From the archives — Books to Share with Children When Someone Dies
September 22, 2012
This was first posted on elizabethannewrites on June 11, 2011.
When I first wrote this post back in June of 2011, I’d just received word that a friend had died after a brief (but fiesty) battle with brain cancer. This post was, and is, in memory of Audrey.
Death is not an easy thing for any of us to deal with, nor is it an easy concept to grasp. That person who just a moment ago was there, breathing and alive, is suddenly changed, and our lives are suddenly changed as well. For children this can be very hard to understand. Cartoons haven’t helped at all in this regard — I remember a cousin assuming that people who died would be alive again soon, simply because characters who were apparently killed in cartoons bounced back with no ill effects. I’m sure his parents had a hard time explaining the truth to him.
Thankfully there are books to help adults reach out to children who are trying to learn to cope with the death of a beloved family member, friend, or pet.
One of the first of such books that I ever encountered, back in the late 1970s when I was in training for ministry (my life took a different turn, and that career path wasn’t followed, by the way) was The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst, with illustrations by Erik Blegvad. First published in 1971, this book has not become dated in the least, and I recommend it very highly. The story is told in the first person, with simple two-tone illustrations. The text gets right to the point, with the first words “My cat Barney died last Friday. I was very sad.” To help comfort the child, and to begin the healing process, the child’s mother suggests that they have a funeral for Barney, and that the child (who is never named, making the story universal) should think of ten good things to tell about Barney at the funeral. Between the time of that suggestion and the time of the funeral, the child rehearses his/her list of “good things” — the repetition is soothing, and reminds the reader of the special things that we each hold in our heart of someone who has died — but the child can only come up with nine. Only nine, that is, until after the funeral itself, when the tenth good thing begins the understanding and the healing process. I had planned to quote the final two lines, but I don’t want to spoil the book for you. I do urge you to read it, whether or not you or the children you know are currently in the process of dealing with death.
Grandpa’s Garden, by Shea Darian with illustrations by Karlyn Holman, is a particularly appropriate book with which to honor my friend Audrey, as she loved her garden, her flowers, her roses so much. Detailed, soft watercolors gently help tell the story of a girl and her Grandpa working in his garden, the grandfather teaching lessons about life and death through the natural cycle of the garden, the girl absorbing these lessons and her grandfather’s love. On nearly every page, the text begins with the words “On Saturdays I work in Grandpa’s garden”, which is a comforting repetition that continues through the grandfather’s sudden illness — he has a heart attack while working in the garden, but this is portrayed in such a way that a child feels held close and reassured by words and pictures even as the fear and uncertainty around this event is acknowledged. The young girl continues to work in Grandpa’s garden while he is in hospital, and after he comes home, until he is able to join her again. While in this story, the grandfather’s health is restored, there is still a message that death will come, and that it will be sad, but it will be alright, the girl will be alright, because she will always know her Grandpa’s love for her, and she will find healing in the natural cycle of the garden. There is a religious slant to part of this book, which may cause questions in families where religion is not practiced, but the positive message of the garden can be understood by all, believers and non-believers alike. There is also a poem about Mother Nature at the back of the book, which I found very meaningful. This book is one of the treasures I found on the public library’s book sale table. I’m grateful I found it.
When Dinosaurs Die: a guide to understanding death, by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown, is a more practical approach to the topic, explaining in easily understood terms what being alive means, what being dead means, and showing different cultures’ responses to death, all depicted through the lives, questions, and ponderings of dinosaurs who live exactly as we do — the green “Arthur”-like creatures could be replaced with humans with no other changes needing to be made. (Which is not perhaps what one would expect from a book entitled “When Dinosaurs Die”…) The chapter headings in the book give a good sense of the topics covered, and the way in which they’re covered. This is not a sweet story that hints about death, this is practical advice, told gently but honestly, about “what does alive mean?”, “why does someone die?”, “what does dead mean?”, through dealing with feelings, how to respond to a friend who has experienced a death, and ways of remembering someone who has died, such as making a scrapbook, telling stories, planting flowers. The chapter about why people die is forthright, talking about accidents, babies who are not strong enough to survive, even suicide. One would need to be prepared not only to answer questions, but to reassure, reassure and reassure again, I believe, while reading this book with a child. Perhaps the green creatures of the illustrations are considered to make the topic more palatable for children, as well as being easier to handle for the adults who are reading, with the illustrations taking a step back from showing real people in the situations. I would caution anyone choosing to read this book to a child to read it first and be prepared for the questions that will come (this is true of any book dealing with a serious topic, such as death, or divorce, just to name two examples).
The Next Place, by Warren Hanson, definitely needs to be read and carefully considered before sharing it with a child. It is heavily weighted toward a religious view of death (which is likely obvious from the title). In fact, it is perhaps more for older children or adults than for small children — although the amazon information suggests a reading audience of ages 4 to 8, I’m not sure a four-year-old could grasp the concepts nor even understand the language of this book (and I definitely believe in a child being encouraged to “stretch up” to vocabulary). From the jacket flap, “The Next Place is an inspirational journey of light and hope to a place where earthly hurts are left behind. An uncomplicated journey of awe and wonder to a destination without barriers.” Through illustrations of sky in all its myriad of appearances, and text that swoops through the illustrations unfettered and free, the next life is portrayed as soothing, peaceful, joyful, without the limitations we know on earth — many of the biblical and traditional thoughts of heaven are couched in this book’s poetic language. There is an emphasis on peace, and light, and love which is a positive message for anyone to hear in the face of death, but it is definitely a book that is directed to those among us who have religious beliefs in heaven, or a heaven-like existence after death, so again, it is a book that one should read before sharing with a child to ensure that it is suitable for the situation. For those with a belief system that encompasses an afterlife, this book would be both meaningful and hope-giving.
Gentle Willow: a story for children about dying, by Joyce C. Mills, Ph.D., illustrated by Michael Chesworth (the copy I have on my desk has a designation “Books to Help Parents help their Children” prominently displayed on the cover) is a gentle allegory written by a therapist who “specializes in storytelling as a healing process for children and adults”. The story tells of a little tree whose treasured friend Gentle Willow develops some sort of illness. Through the allegory, the child listening to the story learns that sometimes this happens, and it’s just a natural way for all living things, and there are some things that even “the tree wizards” cannot heal. A squirrel, who also loves Gentle Willow (and who was forthright in expressing anger to the wizards who could not heal her), comforts her as she faces the changes that are frightening her, by telling her about the caterpillar who had to go through enormous change to become a butterfly. Through this story, Gentle Willow begins to feel acceptance. In the spring, Gentle Willow is no longer there, but when Little Tree and the squirrel see the butterflies dancing around the place where Gentle Willow once stood, they feel hope, and remember their friend. This book is intended to help both children who are facing the death of a loved one (or pet) or who are facing their own illness and death. Since it is an allegory, it will likely require some explanation, but will also be a gentle lead-in to necessary conversations. At the end of the book, there are a couple of exercises for “pain getting better” and “magic happy breath”, which seem to me to detract from the message of the book, seeming to make it seem as if these exercises might make the pain all better, or might magically make the illness disappear. I think the same exercises could be used in a more realistic way as an excellent tool for both children and adults to manage pain, without seeming to cause false hope. That is my only criticism of this book. The sudden forced happy-happy feeling seems jarring after the gently accepting message of the book.
May books like these help the healing process for those who are dealing with illness and death.