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How to talk to your kids about Cory Monteith's death

It all started with River Phoenix for me.

The first celebrity death that really affected me was that of River Phoenix. I’d followed his career since his iconic movie Stand By Me, which he filmed when he was 15 and I watched (around a hundred times) when I was 12.

His death in 1993 when he was 23 and I was 16 abruptly taught me that celebrities are people too. They aren’t the Gods we make them out to be.

My parents didn’t discuss subjects like death. I could ask but was normally waived away or left with something trite like, “It’s nothing for you to worry about” or “don’t think about it”. I felt dismissed and lonely, like my feelings didn’t matter. My distress over the death of a celebrity I’d really admired – not just for his work but his ethical stance on so many things – didn’t matter. Silly Jo upset about a River Phoenix dying.

It’s just that his work meant so much to me.

Now parents are faced with having to deal with the fallout of Cory Monteith’s death. It's an issue that affects whole families because fans of Glee can range from toddler to teenager thanks to the uplifting music and constant dancing (thankfully the adult themes went right over their heads).

While the cause of Cory's death is yet to be officially announced, it is well known the actor had a long history of substance abuse and addiction – he entered rehab for the first time at age 19, and voluntarily checked in for treatment again earlier this year. Media reports suggest a drug overdose was possible, but the truth won't be known for weeks. 

Cory was living a perfect life, wasn’t he? Handsome, rich, famous and doing a job he loved. Why on earth would someone like him have to use drugs to cope with his charmed life?

And if people like Cory can’t cope, how then can we?

Cory himself was aware of the affect his struggle with substance abuse would have on some fans. The fact he sought help more than once shows his desperation. He said, "I don't want kids to think it's OK to drop out of school and get high, and they'll be famous actors, too," he told Parade magazine.

The sad fact is that many celebrities struggle with emotional issues. It’s these issues that often draw them to seek a life of fame in the first place. Cory suffered terribly as a child and while he hasn’t revealed the details of that suffering he's referred to it on occasion and so has his devastated girlfriend Lea Michelle, his co-star on Glee.

Cory was at a crossroads. His role on Glee had pretty much wrapped up aside from a few guest appearances. What to next?

The challenge of being a celebrity is that you are only as good as your last TV show, move, CD, book…and I’m not suggesting they need your pity. But until you’ve lived it – and most of us never will – it’s difficult to comprehend a life where your sense of worth is so wrapped up in your craft and for times when you’re feeling down, drugs and alcohol are plentiful.

Talking to your children about Cory’s death is really important. Don’t leave the thoughts festering in their impressionable minds.

Here are my suggestions for dealing with the conversation …

For younger children you can explain that Cory was sick and has sadly died. Addiction is a disease and that’s an easy way for children to understand it.

For teenagers, it’s complicated. They become emotionally invested in the celebrities they admire and their entire lives. How do you explain what happened to them?

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It’s the perfect opportunity to talk about drugs. Even though we like to believe our children will never encounter drugs or misuse alcohol the sad fact is that it’s their peer groups that normally lead them down these paths.

Drugs are bad.

Too much alcohol is dangerous.

They’ve heard it all before, from you, at school and in books.

They know about the deaths of Heath Ledger, Brittany Murphy and Amy Winehouse from a combination of illegal drugs, prescription drugs and alcohol.

Your children need to know that it’s not the substances that killed them. The substances just made it easier.

It all comes down to good old self-esteem, but be warned, start a conversation about self-esteem with most teenagers and they’ll roll their eyes and promptly tune out. How do you know about self-esteem? You are their embarrassing parent.

But like Doctor Phil always says, just because they pretend not to listen, doesn’t mean they don’t hear you.

Tell them that the real challenge in life is being happy, not matter what. True happiness has nothing to do with your job, how much money you make or what kind of car you drive. True happiness comes from an ability to see the good, to feel happiness, to be able to deal with negative emotion.

That’s why school is so important.

I was telling my son just this morning that school is important not just because of what he learns in the classroom but also how he deals with ridicule, failure, pressure and stress. You see, he says he hates school and when I ask why, my precious 9-year-old says the reason he hates it is because sometimes people laugh at him and he hates it when his teachers get angry at him for not finishing his work.

Good, I told him. Because that’s what you need to learn.

You need to learn that people are always going to laugh at you. You need to deal with it and learn to move past it. Shake it off, talk to me, laugh back in a comical way…come up with a coping mechanism that sees you through.

My son’s a little artist who often throws multiple failed drawings on the floor and throws his hands up saying, “My drawing sucks”.

Explain that everyone goes through phases like that. All great artists whether they be singers or painters or actors or sculpters have produced work that has never seen the light of day and has been promptly discarded.

It’s the process. It’s life.

Constant success, constant happiness, constant fulfilment just isn’t sustainable.

Cory’s death is a tragedy but he achieved enormous success in his short life. Explain that our thoughts need to shift to those who knew him, who really loved him and who are suffering right now like they have never suffered before.

Cory’s pain is over. Cory is now at peace.

We are left to learn from his life, both the good and the bad.

Because life is what we make of it, and the biggest gift we can give our children is helping them learn to deal with all the crap that goes with it.

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