Our reviewer this month is Board Member Ruth Du Bois
Ruth’s background in palliative care stems from over 42 years of work as an RN and nurse educator in a variety of areas including geriatrics, surgery, medicine, mental health, and community home care.
The death of a loved one in the life of children has special meanings depending on the age and developmental stage of the child. All children from toddlerhood onward are potentially affected by the loss of a meaningful relationship, and will grieve that loss not only at the time it occurs, but often multiple times again as they mature and come to greater understanding of death. The two books reviewed this month are aimed at the very young child, ages two to three, for whom the loss of significant relationships through death or other reasons can be confusing and unsettling. Adults, often grieving the loss themselves, may find it especially hard to explain the death to the child in terms they can understand, and wonder how much to share and what emotions to express over the loss. There are books available in our local libraries for children who are experiencing a significant loss. The two that follow were borrowed from Mississippi Mills Public Library, Almonte branch.
The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr (Little Brown and Company, 2015) is written and illustrated in simple, colourful pictures of fish in an aquarium. Each page is devoted to one concept and uses language aimed at the developmental stage of a toddler or very early school-aged child. The language is deliberately vague concerning why the child is saying “goodbye” to someone they love, so it may be applicable in several different scenarios including death of a loved one, divorce and separation, loss of a playmate who moves away, or other situations where the child must say goodbye to someone for whom they care. The book acknowledges some of the feelings commonly occurring when there is a loss of relationship such as sadness, anger, confusion, and fear. It relates to common everyday activities such as no longer feeling hungry or sleeping well, and alludes to the regression that some young children experience when they do not know how to respond to the loss. It ends on a hopeful message, reminding the child that they will again feel like laughing and playing in the future, and that they will remember the things about the person that were special. It also encourages the child to reach out to an adult for help to cope with their feelings, and provides a couple of suggestions for things the child may want to do such as drawing a picture. My only criticism of this book is that one page near the end suggests that the child should strive to be brave. If I were reading this to my child, I would pause here and talk about that, making sure that being brave is not equated with hiding one’s feelings or trying not to cry or talk about the person they have lost. I think the strength of this little book is in its lack of specificity regarding childhood grief, allowing the adult to use the book to individualize the discussion for their child.
Something Very Sad Happened: A Toddler’s Guide to Understanding Death by Dr. Bonnie Zucker (American Psychological Association, 2016) is geared to the grief experienced by toddlers aged two to three when a special person in their life dies. It is also written in simple language with pictures in pastel colours depicting a small boy with a woman as they go for a walk and engage in activities of daily living. The compassion in the illustrations is soothing as both the woman and the child hug each other, cry, laugh, and play. What I love about the story is that the explanation for the death is the loved one’s “body stopped working,” something the child can understand at this early developmental stage. There is no allusion to an afterlife or particular religious or spiritual customs or traditions, but the pictures and simple statements on each page provide ample space for the adult reader to converse with the child about these if applicable in specific circumstances. The child is told that adults in their world may also express sadness, and alludes to the reality that different people show their grief in different ways. It is unambiguous in explaining what death is—the person no longer is visible to us, does not speak to us anymore—but yet, allows for the ways in which the family may wish to remember and memorialize the loved one. Most important of all, it reassures the child that love never dies and that they can go on loving the person. In addition to the gentle compassion expressed throughout the story in words and illustrations, this book has an extensive note to parents (caregivers) at the end, explaining the developmental stage of the toddler and their rudimentary understanding of the concept of death. It provides excellent advice about how to use the book, how to respond to children’s questions, how to help the child in their grief journey, and how to seek support and help for themselves as they grieve the loss simultaneously. If for no other reason than to read these final pages in this children’s book, I would strongly encourage parents or other loving caregivers of young children who experience the death of a special person in their life to read this book.