How fiction can help kids dealing with loss: A guest post from Carole Geithner
By Lauren on March 23rd, 2012
Debut author Carole Geithner’s novel If Only is the heartbreaking, funny, and boundlessly hopeful story of an average 13-year-old girl going through extraordinary circumstances—allowing a glimpse into grief and what lies on the other side. Like Corinna, the character in her book, Geithner lost her mother at a young age. The emotional power of If Only is informed by both Geithner’s personal experience, and her 20+ years of experience as a clinical social worker, working with scores of children who have had a parent die, as well as adults whose childhoods were shaped by a parent loss. Below please find a very special guest post from Geithner discussing how she brought a difficult topic to a young age group.
I’ve often been asked why I decided to write a novel for this age group and on such a difficult subject. I think I’ve always been drawn to books and movies that are about difficult, emotionally challenging subjects. I was 25 when my own mom died, and that was the hardest experience I’ve personally had to go through. It made an enormous impact on me.
Loss and grief are topics that tend to be avoided because they make us so uncomfortable. It’s easier to ignore the reality that they are very much a part of life, which often results in those topics becoming an awkward dance between people. I remember sometimes wanting to have my mom’s illness or death acknowledged, but other times, especially if I was in a public place like a grocery store, I did not want the other person to ask me about it. Those were the times when I preferred to act as if things were “normal.”
In my work as a grief counselor, I found non-fiction books about how to help a grieving child or teen, and I found novels in which the death of the protagonist’s parent is touched on but remains a minor part of the story. However, I couldn’t find much fiction for teens in which the emotional realities of grief, including survival strategies, are woven through the storyline in an accessible and realistic way.
Some might worry that the subject of If Only is too dark or upsetting, but unfortunately, it’s an upsetting reality that many young people live with. I have found that adolescents are hungry for real stories about how to survive what may feel like an unbearable situation. Fiction offers an alternate and sometimes more comfortable path into exploring and learning about real life’s most challenging experiences, from divorce and death, to body changes, to family turmoil, to peer relationships and all the other difficult parts of life. I also believe in the power of fiction to foster empathy in readers who have not faced the challenges of the protagonist.
Fairy tales are a perfect example of how children can enter a story about a scary, dreaded situation alongside the hero or heroine, confront their fears vicariously through the heroine, and then identify with the heroine’s triumphs. In Corinna’s story, her “triumph” is that she survives what felt like an impossible situation and an impossible year.
As an author, my challenge was to balance Corinna’s sad story with hope and humor. If Only is a book about more than grief. It is also a story about friendships and families, and some surprising secrets.
Carole Geithner has more than twenty years of experience as a clinical social worker, working with scores of children who have had a parent die, as well as adults whose childhoods were shaped by a parent loss. She is currently an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington University School of Medicine. If Only is her debut novel. She lives with her husband Timothy Geithner and her family in Maryland. Visit her online at http://www.carolegeithner.com/
Want to hear more from Carole? Check out this great interview she did with The New York Times Book Review. You can also listen to her appearance on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show and read about her in The Washingtonian.
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