Sunday, May 31, 2009

Of Death Do We Speak? Helping children cope with death of a loved one.

My paternal grandfather died when I was eight years old. I cried as I watched my parents and two older siblings drive away to attend the funeral.  I was not allowed to go to the funeral. I guess my parents felt I was too young and it would be too hard on me. Or maybe they were just so steeped in their own grief to think of my need for closure. I loved grandpa. I did not want to be left out of anything that involved him. And I knew I would never see him again.

Grandpa's death was never talked about in my presence. Maybe no one talked about it. I think in those days, people, at least in our family, hid their grief. If anyone cried, they did it privately. Death, like sex, was a subject children should never hear or speak of. So what did I do with my grief at age eight? I guess I stuffed it somewhere deep down and out of sight, adding death to the many mysterious evils that I was to fear, but not to question. 

I think—hope—it is generally different today. Children who experience the death of a peer,  a parent, or anyone close to them are often taken to a therapist for grief counseling. And therapists often use books or stories to help children better understand the feelings they are experiencing. When children read of a character with whom they relate and see that character experience the same feelings they suffer, they can better accept that they are not alone, and that their feelings and reactions are not wrong. 

Because death is natural, inevitable, and universal, it has found it's way into many of the children's novels I have written. It is my belief that children who have suffered or will suffer the death of a beloved person or pet will be better prepared for sorrow that threatens to overwhelm them by reading about a character who is going through the same grief. 

Janet Burroway, in her book, Writing Fiction, wrote, "Literature offers feelings for which we don't have to pay." Kids will find it easier to articulate their own feelings when they can relate them to those of a character in a book. 

Characters in my books who, each in his or her way, have each dealt with loss of a loved one through death are Danny in Danny's Dragon whose father is a casualty of the Iraq war, Kyleah in Kyleah's Tree whose mother died, and her father, and brother, with whom she is separated. Miranda, who lives with her grandparents in Miranda and Starlight, knows nothing of her father until she gets a letter from him and an explanation of the accident that resulted in his missing at sea and presumed death in Starlight's Courage. In Starlight Comes Home Miranda loses a mentor who is like a grandfather to her. Kids and adults alike like these books for the emotions, happy and sad, that they experience when reading them.

For other books, both fiction and non-fiction, written to help kids deal with death, I Googled "books to help children cope with death." One site that gives a nice list of books, most of which I confess I have not read, is:

Although I still encounter parents, librarians, and teachers who would "protect" children from "sad" topics in books, I also find that kids like to have their emotions touched, and their favorite books are the ones in which the characters feel deeply about life's problems that they may also face.


Janet Grace Riehl said...


I'm so glad that you as a person and as an author are so clued into this topic...especially in regard to the issues death presents for children.

I look forward to our conversation on July 8th.

Janet Riehl

Janet Muirhead Hill said...

Thank you, Janet. I am looking forward to July 8, as well. Your audio book , “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music,” is one I highly recommend for any family grieving the loss of a loved one.