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Published on July 25th, 2016 | by Katherine Thome


Radical Empathy: DEATH IS STUPID, an Interview with Anastasia Higginbotham

Grieving children and children of divorce learn way too early that adults are emotional children. Children of tragedy experience a moment where they are forced to grow up and see that adults are full of it most of the time. They see adults behave childishly, irrationally, and inappropriately. Adults feed into this perception by saying things like, “Grandma is in a better place now,” “God doesn’t do anything without a reason.” “This sad feeling will pass.” They aren’t making it easier for the children, they are making it easier for themselves.

When my father was in a coma, people kept telling me that he would wake up and ask for pancakes. At the age of seven, I knew this was ridiculous because all of our relatives had come to the hospital and everyone was stone faced. My father was dying. Also, I could understand that he wasn’t going to ask for pancakes—first because no one who wakes up in a hospital with a tube in his nose is going to ask for breakfast and second because my father ate eggs. These were nice people, but entirely unhelpful. In short—these people were full of sh!t.

Moments like these are the inspiration behind a series of books: “Ordinary, Terrible Things.” Writer and artist Anastasia Higginbotham has created beautiful books that offer straight talk and clear images to explain the truth. The newest one, Death is Stupid, approaches grieving children with an honesty that is both refreshing and challenging—radical empathy. – Kate Thome

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MUTHA: Do you think it is for the comfort of adults that we sugar coat unpleasant things like death?

ANASTASIA HIGGINBOTHAM: It’s really that we’re scared. “What if it’s too big? What if I don’t say the right thing? What if I mess this up?” It’s really very self-referential. What the child needs is the room to have a reaction. Kids don’t want us to solve their problems. I think that they want us to recognize and acknowledge that they have real problems. A real inner life. One that is rich and real and complicated.

We do it to ourselves as adults. We tell children, “Don’t worry.” We tell ourselves, “Don’t ever be bored. Don’t ever not have a screen in front of your face. Don’t ever have a moment that’s not to share or be ‘liked.’” There’s something really gross in our culture about not feeling pain. We’re supposed to have an audience. Sometimes, we just need to sit there and not call or tell anyone. In a William Maxwell book, a child’s mother has recently died, and there’s a scene where the child puts his arm around his father’s waist and the father lets him. They walk from room to room in silence. I think if we did more of that than the constant busyness of simultaneous communication we’d do better.

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MUTHA: By admitting in the title that, “Death is Stupid,” you use radical empathy to connect with children. You are honest with them. Is this an approach you’d planned or is it more about what children need—namely the truth?

ANASTASIA HIGGINBOTHAM: It’s a genuine reaction to hearing the spin and objecting to it. I object. I remember as a child, I didn’t have the words to articulate any resistance to the things that were being told to me. I put so much faith in the adults around me that when they told me, “Don’t worry about this,” I really tried to not worry.

Children need something better, they deserve something better. They need something more authentic. They need us to deal with our own fears and our own stuff. It’s about holding a mirror a mirror of compassion, understanding and not anticipating. We’re not saying, “Oh I know what this is like for you.”

MUTHA: Because you don’t. No, you actually don’t.

ANASTASIA HIGGINBOTHAM: You really, really don’t. You don’t know the last thing I said to them before they died. You don’t know what I feel guilty about. You don’t know that I blame the hospital, or even you. The images in the book are very specific. It was important to me to make the picture of the father with his arm around the child. He’s just holding him and saying nothing. The kid is in the room upstairs having an existential crisis. The father’s responsibility is to go up there and just show up.

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MUTHA: Why do we think that kids can’t handle hard things? Moreover, why do we think they’ll buy our bull when we give it to them?

ANASTASIA HIGGINBOTHAM: We don’t even actually want them to believe it. Take, “Don’t worry she’s only sleeping.” If that child trusts you enough to believe you, you have done grave harm. Now, is that child going to the cemetery with you? Where they lower a body into a hole in the ground and throw dirt over it? How’s that going to play?

I think it’s reversed. Children want the truth and adults want the lie. Adults are closer to death. Children are more ready for it than we are. It keeps adults from growing up. The whole, “Ordinary, Terrible Things” series has to do with adults growing up so they can get out of their kid’s way. We have to look at our stuff.

MUTHA: Do you have a childhood memory of someone sugarcoating something unpleasant to you?

ANASTASIA HIGGINBOTHAM: When my grandmother died, I was a young teenager. I know that’s the “natural way—the grandparent before the parents…

MUTHA: Natural doesn’t make it easier.

ANASTASIA HIGGINBOTHAM: No, it doesn’t. Why do we say that? I know it’s “natural” but still I don’t ever get to sit in the same room with this person ever again, I don’t get to see them walk through a door ever again. If I hear their voice, it will be in a memory or in a dream from which I will wake sobbing knowing that I’ll never hear that voice in person again. But the culture of my family was: “Don’t dwell in it. Don’t get mired in it. Whatever it is.” The whole series came from the idea of “Don’t dwell in it.”

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MUTHA: Somewhere along the way, our culture became scared of talking about death. In the past, people saw death earlier and more often. When did this start? Is that why we’re afraid to talk openly about death?

ANASTASIA HIGGINBOTHAM: People working in the funeral business, the death business, have a lot to say about it. Perhaps the problem is that death has been taken away from us. The body is in a hospital, morgue or funeral parlor. We take care of our dead by disappearing them. In the past, people prepared the bodies of the dead. When you care for your own dead, there’s an openness to transition.

MUTHA: In some ways we are seeing a cultural parallel between redeeming birth from medicalization with home births and birth centers to opening up to death through the death positive movement and death cafes. Is that a reaction to our lack of ritual?

ANASTASIA HIGGINBOTHAM: There are now doulas on both sides. There’s a real hunger for connectivity with birth and death.

MUTHA: If you could say one thing to a grieving child, what would it be?

ANASTASIA HIGGINBOTHAM: I would be reluctant to say anything. If I was going to say anything, it would be, “I don’t want to tell you how to feel, but I am interested in how you feel if you want to tell me. I want to be close to you during this process if you want me to be. We’ll figure it out together.”

MUTHA: Radical Empathy.

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Death is Stupid and other titles in the Ordinary, Terrible Things series are published by Feminist Press.




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About the Author

Kate Thome is thrilled to have her debut essay in MUTHA. She grew up with her mother in New York City and Westhampton Beach. After majoring in philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, Kate pursued a career in banking and payments. She holds an MBA from the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University. A member of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, she blogs about her memoir in process at Kate lives with her family in Northern California.

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