It's not as if I haven't written about death and loss and picture books in the past. Just enter death or grief in the search box on the right and you'll find some of the many books I've recommended on this topic. In each case, though, I've found the books first and shared my reactions and recommendations for various uses.
This post, however, is a response to a specific situation, a heartbreaking loss that left me, and I suspect everyone else involved, feeling helpless. I often have to bite my tongue when faced with loss or tragedy, desperately grasping for something, anything, to offer those suffering some tangible relief beyond my sympathy. This is exponentially more true when the grief involves children. The older I get the more aware I am of how grossly inadequate and even inappropriate that impulse is.
|Dial Books for Young Readers, 2019|
This little book offers a universe of wisdom. It opens with utterly appealing scenes, introducing a character, Taylor, about whom we instantly care.
Then trouble swoops in: sudden, shocking, irrational. Taylor is rightly dismayed.
The author/illustrator's use of caring, well-meaning, and slightly absurd animal interveners highlights the fact that each portrays a "fixer" approach- giving advice that wasn't sought. Even though the effort is sincere and the suggestions are generally textbook-smart, there is little or no effort to "read" the child and realize that time and circumstances make their well-meaning offers, well, meaningless.
Then Rabbit arrives. As the title says, Rabbit Listened, recognizing and absorbing Taylor's raw emotions. Rabbit's only role is to be present. To offer comfort without expectation or exit. Only then can Taylor (who could be a boy or a girl) try out various reactions, move through stages of grief, and work through the pain of loss until it is resolved. As comforting as this book may prove to be for young audiences, it should be considered an advanced course in human outreach for those of us with the "fixer" impulse.
While respecting the privacy of the family involved, I'll share the circumstances that prompted this post. It involved the recent sudden death of a bright and kind young man. He was the husband of a woman I've known since she and her sister were in elementary school, girls who had cookies and cocoa at my table and helped me open up my classrooms in each fall. Now that little girl I knew has grown to be this young woman. She and her husband are both young professionals, parents of an incredibly bright and sweet five-year-old girl. That former little girl and her own daughter now face the daily reality of drastically altered lives, shifting dreams, and an achingly deep absence in their futures.
My fixer impulse surfaced in full force, but with an absolute awareness that nothing "fixes" this situation. Nothing can, nothing will.
That's when I remembered this picture book. I also checked for other titles at CHILDREN'S BOOKS HEAL, a blog by Patricia Tilton and BOOKS THAT HEAL KIDS, a blog by Roxanne. I turned to the power of picture books based on the way they can act as the rabbit: to be there, to be present and available, waiting to listen and share the child's grief whenever and however they are able to express it.
|Star Bright Books, 2013|
|Magination Press 2007|
Another book that could be useful as the months pass is SAMANTHA JANE'S MISSING SMILE: A Story About Coping with the Loss of a Parent, written by Julie Kaplow and Donna Pincus, illustrated by Beth Spiegel. This story, written by two professionals in the field of grief and anxiety in youth, tenderly explores and supports young Sarah Jane as she resumes her "new normal" life after the death of a parent, in particular helping her to accept moments of happiness, even laughter. The story reminds Sarah Jane that, as she recovers a full range of emotions, she can experience happiness without feeling guilty or worrying that it means she is forgetting her parent.
The story directly addresses these questions but is kid-friendly. Back pages provide additional professional advice to surviving parents supporting a child through such a loss. Magination Press is a publisher curated by the American Psychological Association with a long track record for topic-specific titles that have helped countless children and families.
Now, back to the Memorial Day question. I grew up at a time when veterans were lost to war, but those were wars that lasted five to seven years. Even so, they produced a nightmare of losses and family grief. Our current war(s) has extended nearly two decades. For many of the white crosses and fluttering flags there are young children feeling that loss, whether raw and new or achingly present after many years. Whatever the reason that young people are left dealing with the death of a parent, there are ways to support the grieving and dealing process. Books can help.
But, above all, remember the rabbit: Be present. Listen.