How to Talk to Kids About Death

As I’ve mentioned, two of our close family members died this winter, and we had to figure out how to tell four-year-old Toby. Here are 10 things we learned…

1. Put your child in a cozy spot, such as sitting in your lap or lying next to you in their bed. I would often rub Toby’s back or hold his hands while we talked.

2. Be very direct and specific about the way the person died. Say something specific like, “Grandma’s heart was so sick. After a while, it stopped working and she died. It didn’t hurt.” If you say she went to sleep, your child might get scared of going to bed. And if you simply say that she was sick, without any more details, your child might get terrified of anyone getting a cold or the flu.

3. Talk about the death a bit at a time. I’ve read that kids process information in bite-sized chunks. So I would say a few simple sentences and then wait while Toby thought about it, or even went off to play. Then, invariably, he would come back to me with questions.

4. Don’t be offended if your child asks offbeat or blunt questions. Toby would ask unexpected questions, such as “Can girls die?” or “But Uncle Nick didn’t die, right?” or “When will you and Daddy die?” I tried to answer his questions matter-of-factly, and I told him that we were all healthy, and we plan to be around for a long, long, long time. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you can always say, “Let me think about that and get back to you,” and follow up later.

5. Be practical when explaining what death means. We aren’t religious, and I’m really curious about how people deal with these conversations within a religion. (Please share if you have an answer!) We chose instead to describe death in a practical way: “Uncle Scott died, which means he can’t talk, eat, walk or run anymore.” It felt a little strange to me to describe death that way, but Toby seemed to appreciate the literal description.

6. Explain that people are sad. When Alex’s brother died, I told Toby that Daddy was very sad and that we had to be very quiet and give him lots of hugs. Toby asked often about who was sad and would repeat things like, “Daddy is very sad because Uncle Scott died” or “Everyone was sad when Dilly died.” He seemed very interested in how the adults were reacting. We also talked about how we might help people feel better, like writing a card to Grandma or making cookies for Daddy.

7. Reassure the child that the death was not his fault. This seems like a no-brainer, but since young children think the world revolves around them, they might worry that they did something to cause it.

8. Understand that your child may want to talk about it over and over (and over). Toby got pretty fixated on the idea of death, and he’d bring it up once or twice a day (and still brings it up every few days). He would ask me the same questions over and over. He would repeat facts simply to have me confirm them. He told me that his beloved imaginary friend Dun Dun died. I tried to stay very open and accepting of all his questions so he could take his time and work through it. Little kids can’t grasp the permanence of death, so it takes a while to wrap their minds around everything.

9. Realize that your child might show emotion in different ways. I read that young children can react to death by regressing in toilet training, reverting to baby talk or getting nervous about going to school. For Toby, we found that he suddenly developed major separation anxiety. He still doesn’t want me to leave for work, he asks us every evening if we’re staying home or going to dinner, and he comes into our bed at night. We are trying to stick to a very predictable schedule so he feels safe and secure — and knows that we aren’t going anywhere.

10. Tell happy stories about the person who died. Toby often asks for stories and I tell him things like, “Remember Uncle Scott played Jingle Bells on his guitar for you last Christmas?” or “Scott loved Lisa very much and he wore a fancy suit to their wedding.” We also look through old photos together.

One thing I’ve noticed is that children can be a huge pick-me-up during sad times. One morning this winter, I was walking Toby to school and ran into an acquaintance who asked me how I was. I couldn’t help bursting into tears and she gave me a hug. As I was trying to pull myself together, Toby looked up and said, “Mama, why you have a tear ON YOUR NOSE??” It made me laugh out loud. You can’t always stay too deep in it when you have a little one who wants to play, laugh and see the world in such a sweet way.

Anyway, I hope this is helpful for anyone navigating a similar situation, and I would love to hear your advice and stories, too. If you’re religious, do you explain death in a different way? xoxo

J.McLaughlin Giveaway

J. McLaughlin, the American sportswear brand founded in the 1970s, is known for its classic, casual style. They’re the kind of staples you could wear to the beach or on weekend getaways (think: striped tees, summer dresses, light sweaters). These photos make me psyched for shorts-and-sandals weather and all the leisurely days that come with it. (Psst: In addition to their styles for men and women, their new kids’ collection debuts May 7th.)

Today, J. McLaughlin giving away a $500 gift card. To enter, please visit their online store and leave a comment below telling us your favorite item. A winner will be chosen tomorrow at random. Good luck! (Update: The winner has been emailed. Thank you for playing!)

Bonus for all readers: Shop J.McLaughlin’s Exclusive Sale to receive 25% off all full-priced orders through May 3, PLUS receive an additional 5% off with promo code JMCLJO. Thank you so much, J. McLaughlin!

Spaghetti-Stuffed Roasted Peppers

Do you usually eat your pasta in a bowl or on a plate? How about in a pepper? This week’s easy pasta recipe from Martha Stewart Living looks complicated, but it’s actually a cinch to put together. Here’s how…

Roasted Peppers with Spaghetti Stuffing
from Martha Stewart Living

Serves 6

What you’ll need:

6 bell peppers (preferably a mix of red, orange and yellow)
8 oz. thin spaghetti
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 anchovy fillets
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. capers, rinsed and drained
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
Fresh oregano leaves, for serving

Place bell peppers directly over the flame of a gas-stove burner and roast, turning with tongs, until blackened all over. (Or roast peppers under the broiler.) Transfer to a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand 15 minutes. Peel off skins, slice off tops and remove ribs and seeds.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add salt. Cook pasta two minutes less than instructed on package. Drain.

Preheat oven to 350F. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high. Swirl in oil to coat, then add anchovies, breaking them up with the back of a spoon until dissolved. Add onion and capers and cook, stirring occasionally, just until onion is softened, about 3 minutes. Pour in vinegar and cook, stirring frequently, until almost evaporated. Add pasta and toss to coat.

Generously season cavity of each pepper with salt, then fill with a heaping 1/2 cup pasta mixture, twirling pasta with a fork to fit snugly. Place peppers side by side in a two-quart oval baking dish. Bake until pasta starts to brown in a few spots, 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving, topped with oregano.

P.S. More recipes, including pasta with walnuts and ricotta & honey crostini.

(Photo by Johnny Miller. Recipe courtesy of Martha Stewart Living; the May issue is now on stands. Thanks to Caroline Donofrio for her help with this series.)

The Secret to Female Friendship

I had female friends growing up, but in my thirties I started feeling much closer to the women I knew. At first, I wasn’t sure why this lovely intimacy was developing, but then I read this piece from New York Magazine and had a lightbulb moment…

The secret to deeper female friendship? Doing something RANDOM.

Says New York Magazine:

Twentysomething friendships involve long, late nights, all-day walks, and hours-long phone conversations. But having friends in your 30s is functionally impossible. There is no good time to see people, no friend equivalent of the candlelit dinner and rose-strewn canopy bed. To stay friends is to make do with the social equivalent of a taco truck and bathroom quickie. As the opposite of a sensualist, I actually prefer this. There’s something both efficient and exciting about having friends woven into the texture of daily life. It feels almost illicit when we manage to steal time together, like we are cheating on our grown-up lives….

What’s more, low expectations can be liberating. “When a friend comes to the grocery store with me because it’s what I have to do, the pressure to be fun evaporates,” says my friend Liesl. “Then we can just walk down the aisles and I can complain about the domestic shackles of having to make dinner and maybe get recipe ideas or maybe not, but somehow that kind of environment — purposeful, practical — allows me to be far more myself. And in that headspace — which is also key to feeling close to someone — the conversation organically weaves from the price of granola to something about my marriage to something I’ve read to petty gossip. And I feel way better after, especially since I got my groceries, too.”

That point rang so true for me. In my twenties, I always scheduled dinners with friends. Now in our thirties, with more time constraints, we still sometimes have dinner but more often we’ll meet up in casual ways: to run an errand or take a walk or get a pedicure or go shopping for a birthday present for one of our moms.

Although our meet-ups are less ceremonious, they’re actually awesome. There’s something about random activities that accelerates intimacy, since they take the pressure off any sort of performance. Low-key time together reminds me of hanging out with family, so your friends begin feeling like sisters. “These days instead of meeting someone for coffee, even if it’s a work thing, I suggest that we walk,” my friend Gemma told me. “So much more fun.”

Thoughts? What do you do with your friends? Do you do random activities (bookstore browsing, dog walking, Trader Joe’s runs), or do you prefer more structured plans, like dinner and a movie?

P.S. Five-minute phone calls, Mindy Kaling on friendship and starting an articles club.

This is part of a series called “What We’re Reading“—featuring interesting articles on different topics we find during the week. See more here, if you’d like.

Three Tricks For Parting Your Hair

Did you know that one of the quickest (and most dramatic) ways to change your look is to change the way you part your hair? We didn’t understand the power of parts until recently, when Vanessa Alcala, a hairstylist at Marie Robinson Salon in Manhattan, let us in on the secret. Take a look…

Here, our friend Hayley Nichols wears her everyday side part. “A lot of women part their hair on auto-pilot,” says Vanessa, “but if you’ve been doing it the same way for years, changing your part can update your whole look.” Here are her three tips:
1. Go Far Right or Far Left
Vanessa says women who part their hair on the side usually approach it too conservatively. A side part can look meh if it isn’t far enough over. Instead of combing your hair into a side part when it’s wet and then blow drying around the part you created, try blow drying your hair until it’s at least 50 percent dry – working in all directions – before creating your part. Rake and lift your hands through your hair to find a natural part that’s emphatically on the side. If you’re wondering which side is best for you, Vanessa says to try both and then choose the side that gives your hair the best volume.
2. Don’t Be Too Centered
If you’ve tried a center part before but felt it looked too severe, give it another try, but this time create your part a little to the left or right of center. As with side parts, don’t create the part until you’ve dried your hair at least halfway and then use your fingers to lift and separate the hair before letting it fall on its own, creating as natural a middle part as possible. “Don’t be too contrived about finding a middle part,” Vanessa says. “Your natural middle part is rarely ever dead center.”
3. Mess It Up
Women often make their parts too straight, says Vanessa, by creating a strongly defined part line. But letting your part to fall naturally into place, allowing it to meander and curve, it looks more modern and less flat. Put down the brush, Vanessa says: “Use your fingers to encourage your hair to fall into place organically.”
That’s it! But since hairstyles are often easier said than done, here are some additional pro tips from Vanessa…

* Choose the Right Part
Vanessa says there are a few rules for what works best: Round faces benefit from a style that elongates the face, so try a middle part. Squarer faces, or women with strong jaw lines, look great with a deep side part, which softens their angles. And anyone lucky enough to have an oval face can experiment with either part.

* Work With Product
Vanessa swears by three products when creating a pretty part: Use Oribe texturizing spray before blowdrying. It gives fine hair a slight grit, which makes it much easier to style. You can also try using a little mousse in your damp hair to help set the style you’ll create. And, finally, her favorite light hair spray holds everything in place. (Vanessa prefers to spray her fingertips and apply it to just a few sections of hair, to keep it light.)

* Gather the Best Tools
A two-inch round brush like this one is a good everyday tool for blow drying, Vanessa says. She also recommends trying a flat iron to smooth a few individual sections of hair (you don’t have to do your whole head), slightly bending the flat iron with your wrist, back and forth, as you go to create a very subtle, bedhead-y wave.

* Create a Blank Canvas
If you normally part your hair on the side but want to try a middle part, or vice versa – or if you’ve had a super straight part for years and years and want to make it more natural – you might need to encourage your hair to start over. To do this, blow dry the whole center section of your hair (the hair that frames your forehead) while pulling it up and back. Brush toward your crown without letting it fall into a part. Then blow upward on either side of your head to create volume. Now you’re ready to make a fresh part!

Whichever part you try, Vanessa recommends giving yourself a little time to get used to a new look. It sounds strange, she says, but adjusting to a new part can be even harder than adjusting to a new cut. Keep the faith, though. We have seen the light. Thank you so much, Vanessa!

What a difference, right?! Where do you part your hair these days? Would you try these?

P.S. How to blow dry your hair like a stylist and a genius hair trick.

(Photos by Nicki Sebastian for Cup of Jo. Hair styling by Vanessa Alcala of Marie Robinson Salon. Modeling by our friend Hayley Nichols, who is the office manager for Friends Work Here, home of Cup of Jo’s office.)

Mothers Day Gift Idea

It’s funny, we’ve given my mom many different kinds of presents over the years — massages, sweaters, perfume — but the one she always raves about and requests more of are photo gifts. (This Toby notepad was probably her favorite gift of all time.)

This Mother’s Day, we made her a framed photo collage with photos of her and the boys. She can put it on her desk and see how much we adore her. I hope she loves it. And crazily enough, it only took about ten minutes to make with Instagram shots. Pinhole Press has been our go-to for the past four years, and I’d highly recommend them for beautiful, heartfelt gifts.

Bonus for all readers: Get 15% off all Pinhole Press products with the code CUPOFJO15, good through May 31st.
Thank you so much, Pinhole Press!

(Photos by Alpha Smoot for Cup of Jo. This post is sponsored by Pinhole Press, whose products we have loved and ordered for years. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Cup of Jo. For Mother’s Day delivery with economy shipping, Pinhole gifts must be ordered by this Sunday, May 3rd. Photo books must be ordered by this Friday, May 1st.)

How to Talk to Kids About Death

As I’ve mentioned, two of our close family members died this winter, and we had to figure out how to tell four-year-old Toby. Here are 10 things we learned…

1. Put your child in a cozy spot, such as sitting in your lap or lying next to you in their bed. I would often rub Toby’s back or hold his hands while we talked.

2. Be very direct and specific about the way the person died. Say something specific like, “Grandma’s heart was so sick. After a while, it stopped working and she died. It didn’t hurt.” If you say she went to sleep, your child might get scared of going to bed. And if you simply say that she was sick, without any more details, your child might get terrified of anyone getting a cold or the flu.

3. Talk about the death a bit at a time. I’ve read that kids process information in bite-sized chunks. So I would say a few simple sentences and then wait while Toby thought about it, or even went off to play. Then, invariably, he would come back to me with questions.

4. Don’t be offended if your child asks offbeat or blunt questions. Toby would ask unexpected questions, such as “Can girls die?” or “But Uncle Nick didn’t die, right?” or “When will you and Daddy die?” I tried to answer his questions matter-of-factly, and I told him that we were all healthy, and we plan to be around for a long, long, long time. If you don’t know the answer to a question, you can always say, “Let me think about that and get back to you,” and follow up later.

5. Be practical when explaining what death means. We aren’t religious, and I’m really curious about how people deal with these conversations within a religion. (Please share if you have an answer!) We chose instead to describe death in a practical way: “Uncle Scott died, which means he can’t talk, eat, walk or run anymore.” It felt a little strange to me to describe death that way, but Toby seemed to appreciate the literal description.

6. Explain that people are sad. When Alex’s brother died, I told Toby that Daddy was very sad and that we had to be very quiet and give him lots of hugs. Toby asked often about who was sad and would repeat things like, “Daddy is very sad because Uncle Scott died” or “Everyone was sad when Dilly died.” He seemed very interested in how the adults were reacting. We also talked about how we might help people feel better, like writing a card to Grandma or making cookies for Daddy.

7. Reassure the child that the death was not his fault. This seems like a no-brainer, but since young children think the world revolves around them, they might worry that they did something to cause it.

8. Understand that your child may want to talk about it over and over (and over). Toby got pretty fixated on the idea of death, and he’d bring it up once or twice a day (and still brings it up every few days). He would ask me the same questions over and over. He would repeat facts simply to have me confirm them. He told me that his beloved imaginary friend Dun Dun died. I tried to stay very open and accepting of all his questions so he could take his time and work through it. Little kids can’t grasp the permanence of death, so it takes a while to wrap their minds around everything.

9. Realize that your child might show emotion in different ways. I read that young children can react to death by regressing in toilet training, reverting to baby talk or getting nervous about going to school. For Toby, we found that he suddenly developed major separation anxiety. He still doesn’t want me to leave for work, he asks us every evening if we’re staying home or going to dinner, and he comes into our bed at night. We are trying to stick to a very predictable schedule so he feels safe and secure — and knows that we aren’t going anywhere.

10. Tell happy stories about the person who died. Toby often asks for stories and I tell him things like, “Remember Uncle Scott played Jingle Bells on his guitar for you last Christmas?” or “Scott loved Lisa very much and he wore a fancy suit to their wedding.” We also look through old photos together.

One thing I’ve noticed is that children can be a huge pick-me-up during sad times. One morning this winter, I was walking Toby to school and ran into an acquaintance who asked me how I was. I couldn’t help bursting into tears and she gave me a hug. As I was trying to pull myself together, Toby looked up and said, “Mama, why you have a tear ON YOUR NOSE??” It made me laugh out loud. You can’t always stay too deep in it when you have a little one who wants to play, laugh and see the world in such a sweet way.

Anyway, I hope this is helpful for anyone navigating a similar situation, and I would love to hear your advice and stories, too. If you’re religious, do you explain death in a different way? xoxo

Amy Schumers Brilliant Parody

Have you seen Amy Schumer‘s Friday Night Lights spoof about rape? It made the rounds yesterday, but in case you haven’t seen it, the video is definitely worth watching. As my friend said yesterday, “Amy Schumer just pulled off the world’s first-ever funny rape joke.” The sketch is important, and I love that the laughs don’t come at the expense of the women.
Joking about rape “is always a risk,” Schumer said at the Tribeca Film Festival. “You might look at this scene and think we’re making light of something serious, but we really are trying to educate.” Bravo.

P.S. A brilliant speech about the word “gay.

(Photo via Time)

The #1 Question to Ask Before Getting Married

Ellen McCarthy became the Washington Post’s weddings reporter when she was newly single and (of course) on the cusp of turning thirty. Over the next four years, she talked to hundreds of couples about what makes relationships work — and what doesn’t. Her new book, The Real Thing, brings together all she learned. Caroline asked Ellen for her best bits of wisdom, and here’s what she told us…

How to recognize “the one”: When I was interviewing couples, a single word kept coming up again and again. So many people said it that I actually started to worry about the couples who didn’t say it. The word was “comfortable.” Couples would say, “I feel a sense of ease with this person that I have never felt before. I feel like I’m totally myself. I don’t feel worried. It feels natural.” Comfort doesn’t mean there aren’t sparks and butterflies, too; it just means that underlying all of it is this sense that you’ve found a person you can let loose with, the way you are with friends and family. You don’t have to suck in your stomach. You can be your most unkempt, crazy, neurotic, imperfect self.

The best part of the job: When I got the gig, I knew I would be writing about weddings, but what I found along the way is I was accruing amazing insights that weren’t making it into my wedding column. Often they would come out when I had turned off my recorder and people would talk to me candidly, and they would say what made their relationships work. Those were the things I’d find myself annoying my friends with at brunch.

The question to ask before getting married: At the end of the day, marriage is about asking, “Who do you want to sit next to on the couch?” There is so much time on the couch. Who do you want to be next to when you’re sick or feeling down or just want to watch bad reality TV? If you can find that person, then you’ve found something worth hanging on to.

Embracing online dating: I’m pro online dating. People are not going to wander up to you in the produce aisle in the grocery store. But the danger of online dating is that it can turn people into commodities. It’s so easy to just keep swiping. Try to be conscious of it: Really read someone’s profile; don’t just look at their face.

Why we should banish the idea of “good on paper”: Most people have an idea in their heads of what they’re going to find. As a kid, I had this very particular vision of my ideal mate; I wanted someone who rooted for the Buffalo Bills, even though I don’t! But a person who doesn’t meet all of your specifications might wind up being a wonderful match. My husband, Aaron, isn’t who I pictured myself winding up with — he’s younger than me — but we’ll be married three years in the fall.

What to look for in a partner: I once interviewed a psychologist for a column, and I asked him readers’ questions about what to look for in a mate. Without fail, his answer to almost every question was “choose someone kind, choose someone kind.” It was like a broken record, and I was annoyed. But you know what? Being with somebody who is fundamentally kind — to children and waiters and dogs — means that at the end of the day, they will be kind to you.

Knowing when to cut your losses: Studies show that women who feel doubt before their weddings wind up significantly less happy. My plea to anyone feeling doubt would be to think about the future you want, not the past. Some people think, “I’ve invested so much already, how could I turn back?” But if you look at the future with this person and feel a significant kernel of doubt, you have to listen to that.

(Un)realistic expectations of marriage: People think the trick is finding “the one.” And yes, finding someone can be so hard that you want to bang your head against the wall or join a convent! But the game isn’t over when you walk down the aisle. I think it’s crazy that we don’t talk more about what happens AFTER the big day. We spend so much time prepping for weddings, but not prepping for marriage. I forced my husband to take a local marriage education class. It was not romantic; it was in the basement of a house, taught by this really dorky guy. But it broke open a lot of important conversations and helped us understand each other better.

Facing tough times together: A marriage educator I once interviewed told me that many couples have trouble at transitional points in a relationship: when they first get married, when they have babies, when their kids become teenagers, when the kids leave the nest… But instead of saying, “These things have come up, let’s deal with them,” some people say, “I guess I found the wrong person.” But what winds up happening is they go out and find a different person who comes with a different set of issues! Understanding that we all go through ups and downs makes it easier and less lonely. That way, when you hit a bump in your marriage, you don’t feel like there’s something wrong with you or your partner.

Favorite marriage advice: One piece of advice is to proactively articulate your needs. Often, we expect our partner to intuitively know what we need, be it alone time or a back rub. It’s better to verbalize these things and let our partners have a field guide to ourselves.

The most memorable interview: My first year on the job, I talked to an amazing couple on Halloween. Both were dressed as witches and were very into witchcraft. They were struggling financially, living in a tiny apartment and trying to make ends meet. Even though they couldn’t afford it, they wanted a proper wedding. One day, in desperation, the groom went into the bedroom and cast a spell. He put out the intention for someone near him to win the lottery. “It doesn’t have to be me,” he said, “Just let someone we know win the lottery.” The following weekend, he turned on the TV and watched his best friend accept a check for 48 million dollars! With the help of their friend, they ended up having a giant pagan wedding, where everyone wore a costume. To me, that story was an extreme example of the power of intention. But I’ve hard versions of it again and again: Put it out there. Tell the world what you really want. Whether you write a letter to your future husband and stick it under your pillow or light a candle at church every weekend, there’s something powerful about believing the universe is working towards good.

A surprising lesson learned: Our culture tends to treat love like this magical thing that swoops into our lives and has its way with us. But if we’re willing to demystify love and talk about the hard parts along with the good parts, we have a greater chance of success.
Thank you so much, Ellen! Your book is wonderful.

P.S. How to keep the sparks flying and what marriage means.

(Interview by Caroline Donofrio)

Cooking With the Boys

Toby and Anton have always loved food (here’s proof), and now they’re getting interested in cooking. We’ll whip up oatmeal or French toast in the mornings, but for dinner, I decided to get a month of Blue Apron family meals and really cook with them…
They liked seeing all the ingredients lined up. Over the month, we made almond-crusted cod, butternut squash gnocchi and fish chowder, but our favorite were these Swedish-style meatballs with egg noodles and lingonberry jam.
The recipes are all easy and kid-friendly, and their instructions look like comic strips with step-by-step photos and written directions. Toby loved “reading” them to me.
Before we started, I did the washing and chopping, so Toby could focus on the fun stuff. He stirred the sauce in the pan, poured in the kale and grated the pepper.
To a one-year-old, the raw turkey meatballs looked just like chocolate chip cookies. Sorry, Anton!
Alex and I devoured the meatballs with rich, creamy sauce and the pasta with kale, while the boys ate the plain meatballs and noodles. We had such a great month cooking together, and I’d love to keep it up.

Bonus for readers: First-time customers get two free meals by clicking here and ordering your first box. Thanks, Blue Apron!

(Photos by Nicki Sebastian for Cup of Jo. This post is sponsored by Blue Apron, one of our long-term sponsors. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Cup of Jo.)