By Janine Kovac
When my husband and I first found out that we had a high-risk twin pregnancy—with 50/50 odds that we would lose the twins—I realized that my current set of coping skills and strategies were inadequate. I couldn’t just sit back and “hope for the best” and I couldn’t wish for a different kind of pregnancy or a different kind of life; I needed a way to accept my current situation and if possible, even learn to enjoy it. I turned to Christine Carter’s work with the Greater Good Science Center, specifically the Raising Happiness blog and her book Raising Happiness—with occasional insights that I pulled from cognitive science.
We started with by taking care of ourselves first and by building our social support. When our boys were born in December instead of April (when they were due), we found comfort in our growth mindsets. In my last guest post, “Step 8: Enjoy the Present Moment,” the twins were home and healthy and I was wondering if the metaphors I used for time—make time, spend time, lose time—were actually affecting my ability to manage my days with less stress and more joy.
Step 9 from Raising Happiness (“Rig Their Environment for Happiness”) presents the paradox that parents are faced with. On the one hand, we want to raise our children in an environment that maximizes their potential for a joyful life (and chapters 1 through 8 provide concrete ways to do this). At the same time, we can’t stick our children in a bubble with the hopes that nothing bad will happen to them.
To address the step, I had intended to write about the twins coming home after three months in the newborn intensive care unit (the NICU) and how we worried our way through the first year. We had weekly meetings with infant-development specialists and monthly medical appointments that monitored the twins’ delayed development. I wanted to capture the essence of the paradox that Christine describes in her chapter: while there are definite steps we can take to positively impact our children’s happiness and resilience, our control over our children’s environment is limited. I had the post all mapped out.
But then my husband’s dad died.
A few years ago my father-in-law had been diagnosed with a rare and stubborn form of cancer. This past Christmas we came to understand that his options for further treatment were limited. Over Easter my father-in-law entered into hospice care.
After spending spring break with her grandparents, my five-year-old daughter asked me,
“Is Grandpa going to get better?”
“No,” I had to tell her.
“Is Grandpa going to die?”
“Yes,” I had to tell her.
Here it was, in a spontaneous conversation with my daughter: the reason I needed Chapter 9. We can model a growth mindset for our children. We can practice gratitude and optimism as a family. We can have happiness routines that foster healthy living. But Grandpa’s cancer is terminal.
“I have some books for you,” the director of my daughter’s preschool told me when she heard the news. She sent me home an armful of books from the center’s lending library. They had titles such as: When Someone You Love Has Cancer: A Guide to Help Kids Cope and I’ll Hold You and You’ll Hold Me.
“I wish I didn’t have a need for such an extensive collection,” she sighed.
One book in particular, When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death, became an instant favorite with my daughter.
“Losing someone who is special to you is very hard to understand,” the book stated simply. And: “When someone you love dies, there is no right or wrong way to feel.”
Every page depicted cartoon scenes of life and death: the burial of a pet, a sick parent, a car accident, a memorial service for the Grandpa dinosaur (“Morris Saurus.”) There was even a cartoon panel with two little baby dinosaur “preemies” hooked up to tubes and wires in little incubators.
“Just like the boys!” my daughter exclaimed, recognizing the NICU equipment even in dinosaur cartoons. We talked about how the boys were healthy now, but that they were very little and sick when they were born.
“We should give this book to Grandma,” she said one night after we read it for what seemed like the fortieth time. “So she won’t be so sad about Grandpa.”
As I was leaving for the airport to attend the memorial, my daughter reminded me, “Did you pack the dinosaur book for Grandma?”
On the night after the funeral, friends and family came to the house to remember the man who had been uncle, brother, father, neighbor, and grandfather, among so many other roles. We cried. We laughed. We ordered pizza and watched Grandpa’s favorite movie, an obscure spaghetti Western.
The dinosaur book sat on an end table where it happened to catch the attention of some of the younger grandchildren. I watched as one by one, they nabbed the book, curled up in a corner and flipped slowly through various topics such as, “Why Does Someone Die?” “Feelings about Death,” and “Ways to Remember Someone.” None of the children said anything to anyone. They just silently read through the book, each child leaving it on the table where he or she had found it.
The other day (for the purposes of writing this post), I pulled the book out again. When my daughter saw it, she wanted me to read it to her at bedtime. Afterwards, we played the game suggested on one of the last pages: “I remember when…”
“I remember when Grandpa came to visit and read books to you,” I began.
“I remember Grandpa’s birthday party,” she said.
“I remember the cards he used to make for us.”
We did a few more rounds of “I remember when…” and then I kissed her and turned off the light.
I’m so sad to have lost my father-in-law. And it breaks my heart to know that my sons won’t know him as we knew him—the man who was my husband’s best man at our wedding, the man who sent thank-you candy to the boys’ NICU nurses and read doll books to his granddaughter.
But while we are sad, we are also grateful that we have friends who recommend books to help us talk about what we’re feeling. We’re proud that our daughter’s sadness prompted her to empathize with Grandma. We’re tickled that a little thing like a book in the right place at the right time can remind us to share the happy memories of our loved ones. That’s the real message behind Chapter 9—that the tools we use to nurture happiness are the same ones we use to foster resilience.
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