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Live Happy & Illuminate


Greetings from Michigan

As some of you know, I wrote a piece about the healing power of gratitude in the new book, “Live Happy: Ten Practices for Choosing Joy” by Deborah Heisz (Harper Elixir, 2016). This month, I also had the pleasure of speaking with Deborah  during a Live Happy podcast. We talked about finding purpose and joy after any loss.

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Unbounded Gratitude

Last month I went to Nairobi, Kenya with a small group of widows. We were connected with a charity organization that services widows and their children. We were given the opportunity to meet with the widows and visit their homes. I had the absolute joy of meeting Peninnah, a mother of three young children. Peninnah is one of those women who you would expect to be depressed and pessimistic, and frankly who could blame her? She lives in a slum, called Kibera, the largest slum many believe to be in Africa. At times it is estimated that nearly 1 million people live here. Peninnah doesn’t have running water, electricity, a bank account, or even access to even a bicycle. She spent part of her afternoon with me telling me about her daily life: how she waters down the food to get two meals out of it, cares for her infant, and how she makes necklaces (photographed below) to earn cash.

Peninnah explains the process necessary to make these necklaces. She uses discarded paper, measures and cuts it, then dyes it. Once the paper is dry, she rolls each strip of paper with a toothpick and then puts it together, like you would stringing beads on a necklace. I ask her how long it takes to make one necklace. She responds by telling me that she can make five a day, and has even taught other women in the group how to make the necklaces so that they too can earn a living.

This all seems rather hopeless to me. I think she’s living in a disaster zone, and I can’t believe that she is smiling and loving on her baby while telling me this. When I ask about how she accesses health care, she calmly explains that she has to save up money to obtain transportation to get to the NGO hospital whenever one of her children needs medical attention. She is a warm and even asks about my late husband. Our conversation comes to an end when she realizes the women are getting together to participate in a group activity. I tell Peninnah that I can hold her baby so that she can participate with the other women.


Photograph is property of Kristin Meekhof

The next morning our group met the women, and I immediately saw Peninnah holding her baby. Upon sitting next to Peninnah, she opened her purse and gave me a bracelet. I am speechless. She was so grateful for my time in taking care of her baby that she’s giving me this bracelet as a token of gratitude. Full of love she said, “This is for you because you held my baby (so) I could be with the group.”

This mother who supports her family on less than a dollar a day, has found her way to gratitude. And once she has found it, she then decided to give with an open hand. Most humbling is knowing that the bracelet she gave me could have sold to earn a few shillings.

An open heart fosters gratitude, which in turn as Peninnah knows, produces joy. Gratitude despite any circumstances isn’t easy. And so every time I look at the bracelet Peninnah gave me I think of what this gift revealed: gratitude that knows no bounds leads to openheartedness and openhandedness.

Published in Huffingtion Post Healthy Living on 11/17/2014

Single Parenting #7: by James Windell

Talking about the Death of a Father

There is no easy or painless way to tell a child that their father has died.

The best way is to be direct, honest, and straightforward.

For example, you could say: “The hospital just called to say that Daddy died today.”
Or, “I have some sad news. Your Daddy was in an accident coming home from his trip and he is dead.”

Once having said this, then you should be prepared for their emotional reactions and their questions. If there are questions, answer them honestly and with just enough information for them to understand what happened. And, of course, you need to be sensitive to their feelings, but – as always – honesty is the best policy. For instance, there may be questions about how he died and if he is coming home later.

If a child asks, “What happened to Daddy? How did he die?” you can respond with what you know: “Daddy was driving home from the office when he was in an accident with another car and he died on the way to the hospital.”

A younger child may ask this: “Will Daddy be home before I go to bed tonight?” To this kind of question, you can say, “No, Honey, Daddy is dead, and that means he won’t be coming home anymore.”

Often, beyond these direct and relatively simple questions will be more complicated questions. Children may pose the following kinds of questions:
● “Why did God let him die?”
● “Are you going to die, too?”
● “Why do people have to die?”
● “What are we going to do without Daddy?”

Because children will typically worry about the safety of their mother after the death of their father, they will need reassurance. You can respond to questions about the possibility of your death with an honest, but reassuring answer: “Everybody will die some day. But most people live to be very old. And I think I will live to be very old, too. You will probably grow up and have children of your own before I die.”

If their father died in an accident, then they may be less easily reassured. They could say, “You could be in an accident, too, and then you’d die.”

An appropriate response to this is to say, “Yes, that could happen, but I try to drive very carefully and I always wear my seatbelt. I know it is scary to think of me dying, but you and your sister are very precious to me and I will make sure I take good care of myself, particularly when I’m driving so that I don’t get into an accident. I’m sure I will be here to look after you for a very long time.”

Children need to know they will be safe and secure after the loss of one parent. When their world has been jolted, they need sensitive answers to what they are really asking to help them regain a sense of stability. Think about the emotional need underlying their question, and make sure you answer that question. By being sensitive to what they are really asking and by responding to their emotional needs – as much as to the actual question they are asking – you can let them know that you will make sure they are safe and that you will be there to take care of them.

Single Parenting #6 by James Windell

5 Communication Skills that Should be Practiced Daily

Perhaps one positive thing that comes out of your experience of being a single parent is a recognition of the importance of communication. If you are going to parenting by yourself, you know that maintaining positive communication with your child, especially when they are adolescents, is essential to a happy and healthy family.

Not only do you have to communicate about their father to help them deal with the loss, but you need to make sure they are coping with life, and the only real way of knowing how well they are doing is by talking to them and having them talk to you.

If a teenager develops a problem, most often there will be some kind of communication deficits in his relationships. So, while most teens want to keep some part of their life private from their parents, there is no question that in order to be an effective parent you have to teach – and practice – communication skills regularly starting when your child is young. That’s the only way you can be fairly sure you won’t be caught unawares of what your teenager is thinking or doing.

There are five important steps to healthy communication. Live these steps starting now and you can reduce the risk of your child keeping serious problems or concerns from you.

1. Have an open-door policy: Lots of teenagers have said something like this to me: “But I couldn’t talk to my mother about that.” And I always ask why not. Their answers usually came down to this: their parent maintained a closed-door policy. There were issues and problems that couldn’t be talked about. Instead, encourage your child to come to you to talk about anything and everything. No question or problem should be too silly, too embarrassing, or too unimportant. When your child comes to you to talk, always take it seriously.

2. Teach communicate skills: You want your child to put feelings into words. Teach him how to do this. Encourage him when he’s frustrated or mad to tell you how he’s feeling. When he does tell you how he feels, make sure you respond positively, further encouraging him to always use language.

3. Have patience and be a good listener: This is an important part of communicating, too. It takes a lot of patience with children to hear what they’re saying and to show interest using eye contact and giving appropriate responses. No matter how busy you are, don’t neglect to take the time to help your child tell you what she’s thinking or what’s bothering her. And while she’s doing that, listen carefully.

4. Be responsive: You don’t have to solve every issue or give wise advice every time. Often children aren’t looking for advice anyway. They need a parent who will listen, show they are interested, and will respond appropriately. An appropriate response might be asking clarifying questions, supporting their plans to deal with the problem, or simply nodding at the right times.

5. Be a positive communicator: How many communications take place between you and your child every day? Dozens? Maybe hundreds? Whatever the number, you can be sure there are many communications that take place every day. But if many or most of your communications are negative experiences for your child (by your failure to listen, by your rejecting their ideas or thoughts, or by your making them feel like their problems are trivial), what does this teach your child? It may teach him that communication with you isn’t worth it. Use positive communication instead. Let him know you appreciate him coming to you to talk, encourage his plans or ideas, and support his efforts to talk with you rather than keeping things to himself.

By following these steps to healthy communication, you will be a mother who will have children who appreciate your willingness to talk about anything and they will learn to be good communicators with other people in their lives.


Single Parenting #5, by James Windell

There’s a Father-Son Event coming up; Now, What do You Do?

You may be doing very well as a single mother. It’s difficult at times, but you actually enjoy being a single mom at times. There haven’t been that many rocky patches — until your son comes home from Scouts and announces, “There’s a Father-son camping trip coming up and I’d like to go.” Or, “There’s a model car competition for dads and sons. I want to do it.”

How are you going to handle that?

It may not be easy to pull off, but there are options. For instance, there may be a male relative – an uncle, grandfather, or an older cousin – who could pinch hit for you. Or, if you know the parents of some of your son’s friends, there may be a dad who is willing to include your son as well as his own.

I can remember when my children were in elementary and middle school, I was often that designated dad for other parents’ kids – both boys and girls – when a father was needed for a father-daughter dance or as a guest speaker at school. My kids didn’t mind and the other child’s mothers were always appreciative.

Besides locating a pinch hitter, you can take on the duty yourself, even though you are a mom. Some mothers don’t mind being the only mother coaching a boys’ soccer team or being involved in a model-car racing event.

Instead of fretting by yourself over what you’re going to do, you can also involve your son in the decision. Would he feel bad if you take on the dad role? Or, does he know someone – a relative, friend, or neighbor – who he’d like to invite to be his substitute father – at least for one event?

Always remember that you have options. And working out a solution with your son will help maintain the kind of mother-son communication you will – and need – as he grows older.

Single Parenting, Part 4, by James Windell

Discipline and the Single Mom

There are challenges to be sure in being a single mom. But certainly one of those challenges is discipline.

Perhaps all parents would agree that co-parenting is the ideal because it’s great when your co-parent can step in sometimes and take over. There are times when everyone one of us parents may be overwhelmed by trying to cope with an issue that we’re not handling very well. When those issues arise, it’s wonderful to have a spouse or co-parent step in and say, “I’ll handle this.”

But when you’re a single parent, you’re on your own. There isn’t that other parent to come in as the relief ace. Without a father available, you’re going to have to deal with any problem all by yourself. But, that’s tough, although certainly not impossible. Obviously, lots of mothers have done a wonderful job parenting after the loss of a husband. Here, though, are some useful tips for being the sole parent and disciplinarian:

1.   Trust your instincts. If you have fairly good instincts as a parent, and especially if you were raised by competent parents, then trust that your instincts as a parent are fairly sound.

2.   Be consistent. It’s a cliché, perhaps, to say that as a parent one of the best things you can do is be consistent. But it is a valuable tool in your parenting arsenal.

3.   Set limits. One of the things you can’t do as a single mom is to try to make life easy because your child doesn’t have a father. Just the opposite is true. It’s not your job to make life easy; it is to make sure your child grows up with the best skills to be a successful adult. One of those skills is to develop self-control. In order to help your child develop self-control, you have to set limits and be firm and consistent with those limits.

4.   Monitor your child closely. I have always loved the title of a parenting book written many years ago. The title was: “Hold Them Very Close, Then Let them Go.” That to me epitomizes the task of a parent. Supervise and monitor children very closely in the early years, but as they get older and show they are using good self-control and judgment then you can loosen the reins a bit.

5.   Be authoritative. Things go wrong when parents are either too lax or too harsh. The better course is to be an authoritative parent. Be firm, be strong, but don’t be harsh, rigid, or overly controlling. There’s an art to being an authoritative parent and it’s important to strive for this.

6.   Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Part of being authoritative is to make decisions and stand by them. But in doing so, you are going to make mistakes; all parents do. Admit your mistakes when they happen and move on.

7.   Keep in mind that discipline is about a whole range of options, not just about punishment. The best parents don’t think first about how they can punish when a behavior problem occurs. Instead, they think about teaching and bringing about change. Typically, children don’t learn best from punishment; they learn from being taught. If you can think of yourself as a teacher, instead of a disciplinarian, you will be an excellent mom.

8.   Finally, maintain a sense of humor. You can take the job of parenting seriously, but don’t yourself too seriously.  Parenting can be fun and it’s fascinating to watch your child grow and develop into a wonderful personality. Children often have a terrific sense of humor. Nurture this sense of humor and you can both share lots of laugh while you’re guiding them toward adulthood.

Single Parenting, Part 3, by James Windell

How Should You Help Kids Grieve the Loss of Their Father?

How do children grieve? And, if their father has died, how do you best help them grieve successfully?

These are not easy questions, but they are critical concerns when the family has experienced the loss of the father and the husband. However, to answer these questions it is important to keep in mind what we have learned about adults. One of the most important things we have learned is that grief is a very individual process.

Every adult has their own way of handling the grief and mourning following the death of a spouse. For some it is something they must do on their own; for others, though, they can’t be alone and must be around others. Some find it too painful to be around old friends – particularly couple friends. Some widows have told us they absolutely needed the support and comfort of a group; others found a support group to be a hotbed of painful emotions.

But what do children need? And is there a best way of helping them deal with their grief?

For some children, the death of a father is their first encounter not only with death but with the experience of trying to cope with a major loss. In a sense, then, losing a father is their rite of passage into adulthood. However, it is a major disruption in a child’s world; a disruption that costs them dearly. Having their world turned upside down by the death of a father results in the loss of stability, and the sudden – albeit temporary – disappearance of a predictable life.

And this suggests the first thing a mother has to do as a single parent – help to bring about stability and predictability while returning the routines that bring comfort and security to children.

Of course, this is not easy to do since a single mother is going to be doing her own grieving and dealing with her own loss. But as many widows told us, their first priority after the death of their husband was their children.

Martha, whose husband of 24 years died of leukemia, leaving her with four children, said that she felt she had to “keep it together for my family.” She said her major concern was her children and helping them to survive after their father died. But she said it was always her goal to never let them see her feeling sad or unhappy. She explained that she wanted to be strong and to show them that “You can survive after the death of someone very close to you.”

But children need to express their grief. And other widows we interviewed said they believed it was important for their children to see them grieve. “I didn’t want my children to think they couldn’t show their grief,” is the way some of them put it. To them, the expression of emotions would be healthy and helpful as they made their way through the grieving process.

For these widows who made no attempt to hide their grief, they wanted their children to understand that grief and mourning was a normal process and their children always had permission to grieve in their own way.

Children often show grief through changes in behavior. They may be sad, but they might also regress to an earlier stage of development. That is, some children might go back to sucking their thumb, wetting the bed, or having temper tantrums. It is therefore important newly-widowed women raising children be aware that regressed behavior is normal. And to help children deal with their loss, they must be given permission and encouragement to show their feelings.

Although they may display those feelings in various ways, it is essential to help them talk about how they feel and how the loss has affected them. In general, as a mother you must recognize the importance of emotional expression and don’t shut off any of their attempts to talk about their feelings.

A final thought: Don’t be surprised to find that young children may be better able to be honest and open about death than you are. Often children are more open about emotions because they haven’t internalized all of the social taboos and prohibitions about what you are and are not supposed to talk about in front of others. But this can be a blessing. It may help you as the grieving mother and widow to deal with your own emotions – while it helps your children to express their own deep hurt.

Single Parenting, Part 2, by James Windell

Help Boys Have an Accurate Picture of their Father-

When a mother attempts to parent alone there is often a serious effort to be both mom and dad to make up for the loss of a father. But, no matter how competent a mother is, she cannot really be a father or truly take the place of a father. Especially for a little boy.

This is what Theresa discovered with her five-year-old son Jonathan. His father and Theresa’s husband died when Jonathan was just one year old. In effect, he had never really known his father.

“Jonathan for a couple of years  has been asking where his father is and why he doesn’t live with us,” she said. “I try to give him information that I think he can handle about his father being dead. But I have found that when he is talking with his friends or his cousins that he makes references to grandiose and untrue exploits of his father.”

For instance, Theresa explained, he will say that his father lives in Mexico or that he was an airplane pilot or that his father taught him how to do a particular thing. “Sometimes I point out to him that he is pretending and that he should try not to make up fantastic stories about his father,” Theresa said. “But this has been going on for several months and I wonder if it reflects a bigger problem and not just a phase he is going through.”

Parents like Theresa certainly understand that children need a fairly well-defined sense of who they are and who their parents are in order to feel good about themselves. When one parent – such as a father in Jonathan’s case – has died, the child may begin to try to understand and cope with that loss. Eventually, how they cope with it will have an impact on how they feel about themselves, their view of adults, and the patterns that get established later in life. How the mother handles this, then, is very important.

Raising a competent, emotionally healthy child in this circumstance means not only handling the absence of the father, but also being aware of the identification process and the need for a boy to model himself after his father.

A mother must realize that a young boy will want to be “like daddy” and this will be reflected in his fantasizing and pretending about who his father is and the special qualities he possesses. A boy will want to be just like his daddy – to be strong, handsome, or to live in an exotic place, such as Mexico. When Daddy is not available, or the child doesn’t know enough about him, then he must make up things about his father.

One way for a mother to help her son during the early phases of the identification and modeling phase of development is to give her son as much accurate information as possible about his father’s positive qualities and traits.

Here are some suggestions for helping a son get to “know” his father:

■ Give positive, but realistic and objective information about his daddy when it is requested.
■ Do not discourage his fantasies or his efforts to compensate – unless you have something better to put in its place.
■ Talk to him frequently about his feelings about his father.
■ Always be truthful and open about the facts and causes of his father’s death. But remember that children younger than six or seven cannot really understand the full meaning of death, especially the finality of death.
■ Remember and talk about his father in detail. Although this may be painful for you, it will likely help both of you in the long run if you can give a more complete picture of who his father was.
■ Share photos and videos (if you have them) of his father. Give him photos he can have in his room. If you can put together what might be called a memory book this can be very informative to show your son what kind of a man his father was. A memory book might include not only photos but other memorabilia that suggests details of his life. That kind of scrapbook could also include things his daddy wrote or articles written about him, cards he sent, business cards, covers of CDs he liked, or tickets to events he enjoyed (such as sporting events or theater performances).


Single Parenting by James Windell

I’m currently writing a book for widows to help them better cope with the changes that come about after a woman loses her husband. My co-author is a woman who lost her husband to a rare form of adrenal cancer. Many of the dozens of women we have interviewed also had husbands who died of some form of cancer.

To many of us adults it seems that cancer is an epidemic which strikes with amazing frequency. The American Cancer Society indicates that half of all men and one-third of all women in this country will develop cancer during their lifetimes. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, cancer is the second leading cause of death among adults in the U.S. – just behind heart attacks.

This means that every family will be touched by an illness or death of someone due to cancer. As we have discovered in interviewing widows, it also means that children are exposed to the “C word,” and if adults are frightened by cancer imagine what it must be like for children when they hear that a parent or family member has cancer.

How do you explain to a child that a loved one has cancer?

As with so many other situations in life to which kids are exposed, the more information they have the better they will cope. Therefore, as much as you would like to shield your child from the pain and suffering of a parent or another family member, trying to ignore or avoid using the C word is not likely to really help them in the long run. If you avoid talking to a child about the cause of the person’s illness, you can be sure that they will rely on their imagination and fantasy to try to understand cancer. That could well be worse for them because of the possibilities of false concepts or ideas.

For instance, I was talking to a recent widow who said she finally told her young children that their father had cancer, but while it was helpful to know why he was in the hospital and what kind of treatment he was receiving they were convinced he was recovering and would be home soon. They talked frequently about their daddy coming home and being able to do things with them just like he did before he got sick. When she was assured by the doctors that her husband’s cancer was untreatable and would be fatal, it broke her heart to have to tell them the sad news.

“I didn’t want to destroy their faith and optimism,” this mother said, “but I couldn’t let them go on believing their daddy would recover and be home again.”

To prevent children having misconceptions, the best approach is to tell them about the illness and do this in a simple, straightforward way.

For a younger child, it can be as simple as saying, “You father is sick and has to go to the hospital. He will have some strong medicine, but we are pretty sure he will be able to come home and you can see him then.”

For an older child, the explanation can be more detailed: “Your father is sick with an illness called cancer. That means that he will have to have an operation to get rid of the cancer. After that he will have treatment with very strong medicine, but we think he will be just fine and will be coming home after that.”

As children get older, they can be provided with more medical and scientific information about the exact nature of the cancer. Younger children don’t need such detailed information; more often they are in much greater need of reassurance.

One way to provide such reassurance is to let them know they did nothing to cause the illness, particularly if the person with cancer is a parent or sibling. You can say, “No one knows what caused your mother to have this kind of cancer, but we do know that people can’t make it happen. Also, people don’t do anything bad for it to happen to them.”

There will be many questions that a child will have when a family member develops cancer. It is always better to answer questions as honestly and as openly as possible. It has been found in research studies with families that when there is open communication children experience much less distress.