On Friday, I am having a very interesting meeting about children’s books.
What is so interesting about that, you may ask? Well, I am meeting with the director of a funeral home and a director of a counseling center to discuss grief in children’s books.
This meeting has taken on special poignancy for me as I received some terrible news yesterday. Normally, I try to be as honest with my children as I can, but this time I knew they weren’t ready to hear this news. So I’ve been keeping it from them and admittedly not doing a very good job hiding the fact that something is wrong.
Frankly, I’m not good at grief. I don’t know what to do with it, and if I don’t know as an adult, how can children know any better?
I know I am not alone in this. Because I don’t know what to do with my grief, because I don’t know how to guide my kids through it as I should, I often rely on children’s books to help me navigate these choppy waters.
This month, I’m not going to discuss books that help children deal with grief in their lives, but rather books that INTRODUCE grief, make a reader experience it, wrestle with it, and then live with it, and how important those steps are for both a child and parent.
– “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter Yarrow, Lenny Lipton and Eric Puybaret is probably the first book I read with my children that really tore them up emotionally. Puff as the pathetic fallacy representing the end of childhood is simple genius, and its effect on both child and parent is profound.
They cry, I cry, we cry together. And there is no happy resolution, no new child for Puff to love, no grown Jackie Paper who returns periodically to say hello.
Both parent and child are forced to reckon with deep sadness, regret and finality. It’s heavy. And it lasts. There is not a time my children hear the song without reliving those deep feelings.
– When E.B. White recorded a reading of “Charlotte’s Web” for NPR in 1970, it took him 17 takes to read Charlotte’s death without crying. I have never made it through Charlotte’s death without crying. Research shows that children’s first empathy often is directed, quite deeply, toward animals, and E. B. White was a master at exploiting that empathy.
For the bulk of “Charlotte’s Web,” a child is so invested in Wilbur’s survival that Charlotte’s death after she saves Wilbur seems incredibly unfair. But what affected my children the most was that Charlotte died alone. It wasn’t pretty, no one was there to comfort or guide her; Charlotte was utterly and completely alone.
Wilbur is White’s meditation on death, but Charlotte is White’s reality of death. We go through it alone, and Charlotte’s death, and the fact that her sacrifice didn’t exempt her from it, is intensely felt by both parent and child.
– I have yet to complete a book about human death with my children, but my son and I are still reading “Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson, and Leslie’s death is just a few pages away. So far the book has been funny and moving, but I know what is coming. This will not be the death of a parent, or a grandparent, but the death of a best friend, and my kids are at an age where best friends are very important.
Unlike Wilbur in “Charlotte’s Web,” Jess’ grief is unsparing — he has no mission to save an egg sac to ease death’s blow. And unlike Charlotte, Leslie doesn’t die triumphantly; Leslie’s death is senseless, random and unexpected. It is a frightening death. And it comes with guilt, which my children have not experienced in this context.
Paterson calls the book “emotional practice,” and as I try to figure out how to share grief with my children, and before we begin “A Day No Pigs Would Die” by Robert Newton Peck, I know I, and they, need the practice.