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Singing a sad song: Children & grief

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While serving as a hospice chaplain, United Methodist pastor the Rev. Gary Shockley, noticed parents, grandparents and other caretakers struggling to help children in times of grief. Because he is also a children's author and illustrator, Gary created My Heart Sings a Sad Song, a wonderful new resource to help kids and their families as they experience the complicated emotions of grief.

In this conversation, Gary shares some tips for helping children--and all of us--face our emotions during difficult times, including the grief we may be feeling during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

We also talk about how Gary learned to use his gifts for art in his ministry.

Gary Shockley

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This episode posted May 15, 2020.



Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.

My guest today is the Reverend Gary Shockley, a United Methodist pastor who serves on the staff of the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church. That’s in central Pennsylvania. He’s also the author and illustrator of a new children’s book called My Heart Sings a Sad Song. It’s a book to help children deal with grief.

In this conversation we talk about the book. We talk about the ways he’s found to use his gifts for art in his ministry. And we talk about the grief that all of us are feeling in these difficult days.


Joe: Gary Shockley, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.

Gary Shockley: Hey, Joe. Great to be with you. Thank you.

Joe: You’re the author of a new children’s book called My Heart Sings a Sad Song. Tell me about the book.

Gary Shockley: It’s a project I have just dearly loved and was 2 years in the making. It’s written for children and for adults who live with and work with children, to help them deal with grieving in a very healthy way.

Joe: How did you come to write a book about grief for children?

Gary Shockley: It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I’ve written other children’s books and nothing with this kind of a theme in it. People were a little suspicious. It’s like, really? A children’s book on grief?

For a couple of years I worked as a hospice chaplain in North Carolina, where I worked with families. The practice that I was in I dealt with anywhere from 300 to 500 deaths a year. That’s a lot of death. And a lot of those were families that had either children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews.

As a chaplain I would be working with the adults, obviously—the patient as they were dying and the adult family members—and the children were often kind of shuffled to the back of the room. They were really confused as to what was going on. Families would say, ‘Do you have any resources for our children?’ There was one that we had and it was terrible. So the nurses and the doctors said, ‘Look, you’re an artist and an author. Have you thought about creating a resource?’ And I said, ‘Actually I have.’

So that’s where it started. I actually wrote the story while I was there and completed the illustrations while I was here. It was a 2-year journey.

Joe: Wow. That’s a huge undertaking for a short book.

Gary Shockley: Exactly. It’s 34 pages long. And it’s probably hundreds and hundreds of hours, especially the drawing part and the painting part.

Joe: I want to talk a little bit about that. Obviously you’ve had a gift for art probably for a long time. How did you come to discover that you could use that in your ministry?

Gary Shockley: You know, it’s funny…. And thank you for asking this question.

When I was a small child I took painting lessons because somebody saw in me some artistic creativity. And all the way through high school and even college my pursuit was going to be in a ministry of art. And I was reckoning with a call to ministry that was simultaneous to that, into ordained ministry as a pastor. In order to pursue ordained ministry I felt like I needed to step away from art. But one of the things that God did for me was…. It kind of hurt my soul to think I wasn’t gonna be a full time artist. I would be doing the ministry thing which I love and was drawn to.

God actually seamed the two of these things together in an incredibly powerful way. I think that the richness of that is something that I’ve experienced, especially in the last 10 years of my life, where they have almost been hand in hand. The opposite sides of a coin. So, it’s hard for me to pull art away from ministry anymore because they’re so intricately bound together.

Joe: What are some other ways you’ve used your art in your ministry?

Gary Shockley: I have used art therapy with folks that I’ve worked with in spiritual direction, as a pastor and as a chaplain. And I think my bishop was the one who named it. Bishop Park has just been such a supporter of my art. Unlike any conference I’ve worked with, he has just embraced it fully. And I think he made the comment that being in ministry as an artist helps you in your way of seeing the world around you. It’s a way of looking at and interacting with the fullness of life from that artistic perspective. So aside from my actually creating tangible pieces of art, it does color the way I look at the world and embrace creativity in the midst of that.

Joe: So, you’ve continued to develop your art.

Gary Shockley: I have a studio in an unfinished room in our house. And years ago when I started in ministry my goal was to do one painting a year. I thought if I could do one oil painting a year that would be awesome. And that was probably about all I could accomplish. And now it might be one a week.

Joe: Oh, wow.

Gary Shockley: My life is very busy as a congregational developer. And I try to keep the lines pretty clear between one thing and another, although, like I said, they bleed over. But I find at the end of a long day or the end of a really long week, I go up to my studio and what brings me balance is working on an oil painting or some kind of a project like illustration. Without that I think my life would be wobbling. You know, my front end alignment would be way off… emotionally.

Joe: It’s just one of those gifts we don’t typically consider a spiritual gift, the ability to draw. But you’ve found a way to use it in your ministry. I find that really remarkable.

Back to the children’s book. Oftentimes we think of sadness as kind of a negative emotion—I don’t like that positive/negative thing to begin with—but we tend to think of it as one of those. And I like that, in the little bit that I saw of your book, it seems like you’re giving children permission to be sad. Can you say more about that?

Gary Shockley: I got goose bumps because you nailed it. Absolutely nailed it. And it is kind of a weird thing. I toyed with just calling it ‘my heart sings,’ or ‘my heart sings a song.’ Then I led with ‘my heart sings a sad song’ for exactly what you said, which is creating space and opportunity for children (and I hope adults) to be able to experience and embrace whatever emotion is happening in their hearts and in their lives.

Oftentimes when people are grieving, especially children, we work really hard to cheer them up. Right? Because it’s painful for me to see a child suffering. It’s painful for me to see an adult suffering. So what I want to do is, I want to make them feel better, and that really is all about me. I want me to feel better around them.

The book is about creating space…it’s an opportunity for children and adults alike to feel their feelings, to express them in healthy ways, and as adults to create a space for that to happen.

Joe: In your trailer for the book you talk about these 2 parts—space and love. We need both of those things in order to grieve. You started to mention the space part. What do you mean by that? Then we’ll come back and talk about the love part.

Gary Shockley: When I did my training for chaplaincy and in the work that I did, and even in counseling, there’s a term that we call ‘holding space with another person.’ Holding space means to simply be in the presence of another person without trying to guide or direct them, but simply be there and allow them to be themselves in the fullness of who they are.

So the space that we give our children is one where we accept their emotions. We sit with them. We allow them to be who they are in our presence without feeling as if we have to get them somewhere quickly because grief is not a linear process. It’s a journey…for all of us. And to have the space that we need and to take our time with it is extremely important and very, very valuable. That’s true of everybody.

All of us are experiencing grief. Right now, in this pandemic, I don’t think there’s a person on the planet that isn’t feeling some sense of loss. And if we’re not careful we can either stuff that in the back of ourselves because we don’t want to make other people around us miserable by our own anxieties and expressions of loss. Or, we can give ourselves the space that we need to feel our feelings and to give the people around us that opportunity, too. So that’s what I mean by space in this.

Joe: In this time when we’re all feeling that kind of grief and loss, you mentioned giving ourselves space. Do you have tricks or tips or things that we can do to cope with the grief that we’re feeling.

Gary Shockley: It’s going to be different for all of us. If you are an extravert it might look differently than if you’re an introverted person. Introverted people, and I am one of those…. All my life I’ve been labeled an extrovert because I function that way, but I am very introverted. So I need my space physically, to just be away from folks, to shut down the noise, to just sit and listen or reflect, contemplate or pray or just simply be. An extrovert may need a little bit more one-on-one time, or to be able to process out loud, to share their feelings with another person, so they know they’ve been heard.

Some of us will express grief primarily through the emotion of anger. Some through tears and sadness. Some through quiet and kind of a reclusiveness, just withdrawing. Sometimes it comes out almost as a nonchalant-ness. And that troubles us, especially with children. If somebody dies and the child is behaving as if nothing’s happened, then we either want to help them remember that something bad happened, or we want to get them to an emotion of happiness rather than just allow them to act as though everything’s fine, knowing in ourselves that it’s not.

So every person grieves differently. And that’s where the space becomes helpful—to allow them to do that and not lay our baggage on them in terms of what we think they ought to be feeling and what we think they ought to be doing in their grief.

Joe: It seems to me that we can do that to ourselves, too. We can have our own expectations on ourselves.

Gary Shockley: Yeah, we are hardest on ourselves.

Joe: So you are saying to give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling.

Gary Shockley: Yes. You know, one of the things I have fun doing when I’m working with people when they’re going through something like a grief process or some transition in their life that involves loss…. When they’re struggling to identify their primary emotions…. And we’re not always really good about that.  We don’t know how we feel and we don’t even know how to articulate it. So I will often invite somebody who’s kind of confused about that, to say, ‘If your feelings right now were a color, what would that color be?’

It’s amazing the responses that come back. The color we often think about sadness being is what? Black or blue. It’s interesting when somebody says, I’m feeling red or I’m feeling orange. And again, I don’t assign a value to that color. But I invite them to talk about it a little bit. And then, you know, for them to even journal that or, ‘Hey, each day when you get up in the morning or throughout the day, jot down what color you’re feeling in that moment.’ Kind of keep track of that kind of thing. It’s a very creative, visual way of doing that.

Joe: And it helps you get in touch with kind of what you’re actually feeling?

Gary Shockley: Yeah. That’s as good for adults as it is for the children.

Joe: Absolutely. So you talked a little bit about the space part. Tell me about the love part of it.

Gary Shockley: Love has many faces and many expressions. And I think one of the ways we love another person is by giving them space and honoring that space. That’s a very important thing.

There’s been books written about our love languages. And when we’re close to people it’s easy for us to know what a love language is. I’ll give you an example.

My wife does not like flowers. My wife abhors greeting cards. She thinks it’s a waste of money. She doesn’t like those kinds of typical sweet sentiments of love like that. I do. And so I’ve had to learn how to tailor how I express love in a way that is meaningful for her, not for me.

Joe: Right.

Gary Shockley: So, for her love means seeing things that need to be done and just doing them without making a big deal about it or her asking. Or, knowing that something is important in her life and being a part of it. Every now and then she’ll tolerate me buying her gifts and things like that because she knows it means something to me.

Well, all of our children (since we’re talking about children) also have a love language. And we know what kinds of things help them to know how loved they are.

Love means helping another person feel safe and secure, especially children. When they lose someone they love to death—and we shouldn’t be afraid to use the word death and dying, either. We can talk about that, too. When someone they love has died, the younger they are the more insecure they’re going to feel because death for a young child is separation and it’s confusing. The person is no longer here, but they might be someday. They might come back or they might show up. But if they left me, are other people that I care about gonna leave me, too?

So love means saying, ‘We are here with you. We love you. We’re not going to leave you. We’re going to care for you.’

Those are just some of the ways I think we do that. But it’s paying attention to the needs of the other person more so than my own needs.

Joe: Right. Meeting them where they are rather than where we might expect them to be?

Gary Shockley: Exactly.

Joe: One of the unique features of your book is that you have a guide for parents and also some activity pages. Can you talk about the guide for parents and maybe some of the activities that you’ve included?

Gary Shockley: Absolutely. I thought in creating this resource—I wanted it truly to be a resource, not just a book for entertaining, although that’s a great value as well. But how do we put a resource in the hands of those who are caring for the grieving child? Because that’s often a very confusing thing.

As adults we tend to respond to the grieving of our loved ones based out of how we experienced death and grieving in our own families of origin. If in our households our parents and loved ones didn’t talk about grief and we could never bring it up, we tend to be that way, too. So this guide helps us to kind of move beyond maybe our own experience and models to consider more healthy… helpful ways of doing this.

So a social worker friend of mine, and several other people I ran this by as I created a much longer list to say what are the most important things. They talk about telling the truth. They talk about gauging how much a child is able to converse and handle their own concepts about death, understanding that every person grieves differently and so do children.

Maintaining routine is really helpful for children and youth. So acknowledging death and experiencing grief is important and healthy, but also so is maintaining certain routines and relational experiences like staying in school, you know, still being able to hang out with friends. This is not a COVID-19 world we’re talking about. But there are ways that kids connect with one another via the Internet and other forms.

Laughter. It’s not a bad thing to laugh. When someone has died, to be able to tell stories and laugh about that is not disrespectful to do that.

Don’t put a time limit on grief. Accept this as being an open-ended thing.

And diving into your own spiritual practices and background, incorporating that in the grieving process. When I was a chaplain I was an interfaith chaplain, so I worked with people from all faith traditions and no faith traditions. And so this book has that sense that every person will be able to find their way in here. But it is subtly…. Obviously I am a Christian. So subtly those values are incorporated, I think, but not to the exclusion of other…values that come from other religious experiences.

I think one of the more important things in this that I hear parents talk about all the time is should I make my child attend the funeral? What do I do? And I had the question all the time, as a chaplain, as a pastor. Should I make my kids go to the visitation? Should they go to the casket and touch the loved one? How far should I go with that? How much should I allow them to guide that conversation for themselves? And so that’s part of this guide that I have in the book, to give some thoughts around that for parents and adults.

Joe: One of the things that occurs to me and you may have already addressed this, but I want to ask it more explicitly, is that oftentimes when a child is grieving, so is the parent, so is the caregiver. How do we get to where we’re maintaining our own grief, to be able to care for the other… in the midst of our grief? That’s complicated.

Gary Shockley: That’s such a great question, Joe. Sometimes when we’re dealing with grief with our children we…we bracket our own grief when we’re around them because we feel like I don’t want to lay my stuff on their stuff.

Joe: Right.

Gary Shockley: And I understand that. And to a certain extent, that’s a great motivation because we want to focus especially on the grief of our children and our teens. We want that to be primary. But we also want to be working on our own grief stuff.

There’s a lot of that that we can do in private, or a lot of the things we can do with other adults. But we shouldn’t keep our children from seeing our grief entirely.

When we are sad it’s okay for us to be sad, even when we’re with our kids. And if they ask mommy or daddy what’s wrong, or grandma what’s wrong, say, ‘I’m just kind of feeling sad over grandpa’s death. I really miss him, or I really miss her.’ What that does is it validates a child’s experience of feelings, too. And even being cheerful in front of our kids is a healthy thing.

But we don’t want to lose control of our emotions in front of our children where they suddenly have to start taking care of us. That may happen. We’re human beings. But when grief becomes overwhelming for us as adults and we’re having a hard time working our way through it, might be a good time for us to find help from a pastor, one of our spiritual leaders or a grief counselor or someone like that, so that we have another space to deal with the depth of that and the severity of that somewhere else.

Joe: That’s really helpful for all of us to remember. You mentioned earlier that is not your first children’s book. You’ve written others?

Gary Shockley: I have. I think this is the 6th children’s book that I’ve written. I’ve written 2 for my grandchildren. And they are available to purchase, but I’ve never marketed them because I wrote them for them. Although yesterday I had an interesting thing from somebody in the IT world that’s helping me with a website problem that I’m having. You might be able to help me with that, Joe. But it’s interesting that this vendor from the other side of the country said, ‘Are you the guy that wrote When Dinosaurs Dance?’

Joe: Oh, wow.

Gary Shockley: And I laughed out loud because I thought, ‘I don’t know that I’ve shared that with the wider world.’ So, yes, I wrote…I’ve written 2 for them. I’ve had another pastor friend of mine, he wanted a book written for his granddaughter who was gonna turn a year old. A dear friend of mine and what might be a friend that we share in common, her daughter actually wrote a book and it was her reflection on the loss of a friend that she grew up with.

Joe: Yeah.

Gary Shockley: It was on the 10-year anniversary of her friend’s death that she wrote a book as a way of raising money to support a foundation, if I remember. One of the sweetest experiences I’ve ever had was a person, let alone as an illustrator, and so a couple of books that I’ve done.

Then there’s another one, Believing Thomas, about his journey of faith, which was my very first children’s book that I illustrated for an author whose name is Patty Bean. And I’ve not been able to find where it’s being distributed. So a lot of the books I’ve illustrated. So 3 I’ve illustrated and 3 I’ve written and illustrated. And that 4th one that I’m working on right now, that’s very slow going. The story is written, but it’s gonna take a couple of years for me to get it done, too.

Joe: I was going to jokingly ask you if you knew that you could write poetry before writing this children’s book, My Heart Sings a Sad Song. It’s written in poetic format, right?

Gary Shockley: Yeah. My own stuff has this Dr. Seuss sing-songy, Bernstein Bears kind of a quality to it. It spilled out of me that way. I never intended it to have that movement.

When this book came to me I’d finished the very first book I’d illustrated, The Believing Thomas, and somebody asked me, what do you think your next book might be on? I was serving as a chaplain. And it’s kind of a funny story. I had this conversation and I was in the storefront of a women’s clothing store where we were doing some marketing around this donkey book. And the question was asked of me, ‘What do you think you might work on next?’ And I said, ‘Ah, I’ve got some ideas.’ And I said, ‘Can I borrow your restroom?’

Well, I went to the restroom and as I was in the restroom the line came to me, ‘my heart sings a sad song.’ And I came out of the restroom and finished the interview I was doing, went to my car and wrote the story. It spilled out of me as did the dinosaurs book, as did the one that I’m working on right now which has a circus theme. And I mean, I had to make some radical adjustments. I ran it by some people who are smarter than me about that stuff. But it came out as this sing-songy thing. And I’m like, well I’m just gonna go with it. It seems…maybe it’s my thing.

Joe: It makes it easy to read to children, I think, as one that has that kind of quality to it. I remember when mine were little, we always seemed to drift towards those books to read aloud.

As we’re getting ready to wrap up, the question I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape is how do you keep your spirit in shape?

Gary Shockley: You know, in this time of pandemic it’s kind of different for all of us. I think maybe we’re all taking advantage of an opportunity to do things we’ve said, ‘When I have more time I’m going to pray more,’ or ‘I’m going to read Scripture,’ or ‘I’m going to explore some other spiritual disciplines.’ For me the things that I’ve added, because I am a…I like meditation, Scripture reading, reflection, journaling, those kinds of things have been…or my journey forever. I think I’m spending more time sitting and listening.

I love sitting on the back patio of my house. We’ve got a field behind us and a couple of bird feeders and bluebirds have built a nest in a tree…in a hollowed out part of a tree. It’s raining and cold here today, but when the weather is conducive, both Kim and I will find ourselves together or separately out there watching the birds, listening to nature. They tell us…all of nature tells us, ‘Yeah, things are a mess right now, but God is still in control and the world is still moving on, and there’s still beauty all around us.’ Just sit and immerse yourself in that.

The Scripture for me, Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 6 where he says, ’Look at the birds of the field, the birds of the air, you know, they neither spin nor toil or labor and yet your heavenly father meets all of their needs.’ Why are you fretting even this thing? COVID-19. So the listening part and the reflection in nature has become even more important for me as a Christian, as a spiritual person on this journey.

Joe: Well, Gary, thank you so much. This has been a wonderful conversation. And I really appreciate your work in helping kids through difficult times.

Gary Shockley: Thank you. And I’m reminded right now that… I think the latest thing I saw is that there’s been 1.2 million cases of COVID-19 and 71,000 deaths. And I remember that 71,000 deaths means 71,000 people who are people who were loved, who were from beloved families, who are people who probably have a relationship with a child, which means there are a lot of children right now that are struggling with all of this.

They’ve lost school. They’ve lost connection with friends. They’ve lost graduation parties. They’ve lost summer camp. A lot of them are losing family members who are close to them. I think the time for us to really think seriously about how we help our children grieve well ought to be pretty high on our list of things that we’re doing together as a community of faith in the worldwide church.

I’m grateful that you saw the need for having a conversation about this, Joe. And I’m thankful.

Joe: Thank you.


Joe: That was the Reverend Gary Shockley, author and illustrator of a new children’s book, My Heart Sings a Sad Song. If you’d like to order Gary’s book, go to Or you can look for the episode page of this conversation at We’ve put some links on the page for where you can order Gary’s book and some other links where you can learn more about his artwork and other books that he’s written.

As always my email address is also on the page. So you can send me your ideas and thoughts about Get Your Spirit in Shape, and guests that you might think would be good for us to talk to.

Thank you for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.

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