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Muppets, DoD Help Kids Deal with Death
"Sesame Street," where hundreds of thousands of children have learned their A-B-Cs for the past four decades, is now an address where some may learn how to deal with the loss of a parent in war.
At the Pentagon on Tuesday morning Sesame Street's Elmo, his cousin Jesse and fellow Muppet Rosita took center stage with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn to preview "When Families Grieve," a 30-minute special detailing the stories of four families who had to come to grips with the death of a mother or father.
Two of the parents featured in the episode were casualties of the Iraq War – one a Soldier killed in action and the other a Marine pilot who committed suicide after returning home. In addition to the stories of the actual families the program includes a child-oriented segment showing how Muppets Elmo and Jesse coped with the death of Jesse's dad.
"As they say, 'When Elmo talks, children listen,' " Mullen said in his opening remarks. "The loss of a loved one, particularly for children, is the most devastating of challenges. And nobody should have to go through that alone, nobody should grieve alone … Helping [children] make the transition that becomes so difficult when a loved one is lost is what this is all about."
The special, which was produced by Sesame Workshop, is part of a joint DoD-Sesame Workshop effort entitled "Talk, Listen, Connect." Previously the venture tackled the issue of children dealing with a parent being away from home on deployment.
"When Families Grieve" is scheduled to air April 14 at 8 p.m. Eastern Time on PBS. Afterwards, nearly a million free multimedia kits based on the show will be distributed to families and grief service providers, said Gary Knell, president and chief executive officer of Sesame Workshop. The kit includes a DVD of the special, a parent and caregiver guide, a children's storybook and a guide to using the project's components.
Lynn told the audience at the Pentagon that the Muppet characters help children through the process in ways that kids can understand.
"They also show adults how to reassure their kids that they're safe and loved," Lynn said. "When families reacknowledge these emotions children feel it's okay to be sad, it's okay to be angry, it's okay to be upset, but that it's also okay to be happy again."
In one of the most touching moments of the special Kim Ruocco, the widow whose husband, Marine Maj. John Ruocco, killed himself, asked: "How do you tell an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old their dad made it safely back from Iraq and then takes his own life?"
Kim Ruocco and her sons, Joseph, 15, and William, 13, live in Newbury, Mass. Maj. Ruocco had returned in November 2004 from Iraq, where he'd flown 75 missions and learned a month later he would be returning in March. He killed himself in February, Pentagon officials told Military.com. Mrs. Ruocco is now the suicide support coordinator for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors program. When she began working with the program there were no families in the group's data bank. Today there are 500, officials said.
Patty Guereca of Stafford, Texas, whose husband, Army Sgt. Jose Guereca, was killed by an IED in 2004 while assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, praised the guidance that the PBS special provides for families getting through such a trauma.
"We need this. A lot of widows need this," she told Military.com after the showing. "I think it's great they now have this video."