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The Unique Grief of a Child: Carole Geithner Discusses Her First Novel

Inspired by the dearth of books dealing with grief from a child's perspective, Carole Geithner decided to write her own.

For those that have been blindsided and dumbfounded by the enormity of death, it is, often times, the simplest gestures from others that have the greatest effect: preparation of a meal or simply listening and being present for a grief stricken friend.

Local nonprofit Larchmont Friends of the Family (LFOF) — an organization comprised of 100 volunteers that's flown quietly under the radar for 15 years —provides this kind of support and more to families with dependent children who have suffered a loss or catastrophic illness. Support ranges from providing meals and cleaning for a woman undergoing chemotherapy to counseling children whose parent has suddenly died.

Recently, LFOF hosted part-time Larchmont resident Carole Geithner at an event to discuss her new book, If Only, about a child dealing with the loss of her mother from cancer.  The book's theme is true to Geithner's heart: she lost her own mother when she was a 25-year-old graduate student in social work.

The wife of U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, she has been a clincial social worker for over two decades and is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington School of Medicine.  

Patch caught up with Carole to ask about her new book as well as her life's work in counseling grieving families.  Her email responses are below.

Patch: How did your mother's death impact your career path? 

Carole Geithner: My mother died when I was 25, while I was still in the middle of getting my master’s degree in social work.  Her death so early in my training influenced my professional path, and I believe that it also gave me an extra sensitivity to noticing and acknowledging all the different kinds of loss in the lives of people with whom I worked.    

Patch: I have spent time working with children who have lost parents or siblings at the Bereavement Center of Westchester’s Tree House program, and many seemed to be coping remarkably well considering the losses they had suffered.  Although children are uniquely vulnerable to traumatic events, do you find that they have a resilience and ability to bounce back that adults may not have?  

Geithner: Yes, with strong social support (from family, friends, and other adults in their community), most children have a lot of resilience. When a family faces additional significant stressors, sometimes referred to as “secondary losses” (such as having to move to a different home and/or school, or financial hardship, due to the loss), those certainly make the journey harder. Many people look back and say that they have grown from their childhood loss experience—that it increased their compassion, their appreciation for the people in their lives, and for life in general.   
Grief is a lifelong journey, and there will be times in the future—graduations, weddings, anniversaries, etc..., when the waves of grief may intensify again.

Patch: What are some ways that parents can help their child recover from a parent or siblings death?

Geithner: Parents can help their kids by helping them to feel safe, cared for, and loved, and by providing as much continuity and consistency as possible after the death of a loved one. This can be hard to do in the initial days and weeks (or longer) after a death, so accepting (or reaching out for) help to keep some sense of routine (meals, school, activities, household chores, etc...) may be a very good idea.  Another thing that helps kids is to keep the memory of the person alive – by talking about the loved one, recognizing that they are still a part of the family’s life even if they are no longer physically present. 

A common impulse is to try to protect the kids from information or from the parents’ grief, but hiding information denies them the opportunity to say goodbye, or to grieve, and may keep children feeling alone with their feelings and confused about what happened.  It is not uncommon for children or teens to feel somehow responsible for the death.  Share age-appropriate, truthful information, while trying to follow the child’s or teen’s questions rather than bombarding them with all the info at once.  Checking out their understanding of what happened gives parents an opportunity to clear up any magical thinking about the cause of death.  

It’s important for everyone to understand that there is no one right way to grieve. Even people in the same family, grieving the same person, will have their own pace and style and will need to find their own unique way.  Some will show their grief outwardly, others won’t. This variation can be confusing to observers, especially if the “style” of grieving is different from their own.

Patch: How did If Only come about?  Were you inspired by your work with children who had suffered significant losses?

Geithner: Yes, If Only grew out of my work with children, but also my work with adults. As a clinical social worker, I heard many stories from adults who—as kids—had been given the well-intentioned spoken or unspoken message not to mention the deceased person’s name, to get over it, who had not been allowed to come to a funeral, who had been lied to about the cause of death.  

Eventually, I began working and volunteering at The Bereavement Center of Westchester, helping to run groups for children and teens whose parent or sibling had died, from illness, accidents, violence, suicide, addiction.  The details of their losses varied, but being in the same room with other kids that “GOT IT” was profoundly affirming and comforting to them.  

I found that many of the children and teens I worked with were hungry for stories about people surviving what often feels like an unimaginable situation. Because I couldn’t find many fiction books for teens that really got into the grief experience, I decided to write one of my own. 

Patch: What was your family’s reaction to your book being published?

Geithner: My kids and husband were among my early and late-stage readers, providing helpful feedback.  I think the process of writing and publishing my first novel was a family adventure for all of us, and I get the sense that they are very proud of me. 

Patch: Do you think the book will be difficult for readers who have not experienced the death of a parent?  

Geithner: If Only is a coming of age story as well as a story about one girl’s grief journey. Based on feedback I’ve received from readers who have NOT experienced the death of a parent, the novel appeals to a range of readers.  Corinna has to cope with friend conflicts, a crush, and a developing sense of self.  Some readers have said that they connected with Corinna because some of her emotions resonate with other kinds of losses, such as divorce.  A number of readers have found the book gave them some ideas about how to be supportive to a friend. Corinna has a great sense of humor, and that helps modulate the tension around a serious topic.

Patch: What do you hope kids/adults reading If Only will take away from it?

Geithner: My hope is that that the people in a griever’s “circle” will be less afraid, less likely to pull away or say something that is insensitive or hurtful after reading If Only.  I hope they will be more likely to walk alongside grieving children and teens, to convey their caring presence as each griever finds his or her own, unique way. 

Patch: How were you able to write this from a child's perspective?

Geithner: I drew on direct experience and overheard conversations with kids around Corinna’s age - from driving carpool with my own kids when they were that age to working with groups of teens in bereavement groups.  I also read some letters I’d written to my camp friend when I was that age—she had saved them.  I cringed when I read them as an adult, but they were a helpful reminder of some of the dynamics and angst of that age.  I had to be careful not to give Corinna too much adult perspective. For this, I had some junior high and high school readers, including my own kids, who pointed out when I was old-fashioned or unrealistic about something.

Patch: Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the traumatic stories you hear from the children you work with (do you work exclusively with children)?  

Geithner: I’ve worked with all ages, from 4 to 94.  People often wonder if this work is depressing. I find it to be very meaningful, and although there are sad stories, there is also a sharing of happy or funny memories.  Of course, it’s important for caregivers and people in the helping professions to take care of themselves, to help avoid burn-out.  We each need to find sources of support and replenishing.

For more information on "If Only" please visit Carole's website here. Messages can be sent directly to Corinna, the main character in "If Only," through the site as well.

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