Grief and Violence in The Lego Movie (Spoiler Alert)

He is angry towards his father.   Expressing his anger, the boy imagines and then acts out violent attacks: beheadings, explosions, shootings, and pushing people off a cliff. And in the end, he gets what he wants—and wins the girl too.

Am I referring to the life of a boy who recently shot people at a movie theater, school, or mall?    No, I am describing the main character from The Lego Movie.

Yes, the ending softens the story. Yes, I realize the figures are not real.  Yes, I know children’s minds are active.   But let’s go deeper with the themes of this movie.

If a child had written that story in school, there is a good chance he would be suspended.   (I’m not arguing a suspension would be right. In fact, I think that is the wrong way to approach youth who are displaying tendencies towards violence.)  My point, though, is that we question the active imagination of violence in some situations but not in others.  For our entertainment, we often welcome violent scripts and encourage children to watch them again and again.

the-lego-movie10Is violence the only way to tell the story in The Lego Movie?  (Spoiler alert here.)    What is the premise of the story? A boy is frustrated with his dad because he will not let him play with the Lego toys freely.  This is a story of hurt, frustration, and grief.  The boy grieves the distance between him and his dad.  He grieves not having the freedom to play the way that feels right to him. He grieves that his dad does not understand.   The lesson we learn from the movie comes after over 90 minutes of intense and violent attacks all played out with Lego toys.  The attacks are from the boy’s imagination (written by adult men), which is obviously depicted as overflowing with violence and anger.

I’m not against Legos.  My girls love to play with Legos, and I believe they can be wonderful for imagination and creative play.  This is one of the arguments in the movie.   And it is obviously not just The Lego Movie that exploits themes of violence for our entertainment.  (Or pokes fun at consumerism as a way to sell toys, but that is a different post.)

I am not arguing that movies and video games (or violent Lego play) cause our school shootings. However, they do give scripts for how to handle anger and grief.

Boys and men are told again and again in our culture that they shouldn’t cry. They should not show fear.  They should not grieve (or at least very little).   In our culture, we allow men to freely express one main emotion:  Anger.   In many ways, we support the expression of anger through aggression in sports, movies, video games, play, and intimate relationships.

Most boys and men do not go around shooting and assaulting others.  Even for men who do not choose violence, they have to endure the culture that tells them not to be sad or afraid.  The fortunate ones have role models in their lives who show them non-violent ways to express grief and frustration.

In the end of the movie, the dad learns to listen to his son.  That is great.  I love that part.  But in spite of that short moment, it is the 90 minutes of violence that linger.  For some bothered by the violence, the ending may redeem the movie.  For me, it leaves a lot of questions.

Is violence the only way we can keep people’s attention that long? Are there not other ways of telling stories about grief, frustration and anger that do not take explosions, shootings, and beheadings?  And what about those children (or adults) who do not have anyone at the end of their imaginary violent play to help them release anger?

file0001810277257There is a lot of pain, anger, and grief in the world.   We need to learn how to give people freedom to grieve in ways that does not bring harm to others.   I would like to see a version of The Lego Movie that had five minutes of a kid tearing down a Lego set out of frustration and 90 minutes of a parent learning how to help the child through listening and spending time together building a less violent Lego (and real) world.  Would anyone else watch that movie?  I fear that too many people will say no.


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Thirteen Years

On February 2, my family and I remembered our son Zachariah who was stillborn thirteen years ago. The notes, flowers, and words of comfort we continue to receive from friends and family are precious. Thank you. When people are reminded of how long it has been, often they say, “Oh, he would have been a teenager.” Painful words of what is not to be. It is hard to grasp his absence, so I try to find comfort in holding his presence. Words failed me more often than not this weekend. In his memory, I dedicate this poem.

Thirteen Years

Fresh snow covers the earth
Swallowing roads in white.
No need waiting till a path clears
My heart knows the way after thirteen years.
Finding a grave covered in snow
With every step, new footprints show.
Falling to my knees
Breathing tender cold,
Empty arms extending
With only a flower to hold.
Tenderly brushing until his name shows.
Kissing petals of a yellow rose.
Gently quiet
Falls the snow,
Peaceful and still,
Before it’s time to go.
Turning to leave, a look back
“Will my tracks help others,”
I pause to wonder,
“When lives are torn asunder?”
Fresh grief covers the earth.
New tracks will appear.
Your imprints on my heart
Will never disappear.
“I see your footprints, little one.”
Whispering through tears,
“My heart knows your way after thirteen years.”
                               Nancy Berns
                              Zachariah’s Mom
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Learning to Float in Grief

When my children were little, they did not want to put their faces under water. During swimming lessons, I watched as their wonderful coach gently worked with them to get more comfortable. First they blew bubbles and then gradually put their heads further in the water. It took a long time, over several lessons, before they were able to bob up and down freely. Their coach was an experienced swimmer, who competed in college and had been teaching swim lessons for years. He said that 90% of learning to swim is figuring out how to be comfortable with your head under water.

lyd swimI don’t know enough about swimming to comment on the 90%, but I can say that once my children were finally willing to put their heads under, they soon loved the water.

Not everyone takes so long to get comfortable with water. I witness many little kids jumping in the pool with no care in the world (as their parents scramble to get them because they are in over their heads). But the principle holds: most people enjoy swimming more when they are comfortable with their head under water. Until you can get your head down, it is hard to swim or float. If your head comes out, your body goes down and you start to sink. When immersed and relaxed, you begin to realize that you will float, and over time you start to appreciate freedom in the water.

It is similar in learning how to find joy in the midst of grief. Wade into the pain (like getting use to the cold) until you feel some warmth. Face the pain long enough to be able to look around and see that joy and life remain. You can learn to float while immersed in grief.

How do we get comfortable with grief? There is no one right way. Often, time helps, but it does not guarantee complete healing as the cliche suggests. Others choose to face grief head on. But completely hiding from grief tends to be a difficult option. Stephen Colbert agrees.

Famous for his character on The Colbert Report, what many people do not realize about this funny man is how intimately Stephen Colbert knows grief. When he was 10 years old, his father and two brothers were killed in an airplane crash. More recently his mother died. In interviews, Colbert shared his thoughts on grieving: “The interesting thing about grief, I think, is that it is its own size. It is not the size of you. It is its own size. And grief comes to you. You know what I mean? I’ve always liked that phrase, ‘He was visited by grief,’ because that’s really what it is. Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be okay with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.”

Colbert said he learned from his mother lessons about embracing pain: “What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”

Susan also knows grief. Her parents, husband, and a son have all died. She maintains that you can have grief and joy at the same time, but you can’t run from the grief. “The secret is you don’t hide from yourself emotionally. I think that if you hide, you’re more dead than you are alive. And you can never ever experience the same level of joy and happiness that you will experience if you don’t fully understand and recognize that when grief comes, you invite it to have coffee.” Laughing, Susan adds, “You might not ask it to stay for lunch, but you invite it to have coffee.”

You need to learn how to keep your head under water to enjoy swimming; but you also need to learn when to come up to breathe, so that you don’t drown. You have to watch out for undertow, waves, rocks, and other people crashing into you. You have to know your limits so you don’t go too deep or too far, tread too long, or get too tired. It is helpful to be with others when swimming so that someone can help if needed.

The same is true for grief. We need to learn how to be comfortable in grief without drowning. Watch out for the undertow. Be careful about other people pulling you under. Learn your limits and know when to come up for air. Moments of laughter and joy help us catch our breath.

ducksImmersing ourselves in grief long enough to discover that we can float gives us more freedom to feel the joy and love that remain. And in both grief and water, it is best not to be alone.

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Gardening for the Soul

One time when away from my office for four weeks, I failed to have anyone water the plants. When I came back, the plants were brown, shriveled up, and almost dead. I did not know if I could bring them back to their former vibrant selves, but I had to try.  Having a tender heart for living things on the verge of death, I was not about to throw them away.

So I watered them.  Then I began cutting.  I cut off the longer parts of the hanging vines.  I knew that the plant would have an easier time recovering when not hanging on to so much. I removed all the dead leaves.  Then I removed the wilted ones that had no green in them.

The plants hung low, limp, and sad.  I watered them some more a few hours later, but not so much that they would drown.  And I made sure the sun could reach the fragile life.

I came back two days later.  They looked a bit better but there were some new brown leaves.  I took those leaves off and gave the plants more water. I put them in the sun and let them rest.  They needed water, sun, and time.

A week later, I came into my office and noticed the plants looked better.  Not whole, but better. The leaves that were left had filled out more.  They were perked up and had energy to reach for the sun.  I gave them more water.  And let them rest.  The plants are shorter and thinner, but alive and growing.

When our souls have wilted, we need to nurture them.  Cut off the dead leaves and step back from the people and things hanging on that are not essential.  Focus on the parts of your life that need your attention the most.

file0001513813049Drink water, eat well, get some sun, and rest.  Give yourself time to heal, not expecting to return immediately to your former vibrant self.   Take it slow.    When you see that new bit of green, take hope and know you are growing.

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Unwrap A Gift for Living From the One Who Died

Forcing her feet to step out of the car, Susan dried her eyes before walking into the country dance hall.  No one there knew that the reason she wanted to dance was also why her tears fell so easily.

Her love for dancing started with the house dances from her childhood. Susan beamed, “I was not any older than five years when my dad taught me to waltz, schottische, polka and two-step. And he loved to dance.” Laughing, Susan recalled, “My dad would act the fool. That was his phrase, ‘Don’t we just love to act the fool, Susie!?’  That was me. I was all in.”

images-2Years later, Susan would find another dancing partner in William. Their marriage was packed full, but tragically short.   “William and I were very much coupled in everything that we did.”  And they danced.  Smiling as her eyes filled, Susan said,  “We were dancers. When we stood up to dance, people sat down to watch.”

Just three years into their marriage, William was diagnosed with cancer.  He died a year later at age 51.

“After William died,”  Susan said,  “I was so empty.  There just wasn’t anything there. Food meant nothing to me. Sleep meant nothing to me. Nothing meant nothing.”  Pausing, she realized, “It was like I had died.”

When asked how she survived, Susan immediately said, “My faith. I would not be sitting here without my faith. “

A few months after her husband died, Susan went back to graduate school.  “I deduced I was there because God wanted me to be there. God kept me alive.  He kept me putting one foot in front of the other.”   God was helping her take one step at a time, but would Susan ever return to the two-step on the dance floor?

A challenge in grieving is learning to move forward in life while fearing that you will leave behind loved ones.  Those who died remain in the old world, and it is scary to move into the new world without them.  For Susan, dancing was something she loved, first with her dad and then with William.  But how would she be able to keep dancing now?  It turns out that William gave her a way.

One evening about a week before William died, they took a walk together.  William turned to Susan and said, “Promise me you’ll keep dancing.”  Susan recalls, “ I said, ‘Damn you, William!’ Because I was thinking, “Who the hell am I going to dance with?”   But I loved to dance and he knew I loved to dance.  And maybe at a very deep level, he knew that would be therapeutic for me.”

Months after his death, his request helped her get out the door. Susan says she doubts she would have kept dancing had he not said that to her.  “I drove by myself,” recalled Susan.  “I would cry all the way to the dance and I’d go home by myself and cry the whole way home.  But I loved it.  In between it was wonderful.”  William had given her a gift for living that she was able to unwrap even after his death.

Our loved ones who die can inspire us to keep living.  The conversations, values, and memories provide a bridge between the two worlds.  Susan kept dancing in large part because it helped her stay connected to William.  Without his requesting her to “promise you’ll keep dancing,” Susan may have felt guilty.  Yes, she was still sad about not having him for a dance partner.  But the dancing was healing for her and he gave her a gift in that brief conversation.    At the time, it made Susan angry because she could not imagine dancing without William.  He was leaving her!  But in the end, while sad, she realized that he was still with her on that dance floor.  Not as she wanted, but at least in a way she needed.

Picture+49Sometimes there are no conversations that leave specific promises with those who survive a loss.  There may be no direct requests to keep dancing.  However, people still can find meaning in how a loved one lived.    We can connect those meanings and values to how we continue to live our lives.   Our loved ones who died gave us gifts to help us move forward while staying connected to our past.   We need to unwrap them.

The joy of Christmas came in an unusual gift of a baby.   For Christians, Jesus is a gift of hope and life in a time of darkness.   We can find other gifts for living from our loved ones, even after death. Their funny stories make us laugh.   Their examples of generosity inspire us to give.  Their quirky traditions live on in younger generations. Their dedication to the community guides our service.   Their faith and hope strengthens us in times of doubt.   Their precious lives, even when short, give us love.

imagesThis Christmas, look for the gifts you have already received from those who died. Unwrap the gift of living even as tears fall.   Promise me you’ll keep dancing.


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A Bag of Chips and One of Those “Loss Awareness” Days


I passed by the chips aisle twice already trying to avoid the temptation.  But I knew I was seeking that crunchy sound and salty taste.  Today found me vulnerable to my “comfort foods.”

I wanted to choose NOT to eat them, but some days it is harder.   Diet coke is another big trigger food with a psychological hold on me.    At least I was in a health food store where they did not sell diet coke, so chips was my main competitor.  After picking up fruit and veggies, I swung back around and defiantly grabbed the chips.   Why today?

Earlier, I had been reminded through someone’s Facebook post about the pregnancy and infant loss awareness day.   Huh.   For me, every day is pregnancy and infant loss awareness day.

Now some of you might think it was the “reminder” that was difficult; as if I had forgotten about the death of my son, who was stillborn, until I had seen the “pregnancy and infant loss awareness day” advertised.   You would be quite wrong.

What is disturbing is the reduction of loss into a commercial theme.  For one day.   Really?  One day is what we get?    Of course there is a lot we need to officially remember so all the heartaches, cancers, discrimination, domestic violence, and so on can only have so much “awareness” time in our culture.

I sat in my car with the bag of chips in my hand having grabbed it when I got in.  I had a choice to make at that moment.  Well, I mean more than just “Do I eat them now or wait until I get home?”     I could choose to NOT eat out of frustration and sadness that day.

Then I started thinking more about what “loss awareness” is really like.  For example, just today I was reminded of loss:

When the cashier at Target asked me if I had any sons.   
When I watched the pregnant woman fill her drink.
When I listened to two women talk about how soft a baby blanket was that one had just received as a gift.
When I see a boy close in age to what my son would have been had he lived.
When I walk by the maternity clothes.
When I walk by the baby clothes.


These are just a few examples from one morning.

Do we have all these official “awareness” days to give people something “to do?”  Does it help us to know that we wore pink, posted a note to Facebook, or lit a candle for a particular problem?

Every day, we can reach out to people around us.  Some of them we already know the loss, struggles, or illness that they are carrying.  We can listen.  We can be present. We can hold a hand.   We don’t even need to wear pink to do that.    For others, even if you do not know them, you can safely bet that there is a struggle they are carrying.  Be kind and aware.  You never know when you will have a chance to offer support.

Every day is a time to be aware of loss.   I expect many people would find that too overwhelming because we often take on the burden of “fixing” people’s pain.   People who are hurting don’t need you to fix them, but they may appreciate you listening to them share their pain.  They don’t need you pushing them to “get over it,” but they may appreciate you sitting by their side or walking with them on their long journey.

Today, my day is by no means bad.   And soon I will see my funny, sweet daughters when I pick them up from school.  I have many blessings and joy in my life.  I also have loss.   I remember that loss every day because I love my son every day.

Maybe having an official “pregnancy and infant loss awareness day” helps others to be educated on what so many men and women go through each day.   If that is the case, good.  Maybe a “special day” helps affirm those who are hurting and alone in their grief.  I hope so.   But even more, I pray those men and women who are hurting will have people step up and be by their side more than that one day.

Now what about those chips?  Not only did I rip open the bag and start eating them, I also stopped on the way home for a diet coke.     I eat and drink in solidarity with all who know the heartache of losing a child.


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A 96-year-old Man’s Grief Lights Up the World

An elderly man’s grief is inspiring people around the world thanks to the work of Green Shoe Studio.  Possible you are one of the millions who have already heard the story.

thAbout a month after his wife died, Fred Stobaugh wrote a love song for her, “Oh Sweet Lorraine.”  He sent the lyrics in for a song contest where songwriter Jacob Colgan enters the story.  Jacob set Fred’s lyrics to music and made a mini-documentary about the couple.

Why has Fred’s story and the resulting song become such a hit?

It can be a difficult video to watch because the story touches our fear of losing someone so close.  It starkly shows how quickly life passes by.  But it also shows that love lasts beyond death.

th-1Fred’s story strikes our fear of mortality while giving us courage to face what comes.  And I think deep down we know we would be so lucky to have the love and perspective Fred shares.

I hope Fred’s story helps people give themselves permission to share their grief, talk about their loved ones, and live life to its fullest.

Fred’s love for his wife continues to touch people’s hearts through Green Shoe Studio.   If you have not already, take the time to hear the story and the song inspired from a couple’s love.

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Don’t Rush to the Bright Side

Recently at a Kohl’s department store, the sales clerk finalized my transaction and added a cheesy “You saved $26!”

Laughing, I said, “You guys crack me up when you say that.   The reality is I spent $49.”

He replied, “But we like to look on the bright side!”

I said, more seriously, “It’s a gimmick.  You always have sales.  I didn’t save when I came here.  I spent money.”

Spending money is not always bad, but let’s be realistic.  At that moment, I spent money.  I didn’t “save.”  I can spend money and save (separately), but I can’t ignore the spending part of life by pretending I saved while shopping.

I have a similar reaction to the breezy “look on the bright side” phrase that comes when people are uncomfortable with others’ difficult moments.  The “bright side” is real and important, but let’s not cheapen it by ignoring the grief in our lives.

When people are facing a crisis or just having a hard day, it can be tempting (and often well-meaning) to say something along the lines of “try to look on the bright side.”  That is not always a bad strategy.  I will sometimes say that to my children.  However, before I say that, I try to make sure I give them time to tell me what is wrong.  I take their emotions and troubles seriously.   After they feel heard and validated regarding their struggles, they are more ready to see other parts of their lives too.

I hear similar stories from people about grief.  When others listen to their pain, it opens up space for them to also see the joy around them.  We need to be able to share the pain along with the joy in our lives.

Thankfully, “the bright side” is never too far away, but we should not reduce it to an empty slogan.  When we tell people to “be positive” without hearing their struggles, we do not see them as a whole person.   Some people do need help learning to see beauty and joy in dark times, but that journey finds joy and grief together.  Grief is an important part of our lives.    We can be realistic about our need to grieve and along the way still find the bright side.





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Stephen Colbert’s Loving Tribute to His Mother

I have long respected Stephen Colbert’s perspective on grief.  In earlier interviews, Colbert has shared insightful thoughts on grieving.  Here is one example:

“The interesting thing about grief, I think, is that it is its own size. It is not the size of you. It is its own size. And grief comes to you. You know what I mean? I’ve always liked that phrase, ‘He was visited by grief,’ because that’s really what it is. Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be okay with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.”

Recently, Colbert’s mother died.  He gave a beautiful, poignant tribute to her before his show one evening.  Many people have shared the video and commented on its valuable insights.  I join that crowd.   Please take a few minutes to listen to Colbert’s remarkable summary of love and grief.

One of my favorite quotes from his tribute:

“She knew more than her share of tragedy, losing her brother and her husband and three of her sons. But her love for her family and her faith in God somehow gave her the strength not only to go on but to love life without bitterness and instill in all of us a gratitude for every day we have together. And I know it may sound greedy to want more days with a person who lived so long, but the fact that my mother was 92 does not diminish, it only magnifies, the enormity of the room whose door has now quietly shut.”

I imagine that earlier lessons Colbert learned from his mom will guide him through this time.  Colbert said, “What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”

We grieve because we love.


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When Mother’s Day is Not Happy

Mother’s Day can be a miserable day.  Countless women and children mourn for a mother-child relationship that is not as it should be.    The hallmark cards and commercials depict Mother’s Day as all smiles.  But for many people, the celebration taps into pain and sorrow.

I know.

The first Mother’s Day I experienced after my baby died was awful.   Well, every day was hard then.  But on that day in particular the pain lunged at me from all sides.  Nothing was going to stop the pain, but I remember a gesture that did bring a measure of comfort.   My sister sent a card with a note encouraging me that one day I’d have a special reunion with my son.   It meant a lot to me because she understood that I was a mom, even though my son had died.   I still have that card.

Mother’s Day can be an opportunity to not only celebrate but to remember and comfort others.  The day need not be happy to be important.   Often we struggle in responding to people who are sad, but here are a few ideas to help you start. 

To someone aching to be a mother, but who has not been able to conceive or who has experienced a miscarriage, give her flowers with a note saying you remember her.  Do not try to make her pain go away.  Just let your presence be known.

To someone grieving the death of a child, whether a few months ago or many years, ask about her son or daughter.  Ask if she would like to share stories and memories.   Even if she is not able to at that moment, she’ll be thankful someone remembered. Donate to a charity in memory of her child and let her know.   Even if a mother has other living children, she still misses her child who died.

To adults grieving the death of a mother, whether a few months ago or many years, ask them what was special about their mothers.  “What do you remember most?  What lessons did she teach that remain in you?”

To children grieving the death of a mother, whether a few months ago or many years, ask how they feel about Mother’s Day.   Give a child an opportunity to cry, to ask questions, to know it is OK to be sad or confused.  Also, let children know that laughing and loving others does not take away from their love for a mother who died.

To a mother whose child is across the globe fighting in a war:  Pray for peace.  Let her talk about her fears.  Don’t try to take away her fear, just listen.

To women who chose, or were forced, to give up babies through adoption or abortion, give them space to mourn. Acknowledge their loss.  They don’t need more judgment.

To adult children whose mothers abused them growing up, listen to their pain. Ask if there are other women in their lives that have been special to them.  Would they want to honor those women? Recognize the balance between acknowledging their pain and knowing that there are others who love them.

To little children whose mothers are not able to properly take care of them, see if there is a way you can help.

To women who have stepped up to help take care of other people’s children, recognize and thank them.  Motherly love is not restricted to a biological relationship.

To mothers who have a strained relationship with a child because of drugs, prison, mental illness, arguments, or family conflict, encourage them.  Don’t dismiss their pain, but offer hope.  See if there are other ways you can help.  The same goes for a child whose mother is struggling with these problems.

If it is your relationship with a child or a mother that is strained, offer forgiveness or an apology.   Reach out.  Decide this Mother’s Day to try again.

If you are the one grieving for a child or a mother, give yourself freedom to grieve, to remember, to laugh, to cry.   Find a way to honor the life and love that you were granted.

May you find peace and comfort this Mother’s Day as you remember those you love.



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