“But I don’t even understand the concept of death,” I spluttered out through a mortifying volume of tears and snot, “how am I supposed to explain it to a three-year-old?”
At the end of a long gray corridor– its institutional desolation interrupted by a wide mauve stripe–a harried, young social worker and I sat on cold, plastic chairs and discussed oblivion.
Or rather, I attempted to discuss oblivion. She seemed to be saying quite a bit about “resources,” but I really couldn’t get my mind around anything.
Hours earlier, my wife, after struggling valiantly for almost a year, her body battered by cancer and her brain exhausted by chemo, had been told she had a few months to live. Yes, there was vague talk of trying one more treatment combination, of starting radiation, of giving it another try for the sake of our boy, but we both knew we’d lost the fight and very soon our son and I would lose her forever.
I was trying to look this nice, frazzled do-gooder in the eye as she spoke to me about support groups and free yoga classes, but my gaze kept traveling back to the damned mauve stripe. I couldn’t decide if I was grateful for the cheeriness it splashed onto the drab wall, or furious at its sad assertion of some kind of remnant life force.
Through the viscidity of my grief, fear, and fixation on hospital decor, I heard the one word that would snap me back to the present: books. Would I like the nice hospital-social-work-lady to recommend some books to read with my son? YES, yes I would!
Books! Books had saved my own childhood, maybe they would save his!
That day she recommended three books. They are completely different from each other and each of them explicitly addresses the exact questions my son and I needed to answer together. As it turned out, the fourth book that saved us was a wee little board book we were already reading every day; but more about that later.
These four books helped my son grow from a sad, scared, angry three-year-old grieving for one mother and raging at the other one, to a confident middle-schooler with a big heart and a wicked sense of humor.
Are there things I wish I’d done differently as a widowed single mom? Yes. Many.
But, for the most part, these books provided the foundation upon which I built my strategy for getting us both through the most painful time of our life together. And reading together provides a great opportunity for comforting touch. Whether you are a snuggly family or you just enjoy sitting side by side, reading to your child helps you connect emotionally and physically.
Unfortunately, I’ve had more than one occasion to give advice to another parent who’s lost their spouse. But happily, recommending these four little gems is one of the most concrete and beautiful ways I know to help. In no particular order they are:
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, Bryan Mellonie (author) and Robert Ingpen (illustrator)
The title annoyed me at first; I didn’t need some stupid “beautiful” way to explain death, I just needed to freaking explain it!
But Lifetimes actually is beautiful because it simply and lovingly describes the facts of the life cycle (all living things are born, they live and they die) and asserts that no matter how long or short a lifetime is, it is real and valid and meaningful. We often forget, when a person (or even a pet) we love die young, that that life was complete.
We are born. We live. We die.
We all get that—even mayflies, who only live 24 hours, form groups and dance together, mate and reproduce, have a complete lifetime in their short moments on this Earth.
Lifetimes also provided some much-needed geek-out-on-science relief from our sadness. The concept of the life cycle is kinda cool. It’s a fun thing to figure out and discuss. This book taught my son about the biology of death, and it taught me… patience, of all things.
There’s no point being impatient about the physical fact of death. It can all be explained if you’re patient with yourself. It’s beautiful.
When Dinosaurs Die, Laurie Krasny Brown (Author) and Marc Brown (Illustrator)
This book is part of the “Dino Life Guides for Families” series, and it is the most socially aware of all the books. Different kinds of deaths are explained and explored. It acknowledges, for instance (as few children’s books do), that some children lose a loved one to suicide or murder. Some kids see their parents through a long illness, while others might lose a loved one suddenly.
Through all the different scenarios, When Dinosaurs Die affirms the myriad feelings children have. It also explores the different ways that different families mourn death. Some families find comfort in religion and believe in an afterlife, some do not. Some families have elaborate funerals, some do not.
It’s great to be able to explain to your child how his or her family is unique and how they fit in with the rest of the community. As an agnostic mom who has a lot of trouble making that metaphysical leap, When Dinosaurs Die assured me that it’s also fine to say “I don’t know if there’s a God or an afterlife. Let’s keep asking those questions together.”
This brave book helped us both understand that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that having different feelings at different times is perfectly natural.
The Invisible String Patrice Karst (Author), Geoff Stevenson (Illustrator)
This is the most metaphysical book of the recommended trio. I recently asked my son (now 9 ½) to read it to me, just to see how his older self reacted to it. He concluded that yes, it was a “little kid” book, that it would be a great thing to read to a child who was going off to camp for the summer (guess who just got back from summer camp?), and that he actually remembered it helping him feel better when he was 3 ½.
He’s right, The Invisible String, with its gentle assurance that we are bound to the people we love by an unseen thread of affection that can never be broken no matter how far apart we are, addresses separation anxiety more than anything else (there is only one example of an “uncle in heaven”), but separation anxiety is a really tough nut for the parent of a grieving child to crack.
Furthermore, experts warn parents against telling a very young child that a recently dead relative is “watching over them from Heaven.” Apparently, this often backfires and creates night terrors about ghosts and such (and listen, people, you gotta get your grieving self through the night too!) rather than helping them feel protected. But for my son, and many other children who love this book, the idea that he was connected to his deceased mother through an unbreakable bond of love, was often quite reassuring.
I Love You All The Time Jennifer Elin Cole and Jessica Elin Hirschman (Authors), Bonnie Bright (Illustrator)
A dear friend was going through a painful divorce when she gave us this book as a baby present. She explained that she was in the process of learning how essential unconditional love is to that sense of safety and belonging we all crave. Our whole family (including my in-laws) read the book aloud almost every night the year my wife was sick.
For my son and me, it became our mantra during that first desperate year after she died. I Love You All The Time helped me reassure him (and myself!) that I’d always love him no matter what anger or sadness each of us was feeling, no matter how badly he acted out, no matter how distracted I was with my own grown-up problems; even if I was saying “no” to every damn thing he nagged me for that day, I was saying it with love.
Every year we go through his bookshelves and give the books he’s outgrown to the younger children in our building. But I will never give away our tattered copy of I Love You All The Time. When we say goodnight at the end of a long day (or when he calls home from camp in the evenings!) we still say it to each other.
And when the day comes that he is a surly teenager who is embarrassed to say these things out loud (and certainly doesn’t want to hear them from his annoying mother), our unconditional love will still exist and we will both know it with all of our hearts.
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