Over the last few weeks, the world has mourned the high-profile death of a Canadian star, actor Cory Monteith, of the hit TV show Glee. And the hearts of many children who felt an intense connection to the actor were broken.
Monteith, who played the lead character of Finn Hudson on the show for four years, was found dead in his Vancouver hotel room on July 13.
It was later determined that he had died of a toxic mix, alcohol and heroin.
Monteith had struggled with addiction for years, beginning as a young teenager.
In recent months, it appeared he had overcome his addiction; undergoing treatment, making plans for the new season of Glee and enjoying the support of on and off-screen love Lea Michele.
But unknown to most, the Alberta-born Monteith had quietly relapsed with hard drugs during a short visit to Vancouver.
The news quickly spread around the world, with celebrities, friends and colleagues expressing their shock and sorrow, along with millions of the young “Gleeks” – devotees of the wildly popular U.S. TV show that had given Monteith, who grew up in Vancouver, his big break.
Glee, a musical comedy-drama about a fictional glee club whose members deal with relationships, sexuality, and social issues, has many faithful young viewers who were stunned by Monteith’s ongoing battle with addiction and sudden death.
The high-profile death of this beloved young Canadian star leaves many parents struggling to explain the tragedy to their young children, who have idolized the character portrayed by the charismatic Monteith, whose youthful good looks and deep Canadian roots and persona made him a worldwide star, especially in his home country.
And so, amid the flurry of news stories and rampant speculation about Monteith’s life and death, an important question arises: how can parents approach such a sensitive issue so that children can comprehend and even learn from it?
The producers of the show have recognized the importance of working through Monteith’s death, not only for its young cast, but also its millions of young fans.
When the show returns Sept. 26, the third episode of the season will be a special tribute episode to Monteith’s character, which will address his real-life addiction issues. Public service announcements related to Monteith’s death are planned. Proceeds from music sales for the tribute will go into a fund in Monteith’s honour.
Experts generally believe it’s best for parents to be honest about what happened to Monteith, and to acknowledge the feelings their children may have, but not to dwell on the event; rather, to embrace it as a teachable moment by discussing values and ideas about substance abuse and modelling healthy coping strategies.
I received an insightful email about this from Ottawa mom Maureen Smith, who reflected on discussing Monteith’s death with her young daughter, a big fan.
“I have an 11-year-old daughter who just lost her first TV icon and I have struggled to explain the enormity of the topic,” wrote Smith.
“I just went for it, head on. She asked the questions, and I answered to the best of my abilities. Why pretend that the facts of life are anything other than the facts?
With age-appropriate language, we made our way through it.”
She noted that Glee had served as a great jumping off point for many constructive conversations with her daughter. But this news rocked both mother and daughter.
They learned of Monteith’s death while reading a newspaper on a beach. Shocked, they read the article through, and then, wrote Smith, the inevitable questions came.
“Alison had a number of them, specifically regarding ‘how’ he might have died. So with age-appropriate language, I took her through my rough knowledge of the science of addiction. That it didn’t matter who he was, TV star or someone with money, that addiction sees no boundaries — that addiction is about personal pain, unrelenting and very complicated.
“What I really wanted her to understand was that we will never know what Mr. Monteith struggled with, that at some point the disease of addiction takes over; in essence, no one chooses to be an addict.”
She says she hopes this might impact her daughter’s future choices and that “this laying of the information groundwork is as much as I can do at this point.”
Key to helping her daughter process with the news, she writes, is being supportive, listening, and “sitting with her while we watch Don’t Stop Believin’ on YouTube for the hundredth time.
“We had a few tears together, have been watching a lot of Glee reruns, listened to original albums from the first and second season all the way back to Ottawa from Perry Sound, bought a magazine with a decent article about him in it — this is her mourning process,” Smith wrote.
Mourning a much-loved celebrity who met a tragic end is something that every generation has had to endure, she added.
“For me it was River Phoenix, for my mom it was Elvis. For my young son, it might be someone else,” she wrote. “All we can do is keep talking about it, provide the best most responsible information and move forward.
And she concluded with a simple sentiment, one surely shared by all of Monteith’s fans and loved ones.
“In the end, it kind of just sucks. It’s sad.
“We will miss being able to watch his work but are also grateful that we had all those years of Glee with him in it and lots of video and audio to continue to honour all the great work he did.”
How do you talk about celebrity deaths and/or drug addiction with your children? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: depositphotos.com © Jean Nelson