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By Patrick McKenna

Andrea Dorn never expected to become an author, let alone a non-fiction children’s books. But as someone who was always creative and had a career of experience as a clinical social worker, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place thanks to seeing a need for single-step children’s books and becoming a mother. This lead to the “Mindful Steps Series” and her latest work (which you can purchase here) “When Someone Dies: A Children’s How-To Guide on Grief and Loss, “which works to help children, parents and caregivers navigate through the challenging road losing a someone paves. MenLiving’s Patrick McKenna got a chance to talk to Dorn about her inspirations behind “When Someone Dies,” what adults can learn from children with grief and how authentic connections can sprout from helping each other through loss and death.

Patrick:

I know your career started as a social worker, so I’m wondering what led you to become a published author?

Andrea:
If you would’ve told me two years ago that I would be authoring any books, I probably would’ve laughed. That just never would’ve entered my mind. But parenthood is really what propelled me into book writing. I think sometimes things are kind of serendipitous, and they just fit together. My background in social work, psychology, and mental health, along with my experience as a parent, all combined with the creative part of me that just desires to put things out into the world. I think all of that just came together.

I realized there was a hole in children’s literature in single-step, concrete resources for kids. I thought, “I’m going to write a book and just kind of see where it goes.” It has been a wild journey. I’m a really firm believer of if something is meant for you, it will give back to you. That has not been true in some areas of my life, but it has been extremely true in this area of my life. I think once I started the ball rolling, I’ve just been following wherever it’s led me, and it’s been a really rewarding experience.

Patrick:
That’s awesome. How did you come up with that idea for a how-to guide on mindfulness for kids? And then how did it lead you to write this most recent book “When Someone Dies?”

Andrea:
There are so many factors that go into picking my topics. This series itself came from a desire to support children and families in learning skills and about transitions in an effective and helpful way early on. That actually came from a lot of the work that I’ve done with adults. I work a lot in trauma therapy, and I have been exposed to a lot of adults who struggle with their ability to tolerate emotions, practice mindfulness and effective coping skills. I wanted to create guidebooks not only for kids to learn these important skills, but also for parents and families to learn alongside their children. Because a lot of adults, especially Generation X and Generation Y, grew up in this generational messaging that was really about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and to not feel your emotions.

Patrick:

Which makes sense but is totally outdated now.

Andrea:

Right. I wanted to be able to support kids in learning these skills early on so that they would have a better understanding on how to work through these tricky times as they grew up. I was also going through these transitions with my own son. All of the books that I was reading were great. I mean, the abstract, more story-like books are wonderful and fantastic, and we have a lot of them in our library. But kids need concrete steps. That’s how their brain works. They need to know what happens first, what happens next, and what happens then. They need to understand what’s expected of them during those steps. So, my first book is on potty training. I could not find any books that were just “First, you take off your pants.” It sounds really silly to an adult brain, but these kids are learning these things for the first time. So, my series is really inspired by just wanting to support kids and families with general, concrete how-to guides on how to work through these topics and transitions.

“When Someone Dies” was a really important topic to me to add, partially because of what we were experiencing globally with the pandemic. I mean, the Surgeon General I think reported that over 200,000 children have lost a member of their family in the pandemic. But another statistic that’s been reported is that one in 14 kids will lose a sibling or a parent before the age of 18. Loss is an extremely prevalent thing, and it’s a really normal thing. It’s not always just about loss of a person. It can be loss of a home, moving, it can be a divorce. We experience loss from an early age, and it’s important to learn how to navigate the feelings that come with this normal human expression.

Patrick:
Absolutely. A lot of the people I’ve talked to – authors, professionals, activists – talk about how when they decided to write a book about something or pursue something, they talk about seeing a need and wanting to fill that need with something that addresses it. Can you speak to seeing the need that led to “When Someone Dies?”

Andrea:
There’s a lot of really wonderful books on grief and loss for children. But many of them are these very abstract depictions of loss. That can be very challenging for kids, again, to get to this concrete understanding of, “Okay, well what’s going to happen? And then what’s expected of me during this time? What can I expect of this really humongous transition possibly in my life?” The need for me was to provide kids with this extremely concrete understanding of something that is very abstract and is very personal to each person. The need is there to really express to kids how they can respond to this huge thing that happens in most of our lives at some point.

Patrick:
Right. With your career as a psychotherapist, what were some of the ways you brought your years of experience and research into the process of writing “When Someone Dies?”

Andrea:
When I first started out my career, I worked a lot more with kids. Since the pandemic, I’ve worked more with parents and then again in trauma, but something that is really important in working with kids, especially in mental health, is supporting the system that they’re in. Kids are in a lot of different systems. They’re in a school system, they’re in a home system, they’re in a friend system. My books contain a lot of optional engagement questions. The point of that is to facilitate a conversation between parent and child in order to build a healthy attachment and connection. I used a lot of my experience in working with kids and families to propel those questions and create more in-depth but open-ended conversations about whatever top the book happens to be about.

Patrick:
Yeah, that makes sense.

Andrea:
One other thing that I want to add about that is that loss is a very traumatic thing. As kids process loss, it’s really important to express thoughts and feeling about the loss. Part of my personal and professional career has been about really helping people and kids do that. When you’re able to verbalize what’s going on and put words to it, name it to tame it. It can be an extremely empowering and healing thing to do.

Patrick:
Yeah, absolutely. What do you think adults can actually learn from children when it comes to processing and talking about grief?

Andrea:
Wow, that’s a great question. No one has asked me that before.

Andrea:
Really? Well thank you.

Andrea:
Kids are naturally these innocent, amazing, creative, mindful human beings, and they look at things in such an amazing, miraculous way. They have this natural ability to really slow things down and say what they mean and be very present with what’s happening with them right now. They also have this ability to have this playfulness, even in difficult times. I think as we’re moving through grief, it can be such an overwhelming experience. That’s why it’s important for us to also be able to step back and reflect and do those same things and be present with what we’re experiencing. We should allow those emotions to kind of come out and flow. Also, being kind of playful in a way that we work through our grief can help. Kids often grieve and work through things through play, and play can be a really healing thing to do.

Patrick:
There’s something to be said about how because kids haven’t had as my much time yet to learn in the way adults learn and are socialized, they react differently to death. Whether it’s an adult at 26, 56 or 76, the ways that we respond because we’ve been socialized to act a certain way in a grief setting, even with unconscious responses. And kids don’t necessarily have that.

Andrea:

Absolutely.

Patrick:
Speaking of that, I wanted to talk about the way men are socialized into their “acceptable” emotional responses, particularly with grief. Traditionally, one of the only acceptable spaces for a man to cry is at a funeral of a loved one. What are your thoughts on that?

Andrea:
Yeah. I don’t like to generalize, especially between genders, but I do think you’re right in a way. Men have a more difficult time for many different reasons, both biologically and societally, in expressing emotion. When it comes to grief, it’s different for each man, but it often becomes more of an internal process. I think for women, it’s a much more external process, but for men it’s a much more internal process. It also, for some reason, tends to come out a lot as the one emotion that is kind of socially acceptable for men, which is anger.

Patrick:
I was about to say, definitely.

Andrea:
So, we see a lot more grief expression in men manifest as anger. But again, men are kind of generally “fix it” kind of people. They see a problem and say, “Let’s fix it. Let’s see how we move on.”

Patrick:
Let’s knock it out so we don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Andrea:
Yeah, exactly.

Patrick:
That doesn’t really work with grief.

Andrea:
I think when it comes to grief, it’s a very similar situation. Like okay, this does not feel very good. How do we solve this problem and then move past it? Again, I think that’s biological and societally driven.

Patrick:

I wanted to move into talking about mindfulness, since that’s one of the core pieces of your book series. To you, what are some of the more powerful benefits of mindfulness, for children and adults?

Andrea:
Mindfulness is intentionally choosing to be present and aware in a moment without attachment to the moment and without judgment. That’s a very informal definition of mindfulness, and that’s the type of mindfulness that I speak to and write about most often. It seems to be the most accessible for people. Of course, it’s not always easy to do, but it feels the most accessible versus sitting on a pillow for 30 minutes trying to clear your mind.  The studies on mindfulness that they’ve done over the years show so many benefits, not just with our mental health, but also our physiological health. Mindfulness practice reduces a hormone called cortisol typically, which is responsible for so many chronic illnesses and conditions over the lifetime. It also increases resiliency when you practice mindfulness because it allows you to kind of step back and have a greater perspective of your moment and of the world. When you take away judgment, you’re able to react a little bit less emotionally and more from facts or from your wise self.

In my work, my books, in my practice and even in my personal life, I have found just starting to introduce people to just what the concept of mindfulness is allows them to start to have a better handle on their lives really. I wasn’t introduced to mindfulness until I was 25. I was in grad school, which is far too late if you ask me. So, my part of my book series is to start to introduce these concepts to kids at an early age. Sometimes even parents who aren’t even familiar with the concept of mindfulness. My hope is children can use it as a way to start these neural pathways forming early so that they don’t have to wait until they’re 25 to be exposed to a life changing practice that can really dictate a lot of things about your mental and physical wellbeing.

Patrick:
Absolutely. When it comes to building meaningful connections with other people, how do you think mindfulness plays into that?

Andrea:
I think mindfulness allows us to really get away from any kind of preconceived judgments, stories, or emotions that we’re having within a moment. It allows us to be present and vulnerable and real. The way to form meaningful connections is to be your most real, authentic self. So, mindfulness really allows us to get to that space. And when others are there too, I think that’s when those connections are being really made.

Patrick:
So, I have one more question and it kind of ties together authentic connections and grief. As a vehicle for forging these strong bonds and connections that people need, what do you think grief can teach us about creating or maintaining meaningful connections with people, whether it be strangers, friends, or family?

Andrea:
Grief is an incredibly difficult but empowering and transformative journey. If you’ve been through it, you know that. One of the best ways out of grief is through connection. It’s through connection with others. I think in normalizing the expression of grief and normalizing grieving out loud or grieving where others can see it again creates that vulnerable space where we can identify and connect with others. So, I think grief can be a vehicle. You’ve seen what’s happening in Ukraine right now. It’s pulled people together. It’s an extremely difficult situation. People are motivated by these feelings of loss and grief to support and help others. I think in grief, we can find this space to really truly be a collective community versus individualistic.

Patrick:
I mean, it goes back to grief bringing out a forced vulnerability that you don’t choose. But once you’re there, if you choose to embrace it, it can lead to really deep connections and conversations. I have very specific memories of conversations I’ve had when it came to processing an uncle’s passing or with my mom about her dad.

Andrea:
I think you used the word vehicle. It really can be a vehicle for connection. We just have to jump on. We have to jump on that vehicle.

Patrick:
Definitely. Do you have any advice or words on anyone that might read this on how they can navigate grief?

Andrea:
Well, I think your questions at the end of this have actually been a perfect segue into that, which is if you’re going through grief, it’s going to feel tricky to do this. But the most important thing you can probably do is allow yourself to feel your feelings, reach out and be in community —whatever that looks for your life. It is extremely important for the healing process to connect and be with others. If you can offer that to someone or if you can facilitate that for yourself, it will be incredibly helpful along the healing journey.

To learn more about Andrea Dorn and purchase her new book, click here.

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