about something — if they had really been looking forward to something, only to find their dad or I complain about it (endlessly)? Would they continue to feel excited about it? Would they begin to feel that we would not share in their joy? Would they maybe even feel a little disappointed and hurt?

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As I asked for their understanding, I could see that they got it. I want to be clear, I wasn’t looking to guilt them into good behavior but rather I was hoping that we had modeled empathy well enough so that they could see what it really looked like. So that they could feel it and ultimately act according to it.

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I’d love to tell you that the rest of our trip was smooth sailing. But, the truth of the matter is that after a great long hike and dinner in downtown Carmel, some of the complaining and groaning reemerged the following day. It required a refresher course in empathy but the lessons from the previous day had not entirely been forgotten. In return, the children got to experience one of the most special mornings to date. We hiked through Point Lobos State Reserve. Breathtaking views, rocks and cliffs waiting to be climbed and treading ever so close to chilly, crashing waves. We all agreed that it would have been a complete shame to have missed out on it.

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As children and as parents, we are far from perfect. The key, I think is not to expect perfection but to strive to be empathetic and open. Are we able to take a step back, reflect and think about the feelings of others before we dig in our heals. One last little pearl I will leave you with came to me  at the end of our hike in Big Sur. We came across a beautiful patch of clovers. The four of us quickly began searching for a four leaf clover. My son chimed in with an interesting fact (he is always collecting them!). “Did you you know that four leaf clovers only happen 1 in 10,000 times?!” There we were, searching for that rare and special four leaf variety when all of these bright green, three leaf ones were sitting right in front of us. So, maybe rather than being concerned with creating the “perfect” vacation, one without bickering and complaining and that is Facebook worthy, we can come to appreciate the beauty of the time we have together, even if it isn’t perfect.

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Sunday Morning Scones (and a bit of an update)

Well, hello again! Last week was the first week that I actually had nothing new to present. When I started this blog, I had made a commitment to myself that I would write only when I had something to say and not just for the sake of posting at least once or twice a week. It was a busy week in all of the best ways possible. I had the chance to spend some time (so short but incredibly sweet) with old friends from Cleveland and Baltimore. Next came an interview with a wonderful author who writes about the state of youth sports (I’m hoping to bring that interview to you very soon!) followed by the hustle and bustle of Halloween and trick o’ treating in a new neighborhood. The weekend was topped off with sleepover with new friends and Sunday morning scones for breakfast.

 

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This recipe (from Bon Appétit) comes together so easily. The scones are not overly sweet and the lemon zest adds an incredibly special touch. The best thing about this recipe is that you can actually assemble the scones the night before, place on a baking sheet, cover and refrigerate so that all that’s left to be done in the morning is to bake them off. Warm, fresh out of the oven scones that you don’t have to wake up early to make! If you’ve got a crowd, you can easily double this recipe.

Chocolate Chip Scones

Ingredients

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, diced
  • 1 teaspoon (packed) grated lemon peel
  • 3/4 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips
  • 3/4 cup chilled buttermilk
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • OPTIONAL
  • Milk
  • 2 tablespoons brown or turbinado sugar

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400°.
  2. Place the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt into large bowl.
  3. Add butter and lemon peel; rub in with fingertips until butter is reduced to size of rice grains.
  4. Stir in chocolate chips.
  5. Whisk buttermilk, egg yolk and vanilla in small bowl to blend. Add buttermilk mixture to dry ingredients; mix until dough comes together in moist clumps.
  6. Gather dough into ball. Press dough out on lightly floured surface to 8-inch round; cut round into 6 wedges.
  7. Transfer wedges to Silpat or parchment lined baking sheet, spacing 1 inch apart. (If you are preparing the night before, at this point, the scones can be covered and refrigerated.)
  8. Brush scones lightly with milk; sprinkle with 2 tablespoons brown or turbinado sugar (feel free to omit this step; it adds a nice little crunch to the scones but can easily be skipped).
  9. Bake until scones are crusty on top and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Serve warm.
http://www.thefamily-table.com/sunday-morning-scones-and-a-bit-of-an-update/

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All in all, I would say it was it was a pretty great week. We’ve had some challenging days with the adjustment that comes with a big move. Though there was nothing dramatic or over the top fancy about the weekend, it was nice just to be HERE. The icing on the cake for me was overhearing the conversation at breakfast when my son asserted to his friends “These are my favorite scones. My mom always makes them for my birthday”. What’d you know — I might just rename these —  not JUST for your birthday Sunday morning scones.

Letting Go of the Vision of Should & Embracing the Realness of Now

I think I speak for most families when I say that we can often get stuck in the vision of how we feel things SHOULD be. I was reminded of this when we recently watched a rerun of The Middle. The family was on a Disney vacation and while all those around them seemed to be gleefully skipping through the park and snapping picture perfect vacation photos, their family was facing one calamity after another. Disney World is SUPPOSED to be the happiest place on earth and yet this fictional family represented what we have all faced at one time or another — our expectations did not match the reality of what we had in front of us. In today’s world of social media and constant sharing it can add to the pressure of  somehow feeling inadequate. Not being fit enough. Not traveling enough. Not being organized enough. No being spontaneous enough. Just not being enough.

So how do we, as parents, manage our disappointment? How do we handle ourselves when our expectations of our family are not in harmony with our day to day lives? From mutiny at the dinner table (after you actually managed to get dinner on the table with everyone there at the same time!) to the kids constantly fighting.

I have some thoughts and I want to share a personal “expectation” that was the source of this post. When we moved to California, I was excited about many things. The weather, the closeness to the ocean, and all of the natural beauty. One particular thing I was looking forward to was the abundance of year round farmer’s markets. I HAD A VISION that my family and I would explore various markets, find one to call our own and make a ritual out of planning our meals around treasures that we would bring home. Well, part of the vision worked out. We found a great farmer’s market just a couple of miles from us. It’s filled with organic produce, flowers and vendors offering handmade pastas, slow batch hummus, local cheeses, dairy and meats, not to mention a plethora of options for grabbing a bite to eat. Crêpes, dumplings, warm tortillas (made to order!), a juice bar, samosas, báhn mi and so much more.

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I saw families walking hand in hand. Young children sampling the various foods with curiosity and excitement. And my children were hot. They were bored. They were tired. The lines were too long. They wanted to go home. Couldn’t they see all of the other children having fun, exploring and enjoying wonderful family time together?! Was it too much to ask that they just have a good time (for me)?! I was without a doubt frustrated. Maybe even a little mad. Eventually I came to realize that their vision of Sunday mornings for themselves involved staying in their pajamas, having pancakes for breakfast and really just doing nothing at all. They needed the downtime. That is what Sunday was supposed to be for them. And so, I changed my vision of Sunday mornings at the farmer’s market. We lounge with the kids for the early part of the morning and invite them to join us at the market. If they say no (we are happily at a stage where they can be home for an hour or two on their own!), my husband and I venture out on our own. We have the time to leisurely stroll the market, menu plan, and even smell the roses! It’s become a nice way for us to create some alone time before the start of a busy week and the kids seem happy to have had an extended amount of time in their pjs. It’s not the vision I started with but it is what we have found to work. When I let go of that expectation, I was able to create a more relaxed and enjoyable experience for the whole family.

Here are some tips you can use to create greater harmony for yourself when your vision of should doesn’t always match your reality of now:

  • Identify the mismatch. For me it was wanting to go to the farmer’s market and my children’s desire to not go.
  • Decide if it’s important. Sometimes we can’t bend and our children may not have a choice. In situations like that you have to brainstorm with your team to find a way for it to work for the family. If you have room to bend, if your expectation is based more on what you think something should like rather than a true need for family co-operation, then sit down and look at your options. Perhaps you can find a compromise. Perhaps you can find a new solution all together.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. We all create visions of how we would like for things to go. Whether it’s making a home cooked meal, Thanksgiving dinner or planning a family vacation. It all starts with this vision of what we see for ourselves and our family. I think it’s what drives us to be creative and adventurous. It’s important to hang on to that part of ourselves.
  • When you feel resistance, take the time to step back and reevaluate. I’ll never forget our family’s first visit to New York City. I wanted the kids to experience the Natural History Museum, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. It was truly miserable. The heat, the lines, the tantrums. Now when we plan family vacations we make sure to schedule things at pace that is reasonable and enjoyable, taking the kids’ preferences into account.
  • Talk to your team. If it’s something that’s truly important to you, explain it to your children. You might be surprised at their understanding and willingness to bend themselves.

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p.s. this week I’ll be posting a quick farmer’s market dinner that you’ll be able to put together in pinch!