Dead at 31 ... Cory Monteith, star of the television series Glee Photo: AP
I was 15 years old when River Phoenix died. Our relationship only existed through staring at his poster on the wall above my sister’s bed but my friends and I still mourned the loss as if the relationship existed in real life. Losing a star, albeit from afar, can still trigger grief reactions because the pain of that imagined relationship, the feeling of growing up alongside them and the fame factor means that your connection to them is closer than your parents might understand.
As news spread over the weekend that the lead of the hit TV show Glee, Cory Monteith, had been found dead in a Vancouver Hotel Room my first thought was how to explain that death to my children who idolized him. The details of the loss were unclear but the standard line of no suspicious circumstances meant that the internal debate as to how much your kids need to know and how to tell them, reared itself late on a Sunday afternoon.
Grief is a complex emotion. The suddenness of the loss means that those within a person’s inner circle have to contend with both the grief and the shock in hearing the news of what has happened. In losing a well-known personality the children and young people who have watched from home are often stuck in space between fiction and real life in finding their way through their sadness. Parents need to balance ways to acknowledge their children’s unhappiness as well as honour the grieving process they might experience even though it's for someone that their never truly knew.
River Phoenix died from a drug-induced heart failure in 1993, aged 23 years old.
Some suggestions for balancing those ideas include:
Be the one to tell them - it’s important for children to hear from a parent or someone they trust when sad news is to be broken. By being the person who ‘tells’, allows you to watch how they respond and to offer comfort in those first few moments.
Ensure they understand who was lost – most children have some understanding of the difference between a character and the real person but clarify just the same. Finn, the character Monteith played, will always exist in terms of the way TV will immortalize him but the person who played the character is gone.
Keep it simple, for now - be brief in your explanation; don’t over complicate the details of the case especially taking into account the age of your child and what you find appropriate for them to know.
Tell them their reaction is normal – provide space for your children to share what they loved about Finn/Cory. Give them a chance to explain what they are most upset about.
Limit exposure to news sites or programs that sensationalize the story. Give your child time to process the information without being bombarded with images that might make them more confused or upset.
Validate - children will grieve the loss of anyone or anything that is important to them and those feelings of grief are not too different from adults. Empathise with your child’s feelings; don’t make them feel silly or awkward about their sadness.
It’s a sad day when someone with an obvious talent is lost – Glee provided a space for young people to connect with the message that you don’t have to fit in to find your place in the world. Providing the chance as a parent to talk openly with your children about their sadness might help them navigate one of the consequences of idolizing someone from afar.
For more information:
Kids helpline 1800 55 1800 (www.kidshelp.com.au)
Bereavement Care Centre 1300 654 556 (www.bereavementcare.com.au)
Sarah Wayland is a Sydney Based Counsellor and Writer specialising in grief, trauma and loss…and a mum of two. You can follow her at @thatspaceinbtwn
How do you discuss these types of loss in your home?