The Ghostly Minds of Middle-School Boys

This morning I took a carful of fifth graders to the Detroit Science Museum. I didn’t know any of them well (apart from my son, that is). And so I was a bit floored when the two sitting immediately behind me started talking about the fact that they regularly hear things going “bump” in the night. If you catch my meaning.

One of them, who happened to be from another faith tradition, lost his father a few years ago as well as several other male relatives. The other was Catholic, and said that he regularly wakes up hearing someone walking up and down the stairs outside his room. Even though no one is there.

My son has told me from time to time he’ll wake up and sense that someone is in the room. So he tells his guardian angels to protect him, pulls the covers over his head, and goes back to sleep. I’m starting to wonder if this is a middle-school thing, something in the development of their brains.

I was a little floored at first, knowing what to say to the child who had lost his father. He has a teenage brother, and it sounds as though the two boys are often on their own as the mother supports the family alone. He mentioned that he regularly sees movies and television programs that are … well, let’s just say the content is more mature than I’d want my 10-year-old to see.

This boy didn’t really know me, and I was pretty sure if I just said, “Don’t WATCH stuff like that. It will rot your brain!” He wouldn’t listen — and it wouldn’t really help. Nor did I think his mother would appreciate my issuing an altar call right there on the freeway. So I racked my brain for something that would be consistent with his world view.

“Sweetie, you must miss your dad so much, and it must be comforting to think of him right there beside you. He will always be a part of you, living right inside your heart. And I think if he were here right now, he would want you to focus on what a gift life is, and to enjoy the good things every single day.

“You know, sometimes I have scary thoughts at night, and I let my imagination get away with me, thinking about the future. When that happens, I ask my guardian angel to help me, and to bring my prayers straight to God. I know for a fact that all three of the great monotheistic religions believe in angels — Hagar and Ismael, Abraham and Isaac, the stories of the apostles, all of them include stories of God’s messengers who intervene when we need it. Maybe next time you feel scared or worried, this little prayer might help you.” Then I taught them all the “Angel of God” prayer.

“Thanks, Mrs. Saxton. I like that — I’ll try it.”

“One more thing. Have you ever considered why some movies are labeled ‘R’, so that you have to be 17 or with your parent to see them? Or why some movies are PG-13? Your brain is developing really quickly right now, and some images are so powerful that they can be permanently etched in your mind, and not in a good way. If you’re having trouble sleeping, and find yourself often thinking about dark things — death, and demons, and ghosts — then you really need to watch what you are feeing your brain. That means making grown-up decisions about what kind of movies you watch with your brother. That way you can be in charge of your thoughts and your dreams.”

Both boys got quiet on that one. I wondered how much their parents knew about their viewing habits. Clearly they both had a lot of time on their hands without supervision … and so someone needed to encourage them to think like little adults, instead of sneaky children.

This little boy had been through so much. He needed someone to give him permission to be a child as long as possible.

Heavenly Father, watch over all the children in my community whose parents aren’t there to influence their daily choices and habits. Give these children wisdom beyond their years, to protect their hearts from the evil one and his schemes. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!


Book Review: “God Found Us You” by Lisa Bergren and Laura Bryant

handlewithcareThis week I’ve been working on an article for Catholic Exchange called “The Language of Loss.” The idea came to me while I was reading Jodi Picoult’s latest book, Handle with Care, in which the Catholic mother of a six-year-old child with OI (brittle bone disease) sues her ob-gyn for “wrongful birth.”

In one memorable passage, Picoult refers to a “language of loss” that parents and children endure in the most intimate family relationships. Within adoptive families, these losses can be especially complex — if for no other reason, because of the number of people involved in the family bond.

God found us youAs parents, however, we must be willing to see – and help them articulate – the pain of our children as it surfaces. Sometimes the expressions of grief will surface at unexpected times. For example, the other day I was reading my children a book entitled God Found Us You, by Lisa Bergren and Laura Bryant (HarperCollins).

This happy, gentle story about a mother fox and her adopted baby fox, who asks her to tell him the story of how he came to be with her. The kind of books adoptive parents love, because it ties up the future in a lovely, reassuring bow. We read it to our children, hoping it will give them the feelings of love and security we so much want them to have.

So … imagine my disappointment when I finished the book, closed it, and turned to my kids and asked, “So – what did you think about the Baby Fox? How did he feel after Mama Fox told him the story?”

Christopher avoided my gaze, and traced three letters on his leg: “S-A-D.” Then he snuck a glance up at me, and asked me if I’d fill up his love banks. General tickling and head-rubbing ensued. Later that night, I asked him about it again. “Why was Baby Fox sad?”  “Because he missed his first mom. He wanted to see her, too.”

This was Christopher “language of loss.” He needed to process — in a way the little fox did not seem to — that by holding on to one mother, he could not entirely eliminate the longing for the other. And I’ve learned that this is actually a good and reassuring thing. The fact that his first mother continues to have a place in his heart indicates that he was securely bonded to her — just as he is firmly attached to me, and just as he will no doubt be able to bond with some lucky girl in the future.

“It is those who have been most deeply wounded by grief that have the greatest capacity for joy.” I can’t recall where I heard this bit of wisdom, but it seems to fit here. We cannot “fix” or wipe away the pain, cannot silence this language of loss. But if we are doing our job as parents, our children will find in us the compassion they need to make sense of their world.