An Open Letter to Every Kid Who Has Lost a Parent

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Originally posted by The Odyssey Online. Written by Lauren Seago

Written by Lauren Seago, reposted with her kind permission. Originally appeared on The Odyssey

A letter to tackle different aspects of losing a parent.

Dear Sweet Child,

First off, I just wanted to start by saying you are strong, even when it feels like the world is crumbling beneath your feet.

Secondly, I wanted to say how sorry I am for the loss of your parent in your most crucial years of needing love and words of encouragement. A piece of your world was stripped away from you, and that will never be replaced. Which I know personally, stings so deep.

As you continue to grow throughout your life, I wanted to address some aspects that I have learned on my own are not the easiest to conquer; that in most cases people do not understand.

1. It’s okay to cry, on the real: Forget those people who tell you crying is for the weak. You go ahead and cry; you probably need it.

2.Every holiday is like ripping a Band-Aid off over and over: Your family will laugh about memories from the past when everyone was all together. Reminiscing what your parent was like, their favorite desserts, or how they would laugh a certain way. With a smile plastered across your face, you’ll nod as family members tell you stories and you’ll think about what you would give to have them there with you.

3. Graduating, moving away to college, first date, first real job, any big event will cause a sting of pain: In the moment, you are so happy and excited as these new chapters open up. But later on, once alone, you think about how awesome it would be to have them carrying boxes into your dorm room, questioning your first date, looking out into the crowd at graduation, and seeing them with a camera recording you with a thumbs up. You’ll get chills as you think about how different life would be with them around.

4. You question everything and ask over and over why?: Whether it was a natural cause of death or some accident, you question everything you know and what you believe in (if you believe in anything). You will replay moments in your head questioning your actions asking what if? But if anything, the re-occuring question is why? An answer that is one to be continued.

5. You will be jealous of kids who have both their parents: You will see kids who have both parents and something inside you will stir; a sense of resentment. Because at one time; that was you and the world wasn’t perfect but it was lovely and everything you knew was great.

6. Watching your other parent heal is one of the hardest things you will ever watch: Though extremely challenging and frustrating at times, watching your parent cry to the point of exhaustion will be really hard, but the grieving process does get easier. So hang onto that small nugget of gold.

7. Family traditions will never be the same: Summers of camping and spending endless days on the water, baking rum cakes together, Saturday mornings spent watching cartoons just become a memory that you hold so close to your heart.

8. You become extremely protective of your siblings and whoever makes fun of them for losing a parent: No one messes with your squad but especially when someone brings up how you lost your parent; you go into protective mode. Just remember to breathe and walk in love. Kill ’em with kindness.

9. Heartbreaks hurt just as much, if not more: You will want that one parent to embrace you in their arms with snot running down your nose and tears streaming. You will just want to hear them say, You’ll be all right, kid. I love you and that’s all you need.”

10. The word “sorry” becomes numb to you: People don’t know your story and openly they don’t know what to do besides say sorry. After awhile, you smirk and softly whisper, “Thanks.” The word sorry no longer has meaning after you have heard it over a million times.

11. Pictures and old family videos are possibly one of God’s greatest gift to you: One day you will come across a tub filled with pictures, and as you sit on the basement floor looking through them, you’ll start to cry. Your mind will take you back to that exact moment and right there alone on the cold floor, you encounter a special moment of what life was like then.

12. Death will change you and your outlook on life: Seemingly the small stuff isn’t so bad anymore. You stop complaining and you really take a check of what is important in your life.

13. You wonder if they’re proud of you: When no one was looking and you did the right thing, or when you ace that test you studied so hard for. You stop to think I wonder

14. Hearing old stories from relatives and friends is a great thing: Shocked and trying not to laugh, you can’t believe what your uncle just told you about the one night they all snuck out and crashed a car. These stories will warm your heart, take the time to listen to them.

15. Lastly, you grow in ways you never thought possible: There will be moments where your whole family will be together and you’ll think to yourself how in a weird way everyone has a quirk of that parent. Then looking at your own heart, you realize how much you’ve grown.

As you continue to grow, just remember wherever you are in life, that parent is right there with you, cheering you on and flashing you thumbs up as you graduate throughout the stages of life.

All my love and tears,

A girl who lost her dad

Lauren E. Seago in 500 Words On on Aug 19, 2015

Authored by Lauren Seago

Author’s photo (Lauren Seago)


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Family Lives On is tremendously grateful to Lauren Seago for her kind permission to repost this blog in it’s entirety. Follow Lauren on Twitter at @llaureneunice

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Dad with Cancer Writes Daughter 826 Notes to Last After He’s Gone

article-2546987-1B03501800000578-350_306x423Re-Posted from Todaynews.com

By Eun Kyung Kim

Garth Callaghan started slipping notes into his daughter Emma’s lunchbox when she was in kindergarten. She could barely read at the time, so he kept the napkin notes simple with easy words, sometimes using drawings or symbols.

Today, Callaghan’s eighth-grade daughter has come to depend on those brief missives as a daily source of inspiration — and a reminder to never take her dad for granted.

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Callaghan, 44, has battled kidney cancer twice over the last several years and currently lives with prostate cancer, a slow-growing disease. Recent blood work shows “no evidence” of kidney cancer these days, but Callaghan said his oncologist has bluntly told him that people with his medical history only have an eight percent change of surviving the next five years.

“This isn’t a story about cancer, because any parent at any time could be hit by a car or have a heart attack,” he said, explaining to TODAY.com why he continues to write “napkin notes” to his daughter. “This is really about leaving a legacy so that she can understand some of my life philosophies and how much I love her.”

Callaghan is now striving to reach a goal of writing 826 napkin notes, one for each school day his daughter has left until her high school graduation. He came up with the goal after reading an article about “because I said I would,” a non-profit group that stresses the importance of keeping promises.

“That’s when I thought, I can write out napkin notes ahead of time, and have them ready if I can’t fulfill my own promise if something bad happens,” he said.

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Callaghan has only about 40 notes left to write — the finished ones are sitting in a cabinet in his home office in Glen Allen, just outside the Virginia capital of Richmond. But he hasn’t slipped any of the notes he’s banked into Emma’s lunchbox yet — he’s leaving those for his “just in case” pile. Every morning, he writes a brand-new note for his daughter.

Callaghan keeps all of his notes indexed on a spreadsheet. Sometimes he borrows a quote from a famous person, from Gandhi to Audrey Hepburn. His favorite quotes come from Dr. Seuss or childhood figure, Fred Rogers.

 

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“A good portion of the notes are literally just letters from me to her. They start out, ‘Dear Emma,’ and I say something, and then I say, ‘Love, Dad,’” he said. “ I try to mix it up because frankly, sometimes she needs to hear that yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s game, and that’s a Babe Ruth quote.”

Callaghan said his napkin notes didn’t become a daily ritual until Emma, his only child, reached third grade. Soon afterward, he started using the notes to provide her with motivation and support.

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“If she had a big softball game that afternoon, I’d wish her some luck at the game. It became less of a, ‘Have a good day,’ to more of a ‘I know you’re a strong person. Believe in yourself. Be who you are,’” he said. “And really, I wanted to help make sure she developed into this nice, well-rounded young woman.”

Emma said all of her friends have come to depend on her napkin notes just as much as she has. She tries to save at least one each week.

“I love napkin notes for a couple reasons, not just the obvious ones such as knowing my dad is thinking about me or learning a new quote,” she said. “I love them because they remind me not to take things for granted, because my dad started getting serious with them when he had cancer for the first time.”

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The notes also make her feel a lot closer to her father.

“Because during the school year it’s hard for us to hang out because of my sports and homework,” she said.

Callaghan said his wife supports him writing the notes as a way of expressing the special bond he has with their daughter.

“We’re geek oriented, we play video games together, we like to talk about technology, and we have napkin notes,” he said. His wife and Emma have their own connection, spending “tremendous amounts of time together” in the kitchen.

“Yesterday they spent hours making all sorts of treats and goodies, and I didn’t feel excluded at all,” he said.

Callaghan has compiled many of the notes he has written in a booklet (available on Kindle and sold on Amazon.com) after being contacted by parents through his Facebook page seeking help on how they can make similar connections with their kids. He said he doesn’t mind when others crib from his notes.

Callaghan has almost stacked up enough notes to last his daughter through the rest of her high school career.

“Even for me, and I’ve been doing this for such a long time, I know that staring at a blank napkin can be kind of daunting,” he said. “Think about how rushed parents are in the morning. My idea was just make it easy and help get them going and start that process. At the end of the day, does it help create this connection to your child? If it does, then that’s a success.”

Callaghan said he plans to release a second edition of his booklet, complete with 826 quotes.

“I wrote an epilogue to it,” he said. “It basically implies that I expect to be around long enough to write my grandkids napkin notes.”

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Family Lives On Foundation  supports the lifelong emotional well-being of children whose mother or father has died. Our Tradition Program provides opportunities for intentional remembering, creating a safe haven for grief, communication, and celebration. To donate, volunteer or for more information visit the Family Lives On Foundation website or  Facebook Page.

Letting Children Share in Grief

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS Camp Erin in Palm Desert, Calif., a grief camp, offers children a place to discuss death without feeling self-conscious or worrying about making friends cringe.

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS Camp Erin in Palm Desert, Calif., a grief camp, offers children a place to discuss death without feeling self-conscious or worrying about making friends cringe.

Letting Children Share in Grief

By CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS
Published: September 19, 2012 in the New York Times.

A FEW decades ago, children often didn’t attend funerals. The thinking was that they should be sheltered from the pain of losing a loved one. And as Americans started living longer, the need to even broach the subject of death was delayed because many grandparents survived deep into their golden years.

But recently, the opposite view — that children should be as involved in the grieving process as adults are — has been taking hold, reflecting an increasingly common belief that children are better off when their grief is acknowledged and they are allowed to mourn in the company of relatives and peers.

Grief centers for children are one example: there are now more than 300 of these nonprofit counseling centers, up from 204 in 2002. And Donna Schuurman, the executive director of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families in Portland, Ore., which helped establish these centers, estimated that there are at least 150 more peer-to-peer programs nationwide that serve a similar function. The rise of hospice care, which provides bereavement services for relatives, including children, has also played a role, as have grief camps for children.

“Twenty-five years ago, children were ‘invisible grievers,’ ” said Vicky Ott, executive director of Fernside, a nonprofit center in Cincinnati that served 1,300 children and adults last year. There was an attitude, she said, that they “are resilient, they will bounce back, we don’t need to talk to them about death. I think that’s changed a lot.”

David Horst’s experience bears that out. When his wife, Jennifer, was dying of leukemia in 2010, hospice workers encouraged him to prepare his children for her death. Two months before she died, Mr. Horst, an antiques dealer in Lebanon, Pa., who is now 40, began reading his 5- and 6-year-old books like “Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children.” He didn’t hesitate to cry in front of them — in fact, he did it “all the time,” he said. And he took them to a support group at Hospice and Community Care in Lancaster, Pa.

Without the encouragement of the hospice workers, he would never have prepared his children that way, Mr. Horst said. But he came to believe that avoiding the subject would have been a mistake. “In the long run, it will be detrimental to the kids,” said Mr. Horst, who recently created a foundation in his wife’s honor. “You have to face it head-on.”

On the day of the burial, while he was sitting at his wife’s grave with his son on his lap, his son said: “You know, Dad, Mom will never suffer anymore, right? The cancer is gone.” That’s when Mr. Horst said he understood that his son had absorbed what he had been trying to communicate to him.

“I lost it,” he said. “They got all the suffering she was going through, or at least he did, and that now it’s over. That’s amazing.”

TRYING to protect children from the pain of the death of a relative can actually make matters worse, some experts say. Children pick up “on the message the adults give verbally and nonverbally to ‘not go there,’ ” said Patti Anewalt, a grief counselor at Hospice and Community Care. “As a result, kids are extremely anxious.”

In contrast, a century or more ago, when illness, death and grief all took place at home, children learned to regard them as a natural part of life, said Alan Wolfelt, a psychologist who runs the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo., which has trained a generation of grief counselors. “We included children in the experience because someone was dying in your home, next door or across the street,” he said.

But America has since become a “mourning avoidant” culture, he added, in part because many 40- and 50-year-olds still have living parents. And that longevity, he wrote in an e-mail, has “resulted in a tendency to overprotect children from the realities of grief and loss.” Indeed, death is such a foreign concept to some families, he said, that he has been told, “We just don’t do death.”

Grief camps like Camp Erin or Comfort Zone Camp, however, offer children a place where they can talk about a dead relative without feeling self-conscious or worrying about making schoolmates squeamish. And free support groups offered by nonprofit organizations like the Dougy Center and Fernside have helped to make grief more acceptable. As J. William Worden, a psychologist and one of the key investigators on the 1986 Harvard Child Bereavement Study, said, “The value of bereavement programs for kids is it helps them feel less ‘odd person out.’ ”

FOR the last four years, Jerry Goldsmith, a volunteer at New Hope for Kids, a grief center in Maitland, Fla., has listened to children ages 7 to 12 talk about parents and siblings they have lost. He has watched them create memory boxes in their relatives’ honor, or take out their frustration in the “hurricane room,” which is equipped with a boxing bag.

It has been a bittersweet experience for Mr. Goldsmith, a retired headhunter for financial services executives, because he lost his father to a heart attack in 1952, when he was 9. And for more than 20 years, he didn’t cry, he said. Now Mr. Goldsmith can’t help but wonder, he said, “How would my life have been different if I had some of today’s resources?”

Trying to avoid dealing with the loss of his father nearly kept him from becoming one, he added. “I was not going to get that close to anyone,” he said. And while he eventually had three children, he said, “I would have loved the opportunity to have fully grieved and started the healing process at age 9 instead of 28,” when he married.

In peer support groups, available for children ages 3 to 18, adults encourage conversation between children and let them mourn as they wish, even if that means recreating a burial with mini-coffins. That’s helpful because, as Ms. Schuurman of the Dougy Center noted, “kids are resilient, but they are not resilient in a vacuum. Kids do better when they see, ‘Someone understands what I’m going through.’ ”

But peer support groups are not therapy. And if a child isn’t gradually improving, it might be worth having the child evaluated by a mental health professional, said Dr. Judith Cohen, a psychiatry professor at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. Particularly after a month or two, she said, “if they are still struggling with the way the person died, rather than the fact the person died.”

Hospice centers are a good place to get help early on. They not only focus on the needs of dying patients, but also offer bereavement services for up to a year after the patient’s death.

In 2010, 1.6 million patients received hospice care in the United States, up from 25,000 in 1982, when the Medicare hospice benefit was created. It used to be that after a death, children’s needs were not addressed, said J. Donald Schumacher, the president of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. “But now they are identified as part of the care plan in hospice, and their needs are attended to immediately during hospice.”

Moreover, many funeral directors, influenced by grief experts like Rabbi Earl Grollman and Dr. Wolfelt, now have explicit conversations with parents about whether children will attend services. Some have set up children’s lounges to make it clear that children are welcome, and they distribute pamphlets with advice for parents, like “confirm that it’s all right to be sad and to cry.”

Bob Rosson, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association and the director of the Waller Funeral Home in Oxford, Miss., said that he tells those who are reluctant to bring their children: “If you deny them the chance to come to a funeral service, you don’t have the option of coming back next week and doing it right.”

Other funeral directors, like Ashley Cozine at Broadway Mortuary in Wichita, Kan., offer tours of the facilities for children, in an effort to demystify death. Scott Macy, a funeral director at Hultgren Funeral Home in Wheaton, Ill., said his hope was that this would encourage discussion between parents and children. “An atmosphere of openness is necessary for the next generation to move forward appropriately in dealing with death,” Mr. Macy said. “We’re hoping we are setting a bit of example by offering a tour that says: ‘Hey, death is a part of life. Everyone will have to deal with it.’ ”

A couple of years ago, Sarah Anderson, 52, a mother of two, organized a tour of the Broadway Mortuary for about 30 elementary-school children. “It was an opportunity for them to learn about death in a nonemotional, factual way,” she said. “Then if they do have to experience it, it won’t be as overpowering.” In a sign of changing times, not one of the parents declined to sign the permission slip.

By contrast, in 1982, when the Dougy Center opened, the reaction among many was not positive. Beverly Chappell, a founder, said people asked, “Why would you want to cram death down kids’ throats, for crying out loud?”

As Rabbi Grollman, 87, who wrote the influential 1967 book “Explaining Death to Children,” said, “Thirty years ago, there was the idea that children couldn’t understand.” But now, after a death in the family, many parents allow children to see their grief, he added. “We try to avoid fairy tales and half-truths.”

Still, for many parents, death is an overwhelming experience, one that is difficult to discuss with their children.

Pamela Gabbay, director of three Mourning Star centers, who also oversees a Camp Erin in Palm Desert, Calif., said she recently had a call from a mother in despair. A few months earlier, the woman’s husband, a frequent traveler, had died in a car accident while he was on a trip, and she had not yet told her children. Ms. Gabbay, who helped her find the words to tell them, said that often people haven’t been forced to talk about death, “because nobody significant in their life has died.”

And unlike the sex talk, the death talk hasn’t been enshrined in the book of parenting musts. Andy McNiel, the first executive director of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, a network for bereavement professionals and volunteers, said, “We don’t give them honest information,” in part because of a sincere desire to protect our children.

But even if a child in kindergarten is excluded from a grandfather’s funeral, or a teenager isn’t told that a mother died by suicide, they often know more than their parents give them credit for. And as Mr. McNiel said he often asks parents, “If they already know the reality of what’s going on, would you prefer they deal with it with you — or alone?”

How to Break Bad News

ALAN WOLFELT, a grief counselor and author of dozens of books about loss, likes to say, “Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve.”

But what’s the best way for grieving parents to explain to children that their father or grandmother is gone? It’s not easy, especially considering that parents are inclined to protect children from pain of any kind, let alone the ultimate type. A few tips from experts:

Prepare children for what they’ll see at funerals, said Donna Schuurman, the executive director of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families in Portland, Ore., particularly if there’s going to be an open coffin. And make sure to explain why rituals are important. Tell them that it’s a ceremony where “friends and family come together,” she said, and “we’ll be sad, we’ll show pictures of Daddy.”

Avoid confusing euphemisms like “Grandma passed away” or “Mom went to sleep,” lest a child fear bedtime. Sesame Workshop has videos that parents can watch with preschoolers to help them grasp the permanence of death. (One features Elmo wanting to call his dead uncle.) Experts also suggest offering an explanation like this: “When a person dies, his or her body stops working. The heart stops beating and the body stops moving, eating and breathing.”

What if your children ask whether you could die? One answer recommended by Rabbi Earl Grollman, a pioneer in the field of death and dying, is to tell them that “anyone can die at any time,” but “I’m healthy and I expect to live a long, long time.”

If a loved one died by suicide or was killed, straight talk can be especially difficult. But it is still necessary, said Andy McNiel, the executive director of the National Alliance for Grieving Children. He asks parents, “Can you guarantee that your child will never find out the truth for the rest of their life?” And invariably, he said, “I’ve never had anyone say, ‘I can keep that truth.’ ”

Take the child’s age into consideration, use straightforward language and let the child’s questions guide the discussion. As Rabbi Grollman suggests: “Find out what a child wants to know and when he or she wants to know it. I wouldn’t rush in.”
A version of this article appeared in print on September 20, 2012, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: Letting Children Share in Grief.