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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Book Reveals Parenting Lessons From A Tragedy



Reid Hollister was a rambunctious, handsome, and sometimes rebellious 17-year-old teenager. While he delighted many friends with humor, he struggled as a student and chafed at guidance. As he began his senior year in high school, Reid suddenly found himself accused of misconduct, which he vehemently denied.  Several days later, while driving on a highway, Reid died in a one-car crash.

His Father Still: A Parenting Memoir (Published by Argo Navis, a division of Perseus Books, October 2015) is Reid's father's disarmingly candid account of the tumult of parenting Reid through his teenage years, and then confronting the unthinkable obligations of a father to a son after a sudden tragedy. But this book is about much more than parenting and grief: In the months following Reid's crash, as Tim Hollister worked to steady himself and his family, he found himself consumed by an accelerated need to answer two questions: Had he been a good father? And in raising Reid, had he struck the right balance between exposing him to life's risks while protecting him from life's dangers?

Answers came in large part from a flood of condolences conveyed through letters and emails, and also in social media posts – which at the time, 2006, were a brand-new phenomenon. From these messages emerged a mosaic of Reid's character and personality that was barely known to Tim while Reid was alive because, as parents raise teens by "letting out the tether," they see less of and know less about their kids. Thus, after Reid's passing, Tim learned more about his son than he had known while Reid was alive.

O Magazine said of the book: “May Holister’s soul-searching serve as a cautionary tale for every reader.”

”Eventually, it occurred to me that parents would benefit from a story of attending to a teenager’s legacy after a tumultuous life, a sudden death, a barrage of questions and doubts, a reassessment of what had happened and what might have been done differently, and eventually a wistful and new appreciation of my son’s life and a way for us to go forward as father and son,” writes Tim,  “I considered that parents might be emboldened to say no and to make better decisions, or at least approach their choices with an added perspective and be more appreciative of what they have.”

Here is an interview with the author:

1.                  The title, His Father Still: A Parenting Memoir, gives us some idea of what the book is about – but what do you think it’s about?  It’s the story of parenting a rebellious yet fearful teenager; the continuing obligations of a father after losing a child; and building a sustainable relationship after a loved one’s passing.  I resist calling this book a “grief journey” or advice about how to recover from a tragedy. It’s about parenting. This said, the book is about a long list of things that don’t necessarily or logically fit together, but shaped my experience as a father, both before and after Reid’s passing. So, in no particular order:

·                     balancing protection against freedom when raising a teen

·                     managing teen misbehavior and rebellion

·                     delivering effective discipline, including the challenge of having both parents being in sync

·                     reacting to a school’s discipline, especially when it has gone wrong

·                     supervising a new teen driver

·                     writing an obituary for a teen and a eulogy for a child

·                     composing a condolence message for anyone

·                     conveying condolences through email and social media

·                     establishing memorials for a person who has passed away

·                     identifying opportunities for friendship in the aftermath of a loved one’s passing;

·                     counting blessings after a tragedy

·                     rebuilding a relationship after a loved one is gone

·                     valuing the power of faith communities to care for those who have lost.

2.                  The Introduction explains your dissatisfaction with the books that are out there discussing the recovery process – grief memoirs and instructional books on dealing with tragedy.  Why did you find these books unhelpful? Was your experience so different that how-to books were less relevant? When it came to writing the story told in this book, my mantra was that I am not a professional counselor, I’m a dad. My need wasn’t understanding grief and recovery from tragedy as a clinical or psychological process. I needed to answer two questions: Had I been a good father? And who had Reid been as a person when he passed away, and how had I shaped his character? I most needed a retrospective on my parenting, which was surely based in part on the fact that he died at age seventeen. In other words, when I started writing, I was doing so not to unburden myself from grief–I did that in other ways–but to consider my role as Reid’s father and what he had taken from my almost-complete efforts to raise a self-sufficient, responsible adult. Thus, as I wrote and wrote, a perspective emerged that seemed different from and more satisfying than the Grief Books. It was not that the Grief Books were unhelpful, but that they did not respond to the particular questions that were gnawing at me. When I had addressed my own need by reconsidering my parenting, I discovered that I had told a story that might be useful not only to parents trying to move beyond loss, but also to those with happy, healthy kids.

3.                  How would you summarize your emotional stages and progressions as a parent during the story the book tells? For me, because the three years preceding Reid’s crash were his rebellion years, my teen parenting experience was predominated by anguish, uncertainty, and fear of bad choices that would either hurt Reid or come back to haunt him later. I struggled to keep him from rebelling further, and to stay in school. These preoccupations blinded me to his character, his friendships with so many, and his potential. Hope and satisfaction were mostly beneath the surface of our relationship. The best times were those in which he offered glimpses of maturity, but those were fleeting and intermittent. Then, in the immediate aftermath of his crash, I endured more than a year of emotional devastation–no other way to say it. At that point I began to write, to reflect on the cards and emails and letters we had received, to think about the conversations I had had and was still having with so many friends, and to consider how faith might pull me up and forward. Eventually, I began to recognize “the chasm deep in our souls” as Anna Quindlen has called it so eloquently, a hole in the center of who we are that never completely mends, but can be put in its place so it isn’t a shadow that overwhelms every day. This phase gave way to what some call “memories without anguish,” sadness softened by recognition of small mercies. My most recent stage has been greater appreciation of friends, faith, and family, and how I am so blessed to have each one in great measure.

4.                  What advice do you have for parents of teens? Don’t let the daily challenges of raising a teen blind you to character, integrity, goodness, or promise. The rebellion will pass. Focus on instilling values and lessons, even if it seems as though they are not taking hold or being heard. Recognize that separation–letting out the tether–is painful and scary, but ultimately necessary. Remember that, for better or worse, you will always be a mother or father, no matter where or how your child goes through life.  Put another way, one of my common experiences is to listen to parents of teens complain long and loud about misbehavior, rebellion, lack of caring, etc.–and all the while, thinking that I long to be in their shoes.

5.                  Looking back, what would you do differently in raising Reid?  First, I would be much more conservative about supervising his driving.  I would not have let him get his learner’s permit right at age 16, and I would have prohibited joyrides with passengers.  I also would have monitored his ADD/ADHD and driving more closely, such as making sure he had taken his medication before getting behind the wheel. In other words, with driving, I would have learned more toward protection and away from freedom. Second, I would have evaluated more closely every year whether he was in the right school, and not let occasional assurances from the school tip the scales when my wife and I were seeing continual struggles that were battering his self-esteem.  Third, I would have tried to cherish each day more, rather than let the struggles of the moment overtake our relationship.

6.                  Your son had typical teen angst over his future career and school choices. He also had ADD.  You did your best by enlisting the help of a counselor and even creating a contract with your son. How do parents balance the right amount of being both strict but allowing teens to make their own mistakes?  This is, of course, the $64,000 question, and every family and every situation can be different. The common denominators, I believe, are evaluating two factors:  First, what are the risks of the teen’s action?  For example, with teen driving, the risk of a bad decision is serious injury or death.  With making decisions about courses in school, or what activities to pursue, the consequences may alter a life path but they are probably not dangerous per se.  So evaluating the real danger of each situation is the first priority, and the greater the danger, the less freedom the teen should be granted.  The second factor is maturity, which is of course hard to measure, but some teens are better able than others to immerse themselves in and learn from situations and mistakes, and others are not.  So, for example we placed Reid in a competitive private school, and though one could argue that he would learn valuable lessons from being in that environment, even if he ultimately “failed,” the book wonders about whether his self-esteem took too much of a battering from being in an environment where he was less smart in comparison to his classmates.


7.                  In your book you go into great detail about how you came to learn more of your son in death than when he was alive. How did this happen?  One of the book’s central themes is that we raise teens by “letting out the tether,” by giving them more and more freedom to live and make their way out of our sight and control.  This can be on a daily basis (they spend more time at school or at a job or activity) or more prolonged (a summer camp or summer educational trip).  Either way, as teens get older, parents often see less and less of them, and thus see less of the person who is developing.  There is nothing wrong with this, and more freedom is necessary to instilling independence.  In Reid’s case, our interpersonal struggles predominated and he got more freedom as he became sixteen and seventeen, such that after he passed away, my main source of information about who he was and how his character had developed came from messages from those with whom he had spent the most time just before his passing.

8.                  What role did social media play in your healing process, back in 2006 and 2007? What did you learn about the power of sending condolences?  Chapter 8 of the book, “Our Electronic Funeral,” talks about how Reid’s passing was, just from its timing, one of the first anywhere to be subjected to Groups on Facebook.  Facebook was new in 2005-06.  The first time I logged onto Facebook was to read three Groups that had formed in response to Reid’s crash and death.  Chapter 8 describes my progression from being horrified and angry about this to eventually understanding its utility and inevitability.  Chapter 8 also discusses the advantages and the pitfalls of sending condolence messages, which should be intensely personal, but when done through social media are mainly public and less personal.

9.                  Reid was adopted by you and your wife when he was just 11 weeks old. Do you believe that parenting an adopted child is any different than raising a biological child?  It is certainly different, for two reasons.  First, the adopting parents often don’t have family history and medical information to draw upon, which can be a good thing in that there are no preconceptions, but also a challenge when knowing a child’s natural inclinations might be helpful.  Second, in my case at least, I always felt a responsibility to Reid’s birthparents, to show them that they made the right decision in choosing us as adoptive  parents.  The fact that Reid’s birthmother was so gracious and supportive after Reid’s passing was a treasured gift.

10.              How have the experiences you describe in the book changed you as a person? I am more appreciative of my friends, if only out of gratitude for the innumerable acts of kindness and caring that I have experienced, especially from people with busy lives and their own worries and concerns.  So many took extraordinary time to take care of me when I needed to offload my responsibilities and to be on the receiving end of care and grace. That gratitude extends to those who helped my wife and daughter.  I am less tolerant of wasting time. And I am glad to say that one of the dividends of this whole experience is that I am a better writer. Working with professional writers, agents, and editors on this book has helped me to express myself better than I ever could before.

11.              The story recounts the discipline of Reid through his teenage years by you and your wife, including times when your approaches differed. How important is it that parents be “on the same page”?  There are multiple levels and factors to this question, starting with (as mentioned earlier) the issue of what are the consequences and risks of a bad decision?  The size of  the risks, whether physical, psychological, financial, or otherwise, are an important factor in whether parents need to discuss and agree before they take action with a teen.  Another factor is whether parents (and this includes guardians and any other adult in an extended family with a supervising or guiding role) not being on the same page will undermine discipline, either by leading the teen to always seek out the “softer” parent or by discounting the opinions of the “harder” parent. On the other hand, there may well be situations where one parent is just plainly wrong and the other needs to step in.

12.              What do you miss most about Reid? Nearly every day at some point I think about where he would be today, given who he was and the promise of his life when he died. When I was in college, I had a history professor who gave “counterfactual” tests, essay questions in which we were asked to predict how the arc of history would have been different based on one key fact being changed. So I think about how Reid’s life would have developed, using the evidence I have, to predict an outcome: where would his interests, abilities, challenges, character, advantages, and even disabilities have taken him? I recognize that it’s speculation, and ultimately a sad exercise, but it’s a part of how I keep his memory alive in my mind and heart.

13.              For children struggling with school, as Reid did, what can parents do to help? Err on the side of more communication rather than less, even if the teachers and administrators are telling you as parents not to worry, or “leave us alone, we deal with lots of teens, we know what we are doing.”  In Reid’s case, we had the impression that his teachers and school officials did not realize how far behind and out of sync he was, and did not take kindly to our frequent emails.  So, forceful and regular intervention may be warranted, even if there is some resistance.

14.              You helped lobby for changes in the laws of your state, Connecticut, to make the road safer for and frim teenage drivers. What have been the results of these efforts? Can you replicate them nationally?  In 2008 Connecticut overhauled its teen driver law from one of the most lenient in the nation to one of the strictest.  Over six years we have one of the largest percentage reductions in teen driver fatalities in the country, so the results speak for themselves.  Perhaps most important is that in my state, parents of a teen with a learner’s permit are required to attend a two hour class about safe teen driving.  The “deal” in Connecticut is that if you’re going to put your sixteen or seventeen-year-old on the road, we need two hours of your time.  The class underscores for parents how dangerous teen driving is, and why; if the rest of the nation adopted a similar system, we could reduce teen driver crashes substantially.

15.              What can parents do to reduce stress and anxiety in the lives of their teens?  I can only answer this as a lay person, so my first thought is that if a teen is struggling psychologically, get professional help if possible.  Dr. Carver and Dr. Jarvis provided insights into Reid’s challenges that we never would have been able to diagnose or respond to appropriately.  I also think that for the sake of both parents and teens, the most dangerous situations need to be clearly off  limits.  For example, if a new teen driver insists that he should be allowed to drive to the movies late at night with friends, but the parents know that is dangerous (and also illegal in many states), the best way to reduce stress for everyone is probably to make it clear from the start that the proposal is not one to be discussed or negotiated, it’s just too dangerous.  I think some parents, and this was true of me at times, try to get on their teen’s good side by entertaining ideas that really should be non-starters, in part because they elevate everyone’s stress levels.  Finally, at the risk of a colossal cliché, teens really need to know that at the end of the day, their parents are going to be there to love and protect them.  At no point in my stormy relationship with Reid did I threaten to throw him out of the house or cut off supporting him, and looking back, that is one thing I can say I did well and right.


For more information, please consult: www.fromreidsdad.org


Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. Please note that Mr. Hollister is promoted by the company Brian works for. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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