I once heard a story at a pre-deployment brief about an Active Duty Marine Dad who was boarding the bus to take off for a 6 month deployment. While holding back tears and waving to his family out the bus’s window he noticed that his 8 year old son was barely making eye contact; his son appeared incredibly stoic. No emotion. It bothered the Marine in a way he couldn’t explain. He certainly felt upset to be leaving his family. He was also excited about the deployment. He felt conflicted: sad, excited and “guilty” regarding the deployment.
The Marine made sure to call back home as often as he could. One night, about 3 months into the deployment, this son asked his father, “Were you proud of me, Daddy?” This Marine was confused by the question. “I’m always proud of you, son.” To which his son replied, “No, Daddy. Were you proud of me the day you deployed?” There was a silent pause. “Daddy, did you notice I didn’t cry?!”
The little boy wanted to please his father by holding back his tears and not showing emotion.
Most people hear this story and find it to be charming and touching. What a brave little boy.
I hear the story and I’m bothered.
I’m assuming this child (like many others) was taught that being a mature man requires avoiding sad emotions and never crying. We teach this lesson to our children in an effort to build resiliency and strength during tough life events.
As parents, it’s hard to see our children hurting. It can also be annoying! I remember my 3.5 year old lost the crown to her Rapunzel doll several months ago. She was so upset. I found myself agitated and saying “It will be okay. Don’t cry!” Her loss seemed insignificant to me. So I found myself dismissing her grief.
If you are a parent (myself included), I challenge you to let sad events… BE SAD. And let the griever call the shots on what their own personal grief is. Whether it’s a deployment, moving across the country, losing a best friend, a favorite toy…
Imagine if the dad in this story dad waved out the window and saw that his brave son was openly crying. It would be sad, yes, but sadness is necessary to live in the moment and express appropriate emotions. Imagine if Dad openly cried and said, “I have been training for this deployment and although I’m excited to go and do this work, I am certainly going to miss my awesome family. I love you guys so much!”
I think the “more emotional version” of this story would have saved Father and Son 3 months of confusion around the hiding of their feelings that day.
When a child appears to be grieving, no matter the loss, try to let them experience the emotions. Do not worry about “being strong for others.” Modeling an openness to ALL human emotions by embracing vulnerability and authenticity is one of the bravest things we will ever do. Sitting next to our children, our friends, our family… just being there, listening without judgment or advice in their moments of vulnerability is one of the most kind, generous things we could ever do, too.
Thera Storm, LCSW