In the summer of 2011, an 8-year-old boy was murdered here in New York City. He got lost walking the few blocks home from day camp. It’s a chilling story, even more so for parents of young children.
When I read about it, my first response was, “I have to get Gus away from the city. This place isn’t safe. We have to go somewhere safe.” Close on the heels of that thought came the question of how to get Gus—who’s 6, sweet, full of energy, and talkative—not to trust strangers. What if some guy takes my Gus away? Even as I write this, I’m feeling the grief of possible loss.
A few days after that, my son looked down at a newspaper lying on the sidewalk. It read, “Missing Brooklyn Boy Found Murdered” and had a picture of the boy staring up at us. Gus, who can read, asked me what it meant. I haltingly explained that the boy was killed by someone he didn’t know. I used simple language and moved through the explanation quickly and in a neutral tone, but I didn’t lie. I told him that, sometimes, strangers can be dangerous.
In a quiet voice, Gus said, “This is bad.” And we walked on toward the park.
To this day, I don’t know whether it was the right decision to be honest, standing there, looking down at that newspaper. I felt the weight of the world settle on me and my 6-year-old son. It’s one of those moments when telling simplified stories or outright lies seems like a much better idea in retrospect.
A few nights later, Gus’s mother called me. We’re no longer married. She told me Gus had been crying, and that he was sad because of a song on the radio that he’d heard. The song was “American Pie” by Don McClean. You probably know the lyrics: “Bye, bye Miss American Pie / Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry / Them good ol’ boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing . . . / This’ll be the day that I die / This’ll be the day that I die.”
“Gus has been crying all evening,” Sharron told me. “He doesn’t want to hear ‘American Pie’ anymore.” I realized that his simple response, this is bad, had only been the tip of the iceberg. I told Sharron about the newspaper and the story of the boy who’d been killed.
A day or so later, Gus was staying with my wife, Saliha, and me. He told her he was very sad. “I’ve been sad for three days, and I don’t want to be sad anymore.” Saliha, who’s a couples and family therapist, asked him what was making him sad. He told us he was thinking about death. He then put his hands over his ears, lay down on his side, and shut his eyes. He cried about Olive, our cat who’d died a couple of years before. I thought, “I shouldn’t have told him about the boy,” getting a chill in my gut—the feeling that I’d done something irreversible.
Saliha asked Gus about his sadness. He said he just couldn’t stop feeling sad. He has a little tray full of plastic figures he’s been collecting called Toonz. He has about 40 of them. He looked at us and said, “What’s the point of collecting things if I’m going to die? What will happen to them when I’m dead?” Gus repeated that he didn’t want to be sad anymore and that he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Saliha said, “Gus, close your eyes and picture something for me. I want you to think about an orange. Can you picture it?”
Gus said, “Yes.”
Saliha said, “OK, now I want you to stop thinking about it.”
Gus opened his eyes, and looked at Saliha. He closed his eyes again. “OK,” he said.
“Stop thinking about how the orange peel smells. Stop thinking about how the orange tastes. Don’t think about how the peel looks when you tear part of it off.”
“I can’t stop thinking about it because you keep talking about it!” he yelled, equal parts exasperated and amused.
“OK,” said Saliha. “Now think about an apple.”
“OK,” said Gus.
“Think about its red color,” said Saliha.
“Green,” he said. “I like green apples.”
“OK,” said Saliha, “think about its green color. Think about how it tastes. Think about how crunchy and sweet it is.” “Now,” said Saliha. “Can you see the orange?”
“No,” said Gus, amused.
“If you want to stop thinking about something, you can’t just tell yourself to stop. You have to think about something else,” she said. “You grow what you decide to think about. So if you think about sadness, you’ll grow sadness. If you think about happiness, you’ll grow that. Think of the orange as sadness and the apple as happiness. If you want to stop thinking about the orange, you have to think about something else. About the happiness. About the apple.”
Gus took the oranges and apples idea and, within a few moments, he’d reassigned ice cream as the happiness thought. We talked about what would be examples of “ice cream thoughts.” We talked more about choosing what thoughts we might want to grow so as not to feel sad. Bedtime came, I read Gus some books, and he went to sleep.
At some point later, Saliha told me that thinking about an emotion, like sadness, over and over may create a groove or a worn path that the mind can get into the habit of traveling.
She then posed the following question: why is sadness necessarily a bad thing? We can hold sadness just like other emotions. It’s part of life. Sadness can even be good.
The next morning, Gus woke and called to me that he’d had a bad dream. “I dreamed that Mommy went away for two years,” he told me.
I got him out of his bed and we began our day. We sat at the dining table, which, as usual, was covered in our art supplies. He said Mommy was gone, and it made him sad. I asked him to tell me more about the dream. We talked about sadness and he returned to the subject of his toys and death. He said he didn’t want to collect any more toys. What was the use? (A hell of a good existential question, by the way. . . .)
Then something magical happened. It’s been a while since that day, and I’m sure I’m not constructing it accurately, but I recently found a page in a journal that I’d flipped open that morning and made notes in as Gus was speaking to me.
In preparation for sharing what he said, let me first explain that Gus and I are both artists. We draw pictures. We often draw them as a way to order our thoughts about the world, or to construct stories that help us experience it.
As we spoke, I asked him again about sadness—not death, but sadness. Saliha’s concern that we not try to hide from sadness was on my mind. And then one of us, I don’t know which, said, “What if sadness is a cartoon? How would we draw it?”
Gus got his pencils and he drew the Sadness Ghost. He was very specific. He drew the eyes several times. I had a second sheet of paper, on which I drew versions of the ghost with different eyes, and he said, “No, Daddy, those aren’t right.”
The eyes he drew were blank and ghostly, but they’re not angry or mean. Gus can draw angry and mean eyes. He draws them all the time on his dragons. These eyes were lost, and perhaps worried. But they were also, as Gus described them, “cute.”
In the moment he conceptualized the Sadness Ghost, Gus activated his own solution for processing what he was feeling. In that moment, he ceased to be a sad person and became, instead, a person who was being visited by sadness. This distinction is crucial in processing powerful, sometimes overwhelming emotions like rage, fear, or grief.
Gus and I created our story for the Sadness Ghost. We talked about being “visited by sadness.” We talked about how sadness wasn’t always a bad thing; that we all feel sad sometimes.
Then Gus said, “The Sadness Ghost comes and goes. It’s OK for the Sadness Ghost to come. He can come for a little while because he’s cute. He comes to me as a hiding place for him because he’s scared. But later, he has to go when he’s not too scared.”
Gus played the role of himself speaking to the Sadness Ghost. “OK, now go,” he said gently, gesturing for the ghost to go, indicating that we each have to know when to tell sadness to move on. What’s remarkable is how he was able to accept sadness into himself in the form of the Sadness Ghost, and then care for it. Gus became the caretaker of his own sadness; he became the safe place where his sadness could come to be comforted. He no longer defined himself as sad. He was being visited by sadness—a very different way to frame the experience.
In the days after that, Gus’s sadness went away. He went back to collecting things with a vengeance. He moved on to his ice-cream thoughts. And although sadness will visit him many times in his life, I hope his capacity to hold it will remain as vital and powerful as it was that morning.
Illustration © Adam Niklewicz
Mark Greene is an Emmy Award-winning animator and a children’s book author who works and lives in New York City.