I cannot imagine having to explain to a child that someone they love is going to die. The questions must seem unending – where are they going? Can I still talk to them? What does ‘dead’ mean? And then there’s the most difficult question of all: why?
Younger children may have problems understanding the finality of death. Older children may find it difficult to express what they’re feeling, or have trouble dealing with the unfairness of the thing. At a time when the adults in their lives may also be struggling with emotional issues and/or be busy with end-of-life paperwork and arrangements, books can lend a hand with answering some of those questions as well as offering comfort.
Parents, carers and educators all have to make a decision as to how they’re going to deal with these questions. There are philosophical and religious considerations which adults may or may not want to introduce to youngsters, each with a set of implications that can confuse as much as comfort.
These books do not subscribe to a particular religious viewpoint*, but they do tend towards a ‘death is not the end’ sentimentality. I am yet to find a children’s book that doesn’t do this, but if you are aware of one, please do let me know in comments. For children dealing with the incipient death of a loved one the notion that the dead will not be forgotten is an important one.
For advice on dealing with death, or any aspect of parenting, you can contact Parentline on 0808 800 2222
Children and young people can speak to Childline on 0800 1111
Badger’s Parting Gifts
‘Badger was so old that he knew he must die soon’. So begins Susan Varley’s touching story of those left behind. Varley does not shy from the finality of death – she makes it clear that Badger is not returning. Memories endure, though, and within the Wind in the Willows-esque pages of this astonishingly beautiful picture book that message is strong. Every time Mole cuts out paper dolls, Badger will be remembered; every time Fox correctly knots his tie, Badger will be remembered. These every day kindnesses are not Nobel Peace prize-winning actions, but to those who they affect, they are important.
This reviewer on Amazon UK sums up many people’s reactions to Mog’s death.
When I first spotted the hardback edition of this book in the shop and registered the title, my heart gave a sickening lurch. When I picked the book up and turned to page one, I almost collapsed in shock and grief. It took several minutes before I was composed enough to take the book to the tills. And I’m a grown man. But one who had loved Mog dearly for 30 years, regarded her as a sweet, funny friend, always there to cheer me up on the blackest of days. How could she be gone?
Ideal for those already familiar with Judith Kerr’s Mog books, Goodbye Mog has brought a tear to the eye of countless youngsters (and adults) who’ve grown up enjoying Mog’s exploits.
Kerr makes Mog’s death almost an active choice for the aging cat: ‘Mog was tired. She was dead tired… Mog thought, “I want to sleep for ever”. And so she did’. There is a new kitty in the house, though, and Mog sticks around to teach the new arrival her kitteny ways. Beautifully illustrated and told with and gentle humour, Goodbye Mog, like Badger’s Parting Gifts, is a book about the continued affect our loved ones have on us after their death. Mog floats into the sun, but her memory is alive in the new kitten.
Dead! The Story of Death and Dying
This Horrible Histories book may not be the one to reach for when Granny is nearing the end, but it’s ideal to have around to normalize the idea of death as something that comes to us all. Gruesome and irreverent, as is traditional with the Horrible Histories series, this book charts the way we have dealt with the dead throughout history. We learn about the smoke enema (and let me be the first to say ‘eeeeeeew’) performed by Native Americans to ensure the body before them was indeed dead; mummification rituals and other horrible historicals that will delight children, especially those with a love of the macabre, and hopefully make death less taboo.
The loss of a grandparent is often a child’s first experience of death, and it’s dealt with here beautifully. With clean, bright pastel illustrations and a sweet but not saccharine story, Grandpa’s Boat is a lovely book to read with children when the unthinkable happens.
Grandpa has always loved his boat and when he dies it lies forgotten by the quay. When the family decide to repair Grandpa’s boat, they find that Grandpa’s memory is alive in his boat, the Periwinkle, and as the Periwinkle sails again the family share their happy memories of Grandpa.
Micheal Rosen’s Sad Book also discusses death, and is well worth a read. However I think it is such an important book that it’ll be getting a post to itself at some point in the next week or so.
*Though of course such texts exist in abundance, and, while I am not Buddhist I do have a soft spot for The Moutains of Tibet by Mordicai Gerstein.