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.

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Book Whisperer: Favorite Books on Prayer

Book WhispererThis week in Confirmation class we talked about the Rosary, and about how prayer is an important part of Christian life.

Here are some of my favorite books on prayer and the saints….

33 Days to Morning Glory by Michael Gaitley. This “do-it-yourself” retreat is a wonderful introduction to Marian devotion (including the Rosary) and Christian contemplative prayer. We used this little book last year at Ascension, and it was a wonderful experience.

groeschelI Am With You Always: A Study of the History and Meaning of Personal Devotion to Jesus Christ by Father Benedict Groeschel. This massive work is surprisingly accessible, and represents a decade in the life of one of the most beloved and respected Catholic teachers alive today. I am grateful to Ignatius Press for publishing it, and keep it on my “fire shelf” of important books for easy reference.

The New Rosary in Scripture: Biblical Insights for Praying the 20 Mysteries by Edward Sri. Dr. Ted Sri is a popular speaker and theology professor at the Augustine Institute. This book, published by Servant Press, is an especially thoughtful gift for Christians who are curious about this classic Catholic prayer tradition.

What are YOUR favorites?

“Mothering Without a Map”: A Book Whisperer Review

Book WhispererEven those who have a great relationship with their own mothers can appreciate how the mother-daughter bond colors the way they parent their own children. Suddenly and without warning, we begin channeling our own childhood soundtrack in recipes, songs, and other traditions — for better or worse (“Because I SAID so…”).

In Mothering Without a Map: The Search for the Good Mother Within, journalist Kathryn Black recounts the experiences of dozens of women who struggle to become the best version of themselves as they take on the life-changing challenge of motherhood.

motheringRaised by her grandmother after her own mother’s death, Black writes about the loss of mothers in her chapter entitled “Ghosts.” Having two children who experienced the trauma and loss of their first mother, the subject of attachment — how they attach to us, their adoptive parents, and we to them — is an ongoing topic of interest. In MWAM, Black references the research of psychologist Mary Main, who identifies attachment “types” in order to address the ways adults pass along their childhood experiences (including traumas) onto their own children through dismissiveness, preoccupation, or secure autonomy.

“Other researchers found that being able to reflect clearly on [how they treat their own children] wasn’t related to personality, self-esteem, intelligence, education or other social, economic, or demographic factors. What distinguishes the autonomous adults is that they understand themselves and others and can relate a coherent narrative about their pasts.”

If you’ve ever wondered if unresolved issues with your own mother is having a negative affect on your ability to connect with your own children, this book might help you to identify those areas in need of healing. Although the author does not address the need for forgiveness from an explicitly Christian perspective, she does offer the reassurance that “one doesn’t have to have had a good mother to become one,” and how even “wounded daughters” can indeed become “healing mothers.”

The Book Whisperer: “Parenting from the Inside Out”

Book WhispererHappy New Year!

Each time I make something for dinner that one or both the children don’t like, the familiar refrain resounds: “Tell us the story of the baked beans!”

When I was about six or seven, my mother made homemade baked beans for dinner, which I refused to eat. After an hour of watching me poke at my plate, my mother said to me, “You may be excused, Heidi. Maybe you’ll eat a good breakfast.”

The next morning, I ran down to the kitchen expecting to find a steaming plate of oatmeal or scrambled eggs … and found instead the baked beans. Again I refused to eat them, and went hungry until lunchtime. That night for dinner I was given beans a third time, and I ate them — reluctantly — only when my father informed me that I would get the beans the next morning in my oatmeal. (This story is always met with a resounding Y-u-u-u-c-k!)

So when the kids balk at eating dinner, all I have to say is, “So… you want that in your oatmeal tomorrow?” Problem solved.

Long before we become parents, we form impressions of what constitutes a “good parent” from the adults in our lives. Our own parents, for better or worse, provided our first model; other cues came from friends and extended family members.

* The aunt who consistently gave up a career in nursing in order to tend to her growing family and bedridden mother-in-law.

* The neighbor who allowed her daughter use mascara in eighth grade to cover up the fact that her lashes were blonde in one eye and brown in the other.

* The church friend who invited every new family at church for “impromptu” dinners of chicken parmesan.

Sometimes these models were not so heart-warming: the parent who drank or spanked excessively, who exaggerated her children’s misbehavior to win sympathy but refused to come clean with her own dark deeds, who yelled at the kids for making noise while he watched T.V. instead of turning off the set and engaging them in conversation. And all too often, these children grow up and find themselves saying and doing the same things with their own children, despite their firm intention never to repeat the same mistakes.

So what is a parent to do?

In Parenting from the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and Mary Hartzell explore “the extent to which our childhood experiences shape the way we parent …. and offer parents a step-by-step approach to forming a deeper understanding of their own life stories that will help them raise compassionate and resilient children.” The authors help parents to identify the “toxic ruptures” in the relationship between parent and child, and the interactive dialogue that must occur in order to repair the damage. Each chapter includes “inside-out exercises” to help the reader apply the lessons of their own lives in order to strength the parent-child bond.

During the month of January, I’ll be reviewing parenting resources. If you have a good book to recommend,write to me at Heidi(dot)hess(dot)saxton(at)gmail(dot)com.

The Book Whisperer: Two Special Books on Adoption

Book WhispererTo kick off my first “Book Whisperer” column, I thought I would share some wonderful adoption resources. If you have other recommendations, why not send me a note?

ten days Continue reading

The Road Trip Begins

fireplaceYesterday I arrived at Ave Maria to find my coworkers had transformed the office into a real “winter wonderland.” Up to and including the fireplace, fashioned from glittery paper and Christmas lights hidden behind a Yule log. Clever, huh? Made the sixteen-hour journey in the snow the previous day via train, two airplanes, and car . . . worth it.

“Journeying” is a popular metaphor in the publishing world. A good book is supposed to be transformative, leaving you better off simply for having invested yourself in it.

Parenting is also a journey. You start out with a little bundle (or, in my case, three larger ones), and discover a whole new side of yourself emerging. More love than you ever thought you had. Also more less flattering emotions (sleep deprivation does that to you.) But over time, you realize that even these begin to mellow into something more . . . human. Authentic. More fully “you.”

In the coming year, I’d like to invite you to journey with me on that parenting road trip. Sometimes that road trip will be literal (on Fridays I’ll be blogging about memorable places I’ve been to over the years, and invite you to join in the fun). Other times it will be more literary. (Wednesdays here will be my “Book Whisperer” column, where I point you to books and other resources that I’ve found helpful both in writing and in raising two special-needs kids, and invite you to share yours as well.) On Mondays, though, I hope to post about the journey of parenting. Feel free to play along!

Finally, I recently redid my “About” page (thanks to Michael Hyatt’s timely advice in Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World). If you’d like to guest post, to share your favorite book or not-to-be-missed road trip experience, please let me know!

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.