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Elisabeth Röhm’s Blog: Deciding When to Share and When to Shield

01/16/2013 at 09:00 PM ET

Elisabeth Röhm's Blog: Deciding When to Share and When to Shield
Beautiful sunset – Courtesy Elisabeth Röhm

Elisabeth Röhm, best known for her roles as Serena on Law & Order and Kate on Angel, has been blogging for PEOPLE.com for two years now.

The actress, 39, currently stars as Taylor on The Client List, while her film In the Dark re-airs on Lifetime throughout January.

Her book, Object of My Conception: A Journey to Motherhood Through IVF, will be released by Da Capo in April.

She can be found on Facebook, Google + and @ElisabethRohm.

In her latest blog, Röhm — mom to 4½-year-old Easton August with fiancé Ron Anthony — opens up about the loss of her Aunt Lolly and how recent events have her considering how much Easton actually understands.

No one likes to cry in front of people. I’m sure most of us can say we don’t like to cry at all. We certainly don’t like to cry in front of our kids or emote feelings that are overwhelming to us. But what happens when we are sad, tired, temporarily defeated, grieving or just plain exhausted by life? What happens when we are human and not the demi-God our children think we are? What do we do with our tragic flaws?

How do we handle our feelings in front of our kids? Those precious, innocent kids that simply don’t get the scope of whatever it is we’re experiencing or feeling? They simply don’t get it. Or do they?

Isn’t it our job to protect them from the harsh realities of the world, our world and yes, soon-to-be their world? Are we supposed to hide in a closet, a bathroom or our bedrooms and let it all out in private? Are we supposed to bottle our cries and our stresses until we wave the school bus good-bye, or we drive away from their academic establishments after morning drop-off?

Is that right and fair to us moms who are just trying to get by, all the while juggling the various things that make us those invincible superstars that get to be called Mom, Mommy, Mama? Isn’t it beneficial for them to understand the complexity of us mommies and the complexities of life?

I’ve never been closeted or one for locking the bathroom to privately exhale, shed a few tears or simply decompress before I lose it. I’m very open and actually really enjoy sharing and perhaps over-sharing. Why hide in the closet trying to stifle our sobs over love, money, career or the fact that our hormones have gotten the best of us and sometimes get in the way of our ordinary sanity?

We should communicate with our loved ones. But our children; our children, who are a part of our bodies and souls and feel every emotion, experience and reaction that course through us even before we’ve uttered a word, yelp or deep sigh of frustration?

Not to mention the bigger burdens of loss, death, the news that so often deals with death and dying or grief. What if we lose a loved one? How do we explain the tears that can come brimming over our lashes and down our face without our permission?

Even if we’d like to be the happiest, go luckiest, best, most responsible stable mothers, sometimes things get too hard, tiring, staggering and quite simply sad on a given day — making it near impossible to be the supermom we see ourselves as.

Sometimes life does get the best of us, doesn’t it?

We experience our life as it unfolds before us and sometimes we notice that the image of ourselves as a “perfect parent” is just not matching up. That can make us feel very vulnerable as parents who are supposed to shoulder it all with an endless waterfall of smiles and unconditional strength.

I know, oh how I know! What did Jack Lemmon say? “It’s show-time!” For parents, it’s “show-time” all the time, right?

No matter if we are burned out, stressed out or tapped out, our children look to us for unwavering calming love, security and safety and most of all joy. So what do we do when we feel like we are coming apart at the seams like a poorly-crafted stuffed animal, with all that cotton ball stuffing poking out in the most unflattering of ways?

Is it really the most responsible choice to hide out where little prying, wide eyes can’t see their parents losing their — you know what — @##^*%^&*%^-cookies?

Having lost my mother three years ago, I tried so very hard to keep my deepest grief private, but as our kids get older it’s a little harder to hide those truthful emotions. They are so sensitive and curious.

As they grow we wonder what parts we should share, what’s beneficial and helpful in growing them up into mature, wise beings who understand that feelings are not scary and challenging experiences are a part of life — you can’t avoid them even if you want to.

And also, this is a BIG one: that dying is a part of living. It is natural and painful and transformative.

Saturday afternoon, late in the day, as I was cleaning out Easton’s closet to add to that ever-evolving hand-me-down bag of kid stuff for a girlfriend, the telephone rang with tragic news. My beloved Aunt Laurie, who I’ve referred to many times in my blog as “Lolly,” had shockingly passed away from a sudden and unexpected heart attack. Too young to die, like my mother was.

The news hit me like a freight train and I fell to the ground flooded by my pools of tears.

Easton was so confused and concerned. Since she is almost 5, I tried to explain to her what happened. At first I thought she was getting it. Then I realized that she really wasn’t getting it. After 10 minutes of crying and hugging her tight on the kitchen floor whilst I tried very carefully and thoughtfully to explain where “Lolly” had gone and why I was so upset, I realized it was better left unsaid.

I pulled myself together, self-conscious of my parenting, and stuffed my feelings in the back pocket of my jeans so as not to worry her any further.

It reminded me of my mother all over again, and how I tried to shield Easton from my loss. The experience was just too complicated for a little person — or so it has seemed. And really, why make Easton endure along with me what would mostly be an onslaught of confusing emotions from her mother? Better to deal with it on my own in the closet, right?

As the days have gone by, I’ve kept my tears saved up for those moments that she’s not around, just like I did when Mom passed away. I’ve waited until I’m in the shower, the car or she’s gone to sleep to break into a million pieces of angels wings that flutter into the heavens where my beloved mother and aunt are now.

I hope I’m being a conscientious parent — or am I?

As I left for the airport Tuesday to go to my Aunt Lolly’s funeral, my daughter still seemed confused by my leaving and the idea of death, as I tried once more to explain where Mommy was going for several days. She just looked at me with shiny blue eyes, blinking with the innocence of kind-of-sort-of getting it but not.

I guess that confirmation again made me feel clear that it’s been better for Easton that I keep my grown-up feelings to myself.

This scenario of late begs the question of talking and sharing with our children about other heavy subjects like arguments, breakups, divorce, moving, money issues, news, loss, fear and all other forms of pain in our big adult lives, doesn’t it?

Several weeks ago, there was some quarreling going on between Ron and me. It became a discussion as to if we should try to explain the bickering to Easton or if it was better to assume that she wouldn’t grasp all the details anyway and to protect her altogether.

On one hand, you could say that children do get it all and are highly sensitive — even to the tense and hushed discussions that you try to keep private — and that in order for them to feel safe, the parents should include the child in what they are witness to.

On the other hand, when we asked Easton in loving and nurturing tones if she had any questions or was worried at all by what Mommy and Daddy were talking about, she simply said, “No.”

We pressed and said, “Because we’ll always explain everything to you and always tell you the truth. You sure you don’t have any questions or concerns?” “Nope,” she said, assuredly and clearly, and then she was off to a game of hide and seek with her Aunt Olivia.

Where do you stand on all of this, ladies? Where do you draw the line? Do you cry, fight, share grief and stress, watch the news, talk openly and show your emotions without question or regret in front of your wee-ones?

Let’s discuss any ah-ha moments where you realized you needed to share more or less, realized you were sheltering or over-exposing your children to life’s tragedies and cruelties.

I always love the conversations that we share, the debates, the memories of our lives and those poignant learned lessons!!

Looking forward to another year of blogging with you and wishing a blessed and abundant New Year for you and your families.

Elisabeth Röhm's Blog: Why I Support St. Jude
With my girl – Courtesy Elisabeth Röhm

Until next time…

– Elisabeth Röhm

More from Elisabeth’s PEOPLE.com blog series:

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Showing 14 comments

Melanie on

Elisabeth, first of all, I am so sorry for the loss of your aunt. I remember you writing about her with such affection many times over the years on this blog. Love to you, Ron and Easton at this difficult time.

Secondly, we did have a recent discussion with our 7-year-old son regarding the Sandy Hook school shootings. I researched information online about how to best present it and I thought my husband and I did a great job explaining that school is a safe place, the man that shot the students that died was sick, that his teacher is there for him during the school day when Mom and Dad aren’t around. He seemed fine and didn’t have any questions and had not mentioned it again.

Last week, he came down with the flu and I made an appointment to take him to the pediatrician just to make sure that’s all it was. He seemed terrified to go to the doctor (very unlike him), and after a few questions, it came to light that he overheard me on the phone telling the nurse he was “sick” and that I wanted to bring him in.

He remembered me saying the gunman was “sick” and thought that he was sick in that way too. I felt horrible that I didn’t explain the situation as well as I thought I had and talked to him about how the gunman was sick in the head, and that he was an entirely different kind of sick, that his body was fighting a virus.

He seemed to understand that, thankfully, but I couldn’t believe that in trying to help avoid him hearing and believing something I didn’t want him to at school, I had actually made the situation (or his understanding of it) worse with my explanation. It’s definitely something to think about.

Mama Bambi on

Elisabeth, these are such important questions…..I’m very sorry for your loss !!! My husband and I have been dealing with some of these very subjects with our kids for 9 months or so…..

No one tells you how to explain to your 10 yr old that her oldest sister was killed by a drunk driver the night before. Or what to say to the 16 yr old that is with you in the ER, when asked to identify her body….some things in life you cannot prepare for….

I will never know the full extent of how this tragedy has changed them. Just like my husband and I are trying to find our way through every day. Everyone grieves differently and there is no right or wrong.

I think being honest and allowing kids to see you are not perfect and have feelings too, shows them that they don’t have to pretend to be perfect either……and that is life, no one knows how long we have on this earth. So make it count and love your kids like crazy ……

P.S. Tell them everyday !!!

JBK on

My daughter will be 5 in March and this past week we lost my grandfather, who is very dear to her and her younger brother, to cancer. While I don’t think that she can fully grasp what is going on, I refuse to hide the truth or my pain from her.

She has not cried over his loss as I doubt her innocent mind can fully understand “forever,” however in the weeks to come she will return to her grandmothers and will ultimately have questions as to where grandpa is. Being dishonest about how I feel is like pretending he wasn’t ever here and I want her to know that it is ok to miss him because I do too.

Lorelei on

I am so sorry for the loss of your beloved aunt.

Although I’m the mom of teens now with a whole set of different issues I remember well when my now 11th grader came home from kindergarten the day of 9/11. I just remember what my mother told me – keep it simple and keep reminding them to ask if they have questions. Children seem to take everything literally and to heart.

Also watch for changes of behavior. I remember a friend told her son her dear grandma died in her sleep. The child wouldn’t go to bed for days. Thank God children are resilient!

Robin on

So sorry for your loss. My SIL passed last month and I had similiar questions about explaining to our 5 year old.

I spoke to a therapist and her recommendation worked well. She said to only say what I believed to be true. For example- if I don’t believe in Heaven then don’t say that is where she went.

She also said to keep the details to a minimum and wait for the child to ask more questions, or after they had time to digest, ask the child if they had any questions.

The therapist also said that giving them an art project after discussion was a good way to allow their mind to process what has just been said.

This approach seemed to work for us. Our daughter came back later with straight forward questions that we were able to answer.

poohtattoo on

I’m not a parent and this may not apply, but I’m adopted and I didn’t find out until an adulthood after my parents passed away.

My parents provided a loving home and did the best, but as I got older I knew that there were “secrets” in the home that I wasn’t allowed to know. College brought on a resentment that I couldn’t identify until the aha moment of “I’m adopted! That’s the secret.”

I think every child, unfortunately, is different and therefore no set of “rules” will ever apply that works for everyone. I just know that as a kid, I knew something was wrong and trusted my parents to do what’s best, but in the end what they thought didn’t work for me.

I guess what I’m trying to say is as long as you don’t keep secrets from your child, explain in simple terms, they get it and will thank you later on as adults.

KG on

My grandfather just recently passed and I was faced with explaining to my almost 5 year old why we couldn’t go see grandpa like we always do. He’s been in church his whole life so I simply said Gpa went to be with Jesus. He reacted with “oh he was really old and sick wasn’t he”.

He then said something that blew me away and gave me such peace. He said well now he won’t be old or sick. Sometimes I think the simple way kids look at things could teach us over thinking adults a lesson.

ami on

Knowing the personality and maturity of the child and not going by the age is how you should go about handleing heavy topics such as death.

My mother passed away this fall. I told my children the truth (age 8 and 6) but did not allow them to go to the services. My brother with children the same ages had his children go to the services. They seemed to handle the situation openly and bravely.

My mom and I both agreed (before) that my girls should not see her when she got really sick and after she passed. Both decisions on my part and my brothers part were the right choices for our kids. You just have to deicde at the moment how much of these situations they can handle. My kids can learn more about death in a few more years.

rothiam on

Children deal with death of non immediate family members much easier than adults. They have had less invested in those types of relationships simply because of their abtract nature. I was told by more than one seasoned professional that a divorce of ones parents is the single most traumatic experience for a child. Death can be blamed on whatever the belief system is…the person was ill, it was time for them to go to Heaven…but reasons for a divorce are not discussed with children so they conclude that it must somehow be their fault.

Heather on

We have always been very open with my 4 year old (amost 5) about death. From the day he was born he has been part of our church family and known that Jesus died for him. That brings up other questions like “what is death? … why can’t I see Jesus right now?” and the like.

I have family members that have shielded their kiddos from the topic… the fact is, none of their children have handled death well in the future. My son knows that death happens, he knows what a cemetery is and he knows that if he believes in God and lives a good life, then there is no reason to fear death.

Grieving is a given and natural response. What you do with it after that is what truly matters and we choose to talk about the person, laugh and cry about memories we have and rejoice in the fact that we will see our loved ones again!

vickie on

My daughter is 4 1/2, and we have had two recent deaths (her paternal great-grandfathers) AND she has been very interested in children’s stories, like “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Pinocchio,” that all talk about death.

It’s hard to explain that concept to a child without putting that fear in them that someone they love and need (like a parent), could unexpectedly die. So, I did my best to just briefly explain that when people get really old, they die and go to the spirit world. I didn’t bring up death at any other age, and she didn’t ask.

Well, when I picked her up from pre-school last week, the teacher pulled me aside and told me that my daughter was making the other children sad and afraid by telling them that her little stuffed-bear, “Sugar Pop” had lost its mother. “She died and went to the spirit world, and now Sugar Pop has no family.” Yeah.

The weird thing is that she doesn’t seem sad or overly concerned about it herself, but I don’t understand why she has become so morbid lately. She has these little backstories to some of her pretend play at home as well. So, now I worry that I handled it wrong when I tried to explain to her about death…

Angela on

I am so sorry for your loss – I have a close aunt I call “Mommo” and I know when she goes I’ll be torn to bits for a long time…

Our daughter is now almost 10 and we’ve had some heartbreak in this decade she’s graced our lives. It’s never easy to deal with grief, but I find the methods change depending on the child’s age and personality.

When my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, my baby was three. Mom watched her every day while I worked, and suddenly she couldn’t any longer. My girl had to enter daycare for the first time, see me frantically trying to maintain everyday life and deal with Mom’s sickness and my own fear of losing her. It was tough for all of us (my husband was my saving grace in that time, as usual) and I felt that it was best to tell my girl that Nana was “just sick and needed the doctors to help make her better”. Best not to take it any further, her little world was in enough turmoil. Thankfully, my mother not only survived, but hit the 5 year cancer-free mark that most lung cancer survivors don’t live to see.

Then, one of Mom’s best friends passed away suddenly, and Mom subsequently had a stroke when my girl was 7 – this time it was time to talk to her about it. She was too perceptive to allow it to go unaddressed. I was gentle, but honest about the death of a close friend and the new risks to her beloved grandmother. She handled it better and with more grace then I ever thought possible. My pride in my daughter’s strength helped me through that time – and my Mother made another amazing recovery… We’re lucky…

Just a year ago – my beloved 14 year dog passed away after a difficult illness. Now was the moment of truth – She was mature and aware and death had touched not just our lives but our home. My girl broke – my own grief was compounded by watching the love of my world break under her pain. But- I found strength in the process of helping her heal – it helped us both.

Once your child is old enough to truly process what is going on – the natural truth of death – the finality of it, it’s best to be totally open and work toward healing. We drew pictures, looked at photos, made a webpage for our dog. We had long talks about our pup picking her favorite cloud to sit on and watch us from – and where she could find the best lettuce in Heavan (her favorite food). We turned tears into laughter and memories into cherished gold. I think it’s helped my daughter be stronger and have more empathy for living through these uncertainties and pain.

You know your child best, of course, so take their cues and always be honest. Hugs are the best healing you can ever find. Bless you and your family!

Amo on

Sorry to hear about your Aunty. Hope you and your family are going ok. I really love your blogs!!

I was 8 when 9/11 happened and all I remember about that day is waking up to the TV being on and my mum being concerned. I couldn’t understand why she was so worried or why it was about something that was on the other side of the world to us. I went to school that day and our Grade 2 teacher sat us down and then asked us if we had any questions about what was going on and if we understood everything. Most of us knew that ‘a plane went into a building’ but we weren’t sure how or why it happened.

I think we were only told that it was ‘bad people’ that hijacked the plane. But that was enough for us to get the point and it didn’t scare us to the point of not wanting to leave home or treating kids of other backgrounds differently in the school ground. Only in the years after the attacks I found out more information. But I’m glad I didn’t know the full extent back then.

Then there was the Bali bombings (which were closer to home to us). One of my art teachers was actually in that same bar only a week before it happened. She explained that she was one of the lucky ones with tears in her eyes while we all gave her a hug. We heard it from one of the lucky ones.

I do remember watching heaps of things about the Tsunamis and the London bombings and they were something we were well aware of. I was old enough to read the newspaper and see them all over the news as well as hear about it from adults explaining it to us.

I think that it’s a fantastic idea that you always ask Easton if she would like to know more, and that she should feel more than able to approach you about things if she wants to. I also think that is super wise to at least let her know that you might be bickering with your partner. Even if nothing comes from it.

Having pets has helped me almost prepare for grievance in the family if they pass away. During the loss of a pet it’s almost like it’s nice to know that if mum cries or I cry it is normal and it’s ok to feel sad sometimes or even think about loved ones many months or years after they have passed away.

My parents separated in 2002 and the process was actually way easier to handle because we were all able to discuss it with each other maturely (no slamming doors, no screaming or other hoo ha etc). We were all kept on the same page.

I am truly blessed to have great parents that still help me get through difficult times as well as the exciting and great things in life. It’s all a learning process for everyone and it’s ok to find out things later when you’re both mentally and emotionally ready.

Have a wonderful year!! :D

Angelina on

I have to TOTALLY & COMPLETELY agree with ami! My children are very fortunate (11 & 9 yrs old) as there has been no deaths in our immediate family or even extended family or friends to have to explain to them.

HOWEVER, as a child when my close Great-aunt passed away, my parents decided to bring my sisters and I to the “viewing” and service (we were 10, 8 and 6 yrs old — I was the middle child).

After the funeral, it was uncomfortable for any of us girls to discuss our Aunt and I have forever pictured her as she was laying there for the “viewing”. (Not the way a child should remember someone)! Hence, I will not do that with my children until they are at least 12 yo, if not older. Children are so innocent and it is our job to protect them from the things in life that will hurt or scar them, until they are prepared to deal with things on their own.

And I am sorry for the loss of your precious “Aunt Lolly” as well as your mother. Life can be difficult but you are doing the right thing by protecting your beautiful daughter from these things until she is old enough to understand.

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