By Elaine Wilson, AFPS
Oct. 16, 2009
Yesterday, I wrote about my experiences on Sesame Street, where I attended the filming of a video aimed at helping military children deal with the loss of a loved one.
Along with meeting long-time Sesame Street favorites Elmo and Rosita, one of the highlights of my trip was the opportunity to discuss the production with Deborah Mullen, wife of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen.
Seeking a quiet place to chat, Mrs. Mullen , my co-worker and I ended up in Mr. Hooper’s store, that iconic set that serves as the backdrop to so many “Sesame Street” scenes. Perched on a lunch counter stool, Mrs. Mullen addressed everything from military family resiliency to coping with the loss of a loved one.
Mrs. Mullen was on the set to watch and support the first day of production of Sesame Workshop’s new video, the third in a series designed to help military families deal with issues ranging from multiple deployments to the death of a family member. Sesame is scheduled to air the video as part of a documentary dealing with the loss of a loved one on PBS in April. The video then will be incorporated with a military-specific kit for distribution on the Sesame Workshop’s Web site, Military OneSource and at military family-support centers throughout the world.
Sesame Workshop works closely with the Defense Department on each of its military-related products and enlisted help once again on this one, which deals with the loss of Elmo’s uncle.
“The videos, this one in particular, … is not going to be just helpful for the children, but it’s going to be helpful for the surviving family member to be able to help these children begin to deal with the grief of the loss, the anger, all those feelings that they don’t really understand,” Mrs. Mullen said.
“I wanted to come today because the people that are doing this … the folks that are the characters, it’s so important to support them, to let them know how important this is, how much we know this will make a difference,” she added. “They really do understand what our military children are going through.”
During the filming, I snuck a few glances at Mrs. Mullen and she always was intently watching the production. In one scene, Elmo wants to go play with his Uncle Jack and his dad gently reminds him that Jack is dead. He explains it in a way that even a young child can grasp. “You see, when someone dies, it means they’re not alive anymore. Their body has stopped working. They don’t eat or breathe or talk on the phone.”
“It’s evident here, watching [Sesame] filming this, that something that might be ‘just good enough’ isn’t really good enough for them,” Mrs. Mullen said. “It’s got to be perfect because they know that they are dealing with … particularly in this DVD, the issue of death, which is something that isn’t normally addressed with children.”
With such a sensitive topic, it was an emotional day on set, not just for the cast and crew, but for the bystanders as well. Tears abounded, as did laughter, and the cast often joked around to lighten the mood when the scene became particularly tough. But no matter how difficult the day, the end result will be well worth it, Mrs. Mullen said.
“Our military children today are facing a number of challenges and have been for the last eight years,” she said. “This challenge of the loss of a family member is the greatest challenge they may ever have to face. We need to find ways to help them recognize this grief, begin to come to terms with this grief, this loss, learn to deal with the feelings they are experiencing.”
Mrs. Mullen said it’s important to enlist the help of significant adults in military children’s lives, and not just family members.
“We need to find ways for teachers, guidance counselors, to help these children learn to cope, because it will impact their lives, it will impact their schooling, it will impact everything they do,” Mrs. Mullen said. “I think it’s important for [families], particularly for National Guard families, that they are connected to the school where their children are located, that they make sure that that school — the guidance counselor, the teacher — understands what the children are experiencing.”
“Whether it’s a separation from deployment, the reintegration of a parent – either wounded or not wounded – or the loss of a parent, I think that the school is a key part of this,” she added.
Mrs. Mullen said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is working to develop training for guidance counselors and teachers to help them understand what children are experiencing.
Mrs. Mullen also spoke passionately about defense leaders’ ongoing support for military families. “There’s recognition … that there are things that we need to change and we need to address and we need to get better on,” she said. “I just would like to assure people that there are folks who care, who are working diligently to try and make it better.”
She said there’s an understanding of the stress military families are under and is aware of the requests for more “dwell time,” which is the time spent home between deployments.
“I know that that’s on the front of the minds of all the senior leadership,” she said. “They understand the importance of the families being together. I know that it’s also, right now with requirements, it’s difficult, but they’re working very hard to get more dwell time for these families.”
Also, “They are working very hard to try and help and also to let the families of those who have lost someone, the surviving families [know] that we will never forget, that we will always be there, that we will work diligently to make sure that they’re OK.”
This video is part of that effort and, surrounded by Sesame Street’s familiar storefronts and characters, Mrs. Mullen had high praise for Sesame Workshop’s efforts to help military families.
“It’s ‘Talk, Listen, Connect,’ and the way I remember that is TLC, which is tender, loving care,” she said. “I will tell you that these DVDs are made with loving care by these people. They are so dedicated to military families, to making sure that they do it correctly, that they end up making a difference in the lives of these families.”
“They’re stepping out in a territory that’s not a usual territory for Sesame Street, and they’re doing it exactly the way they do everything else,” Mrs. Mullen said, “which is the best possible people looking for the best possible outcome because they know how important it is for our families.”
After the interview wrapped up, I walked away with a renewed appreciation for this top military spouse. She obviously cares deeply about military families and their needs. I can’t imagine too many people at her level who would be willing to talk so frankly while sitting on Mr. Hooper’s stool, but I’m glad that she was.
For more on Sesame’s TLC initiative, visit http://www.sesameworkshop.org/initiatives/emotion/tlc.