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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 14, 2002

Book helping kids cope with grief, loss and change

By Debra Scacciaferro
(Morris County, N.J.) Daily Record

Barbara Coloroso knows a thing or two about getting through grief. As a parent, she has helped her own three children cope with cancer, multiple sclerosis and her serious car accident when they were small.

Barbara Coloroso knows firsthand how grief and loss can lead to serious problems if children are left to cope on their own. And that parents don't always have the right tools to help themselves at such times, let alone their children.

USA Today

As a special-education teacher, she worked with scores of children reeling from life-changing losses ranging from divorce, to the death of a parent or sibling, to the aftermath of school violence — like the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., where she lives. She is also a former Franciscan nun.

Coloroso knows firsthand how grief and loss can lead to serious problems if children are left to cope on their own. And that parents don't always have the right tools to help themselves at such times, let alone their children.

"Nobody gets over grief," she says. "We get through grief. It takes time, affection and laughter."

Coloroso has written a book "Parenting Through Crisis: Helping Kids in Times of Loss, Grief and Change" (Harper Resource, $14) offering parents a blueprint on helping children through life-changing circumstances.

Kids are resilient, Coloroso says. But they can't do it alone.

Coloroso's book came out of her work with children and her family's experience getting through multiple blows: Her oldest daughter, Anna, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and her younger daughter, Maria, was subsequently diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which required surgery.

"Maria took a very healthy stand against using the term 'survivor.' She said, '(Cancer) is a big ugly thread in my life, but it doesn't define my life.' "

To help those who grieve, Coloroso frames her book in what she terms "The TAO of Family."

"Tao is a word for 'the path,' " she says. "We all have our own path we have to travel, although people can give us some help along the way."

TAO is also an acronym for Time, Affection and Optimism — the three ingredients parents need to practice in their relationships with their children in good times and bad:

• Time. When parents are consumed with grief, Coloroso writes, it might be difficult to focus on anything except their own grieving. But good parenting is a time-consuming vocation. "We need to find time for our kids," she warns parents, "even if it is time to share in the grieving, lest they become the hidden mourners."

• Affection. Children need a smile, a hug and humor every day, Coloroso writes: "These three elements can help all of us get through our mourning. A smile, even one we had to work hard to create, lifts our spirits. Hugs let us know we are in this together. A hearty laugh is contagious and can provide a respite from our grief."

• Optimism. This means a willingness to cultivate a grateful attitude. Coloroso writes: "It's the ability to go through a long night of grief, get up in the morning, make breakfast for our children and affirm to them that all of us can make it through this," she writes. "Such resilience will not come to us in times of great chaos and grieving if we haven't made it part of our way of approaching everyday ups and downs."

The worst thing parents can do, Coloroso says, is to minimize their children's concerns, hush things up or use euphemisms to shield their children from the truth.

Because coming to terms with the truth about divorce, death or illness allows children to go through the three passages of grief that everyone must go through:

• The piercing grief of the goodbye. "It's the 'Oh, no! This can't be happening,' " Coloroso says. "Our mind and body shuts down so we can get through this thing. People try to numb it with drugs and the like. But when the drugs wear off, the grief is still there. You still have to face it."

• Intense sorrow. "Six months to two years down the road, you're back to doing normal things," she says. "But those things have been changed forever, colored steel cold gray. Even happy times are colored by that. You go to a wedding and think about who's not there."

• Sadness tempered by joy. "The sadness is tempered by the joy of finally getting on with your own life," Coloroso says.

But she doesn't stop there. She addresses 17 signs that tell parents when children are stuck in the grieving process, including prolonged crying, the inability to get out of bed, depression, truancy, the idealization of the dead or divorced parent, and children who take on the role of the dead parent.

"One of the real red flags," Coloroso says, "is when a child states the wish to be with the dead person."