By Elizabeth M. CollinsMarch 28, 2011
ELMO wanted to play ball with one of his favorite people: his Uncle Jack. The problem' Uncle Jack was dead, and no matter how many times Daddy, Mommy and Aunt Jill tried to explain that meant Elmo would never see him again, at three-and-a-half, Elmo just couldn't understand why he wasn't coming to their family picnic or that Elmo couldn't call him on the phone.
Meanwhile, his slightly older cousin Jesse-a furry blue Muppet with pink pigtails-refused to even talk about her father, getting angry and eventually confessing that it made her too sad. At the same time, she lugged around a "special bag" holding a memory box full of mementos of her father.
Presented in "Sesame Street's" newest DVD for military Families, "Talk, Listen, Connect: When Families Grieve," the storyline explores how children often cope with loss, and suggests ways parents and other adults can help them grieve and remember their loved ones. It's also available online at Sesame Street Family Connections.
"It's really engaging in a dialog with children about these times, and we're hoping that seeing Elmo and Jesse going through this will help be a conversation starter," explained Lynn Chwatsky, Sesame Street's assistant vice president of outreach initiatives and partners. "Do we think it's the end-all, be-all' Absolutely not, but we do think it is a conversation starter...and we've heard anecdotal feedback from Families who have used this.
"There are children who never, ever talked about it, and they watched this and for the first time, they started opening up. I was at an event in Chicago...with Elmo. This one child was sobbing the entire time. And the grandparent came up to me...in tears and said 'This is the first time he's cried since his dad died six months ago.' And I thought, 'Wow, we're doing something right here,' because that's the first start, for this child to be able to cry...and maybe now some dialog can happen with the grandparents or with other grownups in this child's life, to get this child sort of on a more positive trajectory," Chwatsky continued, noting the storyline is appropriate for all children who have suffered a loss, not just military children.
Meant for parents and children to watch together, it follows a popular series of DVDs featuring Elmo and friends dealing with deployments (really an extended absence by Elmo's father, who goes off to "help" people-the military is never mentioned), the adjustments required by homecomings and multiple deployments, and the changes Families undergo when a parent (Rosita's father) is injured or comes home different due to post-traumatic stress or a traumatic brain injury.
Created with help from the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, the video also features real Gold Star Families describing their experiences, Families like Patty Guereca and her four sons. Their husband and father, Sgt. Joe Guereca of the 1st Cavalry Division, was killed Nov. 30, 2004 by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
"I wanted to scream, but I couldn't scream," she said of her feelings the afternoon the casualty notification officer came with the news that would change their lives forever. "All I could do was cry. And finally the chaplain sat me down on the couch and I told him, 'I have three sons and I'm pregnant. What am I supposed to do now''"
She was so devastated that she didn't know how to tell her children their father was dead-she just didn't have "the heart to really tell them their dad was not going to come home. They knew that everybody was crying, but they didn't know why." Her mother finally had to tell them the day before the funeral, which wasn't until that Dec. 15, Guereca explained in the Public Broadcasting System special that discussed the topic on primetime TV.
Hosted by "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric, who had to confront her own grief, as well as that of her six- and two-year-old daughters when her husband Jay Monahan died of colon cancer in 1998, the special highlights Patty and her four boys, the Family of a Marine who committed suicide after returning from deployment, the wife and daughters of a firefighter who died of a heart attack, the husband and daughters of a mother claimed by breast cancer, and of course, Jesse, Elmo and Elmo's daddy Louie.
Both programs highlight behaviors parents and other adults should expect, such as Jesse's anger and refusal to discuss her father. Guereca's children started to worry about who would take care of them if something happened to her too, and she explained that their grandmother would take care of them, but when their baby brother Alex was hospitalized with respiratory syncytial virus and pneumonia, five-year-old twins Nathan and Angel started worrying all over again.
Their teachers did a good job of keeping them and their older brother Rolando, who was six at the time, busy, Guereca said, but she was struck by how differently the boys coped. While Angel internalized everything, thinking that if he didn't talk about it, he wouldn't cry, Guereca explained, his twin Nathan is far more open and emotional. And little Alex, who just turned six, "feels like he got cheated" because he never met his father (but he was ecstatic to meet Elmo).
"There are some children who don't talk about it," added Chwatsky. "They don't acknowledge it.... They are silent about it. Other children may be angry and they start displaying that anger in their behavior and their actions. There's a lot of regression in young children. We may see children with bed wetting or throwing temper tantrums, that kind of stuff. There are children who don't want to participate in activities. There are children who are embarrassed. There are children who don't want to go to school and tell people because they're embarrassed of what people will think of them or how people will judge them.
"It really varies per child, and what we've heard and our message to adults in these children's lives is you've got to listen to these children, and listen whether it's their verbal cues or their nonverbal cues, but you've got to listen to what's going on with these kids and to be able to react to them based on how they're acting," she added. The Talk, Listen, Connect website includes resources for parents such as suggestions for dealing with these challenges, as well as others, like anger at the deceased parent or a child who believes he or she is responsible for the parent's death.
Most important, according to Chwatsky, is that adults be honest with children, and not shy away from using the word "dead." They should never replace it with euphemisms such as "lost" or "passed away." A child can find a lost toy, and a bus passes by, she explained, leading young children to believe that the parent might come back.
"Make it concrete and simple for a child," she explained. "And, you know, Elmo, when he was talking to his dad about seeing Uncle Jack, Elmo said something like 'I'll see him later.' Elmo's dad said, 'You won't. Uncle Jack is dead.' And as hard as it is to be harsh, being concrete with children is the best way to go, because if you're not honest with children about what is going on, these children will get more confused, and will later on struggle because they didn't have the truth. And I think that sort of situation with Elmo was a perfect example. Kids may hear one thing: 'Oh, Uncle Jack is dead,' but they may not internalize it or process it, and it's our job as the adults in their lives to help them through that and help them understand."
It's hard for anyone to process a loss of that magnitude, Guereca cautioned, explaining that even as an adult, at first when the phone rang with an unfamiliar number, she would hope it was her husband, calling to tell her there had been some kind of horrible mistake. It took about a month before her little boys truly understood that their father was dead and that he wasn't coming home. She and her mother just kept emphasizing that he was buried and in heaven. Daddy was still looking out for them, and they could dream about him, but they could never see him again.
Adults should also be on the lookout for ways that they can remember and honor the fallen parent with their children. Jesse's memory box, for example, is full of the things that make her feel closest to her father (children can also make a scrapbook): a photograph, his favorite silly tie, a ticket to a baseball game, wind-up joke teeth. She writes poems expressing her feelings-explaining that writing makes her feel a lot better-and Elmo draws pictures and wears a silly hat Uncle Jack gave him.
In real life, Guereca and her sons created a special room to honor Joe's memory, filled with his medals and awards, including a Bronze Star; photographs; his Army books; rucksack; some wooden helicopters and the flag that draped his casket.
"For us, it's more of our sanctuary. I go in there when I'm sad or I'm stressed and just sit there and think about everything. My boys use it as their place where they talk to their dad," she said, adding in an interview that she brings her husband flowers every month and is working on a Facebook page dedicated to his memory. His sons, friends and battle buddies will be able to share memories, stories and photos, and the boys will get to learn more about their dad.
Couric also told parents on the PBS special that she asked all of her husband's friends and relatives to write her daughters letters about their father. She reads them a letter on special occasions, and it's something they will always have. At the end of the special, all of the children, including Elmo and Jesse, tied letters and drawings to balloons and released them in a ceremony to symbolize an ongoing connection to departed loved ones, according to Chwatsky.
And it's important to keep that connection alive, whether it's been six months since a loved one's death or six years. That pain never goes away, Guereca said. Families just learn to adjust to it and cope with it and incorporate it in their daily lives.
"Grieving doesn't come with a manual," she said, explaining that friends and acquaintances shouldn't be afraid to reach out and bring up the topic. "We all do it differently...and being there for us, even if it's just spending one day with us...that means a lot. Communication-that's a big thing for us, communicating our feelings; and just getting to know us. It's not just, 'Oh it happened,' and be there for a year and then six years pass by. Just because six years pass by does not mean that the grieving has left us. It's still there.... Talk to us still. Hang in there for us. We're still going through a lot. It doesn't just shut off within a couple of years or within a couple of months. It doesn't go away."
'SESAME STREET' COMES TO MILITARY FAMILIES
TO date, the Sesame Street Experience for Military Families has taken Elmo, Rosita, Zoe, Grover and the Cookie Monster to more than 90 bases in nine countries and 27 states, covering more than 50,000 miles and performing about 250 shows for more than 150,000 military Families with the help of the United Service Organizations.
And according to "Sesame Street's" Lynn Chwatsky, the assistant vice president of outreach initiatives and partners, everyone is hoping to bring the tour back late this summer, first overseas and then to the States.
"It has been a success greater than we could ever have imagined. We have been to more places and touched more Families than we ever could have thought," she said.
The half-hour show, full of music and dancing that gets young children out of their seats, cheering and screaming, starts with one simple question: "Do you miss your mommy or daddy'" The response is almost always a resounding "Yes!" And all of those musical numbers are designed to give kids things to do when they miss their deployed parents.
"The message of the show really is aimed at deployments and the whole idea is to give kids not only some concrete things to do when Mom or Dad has to go away like writing letters or telling stories or making music together, but also to help Families have those conversations," said Lonnie Cooper, the USO tour manager, who noted that Elmo is a rock star to five-year-olds.
"Kids don't always listen to their parents, so when you can say, 'Hey, do you remember when Elmo said sometimes he misses his mommy or daddy'' kids understand that," he continued. "Kids get the message and that's really what we're trying to do: A, provide some entertainment and B, to help ease the whole stress and strain of deployments."
Putting on the show requires an immense amount of work, not unlike putting on a touring Broadway show, he added. But the smiles he gets from the kids make it all worth it-that, and the hug he gets about once every show.
"I thought it was really great," Army wife Hayli Morrison said of last summer's Fort Riley, Kan., show. "You can tell that they really care about the kids and about showing them a good time. As a matter of fact, we were there with a six-year-old friend whose dad was in the middle of a tour in Iraq and I remember as we left, she said that this was 'the best day ever' and it was really sweet that she enjoyed it that much.
"It gave her a little enjoyment, you know, to kind of forget about her situation for a little while, and then they gave handouts to the kids. My son still plays with his Elmo flashlight, so it's really a big hit. He seemed to have a really good time with his friends."
For updates, check the Talk, Listen, Connect website at www.SesameStreetWworkshops.org
Editor's note: This is a follow up to a story about "Sesame Street's" programs for military children that ran in the October 2009 issue of Soldiers magazine. The story can be found at Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street'