S I N G I N G W I T H K I D S A B O U T L O S S
Most of us are not prepared when a serious loss first hits us. We are sheltered from death in our culture. Many of us grow up with no exposure to people who are in the process of dying. Except for the grief we have seen acted on television, there are very few role models or examples of how we should behave. When we first face difficult losses, we don't expect the inevitable confusion and disorientation.
One of the most frequent requests I've had from elementary school teachers is for information about how to deal with their children when there's been a death or a loss in the community. Someone's mom passed away or a classmate has been diagnosed with cancer, and teachers who have no idea of how to address this sort of thing, will tend to ignore or avoid it.
"All right children, get out your workbooks and turn to page thirty-seven." Many teachers feel that they've been trained to help kids with math and science and reading, but they've had no training in ways to help kids through difficult emotional times.
This is where we come in: children's music practitioners! In order to help teachers broach this subject with students, however, we need to be comfortable ourselves with opening up a subject that does not have clearly delineated answers. If one is a "Disciple of PerFection", one will have difficulty addressing death and loss in an open manner, as there are just no simple answers that help when we are grieving. What helps is creating a "safe place" to feel whatever feelings come up; sadness, fear, anger and sometimes even happiness.
When I ask school children at a concert if any of them ever had a pet that died, or if they know someone who died, most of the kids raise their hands. Once I bring up the subject, the children are very attentive and want to talk about it. It's usually us adults who have trouble talking about this subject with children. Once we open the subject, children ask all kinds of questions. I never worry about not having "the right answer" to each and every question, because it's okay to say "I don't know! What do you think?" We can only explain as well as we can, and it helps to play a song. Singing can make a loss feel less threatening, and talking and sharing about painful feelings can alleviate much of the tension that builds up around specific incidents. Here's a song about hope.
The leaf falls from the tree. The sap runs deep
Snow in the winter covers seeds that sleep
Sun melts the ice and the warm Earth gives
Water to the sprouts and the green world lives
Chorus: Watch for a sign. Keep your heart alive
The spirit breaks new ground whenever something dies
Watch the shadows closely, the tears will clean your eyes
The spirit breaks new ground whenever something dies
You may have lost a toy. You may have lost a dream
You may have lost a friend, someone who you need
Your chest can feel the pain that makes it hard to breathe
But your love will always stay, and the pain will leave.
Written by Peter Alsop, ©Copyright 1987, Moose School Music (BMI)
When someone we love dies, we often feel so angry about being left behind, that we fear it will surface and get out of control. We feel guilty for feeling angry at this person. There are thousands of songs and poems that cover the difficult feelings around being left behind. Many of the popular songs we hear on the radio are about unrequited love; people singing "the blues". And we can be creative in using songs we already know, by reframing them in our introduction so our family audience can see how the song's content can help them cope more effectively with some of the real life loss situations we all face. I use Barry Polisar's "My Brother Threw Up On My Stuffed Toy Bunny" to help kids deal with loss because at the end of the song, the kid can't play with the toy rabbit because it smells so bad! Talking, crying and screaming are all good ways of releasing and letting go of anger. I ask the audience to scream along on this song.
TAKE ME WITH YOU! (excerpts)
Cho: Take me! (Take me!) Take me! (Take me!)
Take me with you pleeeeease!
Take me! (Take me!) Take me! (Take me!)
Take me when you leave!
I'm just your little child, and surely you can see,
If you don't take me, I'll be damaged psychologic'ly, yeah,
Maybe I'll go crazy and paint my face all red!
Or I'll scream and eat my pillow, or put mustard on my head!
Or I might find your wallet, and take all of your cash
And send it off to Uncle Bill, or throw it in the trash!
Please don't say "No!" I want to go! I'll even be your slave!
I won't get sick, I won't make noise, I promise I'll behave! So,
Did someone used to leave you home when you were little too?
Can you remember back that far and how it felt to you?
What if goblins in the basement come and eat my bones?!
What if something happens to me when I'm all alone?!
What if bad guys or coyotes carry me away,
Because they're lonely too, and want a kid like me to play with?!
You say you're coming back soon, but no one really knows,
I love you and I get afraid, and I miss you when you go, so
Written by Peter Alsop, Copyright 1986, Moose School Music (BMI)
Childhood losses sometimes seem insignificant to adults, and we can miss valuable opportunities to get closer with kids by being a safe place for them to express their emotions. Crying is okay in a safe place.
One of the most important lessons we can learn from a child is how to be "gentle" with ourselves as we go through our grief. They cry inconsolably, and two minutes later they're laughing at a bug or asking about a flower. If we are to gently discover how we grieve, we need to take time to allow for our own style of grieving to surface. Getting everything out on the table emotionally gives us a chance to see what's there, and it becomes less scary when we can see it and share about it.
WHERE WILL I GO?
I’m glad that I can ask you about things that I don’t know
Like, when my body dies, I wonder, where will I go? Oh,
Chorus: Where will I go when I’m dead and gone?
Where will I go when I die?
If my body’s down in a hole in the ground,
Will I fly up in the sky?
Oh, where will I go when I die?
Dead goldfish go down the toilet bowl
Dead mice go out in the trash
My sick cat disappeared at the vets
And Grandma came home in a pot full of ashes!
Will I be a ghost in a haunted house?
Will I scare kids when I say “BOOO!!”
Will my foot hurt, when I kick the bucket?
I don’t know, do you?
Cho: (If my body’s turned into smoke and burned,
Will I make a tear in your eye?)
Bridge: Hey, maybe you could dress me up and keep me around
Sit me in your kitchen chair
Then if you got lonely and you needed someone,
I’d be right there!
Or you could hang me out in the sun on your patio,
I’d dry hard as a stone
And the wind would make music on me, like a radio!
You could dance to my rattlin’ bones!
Cho: (If my body gives, some parts t’save kids,
Will I disappear like a sigh?)
Some folks say we go up to Heaven,
Where no one’s cold or scared.
I bet no one’s lonely in Heaven,
They only let friendly people in there!
My questions make some people nervous,
“This stuff’s not for kids!” they say,
I don’t care if you don’t know,
I need to ask you anyway,
Cho: (If my “bod’s” in a box down under the rocks,
Can I get cable T.V. inside?)
Oh, where will I go, doesn’t anyone know
Tell me where will I go when I die!
Written by Peter Alsop. ©1987, Moose School Music (BMI)
Each of us can be a caregiver. As performers and writers we have an opportunity to help parents and teachers assist children in working through their grief. Our most difficult task is to shed light into our own lives, so we can become as clear as possible about our own "gray areas." It's difficult for others to open up and talk about their losses, particularly children and teenagers, if we are nervous or uptight about the very issues that concern them. It makes it much easier for others when we are clear about our own biases and feelings about death, illness and loss. If we can pass this on to teachers and parents by modeling how we create a safe place for kids to sing and laugh and cry freely, we provide a great service to them and their children.
Reprinted from Children's Music Network - Pass It On! Magazine - from Peter Alsop's "Thoughts To Chew" column - Spring, 2014