When my son was four, he began to ask a lot of anxious questions about death. I didn’t know what event prompted it, but it was much on his mind. I would be peacefully washing dishes and suddenly he would pop up beside me like an alarmed meerkat, lip quivering, and ask me a relaxing, simple question like, “When people die, where do they go?”
Filled with parental hubris, I was convinced that a simple, factual explanation would ease his mind. “Well, dearest, everything that is alive comes to an end. Trees die, and animals die. And people die as well. When they are very, very old.” I cowardly avoided mentioning the other sorts of death that might visit us before immense age becomes a factor.
When one only has a tenuous grip on the idea of time, reassurances that death only comes along once we reach an immense age are not helpful. His fears were not soothed but freshly enlivened. He had many more questions. What did being alive actually mean? How did people actually die? What actually happens to bodies when we put them in the ground? (He is very fond of the word “actually”.)
Our family is not religious, so I had no familiar metaphors to turn to. Every time I thought that I had found a good all-encompassing explanation or analogy, it would send him off onto a freshly anxious tangent. One evening, I proffered, by way of comfort, that my grandmother had died when she was very old, and that even though I was sad and I missed her, I knew she was very old and tired and was now no longer in pain. My son found the idea of me being sad unbearably tragic, and would occasionally check up on me, tears brimming in his eyes. “Are you still sad because your grandma died?”
Eventually, we turned to stories. There are many picture books that deal with the idea of death; some very practical, aimed at children who are experiencing the death of a parent; others, more metaphorical, introducing the idea that one day everything comes to an end.
by Debi Gliori, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014
“No Matter What” is about Small and Large, two fox/rabbit/something creatures. Small is grumpy, and Large reassures Small that Large will always love Small, even if Small is grumpy, or grim, or has turned into a bug – no matter what. “But what about when we’re dead and gone?” asks Small. Love goes on, explains Large, and they look out at the stars together, still shining though some died long ago. It is an attractive metaphor for children already interested in space, and the idea that love goes on forever in the face of death is a soothing one.
by Britta Teckentrup, Orchard Books, 2013
“The Memory Tree” involves an actual death, instead of just a discussion about the idea. The story begins with old, tired Fox lying down and going to sleep, forever. The animals are sad at first, then begin telling stories of their happy memories of time with Fox. A tree grows where Fox lies, and the other animals find comfort and shelter in its branches or beneath its shade. It is a sweet story with beautiful illustrations, and the tree is a comforting idea, both in the literal and metaphoric sense.
by Susan Varley, HarperCollins, 1992
“Badger’s Parting Gifts” is a similar sort of story to “The Memory Tree”, and was one of my favourite books as a child. Badger is old and tired, and after he dies his friends remember the special things Badger taught them and their precious memories of Badger. This would be a good book to read after the death of a grandparent or great-grandparent.
by Judith Kerr, HarperCollins, 2003
“Goodbye Mog” would be a wonderful idea if you have other Mog books, as it would introduce the idea of loss of something familiar (although of course, it would bear that much more emotional weight). Judith Kerr gave a wonderful interview to the Guardian about her decision to write about Mog dying. “…I wanted to say something about dying and being remembered.”
by Caron Levis, Atheneum Books, 2016
“Ida Always” is a new, beautifully illustrated book about a pair of polar bears, Gus and Ida, who live in, “a big park in the middle of an even bigger city.” Death is introduced in a simple, clear manner – Ida had begun to sleep too much. Soon her body would stop working, and she would die. Gus comes to terms with life without his close friend, comforted by her reminder that you don’t need to see something in order to feel it.
What ways have you used to discuss death with your young children? Are there any picture books that have really resonated with you?
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