Family Matters


The Sadness Ghost: A 6-year-old discovers the power of his imagination


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.…

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1 Comment

Monday, February 20, 2012 3:51:43 PM | posted by David Barnhart
The concept of being visited by the sadness ghost illustrates a conversational path that could help kids or adults think about emotions without being stuck or overwhelmed. Thanks for the story.

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