Books dealing with the loss of someone close, especially a parent, are probably needed only in the dreaded specific situation, since reading a story in which a parent dies (outside the safely formula-bound, once-removed world of fairytale) is likely to induce fearsome anxiety in young kids. Theyre hard going for adults, too: I only have to hear the title of Elke Beckers Is Daddy Coming Back In A Minute? to feel a nose-prickling urge to stick my head under the pillow. But Beckers book, which uses her sons own words to ask and answer questions about death, is extraordinary, laying out with clarity and tenderness the anxiety, curiosity and unavoidable, drawn-out sorrow that a parents loss brings in its wake. Her second book, What Happened to Daddys Body?, also deals directly and sensitively with the realities of burial and cremation.
Similarly, Rebecca Cobbs Missing Mummy, for the youngest children, and, Holly Webbs A Tiger Tale, for slightly older readers, focus clear-sightedly on childrens fears, curiosity and feelings of being cut adrift. Webbs book, about a little girl whos lost her grandad, deals sensitively with the discomfort of griefs etiquette, too: Kate is bemused by adult mourners laughing at fond memories, unsure whether and when she is allowed to feel happy.
But what about pre-emptively dealing with death, in more general terms is it a good idea, or one that generates more anxiety than it allays? Personally, knowing that a much-loved but ancient Jack Russell was soon to be no more, I prepared the ground with my two-year-old, who had already begun to ask questions about what memorials meant. I found myself floundering when I tried to answer these, either overcomplicating matters or abruptly changing the subject (Oh look a squirrel!). I am not a Christian, and didnt really want to suggest dog heaven (or human heaven, for that matter), but I didnt trust myself to find the solid middle ground between bald fact and emotional comfort. I tried Goodbye Mog, but I couldnt read it myself without dissolving into strangulated sobs, which defeated the purpose. (I grew up on Mog myself, and am frankly not yet ready for her to be dead.)
Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr.
So I ordered an American book first published in the 1980s, called Lifetimes. This has a calm, inexorable tone throughout, and illustrations which evoke the beauty of death in nature broken shells, ants, butterflies as well as the vivid joy of being alive (although the pictures of people are a little dated now). It is the way they live, and it is their lifetime, is its refrain. I wont say its a firm favourite of my daughters, but it provided me with a solid foundation, a simple, straightforward script and it did seem to help when the poor old dog disappeared.
Theres a still more thought-provoking approach in the German book Duck, Death and the Tulip, in which Duck becomes aware, one day, that someone with a skull for a head, and a rather natty tartan coat, is following her everywhere. Eventually, she chums up with friendless Death, talking to him about the afterlife, and what will happen to her after she dies. Then she does die, and Death tends to her body, placing it gently in the river which carries it away.
Making peace with the idea of death as a constant companion, something that awaits everyone, and which is better reconciled with than feared, is an uncomfortable prospect for many parents; unsurprisingly, perhaps, since adults struggle with the idea too, sometimes till the end of their lives. But it might lessen the seismic nature of grief and fear a little, for both young children and adults, if we grew up with the idea of death as both inevitable and essential, instead of keeping it at arms length.
Which books did you read, either to prepare children or to help them navigate grief?
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