Thursday, October 28, 2010

Teachable Moments: Death

Halloween is coming. I had a funny conversation at dinner recently about costumes that had to fit over snowsuits and frantic searches for replacement costumes when a cold front cancelled the Malibu Barbie costume planned for the balmy Texas weather . Was there ever a more bizarre holiday? We spend all year talking to our kids about stranger danger and good nutrition and then, on Halloween, we let them dress up in costumes and go out to knock on the doors of strangers to beg for candy. . .

Since Halloween is already weird and scary, this can be a great time to talk to your kids about death. Death is like sex - your kids are going to learn about it. If you don't teach them, someone else will and they may not teach it the way you would prefer. Children will encounter dead deer on the side of the road, and dead fish in the aquarium. Villains, heroes and other characters will die in fairy tales and on television. You can't avoid it so you'll have to talk about it. As a person of faith, I want my children to learn about death in the context of faith (as well as sex, money, the environment, relationships, politics and a host of other topics.) The worst time to talk about death is in the midst of grief and anguish when a death occurs. You cannot teach as clearly, and your child cannot learn as well, when circumstances are strained by loss.

The best time to talk about any tough subject is when it can be brought up naturally. So, use Halloween as a natural opportunity to visit a real cemetery with your child. Once there you can talk naturally about death, life after death, burial, cremation, the circle of life, and other related topics. Walk around; look for the oldest person, the youngest person, the oldest stone, and the newest grave. In a quiet setting like a cemetery or columbarium (where ashes are interred) your kid may feel free to ask about what is on his or her mind.

This may sound very artificial and strained to you – and it is! It was different in the past when death was a natural part of life. People died at home. People lived in the same places and knew everyone around them, and knew the circumstances of their deaths. Every church had a cemetery and every child knew the story of someone buried there. These days, the reality of human death is veiled in mystery; kids have very little real information or experience from which to draw conclusions. You, as the adult, have to be their bridge, even though you may have very little experience yourself. Look at your feelings and memories as you prepare for their questions. Do a little homework if you feel the need – hospice has lots of information for talking to children, and so do lots of websites and libraries. You may not be able to answer all their questions but you can assure them that, no matter what happens along the way, God will be with them on each and every step – even the very last one.

So, it’s a bit of a somber topic for the year’s weirdest holiday but what better time? And for those of you who hate half told stories – the Malibu Barbie costume was replaced with the ever ready princess costume: a bridesmaid dress from the ancient past and a dime store tiara saved the day. You just never know what you’ll need, or when, so it's a good idea to grab those opportunities for advance preparation!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Good Fortune

I ate Chinese food for lunch today, as I do almost every Tuesday after staff meeting, and got the most peculiar “fortune” in my cookie. It said, “Your blessing is no more than being safe and sound for the whole lifetime.” How bizarre! Still, as I rolled it over in my brain I began to realize that it was pretty true. I have been pretty much safe and sound for my whole lifetime!

Just by virtue of being an American, I have been very safe. Even counting the extreme nature of events on 9/11/2001, being born on the North American continent has given me a lot of protection. It’s a blessing I don’t always count when I’m adding things up, but one I should strive to remember regularly. I could just as easily have been born in Ireland or Palestine or Viet Nam and have known danger my whole lifetime.

I was also born wanted, to parents who understood how to love unconditionally. This is a true blessing and one that I do celebrate regularly. Many people I know had childhoods lived in the shadow of addiction, poverty, mental illness, or abuse. People who had scary or insecure childhoods never really felt safe and carry a deep need for security into many areas of their adult lives.

Some people have dealt with fragile health – their own or someone else’s – all of their days. I have had the good fortune to be “sound” from infancy. This is a fortunate circumstance that I really take for granted. Others have not been so lucky.  On the other side of the health equation, you can often recognize a child who had a shaky beginning by the way his parents treat him – as if he might break. This can make the world very un-safe for children because not everyone is going to be as solicitous as their parents.

So – my blessing may be “no more” than being safe and sound for the whole lifetime but what a blessing!!! My blessing is also “NO LESS” than being safe and sound. I need to remember to celebrate this every day.

Isn’t it funny how most of us look at what we don’t have, instead of what we do? I can almost guarantee that in any group of children it would be easier to elicit a response to the question “What do you wish you had?” than if you asked them to name a blessing. Seeing the blessings that fill the world creates a sense of safety for our children. Seeing the world as lacking creates insecurity.

Given the chance, I would rather help my kids develop an awareness of their world as a place filled with blessings. It’s a lot like wearing a life jacket; it doesn’t change the danger of a given situation, but it helps us cope if the boat gets overturned. We can all use a little extra buoyancy for floating in these baptismal waters.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Waiting and Wanting

When I talk with older folks, well, older than me, I hear a recurring opinion about young people - they don't appreciate anything! There is some truth to this - especially that they don't appreciate any THING. I think that most people under 35 have had a lot of stuff in their short lives. And they aren't impressed. Stuff is just stuff for the most part. Most of them have known very little want or wait for things, and so they don't appreciate things, as we, who have experienced want and wait, do.

When I talk with younger people, I hear a recurring opinion about older people - they don't appreciate the value of my time! And, this is also somewhat true. People my age and older routinely call meetings to settle matters that could be handled by e-mail. We often try to handle things by e-mail that would be more easily managed by phone or face-to-face. Most of us were not hurried from early childhood on, and so we don't appreciate the value of time as our younger friends do.

My daughter recently, and casually, dropped the phrase "feast and fast" into a conversation we were having. I've been chewing on that for a couple of weeks - you can't enjoy the feast without the fast. And what is fast but wanting and waiting. Fasting is practice from days gone by that has never, truly, been part of many people's lives beyond observation of other cultures. In many places around the world, people only eat meat on special occasions. A feast day is truly a feast day! Here in the U.S., we have been so richly blessed that we feast all the time. The media is full of reports about American obesity but I think this continual feasting has also impacted our character. Living life without want or wait affects us in interesting ways.

Living without want can make us, ironically, insatiable, or "unsatisfiable". Without a true hunger there is no true satisfaction. This creates an opportunity for other people to tell us what we want – advertisers and the media regularly tell us we would be happier "if only". Yet when we get what they suggest, we remain unsatisfied.

Living without wait makes us impatient, demanding and thoughtless. We medicate ourselves with text messages, phone calls or i-pods, just to make it through the wait in line at the post office or the bank.

Young friends, perhaps it would bless you and your children to fast from something (TV, sugar, technology?) occasionally. They, and you, will learn a little more appreciation. My dear older friends, perhaps it would bless you and your families if you could see time together a little more as a feast to be savored. You might learn to appreciate the gift of time a little more.

Nature fasts and feasts - there are times of drought and times of rain; times of abundance and times of scarcity. Maybe it's helpful to assume that this is part of God's plan for creation and join in the feast-fast cycle of creation. It might help us understand one another better!