Friday, May 21, 2010

Next, Maybe Old Yeller?

Last night I finished our current read-aloud - Rascal. Things were going so very, very well up until the last page, when my eight year old sat bolt upright in her bunk. "Wait a second. WHAT IS HE DOING."

The six year old, much like Rascal himself, remained in blissful ignorance until the very last paragraphs. As Sterling paddled quickly away "from the place where they had parted" her eyes grew large and then.....the sobbing began.

Twenty minutes later, as I administered another dose of Rescue Remedy to my distraught baby, I reflected on the need for sadness in childhood. In a happy-ending culture, where Disney's Little Mermaid does not dissolve into sea foam, where the main characters NEVER get killed off, and where children are not expected to attend funerals, the routines of illness, separation, loss and death are unknown to a lot of people.

I've been thinking about this a lot, naturally, and have had some interesting email exchanges with commenters on recent posts. I was surprised by the idea, expressed by several people, that friends of those with cancer often desert them - they don't know how to act around an ill person, they don't know how to be with a dying person.

So they back away.

I wonder whether, in the peculiar type of sheltering that people do with their children - wherein they are routinely exposed to anonymous media violence, but not the human reality of suffering - our society has created a generation of emotionally-paralysed adults who, from lack of practice, don't know how to empathise.

Last night, as I was comforting my little girl, her sister was thinking aloud about Rascal. "Someday I'd like to see the movie," she said. After a minute she added, "Though I bet they changed the ending...they usually take those sad parts out."

But I don't want the sad parts out.

The life I live is incredibly rich. There are shining moments of near-perfect happiness.

There are huge gorgeous feasts with my family.

There are hot and lazy summer days, there are steaming pots of tea in the fall.

There is uproarious laughter.

The feasts are so much better when you're hungry. The lazy days wouldn't be nearly so lovely if my muscles weren't tired from days of work. The laughter is never better than when my face is still wet with tears.

I won't cheat my kids of this: the intensity of relief and joy when it has been tempered by tension and sorrow. Their pets will never 'go away'. Loss will come to them, and sadness, and they need to learn how to cry - cry hard - and grieve and mourn, and dwell in darkness.

And tomorrow, when the sun rises, everything will seem new.


Geek Knitter said...

When I was in fifth grade our teacher read us Where The Red Fern Grows. Picture a class full of sobbing kids at the end. Ultimate catharsis.

Several of my mother's friends disappeared the first time she had cancer. Most of them never came back. She's forgiven them, I haven't. One of us is obviously more grown up than the other.

Emily said...

What a gorgeous entry. You're so right on; all that kids'-book sadness is important training. I was in high school when my grandmother was dying, & I did the withdraw-out-of-confusion-and-awkwardness of the only real regrets of my life.

lizbon said...

Amen, sister.

islandglum said...


Gena said...

When I was a kid, "Where the Red Fern Grows" was my absolute favorite book. I have no idea how many times I read it, but I wore my hardback copy out. My parents didn't shelter us from the sadness of dead pets - I remember having graveside services for many of them. It was a part of life growing up out in the country. My brother and I are both well-adjusted adults; we are neither strange and macabre or frightened of death and illness. LIfe is for living, which means experiencing the good and the bad together. How else do we learn to love the good times and how the make the bad times more bearable?

Gwen said...

Well, I had a thoughtful and deep comment planned out, but all I can think about now is my word verification: pubrain. We're giving our kids pubrain if we shelter them from the harsh realities of life.

Good post, Shan. Our family has just paddled quickly away from a little mound of dirt, as you know, and this post made me cry just thinking about Rascal. Will have to read it again.

Tabatha said...

I love this post.I love what you say about feasting and it's one of the reasons why I love the church calendar with all the feasting and fasting.

I also think it is important for kids to be part of funerals. The kids went to their grandma's funeral when they were very very young and they went to their cousin's (Kevin's nephew) memorial service & interment at the beginning of May. It prompted a lot of questions about life and death and I think that is a very good thing.

Ames said...

What ever one else said.

My kiddoes like Rascal, too. You are right. Great post. I get caught up in trying to shield my children. I want them to think life is rosy for as long as possible. But, alas, life has a way of slipping in and teaching them the lessons they need to know.

Dave Hingsburger said...

This is a brilliant post. There is such a decided lack of empathy in society in general - a lack of willingness to feel with (rather than feel for - a huge difference) another who is suffering. You have allowed your children to safely learn about pain and loss - that's good parenting, excellent teaching and demonstrates the kind of character building that should be the norm, not the exception.

Kristine said...

You're amazing. Well said.

Valerie said...

Perfect post, Shan. Old Yeller was the first movie I ever saw in a theater (yep, I'm old as dirt)...I was 5, and cried my eyes out.

I think you are right about the sheltering part. But there is also the other extreme. My son's 4th grade teacher (about 13 years ago)assigned a writing project based on Where the Red Fern grows. My son finished reading the book at home, cried a lot and he and I talked about it. This was not long after his favorite uncle died unexpectedly. So there was a lot to hash over.

Then ds wrote his paper, which was essentially a book review. He brought the corrected paper home...the teacher gave him a C because he did not express an emotional reaction to the book. The spelling and grammar were perfect, but she clearly was looking for a written expression of grief and pain and was doing so in a very manipulative way.

So again ds and I talked and I told him a C was okay with me. I would rather know that he was capable of determining safe and not safe places to express and sort out his feelings.

This same teacher never did teach division that year. She thought that teaching them to estimate was enough. I have a son with a magna cum laude in Mechanical Engineering who does not have a clue how to do long division

Wendy J said...

I love how you look at life Shannon. Very inspiring.

Anonymous said...

I love the way that you write about the need for authentic experience, light and shade. I teach teenagers and I sometimes feel that they have been reared to view soap operas and daytime tv confession shows as a model for reasonable behaviour ie high drama every day.

Kathy said...

My parents shielded us from death. i didn't attend a funeral until I was 16 and my Mom apologized for making us go. Only had one pet and it died my senior year. Never went to my grandparents funeral. I stayed away from my neighbor lady who was like a grandmother because I knew she was dying. Probably the greatest single regret of my life. Still not really good at it, but I'm getting better.