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Muppets Help Military Kids Cope With Grief

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The first two TLC videos, part of a multimedia initiative started in 2006, were meant to help children, especially military children, with separations from loved one, and changes to those loved ones when they return. This video handles an even tougher topic: the death of a loved one.

"I think our military children today have been dealing with a number of difficult challenges," said Deborah Mullen, wife of Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "I think it's very important that we find ways to help the surviving parent and the child deal with this. This [DVD] is one way."

Mullen was in New York to view the filming of the newest Sesame Workshop video, along with Becky Gates, wife of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Sandee Cartwright, wife of Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Army Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Loree Sutton, director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.

The story centers on the fuzzy, red Muppet, Elmo, and his cousin Jessie, who recently has lost her father. At age 3 and a half, Elmo has a hard time understanding the concept of death.

His cousin simply doesn't want to talk about it.

Fortunately, Elmo has his mom and Aunt Jill to help him with the sadness he's feeling.

Jessie isn't as easy to crack though, and it takes Louie, Elmo's father, to get Jessie to open up about how she's feeling.

"Sometimes I feel sad when I think about your dad, too," Louie tells his niece.

"You do?" she answers.

"It helps to talk to someone about the way we feel, like we're talking now," Louie says in the video.

"It's important that we provide these sorts of resources," Mullen said midway through the day's filming. "We need to find ways to help them recognize this grief, begin to come to terms with this grief, this loss, [and] learn to deal with the feelings they are experiencing."

It's also important that both children and parents have the necessary tools to survive the death of a loved one, said Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop's vice president of outreach and educational practices.

"There's a variety of feelings involving death, often conflicting, with sad moments and guilt surrounding happy moments," she said. "We want to offer families a way to move forward, the reassurance to move forward."

As with the other TLC videos, plenty of consultation with experts took place before the final script was approved. A North Carolina National Guard chaplain and a casualty assistance officer who's experienced his own loss, for example, weighed in on the project.

Representatives of children's organizations and those with expertise dealing with grief, both military and civilian, also participated.

"This one was a particularly difficult, sensitive topic to address," said Barbara Thompson, director of the Defense Department's cffice of family policy and children and youth. "So we brought in many people who are experts in trauma and then actual ... military families who have lost a servicemember."

And to some extent, Elmo is an expert in helping kids grasp and accept this tough topic, Thompson said. At least he's the embodiment of the cumulative expertise used to create the video.

"It's really important for us to recognize that for a child, coming from Elmo, it's much more meaningful than coming from any other counselor or even a significant adult in their life," Thompson said. "Children naturally respond to Elmo, and that's why these scripts are so important."

The Muppeteers' passion for the project also is crucial and evident.

"[It's always a] privilege to meet military families and get to know them and realize how incredible and strong and [what an] amazing group of people they are," said Carmen Osbahr, who plays Rosita, Elmo's best friend. "Something that started as an amazing project is now a mission. It's an amazing honor to be part of it."

Leslie Carerra, who plays Elmo's cousin Jessie in this TLC video, agreed, saying the work is fun but it's also taken seriously. Occasionally, it strikes a familiar chord.

"I certainly relate to the loss of my brother and what it did to my family," she said. "In order to connect, you go back. You want it to be light, but when that moment comes ... to be able to share is a great gift.

"We're offering tools and celebrating life and being strong," she added.

The video is expected to be aired as a PBS special in April, immediately followed by the distribution of the multimedia kits, which will include the video.

*Related Sites:*
Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury  [ http://www.dcoe.health.mil ]
Military Community and Family Policy  [ http://www.defenselink.mil/prhome/mcfp.html ]
Commentary: Dealing With Loss on Sesame Street  [ http://www.defenselink.mil//news/newsarticle.aspx?id=56235 ]
"Family Matters" Blog  [ http://afps.dodlive.mil/ ]