When a loved one dies, you are prepared for your child to feel grief. Depending on how you deal with grief, you will help your child deal with it too.
At various times, and depending on your child’s personal preferences, you can employ different solutions to help your child cope with grief. These might be (but aren’t limited to):
1. Holding your child – Unfortunately, this is used too little once children grow beyond 5 – 7 years of age. Your teenage son may not feel comfortable if you give him a full-frontal embrace as you did when he was a child, but you can definitely put your arm around him, or hold his arm, or use touch effectively to convey your understanding of and sympathy with his feelings of loss.
2. Talking – Your child may want to talk, or not. It’s easier if she wants to talk, because you will be able to understand some of the emotions she is grappling with. But if she isn’t, you can still draw her out. Share a story where a child is dealing with loss. This could be a true story of how you or anyone else your child connects with, had to experience loss as a child, and how you (or the person) dealt with it. If there is no true story, share a fictional story. Stories are a great way to obliquely approach issues either you or your child is not comfortable talking about openly.
3. Dedicating a project – Consider dedicating a project to the departed person. Every time your child is taken over by searing grief, he could write about what is troubling him at that time. An example:
If your child can’t handle walking into a house where the dog that welcomed him home is no more, let him write about it in a diary, or draw a picture of it. Or locate a photo of the pet jumping up at him in welcome. These little remembrances can then be collected in some form which would act as a remembrance to the pet.
Slowly, as your child begins to deal with the memories, the reality of life with the one who is gone emerges. Instead of being only the ‘beloved’ dog, he also becomes the ‘naughty’ dog who always chewed your child’s toys, the ‘greedy’ one who stole sausages and cookies out of plates when no one was looking (and sometimes even when they were! 🙂 ), the ‘irritating’ one who had to be taken out twice to do his business late at night in the winters… Balance begins to be restored.
You can formalize the remembrance in the form of a photo album which is sent to close friends and family, or you may even consider enrolling them into the project. In this way, you may all help each other find healing, peace, and acceptance.
4. Creating rituals – You may find it helpful to create rituals – anything that gives a sense of order to your child. “Granny loved roses, and every Sunday she cooked you a special meal, so we’ll buy a rose every Sunday to remember her.” It could be much simpler. ““Granny loved roses, and every Sunday she cooked you a special meal, so every Sunday you could learn the name of one variety of rose (or draw her a card with a rose on it).” “He loved reading books, so we’ll buy you a book every month in memory of his love for books.”
You need to be careful when creating rituals – create and execute with a light touch; you don’t want your child getting obsessed with the performance of these rituals.
When a loved one dies, you are prepared for your child to feel grief. But your child may be feeling many other emotions which might take you by surprise. You might need to work hard to get your child even to acknowledge them, but most children do feel these emotions in small or large measure when a loved one dies.
These are the emotions you need to address if you want your child to be equipped with the means to handle loss, especially loss due to death:
1. Confusion – “What will happen now?” No matter how young your child may be, explain to her in a way she understands, what comes next. What will happen to the body? What happens to the dead person’s effects – clothes, toiletries, papers, car – all the detritus of life? What are the rituals your family will follow? What is their significance? How might these rituals be different from those your child is familiar with through movies, TV, story books etc? What happens to the person’s room / house?
Answering these questions will help her feel more settled about all the chaos that attends a death. It will help her to feel like she’s part of what’s going on. Depending upon the circumstances, you may even want her to share in some of these tasks / rituals, such as choosing a favorite photo, or deciding which memento she’d like for herself, or whom to give some of the effects to.
2. Fear – “I once did / thought / said something bad to / about the person who has died. If they are angry with me, will they come back to haunt me? Will they send me ‘bad luck’? Will they make me or someone else die?” Draw out your child to speak about these emotions. Again, stories are great for this. Then help him deal with the fear.
3. Anger – “Why did … have to die?” The subtext being: “Why now? Why this way? Why not someone else?” Explain that everyone has to die sometime, and the time and manner of our death is not of our own choosing. (This won’t work if the person has committed suicide, in which case you need to deal with far greater feelings of fear, confusion, and guilt.)
I once read a story that might help you answer the question “Why did it have to be …?”
Someone lost his mother, and he raved, “Why my mother? Why my mother? Why not someone else?”
His father, who was equally broken-hearted, replied: “Okay. Let’s say it shouldn’t have been your mother. Whose mother should it have been? Pick a friend – name one – whose mother should have died instead of yours.”
The child could give no answer, but the silence was the beginning of his acceptance of the fact of his mother’s death. Death has to happen. To everyone. The only thing you can do – for yourself, for your loved ones, and for the one who is no more, is to accept it, and move on.
4. Guilt – “I didn’t do enough for … when they were alive, and now I can’t ever do what I meant to do.” “I was mean, and I didn’t get a chance to say I’m sorry.” All of us suffer from guilt – it is part of the human condition, and the best we can hope for is to make our peace with it. Explain to your child that no matter how much love he had shown for the dead person, he would always reproach himself; he would always feel that there was more he could have done. Tell him this feeling is natural. Let him know that the departed person would hate for him to feel so burdened. He (the child) was much loved by the dead person, who would hate to see him so sad and feeling guilty about non-issues. Essentially, you’re telling your child: “Be happy for …’s sake.”
5. Responsibility – “… died because I did / did not do something.” Does this sound ridiculous? Maybe, but it isn’t. Children have a tremendously inflated sense of their own importance. They feel that the sun rises and sets by their wish. So it is natural that they understand every event as a natural result of something that they did or did not do. Death is an event too. And you need to help them realize that powerful as they are, they do not control death.
Maybe your child’s toy tripped up the grandparent, who fell and injured herself so seriously that she died. Your child will feel responsible, because it was her job to put her toys away, and she had been reminded to do this even on the fateful day, but had postponed doing it. And then – her grandmother tripped on the toy…
You could try explaining in many ways: “Gran had to go some way – it happened to be this way. It was just chance.” “So many people trip over toys (and other things), but they don’t always hurt themselves enough to die from it.” “The toys lay around the floor every day for weeks and months and years, without anybody being harmed by them.” “Gran never tripped over anything usually, even the toys in her way. Maybe she lost her balance only on that day. Maybe she was dizzy from being unwell or from some medication she was taking”…
Helping your child cope with the death of a loved one involves much more than just dealing with feelings of loss and grief. And you need to be ready to help him deal with it all. It won’t be easy. It will take time. It will seem like you are moving two steps back for every step you take forward. But it will happen; you and your child will cope – well.
I wish you healing and peace.
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
A loved one has died.
What can I say? What can anyone say? Nothing very much that will make a difference, really. In the first few days and weeks, you barely realize that the person is gone. This, despite being in the midst of grieving family and friends, and busy with all the rites and rituals attending the death. Everyone offers you their condolences – no one says anything to your child (especially if he is little).
People (including perhaps yourself) don’t say much to a child who is bereaved for a host of reasons:
1. They feel the child does not, or will not, understand – “He’s too young…”
2. They feel the child will not miss the departed person as much as the ‘adults’ will – “Children are so young, so resilient; they will ‘get over’ the grief quickly. Their very youth insulates them against feeling so deeply.”
3. They feel a child, by virtue of not being an adult, does not need condolences – “This is the ‘big, important people vs. silly little kids’ argument.”
4. They don’t know what to say to a child – They don’t know the child’s vocabulary level, her comfort with strangers talking to her, her relationship with the deceased, how deeply or lightly she is affected, what she thinks of the whole thing, whether she will accept their condolences or not, how she will react to what they say to her…”
All these reasons are bosh! They are just convenient rationalizations by adults, because we’re so thrilled – worse, we’re so self-righteous! – we’re following social norms ‘correctly’, that we couldn’t be bothered to think about what we are (or are not) doing.
So how can you help your child cope with the death of a loved one?
You’ll be happy to know there is no complicated process or procedure involved. There’s just one thing that you need to do – over and over and over again. Okay, make that two things.
Let me give you some instances of how these two things could be used.
If your child has lost his other parent, you are probably in emotionally dire straits yourself. You feel bereft of your partner, lost, rudderless, maybe even abandoned – whether you are a man or a woman doesn’t enter the equation at this point. A part of you may feel very strongly that now, you need to ‘be both parents’ to your child (yet another ‘weird’ commonly-held notion – one of only a few million! 🙂 ) As a result, you may keep grabbing your child in an emotional manner, squeezing him to yourself, perhaps in an attempt to show him affection as your late partner would have done, or perhaps showing your child that he is doubly loved even though there’s only you in the parent role from now on. Your child may shrug off these hysterical embraces – it doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about the parent who’s gone. Maybe it’s just that on top of everything else, this over-protective behavior of yours is simply too much for him to take.
1. Stop. Stop doing the first thing that comes into your head. Yes, you are bereaved too, but you’re supposed to be the adult here. And you want to know how you can ‘help’ your child cope, not give your child more to cope with, which is what you may well be doing (unknowingly, but still – )!
2. Think. All the times you’ve grabbed him in a bear hug in moments of extreme emotion, how has he reacted? Has he shied away? Or leaned into you? Or not let you go? That’s your answer! Doing as your child wants to do is the way you’ll help him cope with the death.
Maybe it is a grandparent who’s gone. And this grandparent baked your child’s favorite chocolate chip cookies every Sunday. It was ‘their’ special time together. And now, Granddad is no more. Instinctively, wanting to ‘make up’ for the gone-forever Granddad, wanting to ‘make sure your daughter doesn’t miss him’, you begin mixing the ingredients for the cookies, asking her if she will join you in a faux-cheery voice, trying to imitate late Granddad’s accent, voice and manner.
1. Stop. Your daughter may think you are infringing upon her relationship with her grandfather. She might prefer having him dead and missing him, to playing the pretend game of normalcy with you, while she inwardly cringing at making a mockery of a relationship that was (and might well continue to be) almost sacred for her!
2. Think. If that is her special ‘thing’ with Granddad, don’t take the special-ness’ away. Maybe she misses both the activity and the person with whom she shared it – and missing both make his death ‘real’ for her. Let her go through the loss – get yourself out of the way. Take your cue from her.
Your child may want to ‘talk about it’ all the time. And your instinct is to be quiet. Before you forbid him from talking about the dead person for fear he’ll turn morbid,
2. Think. Let your child know that any reaction he has, is okay. If he wants to talk non-stop about the person who has passed on, that may be his way of grieving. Let him grieve. Let him know it is okay for him to grieve the way he wants to.
You child may refuse to discuss the person’s dying. You don’t know what’s going through her head. She may be afraid that talking about death might ‘spread’ it, taking away yet another person from the family. Before you give in to your instinct to force her to talk about the person who has died (‘so that she should not keep her feelings bottled up but should give vent to them; she will feel relieved, she will begin to heal,” you feel…),
2. Think. There’s a good reason she’s not talking about the death or the dead person. At least, it’s a reason good enough for her. Try and find out what’s going through her mind before you jump in like a bull in a china shop. Not that you mean to, of course…
1. Stop your instinctive reaction.
2. Think about what your child wants, thinks, feels. Think about what impression your instinctive reaction might create in your child.
Now that you’ve stopped and you’ve thought, decide on a course of action, and follow it.
I know – it feels like you’ve decided to jump, and when both your feet are in the air, you’re wondering whether it’s a good time to be landing on the ground in the near future. You’re on shaky ground, always tentative, unsure, lost and confused.
This is good. Because it tells your child it’s okay to be unsure, lost and confused – about the dead person, about the ones who are still alive, and about everything else as well. You don’t have to say it. He will understand from your manner.
And you would have helped more than you’ll ever know.
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
As dusk begins to fall, you draw the curtains closed and switch on the lights. Everything is well-lit and clearly visible. As the evening wears on, you finish your routines of the day, and put your child to bed. You switch the light off, and shut the door.
A scream wakes you up in the middle of the night. She’s had a nightmare.
We are so used to using our eyes all the time that not being able to see clearly puts us in a state of panic. Yes, even adults keenly feel the loss of control when we cannot see what is around us. Naturally, your child will also panic if she can’t see clearly.
Adding to the problem, she has a vivid imagination, and a strange mix of fairy tales, folk lore, and characters in story books and on TV thrive in her head. All of which are a volatile combination for a nightmare.
Here are some ways you can help your child overcome these fears:
1. Go gently into the night – When twilight falls, don’t be in a hurry to draw the curtains and switch on the lights. Sit quietly in the fading light, or talk of ordinary things. Point out to your child how familiar objects like the chair on which she is sitting, the bed, the toy hanging by the wall – all look different as the light changes towards dark. Sit talking like this till it is properly dark. Show her that darkness is relative. Show her the night sky. We always say that the night sky is black. But is it really? Let her look and see for herself that rather than pure black, the sky is actually a deep dark blue. (Did you ever observe this?)
If she shows signs of fear, talk about it. When is it so dark that she is scared? If you do this for a few evenings, she will begin to be more comfortable with less light, which is all you want to achieve for the moment.
The nightmares will probably continue, because instead of a gradually fading light, she will wake into a sudden state of being surrounded by darkness.
2. Sit talking with him in a darkened room. Draw the curtains closed. Now it is dark – as dark as it is likely to get in the room. Ask him to look at the darkest corner. Hold his hand or hold him in your arms or seat him in your lap, if that is what he wants. Keep looking at the darkest part of the room. Slowly, he will be able to see that what looked like the darkest part of the room is not really dark. There is some light even there, however little it may be. Then, ask him to look around the dark room. After looking in the darkest corner, the room doesn’t seem dark! Objects are clearly outlined! He can ‘see’ in the dark!
3. Graduate to walking with him around the room in the dark. What you are seeking is greater comfort with lower and lower levels of light.
4. Create a gentle game to play in the dark – It could be something like you will call things by a different name in the dark. Suggest making up nonsense words, if you feel that will work better with her. So ‘table’ may be called ‘simsim’ and so on. As you keep playing this game, she will begin to feel that the world of the dark may be different from the world of the light (which it is! 🙂 ), but it is familiar.
5. If it’s monsters that are the culprit, you might make up a bravery dialogue, or practice a war theme. He can be the soldier that will fight the Dark Monster. Make up lines for both the monster and your child. Be guided by him. For instance, some children feel a monster will nibble at their toes. They feel most vulnerable on their toes. For such a child, the story might go like this:
Dark Monster: Wake up, child! I have come and I am going to eat your toes. (You be the Dark Monster and start the story telling, but keep your volume low – you don’t want to scare him even more!)
What makes your child feel brave? Is there a magic weapon? It doesn’t have to be a gun or a sword. You can make a talisman of any object he is attached to. His favorite marble? His special yellow car? Whatever!
Your child: Haha! Fat chance, Dark Monster! You’ll never get near my toes because I’ve got my special yellow car. If it catches you, it’ll throw you into space, and you’ll be lost forever! Hahaha! (He probably won’t sound very convinced to begin with, but practice works wonders! 🙂 )
Dark Monster: Oh no! Please, please! NOT your yellow car! Don’t bring your yellow car near me. (Yes, all the drama you can summon, with bells and whistles on! 🙂 )
Your child: I’m warning you – you have only one chance. Disappear right now, or my yellow car will come and get you!
Does this sound artificial to you? Maybe. Even the monster sounds artificial to you, doesn’t it? But it’s real to your child. So this ‘victory over the bad guy’ scenario will also sound real to your child. It will ease his fear, and he will sleep deeper and better.
Are you objecting on the grounds that you are teaching your child to use a crutch, instead of teaching her to ‘be brave’? Come on! Think of all the times you’ve been scared – you’ve used a crutch too, so don’t make such a big deal out of it.
6. Keep a bright light handy for her to switch on if she awakes from a nightmare.
7. Keep a small nightlight on anyway, if you feel that works well.
8. Debrief – in the morning, in the daytime, discuss the nightmare. Learn the details, and modify your story to take care of those details as well. The monster may have an antidote to the yellow car. Well, your child has yet another powerful weapon at her command. Maybe the monster is very ticklish, and its secret fear is that someone will tickle it. Every child knows about tickling. Just let your child threaten the monster with being tickled.
A few words of caution:
2. Don’t try any strategy every single day, unless your child initiates it. If he says, “Dad, what will I say to the Awful Ghost if he comes tonight?” get into it with gusto. But don’t make him practice his lines every night before bedtime!
3. Don’t try these strategies all at once – some will work better than others, and different ones will work under different circumstances. In fact, different tips may work for different fears. Go gently with the flow.
All the best to you! Tell me which ones you tried, what worked, what didn’t, which ideas you’ve already employed, and which new ones you’ve come up with. And now – good night and sweet dreams! I’ll see you in the morning! 🙂
Carefree Parenting has moved to a new home! Please visit http://carefreeparenting.com for all the articles, books and other material. See you soon. 🙂
Your child has just begun to sleep the night through (without any bed-wetting incidents) and you’re looking forward to doing the same after years of disturbed-sleep nights. A ear-piercing scream shatters your illusions. Your child has had a nightmare, and you are back in the nightmarish world of waking up again and again in the middle of the night to soothe your child.
Apparently, of all human beings, children in the age group 5 – 9 are the ones most prone to nightmares. Also, the incidence of nightmares amongst children in this age group is very high – often more than once a week.
Nightmares leave a child feeling insecure, scared, and sometimes paralyzed with fear. As your child begins to understand fear, he begins to fear the feeling of fear.
Franklin D. Roosevelt put it well when he said in his first inaugural address in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes…”
Where does this fear come from? I believe it comes from two sources.
The first is that your child begins to realize in a practical manner that you (the parent) are a separate person from him. Not only are you a separate body, but you have a separate heart and a separate mind. He realizes that you think, feel and respond differently to people and situations than he does. He wonders if he has sufficient ‘hold’ on you; he wonders whether some day the differences may not become so great that you separate from each other.
Till today, your presence meant food, security, shelter, love; his whole life is wrapped up in you. Since he has associated so closely and deeply with you, he finds it hard to believe that he can live separately from you. So he begins to fear separation from you. This is one kind (and source) of fear.
The other is the fear that you put into your child. Oh yes, you do! As you try to civilize your child, prepare him for socialization, teach him the ‘rules’ of polite society, you use fear as a tool. In some cases, it may be as obvious as: “If you don’t eat your food and get into bed quickly, the Scary Monster will come and get you!” You may think this is a bit of a joke. Your child doesn’t. He is too young to understand the difference between reality and fantasy. Every experience is new and fantastic to him (fantastic in the sense of fantasy-like). You are jaded and blasé about bath showers and dogs on the street and blowing bubbles and clouds and raindrops and shiny toys and sticky mud; he is not. It is all new, all exciting, and all fantasy to him.
So your joke of a Scary Monster is a real-life Scary Monster to him. The Monster may be so scary that you don’t even want to describe him! This creates yet another problem. If you say the Scary Monster has green teeth, then any person or animal or creature that does not have green teeth is automatically not the Scary Monster. But if there is no clarity on what makes the Scary Monster scary, then anyone and anything could be the Scary Monster!
You can also induce fear in your child using subtle means. As he grows, you want to control and channel his excitement into the ‘right’ paths. You don’t really want him looking at cloud shapes for hours every day – unless it helps his artistic skills. You don’t want her poking around in messy mud – unless she’s showing signs of becoming a sculptor.
So you manipulate your child’s behavior. You say, “If you keep looking at the clouds, you will ‘waste’ so much time! Instead, you could be doing ‘fun’ things, like playing in the park, solving a jigsaw, reading a book.” If he listens, well and good. If not, you begin to withdraw from him. You frown. You clearly express your displeasure, you withdraw or withhold your approval of him. More separation – more fear.
You may disagree with me. You may say, “At times, you have to teach a child to feel some fear.” I understand what you’re saying.
At first, your child is not afraid of anything. She will happily climb onto the balcony railing and jump off the fourth storey – down to the ground. She would do this because she simply doesn’t know enough to be afraid of how many bones she will break when she falls. In order to keep her safe, you feel you have to teach her the feeling of fear.
How will you stop her running across a busy road? You need to tell her that if she does that, some vehicle may hit her. She will hurt herself and it will cause her physical pain. You can’t explain to her that running across the road might kill her because she won’t understand the concept of death.
So you start teaching her fear.
As your child gets on with the business of living and growing, as he meets other people (children and parents), watches, listens, reads, plays, thinks, imagines and understands, he begins to knit together different thoughts and sensations. The worst ones come together as fears, and they are expressed in nightmares.
So your child is screaming with fear, and you’ve rushed to attend to him. You hold him, pat him or caress him, and say, “It’s nothing. Don’t worry. Everything is fine. You’re safe. There are no monsters, there’s nothing to be afraid of – it’s only darkness.”
This is a meaningless string of words, but you will always say this – without fail. 🙂 (I know, because this was my first reaction for so many years!)
I ask you: if you are unwell and you feel you have all the symptoms of some dreaded disease and you’re sharing your fears with me and I say to you, “Don’t worry. Everything’s fine. You’ll be okay.”
Would you believe me? I doubt it. I don’t think you’d even listen till I reach the end of the words. You’d have switched off, because the very fact that I was responding this way meant I wasn’t listening when you were sharing your fears.
Your child’s fears are real. As far as she is concerned, the darkness is a real entity that she is actively scared of. She’s telling you she’s frightened of it, and you react by saying there is nothing to be scared of! This is a ridiculous reaction on your part. Natural, but no less ridiculous for being natural.
So stifle your natural reaction for a while. Your child is scared. Indulge her.
Here’s a possible scenario between a child and a parent:
Child: I’m scared!
Parent: What scared you?
Child: The dark! I woke up and couldn’t see anything!
Parent (instead of saying “There’s nothing to be afraid of in the darkness”): You were scared because you couldn’t see?
Child: Because it was dark.
Parent: But at night, before you went to bed, it was dark outside! You weren’t scared then.
Child: I wasn’t scared because I could see things – even if it was dark outside.
Parent: When we play peek-a-boo, or hide-and-seek, or blind-man’s-buff, you need to close your eyes for a while. Do you feel scared then? After all, you can’t see anything if your eyes are closed.
Your child will respond. Carry the conversation forward – step by step. Don’t force your point of view. Listen and respond to what your child is saying. As you engage your child in conversation, you will show him a logical way of looking at things. This will not remove the fear, but it will move the focus of the conversation away from the fear. Your child will begin to calm down.
As you keep talking calmly to your child, the sound of your voice will further soothe him. If you have switched the light on, the removal of darkness will dispel the ghosts or monsters or other things he fears. Keep holding him. If he doesn’t want to leave you, either get into his bed or take him into bed with you.
Don’t worry that you’re encouraging indiscipline. Unless he’s at peace, he won’t go back to sleep, and you won’t be able to go back to sleep either. In which case, it hardly matters whether he’s awake in his bed or in yours.
Let him drift back to sleep. Now it’s your call whether you want to put him back in his bed or stay with him.
In the next post, I’ll share tips on what you can do over the long haul to help your child get over these fears.
“Dad! I can ride a bicycle on my own! Look! Look!” Your daughter is screaming, and you’re grinning, bursting with pride.
“Wonderful!” you say as you scoop her into a bear hug.
“Mom! I made soup and sandwiches for dinner,” your son says, and your heart swells with pride at his thoughtfulness.
‘Good’ things have happened: your daughter can now ride a bike, and your son can put together a meal, however basic.
“I didn’t get selected for the dance!” he wails.
A pang goes through you. Your child is hurting. “That’s terrible…” You want to help your child live through this ‘bad’ incident.
Your child learns to label things events people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ early in life – and keeps applying these labels to every event person situation throughout his and her life. I want to add a third option. Things might also be ‘I-don’t-know’.
So here is the choice of labels: the good, the bad and the I-don’t-know. For years, I would label things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (Where do you think kids learn to label? From their parents. 🙂 ) And then, to my daughter’s frustration, I became an ‘I-don’t-know’ parent.
“It’s awful, isn’t it?” she’d ask about something.
“Maybe, I don’t know.” I’d say.
The turning point was a Sufi story I read many years ago. Here it is:
An old man lived in a cave in the mountains. There was a village close to the foothills, whose villagers visited the silent old man from time to time. As far as anyone knew, he had never come down the mountain. Nobody knew how he lived, where he found his food or what he did all day, but he seemed content in his cave. Over time, the old man acquired a holy patina, and people began to visit him to ‘get their desires fulfilled’. The old man never said anything, but the villagers left his cave satisfied.
So a man might visit the old man with a loaf of bread, asking for a good job. He would sit with the old man in silence for a while and descend the mountain, feeling his wish had been granted. In some time, he would perhaps find some work, and feel that the old man had been instrumental in his gaining employment.
In this manner, the old man began to gain a reputation.
One day, an old woman who had a young able-bodied son went to visit the old man. She was bemoaning the fact that her son had broken his leg and would not be able to till their field. This had happened at a very inopportune time, because they would miss the planting season and would not have a harvest, meaning near-starvation for them in the future. “Find some way out,” she said to the old man.
He kept silent as usual. For some reason, the woman wanted a verbal assurance from him, which he wouldn’t give. “What a terrible thing he broke his leg, isn’t it?” she repeated again and again. The old man realized that she wouldn’t go away unless he said something. The next time she repeated, “What a terrible thing he broke his leg, isn’t it?” he spoke.
“Maybe, maybe not,” he said.
The woman was so taken aback and horrified at this unsympathetic reaction that she left immediately. She told all the villagers that the old man had lost his head. People stopped visiting him.
Ten days later, the kingdom was attacked by a neighboring ruler. The king sent his men to round up every able-bodied man to join the army. The old woman’s son had a broken leg, so he was left behind.
Full of joy (and contrition), the old woman took a jug of milk to the old man at the top of the mountain. “Now I see what you meant. We will manage somehow for one season with less food. But if my son had been sent to fight, he would surely have died, because he knows nothing of fighting –he is a farmer. It is good that he broke his leg. At least his life has been spared.”
Again she insisted the old man agree that it was good that her son had broken his leg.
Eventually, the old man responded, “Maybe, maybe not.”
The woman was enraged again. She swept down the mountain in a fury.
When a sudden storm swept through the village, the old woman’s son couldn’t seek shelter in time because of his broken leg. As a result, he suffered further injuries from the house falling down around him.
The woman went back up the mountain: “My son could not even seek shelter in time, and now he has even more injuries all over his body. Isn’t it so bad that he broke his leg?”
The old man said, “Maybe, maybe not.”
The woman couldn’t believe her ears, and left, promising herself that she would never again visit the crazy old man.
Then a miracle medicine man passed through the village. He said he had only one dose of his miracle cure, and out of common humanity, he would give it to the person who was suffering the most. That person was the old woman’s son. He took the miracle dose and was instantaneously restored to full health.
The woman ran up the mountain, her heart full of gratitude. “Thank you,” she said to the old man in the cave. “Had my son not broken his leg and then been injured in the storm, he would not have been a candidate for the miracle drug. Now he’s fine! Isn’t that a good thing?”
The old man’s response was characteristic: “Maybe, maybe not.”
And so I became an ‘I-don’t-know’ parent. I believe it is one of the most valuable and enduring gifts I can give my child – the recognition that there is a third option to ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
As an I-don’t-know parent, I am more balanced emotionally, more accepting, more at peace, more content.
You might want to try it – just once – as an experiment, and see how it goes. Will it work? I don’t know! Maybe, maybe not! 🙂
I must have been 5 or 6 years old. It was the summer holidays, and my maternal grandparents were visiting us. Their visit meant being regaled by fantastic stories, and spoiled with fancy meals, treats and unexpected gifts.
One day, my grandmother called me to their room and gifted me a comb made of glass. It was a real comb, not a toy. I was enchanted – still am, truth be told (though the adult in me wonders who would be foolish enough to manufacture a comb made of glass, how they sold it, and why my grandmother gave it to me when I was so little and could easily have injured myself or someone else with it). It had belonged to my mother when she was little. That set the seal on it. I didn’t have an altar, but had I had one, the glass comb would have been on it! 🙂
My grandmother told me that she had preserved it over so many years so she could give it to her eldest grandchild (me). She handed it over almost ceremonially, and I promised solemnly to take care of it, to preserve it so it could be handed to my child.
Granny smiled her approval.
My sister woke up from her nap to find me brandishing the glass comb. I told her all about it. She doesn’t have a jealous bone in her body (didn’t even then), and was delighted with my acquisition. I decided I would do my hair and hers with it – just to mark the day as a special one, after which we’d put it away carefully and ensure it stayed safe.
You know what happened next. One of the teeth broke off. We were lucky neither of us was hurt; we weren’t physically injured, but I was inconsolable. Firstly, I’d damaged something that my mother had had in her childhood. Secondly, it was irreplaceable. Thirdly, I’d damaged it despite my best intentions to keep it in pristine condition to be handed down to my progeny. Fourthly, I’d broken it the very day I’d got it, not even two hours after it had been gifted to me! A worse fate could not be imagined. ( 🙂 )
My grandmother took me aside and into her arms. “Why are you so upset?” I told her all the above, and perhaps more.
And then she said something which has stayed with me forever. “When even human beings don’t last forever, why cry over a comb?”
My tears stopped instantly – as if they’d dried up at the source. This was a new idea. I’d heard about death before. I knew about death and what it meant. But this was the first time death had assumed immediacy, a direct application to life – my life; me, who had never till then experienced death even at second hand!
Of course, in the decades since that day, I have ‘lost it’ and ‘cried over’ innumerable things people circumstances feelings movies books incidents, but increasingly, this idea has become more present to me, and I am calmer and less inclined to fly off the handle than before.
Recently, a video on Youtube went viral. A TV host asked some parents to tell their children that they’d eaten all the kids’ Halloween candy and record the kids’ reaction. I imagine everyone who watched the video was ‘rolling on the floor laughing’ (ROFL in Facebook, IM, PM and text lingo), but mainly because (i) they knew it was made up (the candy wasn’t all finished), and (ii) it wasn’t their kid howling for the lost candy.
If you were actually confronted by your child screaming for candy he had lost, I think you’d be shuddering with horror rather than laughing. “It’s only candy,” you plead, “we’ll get some more. We’ll get some the next time we go to the store. I know it was special candy. I’ll find out where it’s sold and we’ll buy it from there. Okay, we’ll go get some tomorrow, when the stores open, but stop crying. It’s okay, it’s only candy.”
But he keeps repeating how he wants ‘those’ candies – the ones his friend/sibling took or that fell by the wayside or the dog ate up or got washed in the laundry or… “It’s only candy,” you repeat, your energy ebbing, your will bludgeoned into submission. Sorry, he’s not buying it.
“It’s CANDY!” he tells you, since you haven’t yet got it. 🙂
Over the next few years, he learns ‘it’s only candy’. But other things replace ‘candy’. As more years go by, he learns for those things as well, that ‘it’s only candy’.
The point is: we all have our candy. What’s yours?
That she should fill the ice-cube tray up to a particular point? That his cupboard should be arranged a certain way? That she should / should not wear hotpants? That he should wake up at 5am and study for an hour because research reveals morning hours are the best to concentrate and retain what you’re learning? That her waist should measure 23”? That he must get at least 95% in every test, project, exam?
Your child will be gone – to study, to work, to live his/her own life. Whether or not you realize it, the time you have together is short (though it seems like eons, sometimes! 🙂 ). And you’re screaming about candy, and she’s telling you “it’s only candy”, and you’re not getting it. 🙂
But sometimes, a glass comb breaks. Your child meets a special thing, the opportunity of a lifetime, a fork in the road, and you’re afraid he’s making (or has made) the wrong choice.
You’re convinced he should be an artist, when he wants set up and run a business.
You know this girl is wrong for him (is any girl/boy ever good enough for your precious son/daughter? NO! 🙂 At least, not for long. Now that you know this, bite the bullet and be gracious.) – she’s a terrible influence on him, she’s taking him away from his family, friends and hobbies – but he’s serious enough to talk to you about getting engaged to her.
She wants to go camping with a bunch of friends, one of whom is on drugs while another is known for her promiscuity, and nothing you say, nothing you promise her makes any difference. She’s determined to go with them.
You’re getting divorced, and your daughter, out of a (you feel) misplaced sense of loyalty, decides to go with your partner, because her sibling chooses to stay with you. You’re convinced that without you to act as a buffer, she will suffer terrible physical and emotional neglect at your partner’s hands, but she won’t change her mind.
These are the big ones – the glass combs. They can change the course of your child’s life, and you get palpitations if you let yourself think too deeply about such decisions.
Alright, take a break from thinking about your child. Think about yourself, instead, about your life. You’ve had such ‘glass combs’, haven’t you? Some of the choices you made turned out alright. Others didn’t. But on the whole, you’re muddling along alright, aren’t you?
If you think you’re not alright, well, step up and change things! You’re an adult, after all, with more sense, experience, knowledge, maturity (all the stuff you keep throwing at your child! 🙂 ) than your child. Get out there and change things for yourself!
Sure you’ve broken some glass combs! Pick a glass comb you broke a long time back. It seemed awful at the time I’m sure, like the end of the world. But out of that ‘end’ came a beginning, out of which came other endings and other beginnings.
This is a serpent whose tail you can’t reach – as time goes by and your life circumstances change and you change, what seemed awful can turn out to be one of the best things that could have happened to you (I should know – I’m divorced! 😉 ). In similar fashion, something that was awesome at the time is a nuisance now (you know this one – when you get something you wish for only to discover you don’t want it 🙂 ).
If you look closely, candy or glass comb, ‘it’s only candy’. And there’s always more candy! 🙂
A man got on a bus with three children. They must have been about 11, 7, and 5. All of them found seats. The children were noisy and boisterous. They insisted on shouting and jumping around the bus whenever it stopped, heedless of whom they elbowed or whose body they banged against or whose toes they stepped on. After about 5 minutes, everyone on board the bus was disgusted. Two old ladies who were sitting in the seat immediately ahead of the children were bearing the brunt of their misbehavior.
The man accompanying the children seemed lost in some faraway world – unaware of both the children’s unacceptable behavior, and the disapproving looks and muttering of the passengers.
Initially, the old ladies grumbled to each other about the father’s (they assumed he was the father of the children) lack of awareness at how badly his children were conducting themselves. When they found no response from him, they increased their volume, till, during a sudden lull, their penetrating tones were clearly heard by everyone on the bus, “Just look at that man! Can’t he do anything to control those monstrous children of his?”
When the man didn’t twitch a muscle even at this, one of the old ladies tapped him smartly on the arm. He jumped. “Excuse me, Sir. Your children are making a nuisance of themselves. Can’t you do anything to subdue them?” she demanded.
He looked at her a moment. “Ma’am, I’m so sorry. Their mother just died and we’re getting back home from the funeral. They don’t quite know what to make of it all, and I’m wondering how I’m going to raise them all by myself and hold down a job as well.”
“Oh, you poor things!” the lady exclaimed. She immediately turned to the youngest child, inviting him into her lap so he could see better out of the bus, while her friend began looking in her handbag for some candy for the children.
In those few sentences, the mood of sullen resentment and dislike that had hung heavy in the back of the bus dissipated, leaving a feeling of fellowship and caring. The other passengers wanted to pitch in too. In a few minutes, order was restored, with the younger child pointing happily at colored things he could see through the window, and the elder two children engaged in conversations with other passengers.
The father looked at the lady who had tapped him with tears in his eyes. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
The lady found her own eyes wet with tears. “No. Thank you. At my age, I should have known better than to presume I know what is going on. Thank you for reminding me that I don’t. And don’t worry about your children. They are fine kids. They will do you proud.”
Every now and then, your child will go off the rails. Out of the blue, he will behave so ‘badly’ that you wouldn’t believe it unless you’d seen it yourself.
Initially, you grit your teeth and try and ignore it, or bear with it, but after a while, you blow your top too, and then there’s a slanging match between you two or there’s nagging or sullen silences.
The next time, you might want to keep the above anecdote in mind. Something must have happened to make your child behave so uncharacteristically. Why not try and find out what it might be?
See, she’s expecting you to blow up at her, so when you don’t (not when you’re pretending that you’ve got your temper in hand, but when you genuinely can set aside your emotional reaction to her misbehavior and be concerned about what is causing it), she will be astonished.
I was driving some of my daughter’s friends to a party, and after a bit, they forgot about me and began chatting in earnest. One voice rose above the others. “Isn’t he awful? Everybody hates him. We’ve complained to the teachers and they’ve given him a talking-to, but this guy just doesn’t understand!”
Another voice pitched in, “You know, he was even sent to the Principal? He still refuses to get it – he just can’t behave this way!”
“He’s troubling people all the time, disrupts classes and gets us grounded for no fault of ours. We haven’t had PE or Games in a month! Why should we suffer because he can’t control himself?”
“I think they should just send him out of the school – expel him!” said yet somebody else.
I was startled at the universality, vehemence and virulence of feeling against this child.
When we got back home, I asked my daughter who they’d been talking about. “Oh! …, you know. I’ve told you about him – he’s simply incorrigible!”
I knew from this child’s mother that things had not been going well between his parents for the past year or so. I had been expecting some out-of-control behavior from the boy, but I didn’t know that everyone at school had turned against him. I had promised the mother I wouldn’t tell anyone about the situation at their house, yet this child was being vilified beyond belief, made more lonely, with nobody to share in his pain.
Without telling my daughter the details, I said, “He’s going through some problems at home. He’s not getting enough attention, and things are difficult for him right now. Maybe that’s why he’s acting this way. When all of you gang up against him, it probably brings out the worst in him. He might feel, ‘All my ‘friends’ don’t like me anyway, so what do I have to lose by being mean? At least they are all focused on me – I have their attention, even if it is negative.’”
My daughter was adamant, “But this has to stop. I mean, nobody is going to give him a chance unless he changes his ways.”
“Quite the reverse, my dear. He won’t change unless somebody gives him a chance. See what you can do – if you want to do something about it. And you can’t tell anyone anything about his situation at home. I wasn’t supposed to tell you even this, but I did because I know you can keep it to yourself, and so that you can understand that sometimes, when we’re going through difficult times, we all behave a little crazily. And at such times, it’s nice if our friends cut us a little slack.”
“I do want to do something about it – not for his sake, but for our own – we don’t get to do any fun stuff at school now. We’re perpetually grounded!”
The next day, my daughter co-opted a couple of others saying, “We’ve tried scolding him, explaining to him, shouting at him, not talking to him and it hasn’t worked; let’s try being friendly.”
A small group ate lunch with the boy. Not a word was said about missing the 3 ‘fun’ periods of the day because of his shenanigans. They shared their food and made conversation about the latest movies they’d watched, the funny way one teacher spoke, the awesome way another one taught…
As the group continued their friendly ways over the next few days, the group grew larger and the boy calmer. He was always a hell-raiser, but the nastiness had seeped out of him.
An unexpected bonus: I was in the middle of a blistering tirade about someone. I turned to my daughter, looking for understanding. She coolly said, “Well, maybe they were having a bad day.”
Like the old lady on the bus, I said to her: “Thanks for reminding me!” 🙂
Sure, you know your child. But you’d be surprised at how much you don’t know. The child you meet in the evening is not the same child you sent to school in the morning. There has been incredible (truly frightening) amount of growth and learning during the day. It is this evening child who’s misbehaving. And there is a reason for it.
All you need is enough love to look beyond the misbehavior. And if you have enough love, you will know more about him. You will be able to teach him (be honest, aren’t you skipping with joy? You can ‘teach’ him something! 😉 ) that we unwittingly misread people and situations, causing so much grief to others, but most of all to ourselves. You will strengthen your relationship with your child. You will be happier together.
A lesson in happiness! Encore, I say! 🙂