WHY PICTURE BOOKS MATTER (part 4): Feelings of Loss

One of the most persistent questions I have had over the years is what to tell children when a loved one dies. We find it really difficult to talk to children about death. Generally speaking, we are afraid. There are so many unknowns. What if we say the wrong thing? What if we give them "ideas" that will upset or frighten them? How do we explain it? How do we help them understand the feelings that come with this? Our children tend to take their cues from the adults around them. How we deal with death speaks volumes to children about how they should deal with it.
The question of explaining death is actually fairly straight-forward. The person who was there simply isn't anymore. Children can accept the reality of death far easier than we can when we've grown. But the multitude of emotions are more difficult. And how we move forward...well, that's another thing all together. It is the effect of loss on the child and on those around them; those that are left behind to cope and try to understand that is most profound and difficult to explain.
Here are a few picture books that will help, and not only children, but all of us regardless of our age.

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia is a beautiful book that tells the story of a leaf named Freddie and his leaf friends; how they change with the seasons of the year and how, inevitably, autumn comes and they fall. It's a parable journey through the seasons of life. And while gently told, it manages to contain the range of feeling that accompanies this journey. The story brings a sense of quiet acceptance and understanding. I love how it captures Freddies' fear of the unknown as he prepares to fall, though he doesn't necessarily want to. Published nearly 40 years ago now, this is truly a picture book for all ages.

Occasionally, a book comes along that has such power and beauty that it must be on everyones' bookshelf and read frequently. Michael Rosens' Sad Book by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake is one such book. Chronically Michaels' grief at the loss of his 19-year-old son to meningitis, it is simple and clear in its' explanation of the complicated feeling of sadness that comes with loss. It shows that sadness is sometimes simply unavoidable; how it "just comes along and finds you." And it speaks of the wonder of memories that help you lift yourself out of the sadness a bit. The sadness may still be there, but it becomes a little more bearable in ways. The thing I love about this book is how it acknowledges that its' okay; you feel how you feel and there is no right or wrong way to be sad.

Badgers' Parting Gifts by Susan Varley is sensitive, comforting and gentle. Badger has always been counted on by his friends to give them wisdom and knowledge about the world around. But now, he is very, very old and Badger knows that soon he must die. He does his best to prepare his friends, but when it finally happens, they are filled with sorrow and grief. They don't want it to be true. But one by one, they begin to remember the special things that Badger taught them and find that, in their memories, while Badger is no longer with them, he lives on. This is such a special book. It's approach to death is very matter-of-fact but it is filled with warmth, understanding and tenderness.

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers is one of the most moving books I have ever come across. It deals with the concept of loss in a most unique way in that it doesn't focus on the person that has gone, but on the little girl left behind. The little girls' life was filled with wonder at the world all around, encouraged and delighted in by the man in the big chair. But suddenly, he was just gone. (And isn't that how death feels sometimes; certainly in the eyes of a child.) So, she takes her heart and puts it in a bottle to keep it safe. But the world seems to be a lonelier, emptier place and the wonder seems to have vanished. Until one day, something happens that makes it okay to take her heart out of the bottle and to help someone else look for that wonder. Simple, clear, endlessly beautiful...this is one to remind us that, no matter how deep the loss is felt, there's always hope.

Pets bring such a huge amount of unconditional love and acceptance into our lives. They also teach us about love and loss. Love From Alfie McPoonst: The Best Dog Ever by Dawn McNiff and Patricia Metola is a story told in a series of letters from Alfie, beloved dog who has died and gone to Dog Heaven. Even though she can't see him or play with him anymore, he can see her. Alfie is watching over her and though he misses her greatly, he wants her to know that its' all okay. The most important lesson here is that of enduring love; while those we love may die, the love never does and will carry us through. What is left behind is a sense of consistency and quiet, but complete joy at having had them in your life. This book brings that home with incredible eloquence and is an important lesson to remember whether the loss is that of a pet or a person.

Tibble and Grandpa by Wendy Meddour; illustrated by Daniel Egnéus explores a slightly different aspect of grief; the space within grieving where we help each other to remember the beauty of the world and of the space that loss tries to steal from us. Tibble loves talking to Grandpa and Grandpa used to always have time for Tibble. But lately, Grandpa is not himself. All he wants to do is spend time gardening. Grandpa needs time. So Tibble tries to bring him back by playing his favouite game, Top Threes. And in the playing, joy and interest in other things emerge and the two can support each other with happy memories of their shared grief, of Grandma. An exquisite story of loss, love, intergenerational relationships, memory and healing; it shows how we need each other and sometimes have to work a bit to connect to each other. When a loss occurs, we can remember that we have common ground and within that, there is joy.


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