Between the Lines: Coming to terms with death is not child's play
December was an emotional month for me. While happily belting out Christmas songs and wrapping gifts, I felt bouts of sadness from following the news in the wake of the Newtown shooting, and the inquiry into the Lamma ferry disaster.
We also spent time with friends who had lost loved ones around this time of year. Although the occasions were joyful, our hearts went out to these friends and their wonderful children who had lost a spouse and parent.
It seems that death is also not far from my daughter's thoughts. One day, while we were spending time together, she said to me, "When I die, can I come back again?" I briefly pondered the remote possibility that in a flash of genius, she had picked up the concept of reincarnation on her own. Not to confuse her by introducing non-Christian beliefs, I gently reminded her that she would go to heaven after she died. "Yes, but after heaven, I want to be here with you again," she continued.
After more discussion, it turned out that my daughter was not referring to reincarnation, but was just looking for reassurance about things staying the same.
Young children experience existential loneliness, even though they cannot verbalise what they are feeling. A child's realisation, and then fear, of the fact that he or she is fundamentally alone in this world can be exhibited through separation anxiety. Feelings of being alone are also a natural part of the grieving process, whether it is the result of the death of a loved one or another significant change.
Tomie dePaola explains death in children's terms in Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs. A true story, this Caldecott Honour author spent his childhood Sundays with his grandmother and her mother who was bedridden in her upstairs bedroom. DePaola tenderly recaptures how he felt the day he ran upstairs to find his great-grandmother's bedroom empty.
In the original 1973 publication, dePaola used only three colours: black, pink and ochre. The 1989 edition is re-illustrated in full colour, but uses soft hues "to retain the nostalgic feelings of the original".
Tear Soup, by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen, uses the process of making tear soup as an analogy for grieving. There are some very helpful tips for everyone involved at the back. The authors recognise that the age and gender of the grief-stricken affect the way they deal with loss.
In The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and Geoff Stevenson, a mother tells her children about an invisible string made of love that connects them together with their loved ones, no matter where they are.
While the theme is separation anxiety, it also serves as a gentle introduction to how we can stay connected to those we lose through death, divorce, or moving away.
These books open the channels to communicate with a child who has suffered a loss. Through references to different illustrations in these stories, children can learn how to articulate their feelings, better understand the empty space left by their loss, and know that it's OK to feel sad.
Annie Ho is board chairperson of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving children's literacy by reading aloud to them. bringmeabook.org.hk