Wednesday was to be a day of action.
I went to bed Tuesday night feeling proud of my son, who the next morning would be participating in the planned school protests of gun violence. But as I scrolled my Twitter feed one last time before shutting off the lights, I learned that it also would be a day of loss.
Stephen Hawking, perhaps the greatest mind of our time, was gone.
For STEM kids, the loss will be felt especially hard. My 11-year-old, upon hearing the news, was devastated. “There goes one of my lifelong dreams!” he exclaimed through his tears. A budding scientist and space enthusiast, he had read all of Hawking’s children’s books, watched documentaries about his life and studied his theories. He hoped to one day meet him and even dreamed of one day working by Hawking’s side.
“I want to make this more of a happy thing than a sad thing,” my son said after processing the loss with his dad. But how could I help him do that? I asked therapists and educators how parents can help kids turn their grief into inspiration and action. Here are their suggestions.
Talk to kids about overcoming obstacles. Even after being told that he had only a few years to live, Hawking persevered despite his physical disabilities. Gayle Evans, a lecturer in science education at the University of Florida, encourages families to consider the challenges Hawking overcame each day as “an inspiration to all of us to keep on working even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.” When Evans spoke with her sons about Hawking’s death, she says, they focused not on the sadness, but on “all of the amazing contributions he was able to make while living on this borrowed time and feeling grateful that he lived a long and full life as a brilliant leader in scientific inquiry.”
Use Hawking’s work to remind kids that science isn’t just important, it is interesting — and cool. “Stephen Hawking was a pop-culture physicist,” said Tonya Bervaldi-Camaratta, a seventh-grade science teacher at Howard Bishop Middle School in Gainesville, Fla. “He was iconically recognizable because of his disability, but also because he was able to transcend pop culture.” Many of his books were geared toward children. “He made kids feel that being a scientist — even a physicist — was important, interesting and cool,” she said.
Create something together to honor Hawking’s memory. “Ritual, across culture and time, is a part of our healing during the grief process,” said Lisa Zucker, a licensed clinical social worker and a grief expert. When we lose someone we don’t know personally, “it becomes even more important to engage in ritual we create for ourselves since attending the funeral is not an option,” she said. Kids can do this by writing letters about how Hawking inspired them, or by starting a STEM club in Hawking’s honor. “It is helpful to draw a comparison for how Hawking lived his life to how a person can process his passing — it doesn’t always have to be easy, and sometimes it will be downright sad,” Zucker said.
Teach them that there is no one-size-fits-all way to experience loss. My son’s science teacher, Chloe Winant, spoke with one of her students about Hawking’s passing. “I could see a visible grief come over her. I think it’s natural to have feelings surface quickly and intensely when faced with a new loss,” she said. Winant notes that while some of us are comfortable visibly grieving, we should all be on the lookout for others who are unsure of how to process loss and ask how they feel. These individuals may not know what to say, Winant said, but we should still ask.
“Students experience grief in very unique ways depending on prior life experiences and age, as well as the reactions of those around them,” said Karen Pearson, a counselor at Stephen Foster Elementary. “Parents and teachers can best support students by allowing time to talk and process feelings and facilitating follow-up support for those students needing more individual attention.”
With the right tools, Hawking’s death can become an opportunity to inspire the next generation of thinkers.
I hope my son remembers the day not as a day of loss, but a day of action. During first period, alongside his classmates and supportive teachers, he participated in 17 minutes of silence honoring those who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla. By lunchtime, he was sitting in the office of his middle school counselor talking about what he’d learned from Hawking’s life, and drawing pictures of the many ways Hawking inspired him.
If he had the chance, my son would tell Hawking that he will always be remembered as the greatest and smartest person in the world. I think if Hawking had the chance to reply, he would remind my son that while he is young, he, too, is great and smart. But right now, I will simply remind him of what Hawking has already said, and I will commend him for making it a day of action: “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where she also serves as an associate director of the Center on Children and Families. She also is a writer and a photographer. To connect with Stacey, follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect last name for licensed clinical social worker and grief expert Lisa Zucker. The story has been updated.