Bad stuff happens. Sometimes, life sucks! This is quite a contrast to the colourful, carefree and happy bubble we'd like to raise our children in. We naturally try to shelter them from some of life's harsh realities. As parents, we often figure that there's plenty of time for them to be jaded, shaken and hurt. But sometimes we are no longer afforded the option of protecting our kids from some of life's harsh bumps. Sometimes, life throws us an unexpected blow that leaves us not only picking up the shattered bits, but also trying to keep our children from breaking in the process.
For me, there is no topic tougher to talk to kids about than death. Experts advise that in certain situations, kids do better when they are given accurate information and when such sad news is coupled with reassurance and love. We are told to use direct and simple language and to speak in a way to ensure that the message is clear... no ambiguity.
So... here we are. Parents are faced with not only holding ourselves strong during tragedy, but now we are to look into the innocent eyes of our child and deliver the news in a straightforward way. How do we do this?
While my personal recommendation to anyone faced with this situation would be to seek the advice of a grief counsellor, I also tend to turn to literature. Books written for children are a great and effective way to open up dialogue about this and other topics. I strongly believe in the power of books. It's up to us as the grown-ups to find the right books and begin the communication process. Kids need to know that it's okay to talk about upsetting things. And while this doesn't often seem like the easy choice, think of the alternative; bottling things up, as we've learned, is not healthy and will manifest itself in different ways over time.
One such book, is Our Tree Named Steve, written by Alan Zweibel.
Billy Crystal describes this book as "sweet and funny and charming." It is indeed, all of these things! It is also so much more. In this book, the father is writing a letter to his children, advising them that the tree outside their house has perished in a storm. The author takes the reader through the evolution of the family's relationship with the tree, and how the tree has been an important constant for the family throughout the years.
I have also recommended this book to other parents when coping with and explaining death to their children. It's an easy parallel to draw, and is more subtle and age-appropriate for young children.
This book in my opinion, turns a tough topic into a beautiful story and provides a positive outlook. I'm not sure if this was the author's intention, but bravo, nonetheless!
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death, written by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown is a wonderful book that is perfect for speaking to young children about death. The language is simple and direct and it allows children to understand their feelings.
I Miss You: A First Look at Death is also geared towards young children. Written by Pat Thomas, this book talks about feelings that children may have, following the death of a loved one. The book asks, "What about you?" throughout the story, allowing you to stop, pause and speak to your child as it relates to them.
Gentle Willow: A Story for Children About Dying, relates death to a tree. Written by Joyce C. Mills, PhD, this story is lovely in that it discusses "special gifts" that the tree provided... These special gifts are memories.
If you're looking for a book that's a bit more abstract, The Invisible String by Patrice Karst is wonderful. The concept in this story, is that "people who love each other are always connected by a very special string made of love." This concept, while it can be related to death, can certainly apply to so many separation issues.
Death isn't something we like to talk about, but it certainly is a sad and necessary topic to speak to our kids about at some point. As with the healing and grieving processes, talking about death is also a very individual process. You have to approach it in a way that best suits you, your child and your situation. I am hopeful that these books can at the very least offer you some assistance, if not comfort. God bless...