Sadness, like joy, is part of life

Claire McCarthy, MD

All over the world, parents are struggling with what to say about what is happening in Japan.

It seems like every day there’s another heartbreaking story. Or a scary one. Or both. It’s hard in general to talk to kids about bad events (for some great advice from psychologist Dr. Nadja Reilly, see Tripp Underwood’s post on Thrive from the day after the disaster), but this one just keeps evolving. It’s clear that the ramifications are forever.The lives that weren’t lost will never be the same.

And we can’t get away with saying, oh, we don’t have the kind of fault lines that would give us an earthquake like that, we’re inland so won’t get hit by a tsunami—because the nuclear disaster could end up affecting us, and there are nuclear power plants right here at home.

It’s tempting to not say anything, after that first conversation. It’s tempting to pretend that it’s not happening. After all, we don’t want our children to be scared and upset by hearing about the devastation in Japan and other badness in the world. If we stop talking about it, we are protecting them, or so our thinking goes.

But it doesn’t protect them.

As I’ve struggled with what to say to my youngest children, I’ve found myself thinking about something my eldest daughter wrote when she was 10 years old. We didn’t have the option of not talking about badness when Michaela was little, because her younger brother Aidan was born with a severe disability. He died as an infant, when she was in kindergarten and my son Zack was in preschool. We talked a lot about badness back then, about how sometimes it just happens and you have to keep living and loving anyway. It was part of daily life.

Michaela and Aidan in 1995

When she was in 4th grade, Michaela had to write an essay about someone who made a difference in her life. She wrote about Aidan. She wrote about his life and his death, and at the end she said:

He taught me some lessons too. First, people who you love can’t live forever, even if you want them to. And second, some wishes can’t come true. I’ll never forget those funny faces and smiles he made. We miss him a lot. My life will never be normal and perfect again. But at least we’re happy in our own way. He was a great brother.

This sounds so sad. But Michaela wasn’t a sad child. She was a happy child, and she has grown into a happy adult. It’s just that by the age of 10 she understood and accepted something that some of us don’t understand or accept until well into adulthood (if ever): that life doesn’t always turn out the way we want, but we can be happy anyway.

The thing is, badness is part of life. We can hope and pray that the badness our kids encounter will never be anything like what Japan is enduring, but something bad is going to touch their lives and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. All we can do is give them the skills and perspective they need to handle it when it happens.

So talk about Japan. Keep it simple, and skip the scariest details, but make it part of daily life. Do it in a way that builds the resilience you want your children to have. Find the heroes in the stories, the people (especially ordinary people) who risk and sacrifice to help others; this teaches the power of empathy, and gives your children wonderful role models. As Dr. Reilly suggested, find ways to help, from donating allowance to the Red Cross, to writing letters, to including the Japanese in bedtime prayers if that’s something your family does. This teaches them that there is always something they can do, and that every bit of helping matters.

You can build resilience in your children by helping them see their strengths. Maybe they are particularly creative, or good at fixing things, or good at making people laugh. Help them see how they can use their strengths when facing challenges. This teaches them that they are capable, and builds hope and optimism.

And in everything you do with your children, teach them to appreciate each day and each other for the wondrous gifts they are. Enjoy small things together, like a great piece of chocolate or a funny joke or a bright orange sunset. Give hugs, celebrate each other, make sure everyone knows they are loved. Because wonder and love endure, no matter what.