Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost?

From a historical perspective, Christianity didn’t start with Jesus’ birth, his death, or even his storied ascension to heaven. It started with Pentecost — the day the “Holy Spirit” entered a room holding Jesus’ apostles and entered each of them, an event which — as my minister uncle tells me — “makes the church the church.”

Although Pentecost is chock full of religious significance, it is a holiday not widely celebrated. Sort of the opposite of Hanukkah, which is widely celebrated but not religiously important. My uncle says Pentecost is a bigger deal in liturgical churches, which follow a formal, standardized order of events (like Catholics). “Non-liturgical” refers to churches whose services are unscripted (like Baptists).

Pentecost is Sunday. Here’s the rundown:

Holiday: Pentecost

AKA: “Birthday of the Church”

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: 50 days after Easter

Celebrates: The day the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, causing them to speak in tongues.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: The importance of Pentecost depends on the person. My uncle, a Presbyterian minister put it like this: “To me personally, as religious observances go, Easter rates a 10, Pentecost a 7 and Christmas a 6. [But] the average member of my church would probably say Easter was a 10, Christmas an 8 and Pentecost a 3.

Stars of the Show: Jesus’ 12 apostles

Back Story: Pentecost, which means “fifty,” refers to a Jewish harvest festival that occurs 50 days after Passover. In Christianity, it refers to an event said to have occurred 50 days after Easter. (What a coincidence!) But let me back up: At his Last Supper, Jesus is said to have instructed his 12 disciples to go out into the world to minister and heal the sick on their own. It was at this point that they became “apostles.” Fifty days after Jesus’ death, as the story goes, the Holy Spirit (part of the Holy Trinitity — God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit ) descended onto the apostles, making them speak in foreign tongues. This Pentecostal experience allowed the apostles direct communication with God, which signaled a major shift and laid the foundation for what would become Christianity. You’ll notice that the disciples always are depicted in artwork as regular-looking men while the apostles are depicted with halos around their heads. (Several other apostles came later — namely the famous Paul who is credited with writing much of the New Testament.

Although all the original 12 apostles are important, some get top billing. Here’s why:

Peter (also called Simon Peter) established the first church in Antioch and is regarded as the founding pope of the Catholic church. Instrumental in the spread of early Christianity, Peter was said to have walked on water, witnessed the “Transfiguration of Jesus” and denied Jesus (for which he repented and was forgiven.) The Gospel of Mark is ascribed to Peter, as Mark was Peter’s disciple and interpreter.

John also is said to have witness the Transfiguration of Jesus and went on to pen the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John and Book of Revelation. He died at age 94, having outlived the other apostles — all of whom, according to legend/history/whatever, were martyred. John is often described as “Jesus’ favorite” and depicted as the disciple sitting to Jesus’ right at the Last Supper.

 Thomas (“Doubting Thomas”) is best known for questioning Jesus’ resurrection when first told of it. According to the Bible, Thomas saw Jesus himself several days later and proclaimed “My Lord and my God,” to which Jesus famously responded: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:28.)

Associated Literary Passages: The Biblal Book of Acts 2:1-47

Celebrations: Pentecost isn’t associated with feasts or elaborate traditions. Generally, it is a holiday marked in liturgical churches. Because the holiday’s liturgical color is red, to symbolize the apostles “tongues of fire” and also the blood of martyrs, sometimes Christians will dress in red or decorate churches with red. Many churches hold baptisms and confirmations on that day, as well.

What’s the Deal with Speaking in Tongues?: “Tongues” is generally believed to be a type of gibberish (although some say it’s God’s language) created when the Holy Spirit enters a person. Many followers of Pentecostalism  — a protestant denomination that emphasizes a direct, personal experience with God — still speak in tongues when they are baptized or “born again” into the faith. They believe that, at the moment of this second baptism, the Holy Spirit fills them, which causes them to speak in tongues — just as it did with the apostles some 2,000 years ago.

Fun Fact: Jesus was captured and crucified because one of his apostles, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him (that’s not the fun part). Within days, Judas committed suicide out of shame (also not the fun part). That left only only 11 apostles, so the remaining 11 voted in a replacement: Matthias. Matthias was there during the Pentecost, which means he became holy without ever having been a disciple. (Okay, maybe “fun” was the wrong word.)

Conveying Meaning to Kids: This idea that, under Christian doctrine, God is able to take several “shapes” — the Holy Spirit being one of them — is sort of interesting. In this way, many Christians believe that God lives inside them because they have allowed the Holy Spirit to enter them. Pretty esoteric stuff for very young kids, though. Speaking in tongues, although far more fun/funny, may be no less difficult to grasp. As far as books go: I haven’t yet read The Very First Christians by Paul Maier, but it’s gotten good reviews on Amazon.

Click here for more from the Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.

This post first appeared in May 2012

Daddy, Daughter Discuss God (Again); More Cuteness Ensues

Charlie_Maxine_MountaintopMy husband and 7-year-old daughter had another totally awesome conversation about God a few days ago. They used to do that from time to time, but it’s been a while since the subject has come up in much detail. I sure love it when it does. The talks are always fun, insightful, thought-provoking and, frankly, cute as hell. They also present Charlie with golden opportunities to teach Maxine about honesty, diversity  and the importance of kindness.

Anyway, this one’s particularly good, so I wanted to share:

Maxine: Where do you think God is? Like, which house or school…

Charlie: I don’t think God is anywhere. I don’t believe there is such a thing as God.

Maxine: But if you did, where do you think he is?

Charlie: Well, people who believe in God believe he is everywhere and see everything. They believe he is with everyone, watching over you.

Maxine: Is he with bad guys?

CharlieThey think he is everywhere.

Maxine: God is with bad guys?

CharlieYeah. They think God wants you to make good decisions, and even if you are making bad decisions, God is with you so when you are ready to do good things, he’ll be there. They think God is there to help you and protect you. (Pause.) Other people who believe in God think he made the world and then kind of stepped back. He just watches from heaven to see what we’ll do, but he doesn’t interfere or help. Like the whole word is a big science experiment.

Maxine: A HUGE experiment.

CharlieWhat do you believe?

Maxine: (Exasperated, like “I’ve told you a hundred times”) I believe in God on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Charlie: But what do you believe about God? Is he everywhere?

Maxine: (Pause) I think he stepped back.

(Pause.)

Maxine: I believe in God on Sundays and Wednesdays because Sunday is the day for church, and Wednesday so I can have a school day.

(Pause.)

Maxine: Is God good or bad?

Charlie: Everyone who believes in God believes he is good.

Maxine: I wish the biggest policeman in the world climbed a huge giant ladder up to heaven and there was a huge microphone as big as five million houses stacked on top of each other and the policeman said into the microphone, “God is real!” or “God is not real!” and then everyone would know and everyone would believe the same thing.

Charlie: It’s hard not knowing, isn’t it?

Maxine: Yeah.

Charlie(Pause.) What I think is it doesn’t really matter what you believe. What you think doesn’t matter. It’s what you do that matters.

Maxine: Or say.

CharlieRight. You can think whatever you want. I can think someone is stupid —

Maxine: But don’t say it to them. “Hey, you’re dumb!”

Charlie: Right. It’s what you do and say that matter. Think whatever you want.

Maxine: Because we don’t want to hurt their feelings.

Charlie: Right.

Benefits to Being a Secular Parent? Let Us Count the Ways

Shattered FaithNonreligious parenting has its challenges.

Being honest with our kids without indoctrinating them. Addressing conflicts with our religious parents and in-laws. Dealing with “hell” talk on the school playground. Talking about death without the possibility of heaven. Knowing when to bring up religion, how to bring it up, and what language to use. Dealing with our own religious baggage without heaving it onto our kids. Struggling with the knowledge that religious children really do fare better in certain areas than nonreligious children.

Yes, there’s a lot to consider.

But sometimes it’s important to remember: Parents who decide to raise children in secular households face far more benefits than challenges. No, secularists do not bestow upon our children the certainty of faith and all that goes with it. But what we do bestow may be of even greater value: compassion for others, the ability to think independently, and a willingness to be wrong.

Last month I asked parents: What is the best thing about being a secular parent? All the answers I received were great — but here are some of the best of the best:

I would say that the single best thing is to teach children to think for themselves — question everything, no topic is off limit — make your own choices and be responsible for them.

Knowing that my kid is ethical and makes good choices because that’s who he chooses to be, not because he thinks someone is watching over his shoulder to punish him if he trips up.

Not having someone else tell me what to think. Like the time my stepdaughter told me that Catholics are now allowed to “believe in evolution.” 

Sleeping in on Sundays.

I like being able to tell my kids answers to their questions that are logical and that make sense. Kids are natural scientists, wanting to know how the world works. Scientists need scientific answers!

The amazing conversations I have with my daughter about spirituality, and the fact that she embraces it all with curiosity and without prejudice.

Watching her develop an independent, internal moral compass.

 Living my own secular faith honestly.

Being able to be totally open about sexuality (when the age/time is right).

Their thoughts are private and not sinful. No superstitions.

The way your life goes isn’t all “God’s” plan. 

You have very little invested in being right or wrong.

Being able to answer with “I don’t know.”

Teaching my kids to appreciate themselves and what they accomplish. So many religous people are too quick to thank their god for their successes. I want my kids to pat themselves on the back when they accomplish something

I can stimulate and feed his curiosity and imagination, and allow him to think freely and form his own opinions and ideas about the world.

Being able to watch my son grow and learn without the fear of god/evil/heaven/hell in his decisions. He’s a little kid, and he gets to live like one. He doesn’t have a huge myth scaring him or guilting him into behaving a certain way (or “else”)

Teaching my kids that life is valuable because it’s the only one we have. 

Pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

Memory Candles a Secular Way for Kids to Honor Their Dead

This is how my good friend Katie describes herself: “A confused Catholic married to a cultural Jew, raising a moral, but interfaithless family.”

You love her too now, right?

So anyway, the other day Katie and I were talking about a recent blog I’d written about the importance of talking with our kids about our dead loved ones in “happy terms.” She said she’d really struggled with this herself, having lost her mom nine years ago to cancer. She still experiences lingering pain, and sometimes the loss makes her profoundly sad. (I expect she’s not alone in this.) The anniversary of her mom’s death has always been a trigger. She remembers that first year and how she felt as though she ought to be “doing something” on that day, but didn’t know what that something should be. The unknowing, she said, actually made her more sad.

800px-Yahrtzeit_candle

Then her husband suggested a custom common in Judaism — a yahrzeit candle. Yahrzeit candles are lit by mourners on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. (The word literally means “anniversary.”) It typically burns for 24 hours. It also can be lit on holidays, such as Yom Kippur or the final day of Passover. Now, every year on the eve of her mother’s death anniversary, Katie lights a yahrzeit candle. It allows her a formal way to reflect and gives her permission to think (and to cry) and just generally miss her mom. She and her husband usually say a few words as they light it, too.

Just having a tradition, Katie said, is really comforting. Otherwise she’d feel “conflicted and unsettled about the ‘right’ way to acknowledge the day.” She said it’s so beneficial to her on a secular level, in fact, that she suggested I tell my readers about it.

So here I am, giving a bunch of atheists and agnostics an idea stolen by a Christian from a Jew. There’s got to be a Robin Hood metaphor in here somewhere.

I really do love this idea — especially as a way to involve children in the process of dealing with loss. It would be great to let kids pick out their own memory candles when they lose a loved one — a pet, a grandparent, a friend — and then urge them to light the candle (or have a parent light it!) whenever they want to remember or honor their loved one. Ideally, at least in my mind, the candle would come out at happy times, too. Kids could talk to the candle or just quietly reflect. What a wonderful way to encourage kids to feel the full range of their feelings about loss. And it doesn’t have to be intrusive either. You could light a candle for a holiday party, and no one would think twice about it unless you told them.

All places of worship have candles involved, and that’s not an accident. (The Book of Proverbs 20:27, for instance, says “The soul of man is a candle of the Lord.” This is where, I believe, the idea for the yahrzeit candle came from.) But fire is not just about religious symbolism. In a practical sense, fire brings a sense of calmness and serenity into a room. Fire is warm and comforting. Fire invites us to think — and think deeply. No wonder candles are the way Jewish people have chosen as their way to honor the dead. It makes perfect sense.

If you’re interested, I found this guy who makes yahrzeit candles and sells them on ebay. The ones he sells are super-affordable and very simple, much like the one pictured above, with no designs. In other words, secular-appropriate.

Fun Facts about Nones

I’ve been poring over data as it relates to religious “nones” for, well, far too long. The statistics are really fascinating — but not nearly as fascinating as bullet-pointed lists. So here’s both — a mashup, if you will. Read. Enjoy. Be fascinated.

nones We tend to lean left. Nones make up 20 percent of the nation’s registered Independents, 16 percent of its Democrats and 8 percent of its Republicans. In 1990, those numbers were 12, 6 and 6, respectively.

• We tend to be young. More than one-third of 18-to-24-year-olds claimed “no religion” compared to just 7 percent of those 75 and older.

• We generally avoid the Bible Belt. Geographically speaking, nones live around other nones. Statistically, Northern New England is the least religious section of the country, and Vermont is the least religious state.

• Many of us are first-generation secular. Only 32 percent of “current” nones reported that they were nonreligious at age 12. Almost a quarter of us are former Catholics.

 We have a shortage of women. Only 12 percent of American women are classified as nones, versus 19% of American men.

• Class and education is a non-issue. Nones mirror the general population in terms of education and income.

• Race is a declining factor. Latinos, for instance, tripled their proportion among nones between 1990 (4 percent) and 2008 (12 percent.)

• Kiss us; we’re Irish. Asians, Irish and Jews are the most secularized ethnic origin groups. One-third of all nones are of Irish descent.

• We’re sad and stressed. Research suggests religious people are happier and less stressed because of social contact and support that result from religious pursuits, as well as the feeling of well-being that come with optimism, volunteering and learned coping strategies.

• We’ve got brainpower. As individuals, atheists score higher on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They are also more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious and far more likely to value freedom of thought.

• We’re as moral as they come. Contrary to Psalms 14 — which says we’re all a bunch of corrupt, filthy ne’er-do-wells — nonbelievers actually score higher than their religious peers on basic questions of morality and human decency. Markers include governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation and human rights.

The Best Thing About Being a Secular Parent? You Tell Me!

Not long ago, my sister and her husband invited an old friend over for dinner. The friend is a talker, so their nights with him usually require a lot of generosity on their parts. He tends, my sister tells me, to drone on endlessly about inane topics — including, but not limited to, good meals he’s eaten recently.

You know that guy too, don’t you? Yeah. Well all do.

Anyway, on this particular night my sister’s 4-year-old son was sitting at the table with them. He apparently had taken his cue from his parents because he was being very patient and respectful throughout most of the meal. But finally he’d had enough. In his adorable little 4-year-old voice, he started saying BOOORING as the friend was talking. Luckily (or not), the friend is a loud talker, too, so he kept going, oblivious to the review he was getting. But at least three times Little Guy punctuated this man’s story with BOOORING before my sister was able to quietly  hush him.

goodstuff1

I talk a lot here about the unique challenges of being a secular parent — from interacting with judgmental or aggressively religious relatives to dealing with religious bullies at school to just knowing how to approach religion with little ones — and I don’t often focus on the good stuff. The fun stuff. The easy stuff. Because, well, as Little Guy would say: BOOORING.

But today I’m making an exception. The truth is, for all the challenges that come with it, being a secular parent is so damn fulfilling. It can make many conversations so much simpler and easier. And secular parenting seems to have so much in common with good parenting, too. The way we respect all of our children’s feelings, for example, not just those that embrace a certain God. Or the way we encourage kids to think independently and follow no one without question — whether it be Jesus, Muhammad, the local drug dealer, or a libidinous high school boyfriend.

But before I drone on and on — BOOORING — I want to hear from you:

What do you think is the single best thing about being a secular parent?

Feel free to comment below — or on Reddit or Stumbleupon, Facebook or wherever else you see this post pop up. Or you can e-mail me privately at relaxitsjustgod@gmail.com.

Then be sure to check back! I’ll publish the list in May.

12 Tips for Talking to Little Ones About Death

130415173542-32-boston-marathon-explosion-c1-mainWhen American children return from school today, many will undoubtedly have questions about the Boston Marathon bombings — having glimpsed photographs, viewed video clips or spoken to peers. Depending on the age of your child, you might have some questions yourself: How much do I say? How much do I share? Click here for some great advice from Dr. Gene Beresin on CommonHealth for discussing the event — and others like it  — with kids. Or read on for 12 general tips, revised from an earlier list, for talking to little ones about death.

1. Have the talk before your child suffers a personal loss.

It never feels like the right time to broach the subject of death with our kids, which is why many of us put off the initial talk until the conversation is forced upon us — through some sort of personal tragedy. Unfortunately, by that point, we’re stressed and sad; our kids are confused and scared; and our minds are flooded with all the things we need to get done. Coping is often the best we can do. Having thoughtful, hopeful conversations with our children about the the cycle and meaning of life requires a clear mind. So, before something happens, be on the lookout for any and all excuses to have these talks. A dead bird in the yard can be a fantastic point of entry. Taking the time to explore the bird’s death, what “dead” means, and why the bird died can open up those lines of communication in remarkably effective ways. Of course, many parents put off these conversation because they’re children are young and/or they themselves are sensitive to the subject. Each child is different, of course, but generally kids want to hear about death much earlier than we expect. We know they’re ready when they start asking questions: “Why is that bird not moving?” “Where did your grandma go?” or “What happened to those people at the Boston Marathon?”

2. Stay away from euphemisms. 

Passed away. Taken away. Resting place. Went to sleep.  Left. These terms are fine for adults, who know the score, but they’re terrible for kids, who might find it really creepy that their uncle was “taken away.” These terms, as well as many of them provided by religious imagery, are just too abstract for a young children, says Earl Grollman, who wrote the excellent book Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child. Instead, use the real words: Die. Death. Kill. Murder. Suicide. Coffin. Cremation. Funeral. When we speak directly and specifically — even if the words seem sharp and awkward in our mouths at first — we avoid painful confusion and misunderstandings.

3.  Let them do the talking.

Damn those awkward silences and our need to fill them. As I have mentioned earlier, we parents want nothing more than to comfort our kids. Soothing them is in our nature. To hold back from saying things that will make a child feel better is one of the more difficult aspects of parenting. But when it comes to talking about death, experts say, less is more. Explain death as simply as possible, then step back and let listening take over. Nods and hugs are fine, but parents who try too hard to comfort with words can end up explaining more than than a child wants, or is ready, to hear. (Or they can unwittingly shut down on a child’s natural, healthy response to death — sadness.)When in doubt, try turning the questions back on the child, suggests Grollman. When a child asks: “What did Grandma look like after she died?” a parent might answer: “What do you think she looked like?” This gives us insight into our children’s imaginations and helps us guide the conversations where they need to go.

4. Don’t shield kids from pet deaths.

One could argue that part of the reason we have beloved pets is to familiarize us with the idea of death, let us “practice” mourning, and remind us that life does go on — and the pain does lessen. But, so often, we shield our children from the reality of a pet death — and, therefore, pass up the chance to introduce our children to the very real sadness that comes with it. We also miss the opportunity to let our kids build up their own coping mechanisms. It may seem harsh, but encouraging our children to be present when our pets are euthanized and/or allowing our children to be involved in the mourning process with us (rather than, say, leaving the room to cry), we are teaching our kids how to mourn and move on. We are teaching them it’s okay to cry, and that grief — no matter how painful — is not life-threatening.

5. Give them something to do.

When children lose someone they love, they benefit from being brought into the fray, as it were, rather than sequestered away from it. Modern therapists not only condone taking young children to funerals — they encourage it. Unless the child refuses to go (which rarely happens, I’m told), kids should be able to witness and participate in the catharsis that funerals bring. Also, children need confirmation of death much more so than adults do. Without it, they may view death as something mysterious and temporary, rather than a real, permanent event. They may even await a loved one’s return. “Participation helps soften the pain, enhance the healing process, and provide an opportunity for acceptance and transformation,” says Lynn Isenberg, the author of a book called Grief Wellness: The Definitive Guide to Dealing with Loss“When a child can participate in a loved one’s passing, it creates an action, a sense of doing, a sense of purpose, around the loss. A child can plan a ceremony, create a ritual, write words to share with family and/or friends, design an (activity) around healing… especially if the activity was directly related to the person who has died.”

6. Keep heaven out of it.

Even nonreligious parents have a hard time leaving heaven out of death talks with their kids. We use heaven (yes, even Doggie Heaven) to put a positive spin on something heart-wrenchingly painful. But heaven isn’t the salve some people think it is — not for youngsters. There is nothing “bad” in nature. And when we offer up heaven as a knee-jerk reaction, we lose out on showing kids the true and honest glory of nature. Things are born, they live and they die — and it is this necessary cycle that makes the world beautiful. Life and death are intricately related. There is no splitting them apart. And if we think about it for any amount of time at all, we realize we wouldn’t want to. Heaven can be confusing for kids — do they have a right to be sad when everyone is acting as though there is a “happy” aspect to the death? Reminding a child that everything ends and dies, and that this is the nature of the universe, can and does help, says Eve Eliot, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher living from New York. For example, she often cites “the end of the day when the sun goes down, the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the time in (kids’) lives when they have to leave the comfort of being home with their moms and enter school for the very first time. The very next inhale will be ‘lost’ on the very next exhale.”

7. Don’t yada-yada over the science part.

Talking about decomposing bodies may seem a ghoulish proposition, but the actual science of death is not only fascinating to children (particularly preschoolers), but can be comforting, too. It’s true that adults tend to focus their worry on the emotional aspects of death — how it feels to lose someone we love, for instance. But children of a certain age aren’t as consumed by the grief aspect of death. They are still working on how things die (“Could I have caused it?”) and how it feels to be dead (“Will I be lonely?”) This is why it’s so important to explain to kids how we humans work — how our beating hearts are what keep us alive, and that there is a difference between bodies and consciousness. “Most children understand the concept of something that has ‘stopped working completely and can’t be fixed,’” social worker Debra Stang tells us. “It’s also important to reassure children that a dead person doesn’t breathe, wake up, go to sleep, or need to go to the bathroom, doesn’t hear or see anything, doesn’t get hungry or cold or scared, and doesn’t feel any pain.” But do remember, adds parent coach Miriam Jochnowitz, there is a limit to how much science to impose on a child. “It can be helpful just to understand more about what happened,” she says. “But follow the child’s lead. Do not expound if they are not interested.”

8. Expect that kids (and adults!) will have widely varying reactions to death.

For most of us, grief has a certain look to it: tears, pain, prolonged depression. So when people react to death in a way that runs counter to our image, we think it’s strange. We assume something is wrong. We worry. And it’s no wonder — given the popularity of author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross‘ Five Stages of Grief, which was introduced in her book “On Death and Dying.” Kubler-Ross said that the stages were denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and that most people go through one or all of the first four stages before reaching the last. Over the last 15 years, this hypothesis has informed how we, as a society, view children’s reactions to death, as well as our own. The problem is that it’s all bogus. When it comes to the loss of a loved one, grief doesn’t work in “stages” at all. In an enlightening book called “The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss,” author George Bonanno says that resilience — not denial, anger, etc. — is what truly defines grief. His scientific studies, conducted over 20 years, show that most people weather the deaths of loved ones relatively quickly and thoroughly. Even weeks after devastating losses, many are able to experience genuinely positive emotions, even laughter. And this is not denial or drugs doing the work — but rather their own natural resiliency, Bonanno says. Personality has a lot to do with grief reactions, of course, and there are probably those who experience grief in the Kubler-Ross-created image. But, in general, studies show, grief has an oscillating pattern. It comes and goes in “waves” — which is what, mercifully, allows us to take care of ourselves and those around us.

9. Seek help

Sometimes we just can’t do it. No matter how much we want to, talking about death — or dealing with it ourselves — is a challenge we can’t face. Maybe we have suffered a particularly devastating loss recently, or maybe WE’VE JUST GOT SOME ANXIETY ISSUES, OKAY?! Whatever the reason, there is no shame is handing off the baton to someone (another adult, a therapist) or something (the Internet, the library) better suited to guide children in positive ways. By showing our children that they have lots of resources and support available to them, we ensure that when WE aren’t around, they will still have their needs met. There are some excellent books out there for broaching the subject of death with very young children. My personal favorite is still “When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death,” by Laurie Krasny Brown, which I wrote about here. But I also am crazy about an oldie called “About Dying” by Sara Bonnet Stein. It’s a book for kids and parents to read together, but also has some great information in smaller print off to the side. “When a Pet Dies,” by Fred Rogers, is also awesome (Did Mr. Rogers ever do anything that wasn’t awesome?) and “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages” by Leo Buscaglia is also really nice. None of these books has a religious bent, by the way.

11. Feel free to say ‘I don’t know.’

Not one person in all of history has ever known for sure what happens when we die. So why is that we parents have such a hard time admitting we don’t know? When it comes to death — and, frankly, religion in general — we sometimes feel we must be on one side or another in order to maintain stability and consistency in children’s lives. But this is one area where saying “I don’t know” will never be seen as a sign of weakness or ignorance. What our children choose to believe as far as heaven/afterlife/reincarnation really has nothing to do with us anyway. We can state what we believe to be true, and we can state what other people believe to be true (to the best of our knowledge), but to think we are “teaching” them what happens after we die is a misnomer. No one can teach it because no one knows. Telling our children we’re confused is okay. Telling them we keep changing our minds is okay, too. And throwing up our hands and telling them we haven’t got the slightest idea what’s going to happen — dammit, that’s okay, too.

10. Tell the truth — your truth.

This one comes courtesy of a mother who responded to my survey earlier this year. “When it comes to death,” the woman wrote, “I have allowed my children to believe in a ‘heaven,’ for lack of a better word. I felt that allowing them to believe that ‘people go on to happy place surrounded by loved ones, waiting for other loved ones to join them someday’ gives them comfort about losing people. Heck, it comforts me to make up a place like that when I am grieving also.” It’s not uncommon, as I said in No. 6, to gravitate toward the heaven narrative. Even nonreligious parents have a hard time with this one. But we can’t — as in CAN NOT — “make up” an afterlife and ask our kids to believe in it. This is just not cool. As author Grollman says: “Don’t tell children what they will need to unlearn later.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting kids to know about all the “afterlife options” out there, but why not refer them to those who believe? A grandparent, perhaps, or a beloved aunt? By all means, there is rarely harm in encouraging our kids to get religious input from other family members or friends, but don’t lie. The stakes are too high, the potential to hurt our kids too great. The litmus test is this: Are we telling our kids the same thing we would tell a trusted friend? If not, it’s time to come clean.

12. Talk about dead people in happy terms.

After a person dies, the only thing we have of them is our memories. Yet so many of us don’t talk about dead people because we feel even our happiest memories lead us to melancholy. We assume the only way to avoid the painful end is to not begin at all. But honoring our dead and keeping them “with us” is part of how we cope with our losses. Suppressing those memories can deprive us of both joy and comfort. Working Grandma’s favorite recipe into a mealtime, telling Grandpa’s favorite joke, or recounting the copious amounts of liquor Great Aunt Tilly used to consumed at Passover every year are all healthy ways of coping — not just with their deaths but with death in general. Giving memories of our dead a happy “place” among the living benefits us all. Especially our kids.

Honoring Guru Nanak — And Whoever’s Hanging On Your Wall

guru_nanak_dev_jiIf Guru Nanak were alive today, the Sihk leader would be turning 544 years old — a mere child compared to Islam’s 1,400-year-old Muhammad, Christianity’s 2,000-year old Jesus, and Buddhism’s 2,500-year-old Buddha. Still, as Guru Nanak would undoubtedly be keen to point out, he still has more than 300 years on Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of Baha’i.

Whenever a religious leader’s birthday rolls around, I try to think about them in human terms. About who they were during their lives, whether they were out for any glory or money, or whether they were surprised when their innermost passion brought them fame. All these men had something remarkable to offer the world; they wouldn’t have gathered so much momentum if they hadn’t. Nanak was devoted to providing an environment of inclusiveness — regardless of race, color or creed — and emphasized that there was but one God who dwells in all people.

One of the great recurring ironies of religion, of course, is that each time one of these visionary spiritual types waves off religious leaders and institutions of the past and discovers a new, purer version of truth, he later find himself  in the role of religious leader and his ideas the basis for a religious institution. As a young boy, Nanak was quite taken with spirituality and was encouraged to pursue his “divine” path. Around the year 1500, when he was 30 years old, he reportedly gave a speech, in which he said:

There is neither Hindu nor Mussulman (Muslim) so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God’s path. God is neither Hindu nor Mussulman and the path which I follow is God’s.

Five hundred years later, and the path that Sikhs follow is Nanak’s.

I wonder how many families have pictures of religious leaders in their homes — a reminder, perhaps, to act according to the values they hold dear and give thanks for the opportunity to hold such values at all. Born in a different culture at a different time, the religious influences, and thus the pictures, would undoubtedly be different. But the importance of such physical reminders of devotion would probably remain. It’s the same reason humans possess Bibles and create shrines and visit places of worship, I suppose — so they can more easily “access” the universal element that allows them to breathe and love and be.

I’m an aesthetic minimalist, so I don’t have a lot of photographs hanging in my home — religious or otherwise — but I have occasionally thought of creating a space for pictures of the people to whom I’m devoted. The people who remind me to be the person I want to be, and who are, quite literally, responsible for my existence. The people who help shape my thoughts and lead me in the direction I want to be going.

There would be my parents and grandparents and great grandparents as far as I could trace them. There would be my sister and brother and their families. My husband and in-laws. My daughter. There would be my friends and mentors and godparents (who did a very poor job at helping make me godly but a very good job of helping make me happy.) And there would be people I don’t know but who have helped me think more deeply about who I am, how I am, and why I’m here. People like Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, KierkegaardNeizsche, Sartre, Freud, Darwin, Piaget, Einstein, LincolnMLK Jr., TwainHawking, Sagan, Goodall, Friedan, Steinem, Colbert, Oprah, E.T.the Buddha, The Beatles… Looks like I’m going to need a bigger house.

How about you? If not Nanak, who’s on your wall?

Temporarily Suspended…

Sorry, no new post today! I’m taking a weekend vacation to Vancouver, but I’ll be back with you on Monday. In the meantime, feel free to reach me here:

Capilano Suspension Bridge

Capilano Suspension Bridge, Vancouver, BC

Don’t Just Hang in There: It’s Time to Retire Certain Myths about Grief

kitten-hang-in-there-posterIf this poster looks at all familiar, you were probably alive in the 80s. For many years, a kitten hanging from a tree branch with the tagline “Hang in there” was as ubiquitous an image as you were likely to find. The pre-Internet version of LOLCats. (What is up with Americans’ weird fascination with captioned cat pictures?)

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is because that poster informed how I looked at “hard times” when I was a kid. “Sometimes life sucks and you’ve just got to hold on,” is what I took from it. And it’s not bad advice — at least sometimes. After all, tomorrow usually is a new day.

But when it comes to grief, as it turns out, this poster is for the birds.

As I said last week, I’ve been chatting recently with Grief Recovery Institute co-founder Russell Friedman about helping children deal with grief. The guy is a wonderful resource, as is his book When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving and Other Losses. He and his co-writers talk a lot about common myths associated with grief, and one of them is this one: Time heals all wounds. The truth is, Friedman says, time alone is rarely enough. Grief is not like a cut on your finger. (Or a kitten hanging from a branch.) Waiting for the pain to go away will only prolong the pain.

Friedman makes clear in both his books and conversations that grief is not a byproduct of death. Grief is a byproduct of loss. People grieve numerous losses, both tangible and intangible — loss of life, love, loss dreams, faith, safety, control, addiction. The list goes on. He also makes clear that grief is cumulative. It doesn’t just stick around. “It gets worse,” he says. Each loss is compounded by the next. If we don’t deal with our broken hearts — or, as they say in grief recovery, “complete the grief” — the first loss gets rolled into the next loss, and the next, and so on. Often, Friedman says, when people come to him, they think they’re grieving a death but find they’re actually grieving numerous other losses, as well. And when they leave the program? “They feel as though a weight has been lifted,” he says.

Friedman likes to invoke the image of a flat tire. When you have a flat tire, he says, you don’t just sit down and wait for it to mend itself. You fix the flat, or call someone in to help. Either way, you know you’ve got to get air into that tire if the car is going to get back on the road. “A broken heart,” he says, “is remarkably like a flat tire.” Recovery requires action. (I’ll be discussing more of what Friedman means by “action” in the coming weeks.)

To be clear, this is not an advertisement for the Grief Recovery Institute. I’ve never been through the program myself. But Friedman’s theory — that grief requires action, and that action lessen griefs — is one that, like all his advice, makes sense to me. It makes sense to me that that people need to be able to feel bad when bad things happen. It make sense to me that “staying busy” is not an antidote to pain. And it makes sense to me that grief is something that can be lessened, but not by itself.

What doesn’t make much sense to me anymore is this whole notion of just hanging in there. Because, I mean, look at that picture. We all know how that one ends. The cat falls off the branch, breaks its little kitty legs and has to be euthanized.

And who wants to LOL about that?


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