Raising Resilient Kids
THIS EXQUISITELY DETAILED PAINTING of two children from South Carolina is by award-winning painter Timothy Chambers. Tim has been a professional artist for more than thirty years, vividly capturing portraits and landscapes in oils, charcoal, and pastels. He is 70 percent deaf. He is also legally blind.
If you’re sitting for a portrait and Tim looks you in the eye, he cannot see your mouth. Instead of taking in the whole scene, he scans his subject bit by bit, memorizing as many details as he can, then he fills in from memory what his eyes leave out. “A good painting is a lot of good decisions,” he explains.
The symptoms of Tim’s genetic condition, Usher syndrome, appeared early. At five, Tim was wearing hearing aids full-time. By high school, when he was walking around at night, a friend would say “duck” so he didn’t run into tree branches. Finally, when Tim turned thirty, an eye doctor referred him to a specialist, who diagnosed his condition. He also informed Tim there was no cure. The doctor’s recommendation was blunt: “You’d better find another profession.”
After this discouraging advice, Tim struggled with sometimes-paralyzing fear and frequent nightmares. Once, after he spent two hours finishing a charcoal portrait, his son walked in and asked, “What’s with the purple?” Tim could no longer see the difference between purple and gray. Searching for other ways to use his knowledge, he began teaching art classes online. He received glowing reviews and students halfway around the world started waking up at two a.m. to learn from him. Tim and his wife Kim expanded these classes into an online school. One day Kim watched a talk Adam gave on resilience and felt like he was describing her husband. She emailed Adam to explain that Tim was “the most persevering person I have ever had the privilege to know.”
Adam wondered where Tim got his resilience. Tim said it began with his parents. Tim’s dad had a knack for reframing painful events. One day Tim came home from school upset that kids were staring and asking what was in his ear. His father gave him a tip: next time it happened, Tim could press his hearing aid, throw a punch in the air, and shout, “Yes! Cubs are up two to one in the ninth.” Tim gave it a try, and the kids were jealous that he was listening to the game during a boring class. In high school, Tim leaned in for a kiss at the end of a date and his hearing aid started beeping loudly. His father told him not to worry about it: “She’s probably saying to her mom right now, ‘I kissed boys before tonight and I’ve seen fireworks—but I’ve never heard sirens.’ ”
Tim followed his dad’s advice and learned to respond to embarrassment with humor. He discovered that his own reaction to his disability influenced how others reacted, which meant he could control how he was perceived. Reframing these moments became second nature. “It was a blessing to have a dad who turned times when you’re feeling stupid into ‘You become stronger as you seek solutions to seeming roadblocks or dead ends,’ ” he said.
When Dave died, my biggest concern was that my children’s happiness would be destroyed. My childhood friend Mindy Levy lost her mother to suicide when we were thirteen. I slept in Mindy’s room that night and held her as she cried. More than thirty years later, she was the first friend I called from the hospital in Mexico. I screamed into the phone hysterically, “Tell me my kids are going to be okay. Tell me they’ll be okay!” At first, Mindy couldn’t figure out what had happened. Once she did, she told me what she truly believed: my children would be okay. In that moment, nothing could have consoled me, but I knew Mindy grew up to be a loving and happy adult. Having seen her recover helped me believe that my daughter and son could too.
After the flight home—hours I can barely remember—my mom and sister met me at the airport, tears streaming down their faces, their bodies supporting me as I got into the car. My worst nightmare had never included the conversation I was about to have. How do you tell a seven- and ten-year-old that they will never see their father again?
On the way back from Mexico, Marne had reminded me that a close friend of ours, Carole Geithner, was a social worker who counseled grieving children. I called Carole on the agonizing car ride home. She suggested that I first let my kids know that I had very sad news and then tell them what had happened simply and directly. She said it was important to reassure them that many parts of their lives would be just like before: they still had the rest of their family, they would still go to school with their friends. She told me to follow their lead and answer their questions and that they might ask if I was going to die too. I was grateful she had prepared me for this since it was one of my daughter’s first questions. Carole advised me not to make a false promise to them that I would live forever, but rather explain to them that it was very unusual for someone to die so young. Mostly, she told me to say over and over that I loved them and we would get through this together.
When I walked in the house, my daughter greeted me as if nothing was out of the ordinary. “Hi, Mom,” she said and headed upstairs to her room. I was frozen to the floor. My son immediately realized something was wrong. “Why are you home?” he asked. “And where’s Dad?” We all sat down on the couch with my parents and my sister. My heart was pounding so loudly that I could barely hear my own voice. With my father’s strong arm around my shoulders, trying to protect me as he always has, I found the courage to speak: “I have terrible news. Terrible. Daddy died.”
The screaming and crying that followed haunt me to this day—primal screams and cries that echoed the ones in my heart. Nothing has come close to the pain of this moment. Even now when my mind wanders back, I shake and my throat constricts. Still, as truly horrific as this was, we got through it. I would never wish for anyone to gain this perspective—but perspective it is.
While they suffered an irreparable loss, my children are still fortunate. Nothing will bring their father back, but our circumstances have softened the blow. This is not the case for many children facing heartbreaking difficulties. Two out of ten U.S. children of all backgrounds live in poverty, and one-third of black and close to one-third of Latino children are poor. Forty-three percent of children of single mothers live in poverty. More than two and a half million children have a parent in jail. Many children face serious illness, neglect, abuse, or homelessness. These extreme levels of harm and deprivation can impede children’s intellectual, social, emotional, and academic development.
We owe all children safety, support, opportunity, and help finding a way forward, especially in the most tragic situations. Early and comprehensive intervention is critical. At “trauma-sensitive schools” like the Primary School in East Palo Alto, the staff is trained to recognize the effects of toxic stress on children. When kids misbehave, instead of being blamed, shamed, or severely punished, they are made to feel safe so that they can learn. These schools also offer mental health and crisis support services for children and coaching for their parents.
High-quality preschool education is known to improve children’s cognitive development, and providing support even earlier makes a difference. All around the United States, the Nurse-Family Partnership has proven through rigorous experiments how valuable investing in children can be. When disadvantaged families are provided with home visits and counseling from the start of pregnancy until the kids turn two, over the next decade and a half there are 79 percent fewer cases of child abuse and neglect. By the time these children turn fifteen, on average they are arrested half as often as their peers, and their mothers receive cash assistance benefits for thirty fewer months. Programs like this help build resilience within families. Along with being the correct moral choice, these investments make economic sense too: every dollar put into these visits yields about $5.70 in benefits.
We all want to raise resilient kids so they can overcome obstacles big and small. Resilience leads to greater happiness, more success, and better health. As I learned from Adam—and as Tim’s dad knew instinctively—resilience is not a fixed personality trait. It’s a lifelong project.
Building resilience depends on the opportunities children have and the relationships they form with parents, caregivers, teachers, and friends. We can start by helping children develop four core beliefs: (1) they have some control over their lives; (2) they can learn from failure; (3) they matter as human beings; and (4) they have real strengths to rely on and share.
These four beliefs have a real impact on kids. One study tracked hundreds of at-risk children for three decades. They grew up in environments with severe poverty, alcohol abuse, or mental illness, and two out of three developed serious problems by adolescence and adulthood. Yet despite these extreme hardships, a third of the kids matured into “competent, confident, and caring young adults” with no record of delinquency or mental health problems. These resilient children shared something: they felt a strong sense of control over their lives. They saw themselves as the masters of their own fate and viewed negative events not as threats but as challenges and even opportunities. The same holds true for children who aren’t at risk: the most resilient ones realize they have the power to shape their own lives. Their caregivers communicate clear and consistent expectations, giving them structure and predictability, which increases their sense of control.
Kathy Andersen showed me how powerful control can be. I first met Kathy through her heroic efforts to rescue teenage victims of sex trafficking and exploitation in Miami. Kathy created a program called Change Your Shoes that helps young women see that the trauma in their past does not determine their future. “They feel they have limited choices,” Kathy says. “Like me, most of them have been abused, and that abuse makes you feel like you have no control over your own life. My goal is to show them that they have the power to step out of their shoes—step out of everything that holds them back. They can take little steps every day to make their lives better. I try to inspire them to put on the shoes they want to walk in and know that they still have choices to make.”
I joined Kathy at a group meeting in the living room of a drop-in center, where I met Johanacheka “Jay” Francois, a fifteen-year-old mother who was holding her new baby on her lap. Jay described the horrors of being abused at home, running away, and becoming a victim of sex trafficking. I saw how Kathy responded, sharing her own story—how she had been abused by her adoptive father, run away from home, and survived a suicide attempt. Kathy told the girls that her life turned around once she realized that her only way out was to get an education.
Kathy asked the girls to share their dreams. One said she wanted to be an artist. Another said she wanted to be a lawyer to help girls like her. A third wanted to run a nonprofit to provide shelter to girls in need. Jay said that her dream was to be a great mother. Kathy then asked the girls to write down the goals that would allow them to achieve those dreams. All of them wrote down the same thing: they would need to finish school. Next, Kathy asked them to share what they would have to do today—and the next day and the next day—to reach that goal. “Get better grades,” one said. “Find a high school to go to and register,” said another. “Commit to study,” said Jay. Since then, Jay has defied the odds by finishing high school and starting college. “I feel like now my future is in my hands,” she says. “It’s all about being a great mother for my daughter and giving her a good future.”
The second belief that shapes children’s resilience is that they can learn from failure. Psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that children respond better to adversity when they have a growth mindset instead of a fixed one. A fixed mindset means viewing abilities as something we’re either born with or not: “I’m a whiz at math but don’t have the drama gene.” When kids have a growth mindset, they see abilities as skills that can be learned and developed. They can work to improve. “I may not be a natural actor, but if I rehearse enough I can shine on the stage.”
Whether children develop a fixed or growth mindset depends in part on the type of praise they receive from parents and teachers. Dweck’s team randomly assigned students to receive different kinds of positive feedback after they took a test. The kids who were praised for being smart did worse on later tests because they viewed their intelligence as a fixed attribute. When the “smart” ones struggled, they decided that they just didn’t have the ability. Instead of attempting to complete a more difficult test, they gave up. But when kids were praised for trying, they worked harder on the challenging test and made more of an effort to finish it.
Dweck and her collaborators have shown that growth mindsets can be taught relatively quickly and with remarkable effects. After students at risk of dropping out of high school completed an online exercise emphasizing that skills can be developed, their academic performance improved. When college freshmen completed this same exercise during orientation, the dropout risk among black, Latino, and first-generation students decreased by 46 percent. Their academic struggles seemed less personal and permanent, and the students became as likely to stay in school as those from other backgrounds. When coupled with high-quality education and long-term support, programs like this can have a lasting impact.
Today the importance of helping kids develop a growth mindset is widely recognized but poorly practiced. There’s a knowing-doing gap: many parents and teachers understand the idea but do not always succeed in applying it. Despite my best efforts, I am sometimes one of those parents. When my daughter does well on a test, I still find myself blurting out, “Great job!” rather than, “I’m glad you tried your hardest.” In How to Raise an Adult, former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims advises parents to teach children that difficulties are how we grow. She calls this “normalizing struggle.” When parents treat failure as an opportunity to learn rather than an embarrassment to be avoided, kids are more likely to take on challenges. When a kid struggles at math, instead of saying, “Maybe math isn’t one of your strengths,” Dweck recommends, “The feeling of math being hard is the feeling of your brain growing.”
The third belief that affects children’s resilience is mattering: knowing that other people notice you, care about you, and rely on you. Many parents communicate this naturally. They listen closely to their children, show that they value their ideas, and help them create strong, secure attachments with others. In a study of more than two thousand adolescents between the ages of eleven and eighteen, many of whom faced severe adversity, those who felt they mattered were less likely to have low self-esteem, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
Mattering is often a challenge for children in stigmatized groups. LGBTQ youths face high rates of bullying and harassment and many lack support from adults at home or at school. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths are four times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide, and a quarter of transgender youths report having tried to kill themselves. Thanks to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ youths have 24/7 access to free counseling by text and phone. Mat Herman, who was a trained volunteer on the Trevor hotline, emphasized that knowing someone cares—even if it’s a stranger—can offer a lifeline. “We’d get callers who were fourteen and scared and they just needed to know someone was out there and they weren’t alone,” he explained. “It’s clichéd but that’s what it was.” During the four years that Mat answered calls with a warm hello, he often heard the click of a hang-up before callers said a word. Like in the experiment where people knew they could stop blasts of noise by pressing a button, when youths called and hung up, it was as if they were checking to see if the button was working. Over time, many would respond to the comforting voice by finding the courage to start a conversation. “There were so many repeat callers—you become like a friend to them,” Mat said.
For children, it often takes adults to show them that they matter. A friend of mine’s son has struggled with anxiety and depression from an early age. One day at camp he made a robot. The next morning he found that bullies had trashed it. A kid said to him, “You’re worthless.” The message was clear: his work didn’t matter and neither did he. He didn’t want to play baseball or interact with other kids at school because he felt like they were making fun of him. “He’d put his hoodie on and sit in the back in his own world,” his mother told me.
A turning point came when one of his former teachers started spending time with him every week. Progress happened little by little as she helped him reach out to other kids and make friends. She offered tips: join a group that’s playing games during lunch, email classmates and invite them to come over or go to a movie. The teacher then followed up, reinforcing each step he took; she gave him control but also made it clear that she was looking out for him. She cared. He mattered. When a new kid started at the school, the teacher encouraged them to get together. The two boys connected over a card game and the friendship took.
“It was like the sun came out in our house,” his mom told me, adding, “There’s no easy answer. I’m glad we found the combination of things that helped, including medication. But it made such a difference for a teacher to take an interest in him and a friend to bond with him.” Mattering was a counterweight to the external bullying and internal anxiety.
In Denmark, mattering is part of the school curriculum. During a weekly hour called Klassen Time, students come together to discuss problems and help one another. Danish children do this every week from age six until they graduate from high school. To sweeten the deal, each week a different student brings cake. When children present their own problems, they feel listened to, and when their classmates seek guidance, they feel they can make a difference. The children learn empathy by hearing others’ perspectives and reflecting on how their behavior affects those around them. They are taught to think, “How do others feel? And how do my actions make them feel?”
The fourth belief held by resilient kids is that they have strengths they can rely on and share with others. In some of the poorest areas of India, a resilience program called Girls First has improved the mental and physical health of adolescent girls. In 2009, Girls First started with a pilot project in the state of Bihar, where 95 percent of women have less than twelve years of education and almost 70 percent are pregnant by age eighteen. The program teaches girls to identify and practice different strengths of character—from courage to creativity, justice to kindness, humility to gratitude. Girls who attended just one hour a week over six months saw their emotional resilience climb. During one session, an eighth grader named Ritu learned that bravery was one of her strengths. Soon afterward, she intervened to stop a boy from harassing her friends, and when her father tried to make her ninth-grade sister get married, Ritu spoke up and convinced him to wait.
Girls First is run by Steve Leventhal, who emerged unscathed from a serious car accident at the time his wife was expecting their first child. “I had one of those near-death experiences you read about,” Steve told us. “I realized I could die even before my daughter was born and it changed me.” After his daughter’s birth, Steve felt so grateful that he wanted to help other children, so he took the reins of CorStone, a struggling nonprofit, and focused on building programs like Girls First. His goal that first year was to help one hundred girls in India. Six years later, the program has helped fifty thousand. “Our work is to turn on a light,” Steve reflects. “The girls often say that no one had ever told them they had strengths.”
Helping children identify strengths can be critical after traumatic events. One of Adam’s undergraduate students at Wharton, Kayvon Asemani, was nine years old when his father violently assaulted his mother, leaving her brain-dead. Remarkably, Kayvon was able to persevere. “Although I lost my mother,” Kayvon says, “I never lost her faith in me.” She had taught her son that he mattered. A friend’s father reinforced that belief and helped Kayvon apply to the school that had changed his own life. The Milton Hershey School’s mission is to give children the very best education regardless of their financial circumstances. At Hershey, Kayvon had access to great teachers and the opportunity to pursue higher education: the school would pay for any college tuition that financial aid did not cover.
Teachers helped Kayvon discover and develop his strengths. One encouraged him to start playing the trombone. Music became his salvation, giving him hope that he could live a life that would have made his mother proud. By middle school, Kayvon was ranked as one of the best trombone players in his district. But when he started high school, he was bullied. As one of the shortest boys in his grade, he was an easy target. Upperclassmen beat him up, made fun of him in the hallways, and spread rumors about him. When he rapped at a pep rally, they booed him off the stage.
When the next freshman class entered, Kayvon found the strength to stand up for himself and others. He welcomed the new students and offered support to those who were being bullied. He shared his rap music with them. By his senior year, many students knew his songs by heart. He was elected student body president and graduated as valedictorian. “Music taught me how to bounce back from challenges more than anything else in this world,” Kayvon told us. “Whether it’s the tragedy that tore my family apart or being bullied or something as silly as a high school breakup, it channeled my energy into something positive. Music transforms the darkness.”
Like their students, teachers benefit from a growth mindset. Since the 1960s, researchers have demonstrated that when teachers are told students from stigmatized groups have potential to bloom, the teachers begin to treat them differently. They help students learn from failure. They set high expectations, give students extra attention, and actively encourage them to develop their strengths. This can help students believe in themselves and work harder, earning higher grades.
With the right support, beliefs can fuel action and become self-fulfilling. Believe you can learn from failure and you become less defensive and more open. Believe you matter and you spend more time helping others, which helps you matter even more. Believe you have strengths and you start seeing opportunities to use them. Believe you are a wizard who can cross the space-time continuum and you may have gone too far.
When kids face trauma, the beliefs that help build resilience become even more critical. More than 1.8 million children in America have lost a parent, and in a national poll nearly three-quarters said their lives would have been “much better” if their parent had survived. When asked whether they would trade a year of their lives for just one more day with their late mother or father, more than half said yes.
In our house, we know that feeling well. My kids were heartbroken. I was heartbroken—and I was heartbroken that they were heartbroken. But even in those dark hours when my children first learned that their lives had changed forever, there were glimpses of light. My son stopped crying for a moment to thank me for coming home to be with him when he found out, and to thank my sister and parents for being there too. Amazing. Later that night when I was putting my daughter to bed, she said, “I am not only sad for us, Mommy. I am sad for Grandma Paula and Uncle Rob because they lost him too.” Amazing. I remembered how the night Mindy’s mom died, she asked me to sleep over but then worried that our other friends would feel left out. Even in the worst moments of their lives, my kids—like Mindy—had the capacity to think of others. And that gave me hope.
A few days later, my kids and I sat down with a big piece of paper and colored markers. Over the years, we had hung signs and schedules over their backpack cubbies. Carole had explained that giving kids a sense of stability was essential at a time when their world is turned upside down. I thought it might help to create “family rules,” which we could put on the wall to remind us of the coping mechanisms we would need. We sat down to write them out together.
I wanted them to know that they should respect their feelings and not try to suppress them. We wrote together that it’s okay to be sad and they could take breaks from any activity to cry. That it’s okay to be angry and jealous of their friends and cousins who still had fathers. That it’s okay to say to anyone that they did not want to talk about it now. That they should know we did not deserve this. I wanted to make sure guilt did not cloud any moment when my kids could have a break from grief, so we agreed that it was okay to be happy and to laugh.
People often marvel at how resilient kids can be. There are neurological reasons for this: kids have more neural plasticity than adults, allowing their brains to adapt more easily in the face of stress. I learned from Carole that children have limits to how much intense emotion they can process at once. They have shorter “feeling spans”; their grief comes more in bursts than in sustained periods. Kids also sometimes express their grief through behavior changes and play rather than in words. As Carole told me to expect, my children cycled in and out of grief very quickly, sobbing one moment and then running off to play the next.
I realized sleep would be important to help us get through this. When I was a child, my parents always emphasized sleep, which I thought was no fun at all. Once I had my own children, I understood how right they were. When we’re tired, we’re physically and mentally weaker, more likely to be irritable, and we literally lack the energy to feel joy. Sleep matters even more in adversity because we need to marshal all our strength, so I stuck as close as I could to their regular bedtimes. When my kids had trouble falling asleep, I tried to teach them to count six breaths in and out, just as my mom had taught me.
Since our feelings were extremely raw, I knew we would make many mistakes, so forgiveness became a huge theme. The year before, my daughter and I had attended a Girls Leadership workshop and learned about “fast double-sorries”—when two people hurt each other’s feelings, you both apologize quickly so that you forgive each other and yourselves. Feeling deep grief and anger meant we all got upset much more easily, so we relied on this strategy a lot. When we lost control of our emotions, we would say we were sorry right away. Then we would “mirror” each other: the first person would explain what was upsetting, and the second person would repeat it back and apologize. We were trying to show that the other person’s feelings mattered to us. At one point, my daughter cried out, “I’m upset because both of you got more years with Daddy than I did.” My son and I acknowledged that it was unfair that she’d had the least time.
I tried to help my children be kind to themselves. To not beat themselves up for being angry at each other, for being jealous of other kids and even me because I still had a father. I came to see teaching them self-compassion as part of nurturing a growth mindset. When they didn’t dwell on yesterday’s grief, they could approach today as a new day. We vowed to do this, like everything else, as a team.
It didn’t always work as planned. Long before Dave died I had learned that parenting was the most humbling job in the world—and now I had to relearn how to do it alone. My kids were struggling with their emotions and so was I, which made even the most basic decisions hard. Dave and I were always strict about bedtimes—but do you put an exhausted child to bed on time when he is crying for his lost father? When small issues become big fights, do you hold children to the same behavioral standards as before, or do you overlook these outbursts because you feel that same anger? And if you let things slide too much, will the kids act out with their friends, who are not old enough to understand and forgive? I wavered back and forth and made a lot of mistakes. A lot.
Once again, I was so grateful for my friends and family. I relied on my mom and her friend Merle for parenting advice and tried to follow their suggestions. Say things once. Stay calm. Sometimes, no matter how carefully I planned how to handle a situation, I failed. One day my daughter refused to leave the house for a group hike with Marne, Phil, Mark, and Priscilla. While the others waited outside, I tried to convince her that she’d have fun, but she wouldn’t budge. Literally. She sat down on the floor, and I couldn’t get her to move. I became, I believe the clinical term is, “super frustrated.” Phil came in to check on our progress and found the two of us sitting on the floor sobbing. With humor, he cajoled my daughter into getting back on her feet and joining the group. Priscilla cajoled me into doing the same. A short time later, after double-sorries, my daughter was running up a hiking path, smiling.
The family rules still hang above the kids’ cubbies, but only recently did I notice that asking for help is in all four categories. Now I see that this is at the heart of building resilience. When children feel comfortable asking for help, they know they matter. They see that others care and want to be there for them. They understand that they are not alone and can gain some control by reaching out for support. They realize that pain is not permanent; things can get better. Carole helped me understand that even when I felt helpless because I could not fix or cure my children’s grief, if I could walk alongside them and listen—what she called “companioning”—I would be helping them.
As I wrestled with my own emotions, I worried about how much of my grief to show my children. For the first few months, we were all crying constantly. One day my son told me it made him sad when I cried, so I began holding back my tears, running up to my bedroom and closing the door when I felt them well up. Initially it seemed to help. But a few days later my son asked me in anger, “Why don’t you miss Daddy anymore?” By protecting him from my tears, I had stopped modeling the behavior I wanted from him. I apologized for hiding my emotions and started letting him see them again.
Since the day Dave died, I have continued to talk about him. It’s not always easy to do and I’ve watched adults flinch, as if it’s too painful for them to be reminded. But I have a deep desire to keep Dave’s memory alive, and when I mention him he remains present. Because our children were so young, I realize—and this completely breaks my heart—that their memories of their father will fade, so it’s up to me to make sure they know him.
A friend of mine who lost her father when she was six years old told me that she has spent her adult life trying to piece together who he really was, so I asked dozens of Dave’s closest family members, friends, and colleagues to capture their memories of him on video. My daughter and son will never have another conversation with their father, but one day when they are ready they will learn about him from those who loved him. I also taped my children sharing their own memories, so that as they grow up they will know which memories of him are truly theirs. This past Thanksgiving my daughter was distraught, and when I got her to open up she told me, “I’m forgetting Daddy because I haven’t seen him for so long.” I showed her a video of her talking about him and it helped.
When children grow up with a strong understanding of their family’s history—where their grandparents grew up, what their parents’ childhoods were like—they have better coping skills and a stronger sense of belonging. Talking openly about positive and even difficult memories can help develop resilience. It’s especially powerful to share stories about how the family sticks together through good times and bad, which allows kids to feel that they are connected to something larger than themselves. Just as journaling can help adults process adversity, these discussions help children make sense of their past and embrace challenges. Giving all members of the family a chance to tell their stories builds self-esteem, particularly for girls. And making sure to integrate different perspectives into a coherent story builds a sense of control, particularly for boys.
A friend who lost his mother when he was young told me that over time she no longer seemed real. People either were afraid to mention his mom or spoke of her in idealized terms. I try to hold on to Dave as he really was: loving, generous, brilliant, funny, and also pretty clumsy. He would spill things constantly and was always shocked when he did. Now when emotions are swirling yet my son stays calm, I tell him, “You are just like your daddy.” When my daughter stands up for a classmate who is getting picked on, I say, “Just like your daddy.” And when either of them knocks a glass over, I say it too.
Parents often worry that these conversations will make their children sad, but research on nostalgia suggests the opposite. “Nostalgia” comes from the Greek words nostos and algos, which mean “return” and “pain.” Nostalgia is literally the suffering that we feel when we yearn for the past to come back to us, yet psychologists find that it is mostly a pleasant state. After people reflect on an event, they tend to feel happier and more connected to others. They often find life more meaningful and become inspired to create a better future. Rather than ignoring painful milestones from the past, we try to mark them in the present. My friend Devon Spurgeon lost her father young and gave me a wonderful idea for what would have been Dave’s forty-eighth birthday—my kids and I wrote letters to Dave and sent them up in balloons.
I’ve noticed that when people tell stories about Dave, my son and daughter are usually comforted. My brother-in-law Marc has told them Dave had a “happy energy” and shared it generously: “It’s hard to imagine your dad having a good time without lots of other people joining in.” Phil often comments to our kids that Dave didn’t brag or exaggerate but spoke to others thoughtfully and with care. We all wish that they had Dave to show them how to be happy and humble by his example. Instead, we are trying to make the most of Option B.
Adam told me about a program at Arizona State University that helps children recover after losing parents. One of its key steps is to create a new family identity so kids feel that the people left make a complete unit. Looking back at the photos of the three of us taken even in those first weeks and months, I was surprised to see that we did have some moments of happiness—like when my son and daughter played tag with friends. Photos are important because happiness is remembered, not just experienced. And losing Dave taught me how precious video is: when I see photos of him, I long to see him move and hear him speak. Now I take videos as much as possible. My kids used to duck whenever I began recording them, but since they started watching these clips to remember their father, they smile and talk to the camera.
The Arizona State program also recommends setting aside time for the new family unit to have fun together. It gives kids a break from grief and helps them feel like they’re part of a whole family again. The activity can’t be passive like watching TV; it has to be something active like playing board games or cooking together. We called it FAF, which is short for “Family Awesome Fun.” My son offered to let my daughter choose the first activity, and FAF became a weekly tradition we stuck to for more than a year. We also created a family cheer where we link arms and shout, “We are strong!”
The three of us are still adjusting to being just the three of us. There are still plenty of fast double-sorries as we continue to cope and learn and make mistakes and grow. As individuals, we feel weaker on some days than on others. But as a family we are stronger together.
Nearly a year after Dave died, I attended my son’s music concert at school one afternoon. As hard as I try not to be jealous of others, seeing all the fathers watching their children was a stark reminder of what my children and I lost—and what Dave lost. As soon as I got home, I ran upstairs in tears. Unfortunately, my workday wasn’t over; I had to host the annual dinner for Facebook’s largest clients from around the world. As people started arriving, I still couldn’t pull myself together. My son was with me, and I told him that I needed to stop crying and go downstairs. He held my hand and said, “You should just go. And it’s okay if you’re crying. Everyone knows what happened to us.” Then he added, “Mom, they probably have things they cry about too, so you should just be yourself.”
He was teaching me what I had tried to teach him.