Sesame Street “When Families Grieve” special
Meet Jesse, a bright seven-year-old, with the cutest pink pigtails and a fuzzy blue face. She’s Elmo’s cousin, and her father died almost a year ago. Yes, the newest Muppet is a bereaved child. “When Families Grieve,” a one-hour special from Sesame Street, features her family and Elmo’s. With help from Katie Couric, herself a widowed Mom, and from Elmo and his friend Rosita, Jesse shares her experience of loss in an accurate and age-appropriate way. I know because I am mother to a grieving and fatherless little girl who is nearly that age now.
The show is compelling, compassionate, and reassuring for viewers of all ages. The goal of the program is to encourage conversation about loss and grief, particularly between parent (or uncle, as in the case of Elmo’s father, who lovingly engages Jesse) and child, the first and most important step in beginning to cope. It tells kids they’re not alone, and that while their emotions can be big and hard to understand, having feelings is natural and normal.
“When Families Grieve” is a great resource to advance grief literacy, reducing stigma and providing basic tools to open conversations. By illustrating real families and fuzzy ones sharing their feelings, the show demonstrates that talking about it really does help, and listening can be powerful.
If you’re one of my core readers, you probably already know these basics, but watching will validate some of your feelings and experiences. But if you’ve been afraid to talk with your kids, or too numb to do so (even after years – you wouldn’t be the first!), you’ll come out reassured, with some new, creative ways to remember your loved one. Most of all, the dialog and stories remind viewers that life goes on, that loss doesn’t ever completely disappear, and that there is no right way to grieve.
As for age range: The kit includes support materials aimed at kids ages 2 to 8, including a sweet storybook. My daughter, now 6, wanted me to skip (the preview DVD) ahead to the sections with Muppets, but older kids will be more interested in the 7-to-teen real kids whose families are interviewed in some detail. The oldest boy shown was 13 or so. Older teens MAY be able to gain something. Because childrens’ grief is progressive and developmental, kids experience the loss anew at each developmental stage, and ask new questions, or ask the same questions in different ways as they learn. So it’s possible that a teen who experienced loss at a younger age may be able to put himself in his old (smaller) shoes and gain something, or identify with the older kids and skip the Muppets. Leave the room and hand them the remote.
Of the four families, three lost fathers, and two of the losses were military-related. The producers didn’t take any easy ways out: one of the military deaths was a suicide after a soldier returned home. “When Families Grieve” is part of “Talk, Listen, Connect,” a program which supports military families living through deployment and other challenges. Spanish language materials are available.
In a brief segment, Couric interviews the featured widowed parents about what helped them and what didn’t, but it’s not a comprehensive view of the sequelae of grief or the complex problems facing these parents. There are no divisions: the show is neutral on politics, society, and medical, mental health, and pastoral care, and doesn’t touch on any of the supports widowed people need outside of their households. I didn’t learn much about life for military families after loss, who often live behind a wall. But for what it does – the most important goal of providing basic facts and reassurance -- this show is wonderful.
I cannot recommend this generous, entertaining, truthful show more highly to families learning to live with loss and to their friends and others who wish to support them. I’m grateful this program was put together and hope it opens dialog between many people about living with grief and learning from each other.
"When Families Grieve" is available online and a free DVD kit is available on request. There are two versions, one for military families, one for civilians. The NEW web site also includes short clips matched with activities and discussion guides. Working through these can be a better way to introduce the topic with younger children, since the full program runs for an hour and includes information parents may wish to absorb in peace.
The full program is, however, *appropriate* for all ages, even grown-ups, and you don't have to be bereaved to learn from and enjoy the show. My FB friends suggest that parents review the full program before showing it to their kids.
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I was honored to be invited to a screening of the new Sesame Street special, “When Families Grieve,” at the Pentagon. Every loss recalls every other, and brings back our first loss. It’s impossible to go to the Pentagon without remembering that I watched the plume of smoke rise on September 11. The bus shelter I waited at was dedicated to those who lost their lives that day. Helicopters buzzed overhead, it seemed for ambiance. Wonderful clouds that looked like baroque draped silver curtains couldn’t be photographed because of security restrictions.
A highlight of the presentation was the banter between Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen with Elmo, Rosita, and Jesse. A baby in the audience (Adm. Mullen’s grandson) exclaimed with pure joy when Elmo appeared from behind the podium, and Elmo’s 3-year-old self responded honestly and spontaneously.
Of course, laughter turned to snuffled tears, wiped away with medaled and camo'ed cuffs, as the packed room watched the families onscreen share their stories of loss and living.
I was, I think, the only civilian press in the auditorium, and the only widow aside from those featured in the film (we were asked to stand). Despite security phalanx, I felt welcomed and as if my little blog was worth a listen.
I needed the confidence. I had a mission on this, my first visit to our nation’s military headquarters. Not just to watch (I’d already seen a previous preview online) and to ask questions if the chance arose (of course not – it was very official) -- I had a message for Elmo.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you do,” I told Kevin Clash, the man behind (really under) Elmo. He was pulling down masking tape that held his script inside the podium, wearing an elastic headband that I’m sure stabilizes the Muppet or audio gear somehow. “I have to tell you how grateful I am to you for keeping my toddler entertained after her father died. All I wanted to do was lie down on the couch and nap, and I could, while she watched you. Thank you for making this terrific program, it was accurate for the age, I can testify, and really wonderful. But mostly, thanks for your role in our survival* and even for many moments of joy during that numb time.” I meant every word, and I managed to keep eye contact with the puppeteer, not the puppet.
Then, I got my picture taken with Elmo, who, I stressed to Short Stack’s friends at the bus stop, was the real Elmo, NOT the one that’s just a guy in a suit, who gets paid to walk in parades. I posted the picture on Facebook and kvelled over and over; I was glowing all evening, my husband didn’t want to interrupt, and my daughter asked me to please not talk about it any more, please.
This morning my husband said I looked a little spent from my time with the little red guy. “You have no idea,” I taunted him, “how much worse this would be if it had been Grover. I mean, Elmo didn’t even exist when I was a kid.”
That shut him up right good.**
* (I did not tell Mr. Clash that I was pretty sure Short Stack would think Barney was her Dad after that first summer, just the two of us and the TV.)
** Not really.
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