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Children and Grief

This week’s column was supposed to be about great summer reads.  But after the lightning strike that killed a twelve-year-old boy and critically injured his friend last week in Spotsylvania, our community’s attention has turned to grieving families and friends.   

At tragic times like these, books can help start conversations, provide insight, and aid caring adults in coping with their children’s sorrow and their own.  “How Do We Tell the Children? A Step-by-Step Guide for Helping Children Two to Teen Cope When Someone Dies” by Dan Schaefer and Christine Lyons is a classic now in its third edition. 

The authors begin by focusing on children’s understanding of death, which varies greatly depending on age, then offer suggestions for explaining the death of a family member, death of a friend, and death by accident, among other topics. 

“When a child’s friend or classmate dies, it can be almost as shattering to a youngster as if a close family member had died,” they explain.  A chapter titled “Expectations for the Grieving Child” and a “Crisis Checklist” make this a book that families can easily refer to as needed.

Earl Grollman, a rabbi, a bereavement counselor and the respected author of numerous books about death and dying, wrote “Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child” specifically for parents to read with their children.  A picture book section meant to be read together is followed by information parents can use to understand their children’s feelings.

As Grollman wisely says, “Grief is an expression of love. Mourning is an appropriate emotion for people of all ages.  Children are no strangers to unhappy feelings…”

He also reminds us that, just as children learn about life from books, they can learn about death, too.  He recommends that parents read any suggested books before directing their children to them, especially important for this sensitive subject.  Two novels for readers ten and up are highly recommended.

Katherine Paterson’s son experienced the accidental death of a close friend, and his grief prompted her to write her Newbery Award-winning book, “Bridge to Terabithia.”  Fifth grader Jess befriends Leslie, the new girl in town, and together they invent the imaginary kingdom of Terabithia, a secret country where they rule as king and queen among the pine forests and creeks of the Virginia countryside.  But just as Jess’s world starts to expand, and their friendship is at its strongest, a terrible accident takes Leslie’s life. 

Jess’s reaction includes anger – “Leslie had failed him. She went and died just when he needed her the most.” – and even fear of his own death.  Paterson portrays a grieving child with love and insight.

Barbara Park confronts the accidental death of a sibling in “Mick Harte Was Here.”  After Phoebe’s brother is killed in a bike accident, she wants more than anything else to remember Mick, who could be annoying at times but will never be forgotten by his family.  At the end of the book, she writes his name in the cement of a newly poured sidewalk, saying, “Mick Harte was here. And now he’s gone…And I just wanted to tell you about him, that’s all.”

In the tragedy that has struck close to home here in Fredericksburg, our hearts go out to the parents, relatives, friends and classmates who will never forget the victims of this terrible accident.