The Book Whisperer: On Parenting a Grieving Child and Inside Out

Book Whisperer

Grief takes many forms at different stages of a child’s life. I was reminded of this recently when Sarah and I went to the recent Pixar release, Inside Out, which gave us a memorable glimpse into the mind of such a child, and reminds us that grief doesn’t always involve visible tears.

[Inside Out: SPOILER ALERT] In one scene near the end of the movie, ten-year-old Riley has this exchange with her parents after her foiled attempt to run away back to Minnesota.

Riley: I… I know you don’t want me to, but I miss home. I miss Minnesota. You need me to be happy, but I want my old friend, and my hockey team. I wanna go home. Please don’t be mad.

[Riley’s mother and father stare sadly at their daughter]

Mom: Oh, sweetie…

Dad: Were not mad. You know what? I miss Minnesota too. I miss the woods where we took hikes.

Mom: And the backyard where we used to play.

Dad: Spring Lake, where you used to skate.

[Riley breaks down in tears]

Dad: Come here.

[Riley, her mother, and her father all embrace in a group hug, consoling Riley]

With adoption, this grief (a component of trauma) is not something the child can often process so neatly or definitively. In Parenting a Grieving Child (Revised Edition), Mary DeTurris Poust reminds parents that the intruding and often overwhelming feelings of grief and loss affect children differently at each stage of development. From tuning out to hyperactivity to snarking to fear of separation to self-harming, each sign of grief needs a different kind of gentle parental intervention and understanding.  Parenting a Grieving Child Revised

Gregory Flloyd’s daughter Rose, who was four when her brother John Paul died, came down to breakfast the day after his funeral and asked, “Where’s Johnny?”

“That just threw us across the room mentally. You wonder, How could she not get this? We weren’t mad at her, but it was simply amazing,” Gregory says. “She watched his coffin go into the ground yesterday, and she’s wondering where he is. I think that this is the mercy of God because I think the Lord draws a veil and lifts that veil a bit at a time according to what the children are intellectually and emotionally capable of dealing with.” (Parenting the Grieving Child, Revised Edition, by Mary DeTurris Poust, p.53-54).

This severe mercy of grief’s internal “pressure valve” is something foster and adoptive parents frequently encounter. If you are experiencing it right now, this Catholic guide to childhood grief offers simple, practical steps to help you navigate this valley of the shadow.

Lord Jesus, you grew up without ever laying eyes on your Father. Though Mary and Joseph were a constant loving presence, still that longing must have burned in your heart at times. Please pour out your grace upon my struggling child. Give me patience and gentleness, and the wisdom to “weep with those who weep.” Even when that weeping looks a lot like snark. Amen.

The Book Whisperer … “The Art of Spiritual Writing”

Book WhispererArtSpiritualWriting_BlogTour-socialAt Ave Maria Press, I enjoy working closely with authors to help them “develop their craft.” Rewriting and platform-building are two of the most challenging tasks for any writer, so I am always looking for helpful resources. Vinita’s new book, The Art of Spiritual Writing, is one I highly recommend for those new to the spiritual writing genre, or for authors who simply want to write with greater clarity and conviction. (For those looking for a good resource on platform building, I recommend Mike Hyatt’s Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, now available on Kindle for $2.99.)

In The Art of Spiritual Writing, Wright articulates well the difference between “private” and “public” writing, and outlines the process that every writer needs to engage fully in order to connect with readers. She also makes it abundantly clear that the spiritual writer’s calling is different from that of a teacher or preacher — and yet there are some sobering similarities.

“The writer of the New Testament book of James warned Christians not to hanker after … teaching positions, because the responsibility was great, and when a teacher made an error, it affected many people,” Wright explains. “The same is true for writers, and especially true for writers who broach the realm of spirituality. We hanker after those book contracts and speaking engagements. But should we be so eager? Do we realize, from day to day, the power we wield when we send our words out into the world?”

Novice and veteran writers (and editors) alike will appreciate Wright’s practical advice, such as . . .

Five Things Every Spirituality Writer Needs to Know

  1. Nothing makes up for poor craftsmanship. “Writing is a craft, and it is a different form of expression from speaking, teaching or preaching,” Vinita observes. (I’d add that writing a book is a different form of expression from blogging, as sustaining reader interest for two hundred pages requires a different approach than getting a reader to “click through” to peruse 350 words.)
  2. Save teaching for the classroom and preaching for the pulpit. “You want to write so that the matter unfolds and the reader experiences the unfolding. You explore a topic, and the reader comes right along with you. … The writing itself must be seductive. … If you write in a preachy, didactic, and overbearing way, you will attract the audience you don’t want, and you’ll repel the audience you hope for.”
  3. Fiction is about storytelling, not teaching. “With nonfiction writing, often we are building an argument or system of thinking. The structure is probably linear, with one point leading naturally to the next.”
  4. The reader becomes engaged when she has to do some of the work. “Write so that the reader can imagine herself in your situation and growing right along with you. Write with balance: honest but hopeful, encouraging but challenging.”
  5. Personal writing must be transformed in order to work as public writing. “Many of the details that are important to you will be meaningless to readers. … Your task is to pick and choose among the thousands of details, standing back from the story to understand what a stranger would need to know and what would capture the stranger’s interest.” Later in the book, Wright points out that public writing is shaped not according to the author’s needs and preferences, but for the intended audience. “Public writing takes the concrete details of a single, personal experience to generate a discussion of the more universal experience readers will relate to.”

Speaking both as an editor and as an author who understands how difficult it can be, this fifth point is possibly the most valuable skill any writer can acquire. While there must be enough of our own story to let the reader get to know us, and learn to trust us, we need to fully engage the writing and rewriting process, so that our private thoughts are pruned and transformed into something truly life-giving.

The Art of Spiritual Writing is now available as a paperback or on Kindle, through Loyola Press or Amazon.com.

“Marriage is like an amplifier…” from “Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious” (The Love Project, Day 16)

gohnToday I was reading Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious by Pat Gohn (Ave Maria Press), and was struck by the following passage about marriage. Can you relate?

Everything I liked or disliked about my man before I married increased in volume after marriage. I ran headlong into a wall of my selfishness and struggles for power, not to mention my own anger issues that erupted from my quick temper…. Putting others’ needs ahead of my own was harder than I had thought. I bristled when I could not control things.

Motherhood intensified my struggles, often reducing me to tears. I was profoundly disappointed with the shortcomings of my loe — my lack of achievement! I was trying to achieve in my marriage and achieve in my mothering the way I succeeded at school and at work, as if there were a performance scorecard attached to my efforts. “No greater love” required something more than the tyranny of perfectionism; it needed my attentiveness, my surrender, my sacrifice.

I don’t know if this is an experience common to all (or even most) women … but I could relate. The greatest challenges, I felt, was not in accepting the weaknesses and flaws of my family, but coming face to face — each and every day — with my own foibles and shortcomings.

I finally turned a corner when I came across this quote by St. Francis de Sales:

Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections but instantly set about remedying them – every day begin the task anew.

Today’s Love in Action: What’s the one bad habit or character flaw you hate most about yourself? Got it? Good … now, what virtue do you need to put into practice that serves as the “antidote” to that particular bad habit? How will you start . . . today?

Miracle Monday: “My Sister Alicia May” Reviewed by Leticia Velasquez

sisteralicia_largeMy Sister Alicia May
Written by Nancy Tupper Ling
Illustrated by Shennen Bersani
Pleasant St. Press 2009

My friend Leticia sent me this review, which was published on “Catholic Media Review.” This children’s book is about the big sister of a Down syndrome child, Alicia May. It reads in part:

Sister relationships are complex and beautiful things. When one of the sisters has special needs, the relationship may seem one sided; often the focus is on the special sister, and this is a mixed blessing. The typical sister learns to give more of herself and put up with more than most sisters do, growing emotionally beyond her peers, yet there are days when she runs short of patience for her demanding sister. “My Sister Alicia May” describes this unique relationship with a unique blend of candor and tenderness.

Siblings of children with special needs so often have to cope with “big feelings” — and overwhelmed parents, intent on tending to the needs of their “special blessing,” don’t always think about how to address these feelings. This book is a good start to starting that dialogue!

Help! My Kid Worries Too Much!

worry too muchI recently picked up a copy of Dr. Dawn Hueber’s “What to Do When You Worry Too Much” (part of her “What to Do Guides for Kids” series). Other books include:

*  “What to Do When Your Temper Flares,”
*  “What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck” (for OCD),
*  “What to Do When You Grumble Too Much” (combating negativity).

These workbooks are designed for 6 to 12 year olds to help them process their anxieties and other cognitive challenges. My seven-year-old latched on to the “Worries” book and had soon filled it up with her full-color pictures of the things that are most worrisome to her. (Chief among them, Mommies who get sick and die and leave their children all alone.)

Anxiety manifests itself differently from child to child — some act out, some withdraw, some cling, some work out their feelings in their play — and the dark and disturbing images that can sometimes emerge may give even the most easy-going parent pause.

If you are looking for a way to help your child “map out” his or her inner landscape — perhaps as a way to assess whether professional intervention is needed or wanted — these workbooks provide a useful first step.

Weekend Ponderings: What is meditation?

edmistenKaren Edmisten’s new book The Rosary: Keeping Company with Jesus and Mary is making the rounds in cyberspace, and I was delighted to find my copy in my mailbox this afternoon. Eagerly I cracked it open, expecting a thick layer of slice-of-life stories of Ramona and Anne-with-an-E that make her blog such a delightful read.

I was momentarily disappointed on that score — but it was otherwise such a lovely read that the sting didn’t last long. One passage I found particularly helpful was her explanation of what, exactly, is meditation:

We don’t meditate in order to pass a prayer test or be able to chat with friends about how fascinating meditation is. We do it as a means to an end: to grow closer to Jesus. Regularly employed, meditation will do that. Let’s see how it works.

We’re after “thought, imagination, emotion and desire.” Substitute one of these words for meditation, and see what happens. Instead of Meditate on the third joyful mystery,” try Think about the birth of Jesus. Now try the other elements of meditation, too. Imagine what it was like to witness the birth of Jesus. What emotions did Mary feel at his birth? What about Joseph? The shepherds? How would I have felt if I’d been there? Do I desire to be transformed by the birth of Jesus? What do I desire?

When we are in the throes of mothering, there are times when we are too tired, preoccupied, or otherwise engaged to feel as though we are giving God more than cursory treatment. At such times, I’ve found the Rosary is particularly helpful. When you are stressed, the gentle repetition can soothe and comfort; when you are overwhelmed, turning our thoughts toward God and his ultimate demonstration of love in the person of Christ can also lighten the load. But to be honest, it was actually talking to Mary like I would have talked to my own mother (had she been in the room) that got me through the darkest moments of my first tentative parenting efforts. “You were the perfect mother, with the perfect Son — I have neither of those things going for me. Pray for me … pray for me … don’t forget me, Mom!”

And a book of my own was born …
 

(Warning: Moment of shameless self promotion ahead.) If you need a little help entering into thebym-new spirit of the mysteries, pick up a copy of my book Behold Your Mother. Available in English or Spanish — order it through my website, and get a free autograph!

Quote of the Day: Are We Keeping Kids “Too Safe”?

slacker mom“I’m sure some safety measures are good. I have no argument with car seats, for example. I do like to argue, though, and would argue that car seats will never approach the importance of driving defensively. I wish there were as much emphasis placed on avoiding accidents as there is on surviving them.

“But as you go down the scale from car seats, you could spend your whole life and your entire life savings account trying to make your environment perfectly safe for your children. And you wouldn’t succeed.

“Not only that, but you might be left with the false impression that, having done all you can, you are in control of their future and you can provide completely for their safety. That’s something so potentially dangerous that it even scares me. Because we’re not in total control. Our children have more control over their lives than we parents ever will.”

Muffy Mead-Ferro, “Confessions of a Slacker Mom”

I picked up this little paperback at my children’s school book fair today, and was instantly entranced. Raised on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, this savvy lady traded tractor for typewriter and presents an intriguing combination of old-fashioned horse sense and unflappable savior faire. And while she doesn’t seem to ground her parenting (or living) philosophies in organized religion, I found her outlook had a kind of moral centeredness and decency that one can’t take for granted in this day and age.

Her approach is not for everyone. She admits as much herself — and, to be honest, that’s rather the point. She extends the same “can-do” approach to her reader that she instills in her children. She doesn’t dispense advice as much as she shares her own realizations about the fact that the whole point of parenting . . . is to work ourselves out of a job.

An enjoyable, light read.

Miracle Mondays: “Paper Sack Kids” by Brenda K.

papersack-kidsLast November “Grandma K” got in touch with me regarding my “Best Books for Foster and Adoptive Families” at “Mommy Monsters.” She had a book she thought my readers might enjoy, called Paper Sack Kids. It tells the stories of some of the kids who have come through the home of her sister Diane, who with her husband Rex have touched the lives of foster children for more than thirty years.

In one fell swoop, the gray-haired woman opened her door, the passenger door behind her, and the trunk lid. There were no “hellos,” “sure is warm out, isn’t it?” nor any mention of how cute the new batch of puppies, scrambling at her feet, were. She was a burned-out bustle, ready to unlead the car of cargo and her commission, tired as the gray that permeated the windy afternoon.

Three children and one sraggly blanket huddled close to each other in the back seat. The woamn was already lifting the top half of her body out of the car’s trunk. “C’mon, kids,” was the first indication that the lady had a voice. She carried three worn paper sacks from the trunk to the front porch.

Diane bent down to receive her new kids. “Let’s see, I think you must be …” (her mind scanned again the note on her kitchen cabinet). “You must be Corinne,” she welcomed the eldest, who had dark brown eyes and flawless skin. Instead of the excitement and interest of childhood, there was a dull responsible look in Corinne’s umber eyes.

“And you must be Zack.” Diane saw the face of an emotionally exhausted little boy. His four-year-old fingers exhibited the sum total of all his faith as he tightened his grip on Corinne’s five-year-old hand. The social worker reached into the car to bring out a frightened two-year-old Shelly, who was clutching her well-worn blanket. In a glance, Diane thought she could tell that the tattered little comforter had once been pink. Long ago, perhaps, before Shelly’s mom had stuffed it in the wash with some of her boyfriend’s Levis. The little cover was the baby’s last tiny bit of tightly knit security and so she held it tight. Everything else in Shelly’s innocent and tender life had become ugly and unraveled….

Diane turned to the huddled, wide-eyed children and gave a silent prayer. It helped her survive the ache she felt at times like this. The prayer was also an acknowledgment that all of us are literally foster children. We each need a spiritual hug to still our hown heavenly homesickness once in a while. “Father, please bless our home to be able to bless these children.” Some days, life gets pretty hard to understand, even for social workers and foster parents.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a foster parent? What do you say when they come … and if they go? How do you handle it all? I invite you to go over to Brenda’s website, and get a copy of this lovely book. You’ll be glad you did. (To order your own copy of “Paper Sack Kids,” contact Brenda at  brenda7k@msn.com).

Anti-Adoption? Review of “The Adoption Mystique” by Joanne Wolf Small, MSW

 

adoption-mystique1My article “Anti-Adoption Advocacy: How Should We Respond?” drew a wide variety of responses. The ones that gave me the greatest pause came from those I mentioned in the article as being against adoption, who wrote to protest.

 

According to co-founder/executive director of Bastard Nation (B/N) Marley Greiner, “We are concerned only about the civil right of all adult adoptees to receive their obcs [original birth certificates] upon request without government interference.”  (Ironically, the most heated attacks concerning the adoption/abortion issue came from members of his organization.)  However, her comments reminded me of the complexity of the issues surrounding adoption, and that to seek reform in one area is not the same as wanting to eliminate the practice altogether. (In my next column at CE/CM, I will examine the issue most central to the B/N crowd: birth records.)

 

For now, I’d like to address a comment posted by the author of this book, The Adoption Mystique by Joanne Wolf Small, MSW. She contacted CE to correct my perception, saying that she is in fact pro-adoption. I admit it made me sit up and take notice. Reaching for her book, which was still sitting beside my computer, I read the bio: “[Ms. Small] is herself adopted [at six weeks] … Her belief in the adoptive family as a positive alternate is dissonant with a widespread, covertly held public image” (TAM, back cover). 

 

Hmm… how was it that I concluded that she was against adoption? Continue reading

Blue Moon: Raising Depression Free Children

It can come out of nowhere, and flatten like roadkill. Or it can send out little signals: The chaos, the irritibility, the restlessness, the scalp prickling and pulling tighter than a bongo. Then the tears start falling on the inside … and (finally, mercifully) on the outside, where they start to do some good.

If you’re prone to depression, knowing when and how to get help is imperative not only for your own peace of mind, but for that of your entire family. One book I’ve found especially helpful is Kathleen Hockey’s Raising Depression-Free Children, which offers practical help not only on how to keep your kids healthy, but how to stay healthy yourself. The second half of this is every bit as important as the first, since the stresses of parenthood combined with the intimacy of family life makes putting on a “brave face” next to impossible.

In her book Raising Depression Free Children, Kathleen Hockey identifies four aspects of effective treatment for depression, whether the sufferer is a child or adult: medical, psychological, environmental, and spiritual (p.81). Some people try to treat depression with just one of these — but, as Hockey points out, the four factors cannot be separated if the sufferer wants to get completely well.

Admitting you need help is the first (and often hardest) step. When I was a kid, my mother used to suffer from (what I now recognize were) depressive episodes and migraines. She battled it alone, afraid to admit that anything was wrong. “I just sing hymns till the blues go away,” she’d say. But we all knew better, having been on the receiving end of the effects of the disease. We promised ourselves that when the time came, we would handle it differently. For our children’s sake, as well as our own.

If you struggle with depression, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy or that you’re spiritually defective. In the January/February 07 issue of Canticle, Hockey contributed a wonderful piece on St. Elizabeth Seton, who struggled with depression for most of her adult life. (You can order a copy of this issue by calling 800-558-5452.) God gives each of us a burden to carry in this life, which forces us to lean on Him for strength and grace. He also sends points of light and hope, to ease the load when we begin to stumble. Just as Simon of Cyrene helped Him to carry His cross, He sustains us when the load becomes to difficult to carry alone. That sustenance comes in many forms: the healing graces of the Eucharist, the sympathetic ear of a trained professional, or a timely insight from a blog you stumbled on “by chance.”

Whether the source of your depression is hormonal (such as post-partum depression), environmental (stress-related), physiological, or spiritual, know that you are not alone in your suffering, and that help is available. Your “blue moon” will pass, and you will see the sun again.

Mother Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, you see your daughters wandering in the dark. Pray for us, that when we are weak your Son will strengthen us. That in our sorrow, He will be our purest source of joy. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.