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I don’t remember what we talked about that day…but I do remember hugging her before I left. She had always struggled with her weight and had lost a lot of weight that year. She had tried every diet you can imagine through the years and nothing had worked, but finally she was able to shed all that extra weight and she was proud of herself for it. When I hugged her, it felt like half of her, I could feel her bones, and to my shock, my hand rested on a huge knot the size of a softball on the right side of her back.
I lost the embrace and stepped back, holding her shoulders and looking into her eyes. I said, “Mom, what is that on your back?” She told me that she had been to the doctor about it and that he said it was just a benign cyst and nothing to worry about. I paused before I spoke again. My look very serious now. I said, “I don’t agree, Mom. Did you get a second opinion? If I were you, I would see someone else about this.”
My mom then proceeded to show me these same “benign cysts” in various places all over her body. With each one, fear grew inside of me and I know she must have become afraid as well because her look changed. In that moment, we both knew it. “This is serious, Mom,” I said. “I will get another opinion,” she said. And, she did. And, yes, it was cancer.
Her voice broke the silence of the piercingly dark hospital room.
“Are you awake?”
“I am,” I replied.
“I want to tell you something,” She said. “Come sit with me.”
I got out of the hospital recliner where I had slept for several nights keeping vigil over her as her decline through six months of chemo and radiation had stripped her of the strength to even stand. I sat down on the bed next to her and held her hand.
“When I was in seminary in New Orleans, I had a friend who was gay. We spent a lot of time together and enjoyed a wonderful friendship.”
“Oh,” I said, “I didn’t know that.”
She continued, “Yes, he was my best friend at seminary. We had several classes together as well. One day I arrived at class before he did and took my usual seat. Another seminary student who I was not familiar with at the time arrived and sat in the seat directly in front of me. When my friend arrived, he sat in the seat in front of this other student. He turned, leaned out, and started talking to me around this other student. We said a few things back and forth.”
She paused after saying this and took a few deep breathes. And her usual soft caring voice changed. It sounded angry as she continued to tell me the story, “All of sudden, the student sitting in front of me leaned out to block us from being able to see each other and he started yelling at my friend, ‘You turn around, queer, and stop talking to her! Don’t you talk to her!’ My friend didn’t speak a word and embarrassingly turned around to face forward in his seat.”
My mom started to cry, and she squeezed my hand tighter.
I gave her a moment and then asked, “What did you do?”
She continued to cry and when she was able to gather herself, she said, “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t say anything. I just sat there and watched this hateful person be mean to my friend and I didn’t do anything.”
I could hear the shame in her voice. Her regret that she could not go back and do it differently. We sat there in the darkness holding hands, my mom finally settling herself.
And then she said, “I don’t know how people can be so hateful, but I want you to know that I think you and Dana have it right.”
She was referring to our belief that we are all God’s children and beautiful in our own way just the way we are.
She said, “I should have said something. That’s what I wanted to tell you. That’s all I have to say.”
I went back to my chair. And we both sat there in the silent darkness.
“I love you,” I said breaking the silence again. “Thank you for sharing that with me.”
“I love you too,” she replied.
And that was it. Those were the last words she ever spoke to me. That was the last time I heard that sweet, calm, caring voice. She was put on a respirator and induced into a coma early the next morning. She died two days later.
As Mother’s Day approaches, my heart aches when I think back on the last time that I heard her voice. But I am also grateful that I was able to be there to hear her confession…to hear her last story…and to, again, as so many times throughout my life, be affirmed and blessed by her wisdom and care.
I love you, mom. I miss you every day.
-Andy McNiel, May 11, 2019
I think it was the lights. Of course, there are the parties, the music, and the food. You cannot forget about all those things. But, for me, I think it was the lights that made the difference during some of the darkest times in my life. I think it was finding a way to not only see the light, but to let the light in. The challenge was to let the lights from this time of year penetrate my darkness.
It certainly isn’t coincidence that so many of our most meaningful religious and cultural celebrations and gatherings happen during the darkest, coldest time of the year. It also isn’t coincidence that lights and elaborate decorations are a part of these celebrations. It is this time of the year that so many of us wake in darkness, work all day inside, and then drive home in darkness, fighting the bitter cold elements of the season.
We also start new this time of the year, in the dead of winter. We start new while everything around us remains dead and dormant. We celebrate the ending of another year and the hope of a new one. We light up the sky with fireworks, and cities with music and celebration. Yes, I am almost sure of it. It is the lights that made all the difference for me and my willingness, no matter how hard it was, to let the light in, even if just a little.
It was three o’clock in the morning when the phone rang. It was my mother on the other end of the line. Her voice sounded weak and I could tell she had been crying. “Hi Andy,” She said, “I’m sorry to wake you and Dana up, but we just got a call that my dad has been killed.” We cried together, neither of us speaking. After a minute, she shared with me that he had been murdered and that we did not know much more than that. I received this call early December, right after Thanksgiving. In the midst of all the year end celebrations and during the darkest time of the year. It was hard to let the light in.
I was enraged, to tell the truth. I was broken, and I was hurting. The lights, pomp, and circumstances of the season, well, it just seemed in such contrast to the way I was feeling inside. I didn’t want to be with people that year. I dodged the parties as far as I can remember. I didn’t sleep well, either, so I spent many nights up late, sitting in my living room with my wife, holding on and struggling with the hurt. Yet, there with us on those late nights were the lights from our Christmas tree. They were there glowing in the darkness. Twinkling out little shimmers of hope, that countered the darkness that engulfed our home…and our hearts. I didn’t know it at the time, but I remember gazing for hours at those lights, mostly feeling nothing.
Yes, I am pretty sure about it, now. It was definitely the lights that made a huge difference. Even when it was hard to let the light in, they continued to shine. And when I was able to let them in again, they were still there. And, they have continued to be there, even through my mom’s death and other subsequent losses.
Why? Because we all need a little light every now and then. Because when it is dark, we light up the darkness with light. That’s why we light up and celebrate during this dark time of the year. It is because we need the light. So, yes, it was the light, it always has been the light, and it is the light even now. Wherever you may be in your life. Whatever grief you have had to bear this year or years before. Whatever burden you carry. I have no list of steps to take to get through the holidays.
But I can say to you that you are not alone. We are all carrying our own burden. And, if you can at all find a way to do it – even just a little, find a way to let the light be part of your journey. Pay attention and let the light carve out a little hope in the midst of the cold, dark winter. Whether it is the light from the season, or the light that shines through the lives of others, loving you, cheering you on, and offering you care – see the light, notice the light, and find a way to let the light in.
-Andy McNiel, December 10, 2018
#1 – Grieving children want to be told the truth.
• Tell grieving children the truth with these considerations in mind:
- The age of the child
- The maturity level of the child
- The circumstances surrounding the death
- Answer questions as honestly as you can
#2 – Grieving children want to be reassured that there will always be someone to take care of them.
• Grieving children spend a lot of time worrying about another person in their life who might die.
• To help alleviate this fear, it’s important to reassure them that there will always be someone in their life who will take care of them.
• Enlist the aid of their parent or caregiver to determine a plan for the children. Let the children know what the plan is.
#3 – Grieving children want you to know that their grief is long lasting.
• Children will grieve the person who died for the rest of their life.
• Grieving kids don’t “just get over it”.
• They will often be bewildered when other people in their life have seemed to move on.
• Their grief changes over time as they grow and change over time.
#4 – Children often cope with grief and loss through play.
• Children grieve through play.
• Typically, they cannot sustain prolonged grief.
• Children use play as a way to cope with their grief and to take a break from the grief.
#5 – Grieving children want you to know that they will always miss the person who died.
• People die, but love doesn’t die.
• Grieving children will miss the person who died for as long as they live.
#6 – Often, grieving children want to share their story and talk about the person who died.
• Having an opportunity to tell his or her story is often beneficial to a child’s healing process.
• Sharing memories about the person who died is also very important.
• Grieving children don’t want to forget the person who died – they are also worried that others will forget their person.
#7 – Every child grieves differently.
• Every child has his or her own grief journey and own way of grieving.
• Some children might be more expressive with their grief.
• Some children might keep it all in.
• Siblings grieve differently.
• Just because children come from the same family doesn’t mean that their grief will be the same.
• It is important to honor each child’s story, even if it is different than his or her sibling’s story.
#8 – Grieving children often feel guilty.
• Grieving children will often feel pangs of guilt.
• Even if the guilt is not justified and has no basis in reality.
#9 – Even though I might be acting out, what I’m really feeling is intense emotions of grief.
• Grieving children frequently feel sad, angry, confused, or scared.
• Since they might not know how to express all of these emotions, they often end up acting out instead.
#10 - If you’re not sure what a grieving child wants, just ask him!
• When in doubt, ask a grieving child how you can help.
• Check in with the child – do they want to talk about the person who died? Maybe not.
• Expect myriad answers.
• Do they want to write about their grief or do some other activity to express their grief?
• What do they need?
You can help grieving children by:
• Really hearing them when you’re listening
• Following their lead
• Validating their feelings
• Answering their questions
• Seeking out additional resources, as needed
Posted by Pamela Gabbay, EdD, FT
“Children are resilient,” is a phrase we often hear after a public tragedy. We hear it from mental health experts being interviewed by reporters. We hear it from reporters as they give tips to parents about caring for their children. We hear it from members of the public as they reflect on their own children’s responses to unthinkable situations. It is not true.
The truth is that children are VULNERABLE. Their minds are not fully developed. They are taking in the world around them, good and bad. They are being shaped by the things they see, hear, and experience. What children experience and the support they receive has a direct impact on their health now and as they grow into adults (CDC).
The truth is that children CAN be resilient. But, they are not resilient in a vacuum. There are many factors that bolster resilience in children. Though these factors do not guarantee that children will be resilient, they do heighten the likelihood that children will be able to absorb difficulties and move forward in a healthy way.
The truth is that children who have one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult are more likely to be resilient (Harvard, 2015). There is a rich body of work over the past twenty years that supports this. This is the top factor that bolsters resilience in children, buffering against the impact of toxic stress on children’s development.
With the truth in mind, how do we comfort children and help them feel safe after a public tragedy? How do we strengthen their resilience to its effects? First, they need our time and attention. If you have children in your home, dedicate special time with them to play or share a fun activity. Let them have a choice about what you do together.
Spend time with children on their terms, not just your terms. This boosts their self-confidence. Quite often, children will share openly with us about their feelings during these interactions. Also, when we are spending time with our children and giving them our undivided attention, we will see opportunities to encourage and reassure them.
Second, turn off the television and 24-hour reporting of the public tragedy. This is not to be mistaken as “hiding” the truth from your children. Children need to know the truth and it is best if they hear it from a caring adult with whom they have an ongoing relationship. It is okay to talk to your children about the tragedy and ask their feelings about it. But, there is no need to dwell on it or bombard them with news reports or conversations about it.
Third, meet them where they are at. When you are spending time with your children, check in with them periodically. Ask them how they are feeling. Ask them what they have seen or heard. Let them know they can ask you any question. Limit the amount of details you share, focusing on the details they express to you.
The truth is that building resiliency is a process, not a given, in children. Central to a resilient child is at least one stable and committed parent, caregiver, or other adult. Children need our help to feel safe after a public tragedy. Think about the children you have in your life and ask yourself, “What am I doing to help them feel safe and be resilient?”
“Violence Prevention.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 June 2016, www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2015). Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience: Working Paper No. 13. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
About the Authors
Andy McNiel, MA & Pamela Gabbay, EdD, FT are the authors of Understanding and Supporting Bereaved Children: A Practical Guide for Professionals by Springer Publishing, New York, NY.