Ask Natalie by Natalie Bencivenga

Ask Natalie: Unable to grieve for father because of Covid-19 restrictions surrounding funerals? Tried talking about racism with your brother’s kids but now things are tense?

DEAR NATALIE: I recently lost my father and we had to have a very small funeral for him. Because we couldn’t do the typical wake and service due to Covid-19 restrictions, I’m feeling so confused about my emotions surrounding his death. I was talking to my mother about this and she feels the same way. We are all “adrift at sea,” she said. Is there anything I can do to help her and to help myself make peace with his death? I just feel so lost. — COULDN’T MOURN

DEAR COULDN’T MOURN I am so sorry to hear of the death of your father. Losing a parent is hard enough, let alone in 2020 with a pandemic preventing people from the rituals that help us through this process. Grief can be incredibly isolating. I say it is the road we all walk together alone. Couple that with the very real physical isolation that so many people are experiencing right now and it is no wonder you feel adrift. In a moment where you need to be comforted, we aren’t as able to provide one another that physical support. And so what can we do? I would suggest a few things knowing that they will still feel and look different than before. You may want to host a virtual memorial service via Zoom where family and friends can gather to share stories of your father. If this feels too intense, you could request to have family and friends send you short video messages that you can watch on your own, highlighting their favorite moments with your father. You can write your father a letter or have your family members send letters or emails of their favorite stories to you. A counselor said something really profound to me once that may help: “Even though they are gone from this world, your relationship isn’t over. It just transforms.” You still have a relationship with your dad, but it’s just different now. What is something that you can do to help you feel close to him? For example, I have a mug that my Grandma gave me. Whenever I miss her, I have tea in that mug and look at old photos or just talk to her. Whatever rituals you can create, no matter how small, try them and see how you feel. There also isn’t a rule that says in the future you all can’t gather together to celebrate his life. When the time is right, that could be another option, as well. And if you are feeling the weight is too heavy to carry alone, please reach out and find a grief counselor. There is no shame in taking care of yourself. Let’s de-stigmatize mental health and do what is best for ourselves. 

DEAR NATALIE: I have tried to talk to my family about racism. We are white. I have tried to explain to them that dismantling racism starts at home. We need to talk to our children about this. But my brother and his wife are really fighting with me on this point. They don’t think it is appropriate that I recently talked to their kids (who are 10 and 12) about the Black Lives Matter movement. But, their kids asked me about it. They aren’t dumb. They see and hear everything going on. My sister-in-law thinks it isn’t “mentally healthy” for their kids to be “exposed” to these issues which they think have been “blown out of proportion.” We were at my brother’s last weekend for dinner and ended up in a big argument about this. The weird part is, we are all (pretty much) on the same page politically, but yet, they don’t feel that I should be so vocal. I am really frustrated with them both and now things are tense. Clearly I don’t want to fight, but if we don’t share these things with our children, how will anything change? Any advice on how to help my brother and sister-in-law come to terms with this? — TALK ABOUT IT

DEAR TALK ABOUT IT: This is a challenging time for many people who have never had to address racism in their homes or in their own hearts. The truth of it is, Black and non-white people have had to have these difficult conversations about the impact of racism with their children for years. Your sister-in-law trying to shield her children from the conversation of racism is an illustration of white privilege. Avoiding this talk, no matter how defensive they may be, while others are suffering and dying from the actual effects of racism helps no one. I would suggest some age-appropriate books for their children like “Harbor Me” by Jacqueline Woodson and “Just Mercy (Adapted for Young Adults): A True Story of the Fight for Justice” by Bryan Stevenson. I would also recommend “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi for your brother and sister-in-law to help them along their journey. Your relationship might be tense right now because you are growing and learning at different rates, but that is something you don’t have control over. Much of racism is rooted in self-interest, in a fear of losing something, in a fear of recognizing yourself in someone else. It takes time and it is up to everyone to do their part. Start with yourself. This work is continuous and it is not an easy road. You can’t force anyone to do this work, so just be an example by continuing the work yourself. Continue to speak out. Educate and embrace. Shaming won’t help, but open and vulnerable conversations might. A little empathy can go a long way. Remind them that whether they want to talk to their kids about this or not, it is naive to think that their children aren’t getting an education about racism from other places. At this point, wouldn’t they want to have some control over that narrative? There can be joy in letting go of what divides us and instead celebrate our differences. It may sound cliche, but we are stronger together. This outlook can change not only our personal beliefs on what it means to be human, but systemically, we can then create a more equitable and peaceful world for everyone to have an opportunity to not just survive, but thrive.

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