Read With Me: How do we explain death to children through books?

Yamini Vijayan writes about the difficulty of explaining the concept of death to children, and ways in which reading books can help.


Over the last few years, I’ve been hunting for children’s books that explore the nature of death. I realize how morbid this makes me seem. But let me explain how it started. In 2010, I spent a year teaching at a primary school in rural Uttarakand. One sunny morning in the hills, a five-year-old boy dragged me to the school’s backyard. Although I sensed his excitement, I wasn’t prepared for what lay ahead. Lying under the circular shade of a tree was a dead bird the size of my fist, and around it a group of wide-eyed children.

Not knowing how to react, I remember slipping away – rather cowardly – in search of another adult who would handle the situation more appropriately. The teacher I returned with spoke to the children calmly, and buried the bird with genuine care. At the time, I did ask several of my colleagues at school how they would explain death to children, especially considering how people in their village responded to a death in the community. At the end of it, I was left with more questions than answers.

Before writing this article, I was curious about the kinds of questions that children asked about death. It didn’t make sense to look at children’s books in complete isolation, without having a sense of the bigger picture. I was also interested in the way in which parents chose to portray death to their children. Were their explanations always aligned to their own beliefs, or did they include multiple perspectives? Did they create an air of mystery around death, or share facts? Did they speak philosophically or scientifically?

‘What happens when you die?’

By asking parents and teachers these questions, I was in no way trying to come to certain conclusions. Instead, my intention was to capture a variety of responses. Incidentally, all these conversations around death brought back memories of my own childhood. I remember having had many irrational fears around death. I can’t recollect what specifically caused it, but I know I went to bed on many nights praying hard that I don’t lose my parents under any circumstances.

Here are a few responses from children, in the words of their close family.

“Isha asked me about people ‘disappearing forever’ and dying. The concept was introduced to her by a classmate whose grandparent had died recently. She had nightmares for a week before popping the question and was scared whether I (or her) was going to die soon.”

***

Both the girls have asked me about death. They saw their great grandmother pass away, then there was a puppy in their school whom they loved who was killed by other strays. Common questions that pop up in their minds, whenever they hear/see/read about death:

“Amma, what happens when someone dies?”

“Will I go to heaven or hell?”

“I don’t want you to die when you get old. Promise you won’t die before me.”

“I want to die when you die, okay!”

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Original illustration by Vinayak Varma (www.mixtape.in)

***

“Sam was around 9 years. He was a very mature and emotional child. I think he started reading about death in books and was suddenly gripped with the idea of what happens to you when you die. He would tell me he is unable to sleep when he thinks of such things. He also told me to write a will just in case I die suddenly.”

***

“When my grandmother died, I overheard my nieces whispering to each other: ‘Do you know what they will do with great-grandmother? They are going to burn her. That’s what they do to dead people!'”

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Portrayal of Death in Children’s Books

As someone who has been heavily moulded by literature, I do believe that stories can be powerful tools when it comes to helping children interpret the world around them. Explaining death to children can be quite daunting and often, you’ll find that it’s easier using stories as a starting point for discussion. While several children’s books contain traces of death, I have tried to include books in which death has had a stronger presence.

Let me begin with the death of animals and birds, a common theme in children’s literature. Several teachers and parents I’ve spoken to feel that this is perhaps a gentler way to ease children into the reality of loss. In Judith Viorst’s The Tenth Thing About Barney, death begins early, as early as the first page. In it, a little boy is devastated by the death of his pet cat and is struggling to make sense of it. His parents suggest burying Barney in their yard and they hold an intimate funeral in honour of him. After the funeral, the boy and his friend Annie argue over where Barnie is, now that he’s dead: “Annie said Barney was in heaven with lots of cats and angels, drinking cream and eating lots of tuna. I said Barney was in the ground.”

What is interesting is that the boy’s father – who walks into the middle of their argument – makes his uncertainty about Barney’s death very clear. In fact, he comes across as being rather comfortable with not knowing. To me, this decision of the author to portray the adult as someone who doesn’t necessarily know everything about death is an honest and brave one. While some people might argue that this could be confusing for a child, I feel that it’s perfectly acceptable for children to understand that death can be equally confusing for adults. The Tenth Thing About Barney ends poignantly with the family planting seeds near where Barney has been buried, closely linking death with the renewal of life.

The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown is another book that tries to capture the nature of loss through the death of a non-human. In this, a group of young children stumble upon a dead bird in the woods and decide to give it a burial. Unfortunately, the book is no longer in print and so I’ve had to rely on online reviews. While some readers recommend it highly – describing the book as beautiful and meaningful – there are others who have found it creepy and strange. In fact, I was struck by the number of people who were horrified at the idea of children holding a dead bird in their hands. Here’s what one reviewer said:

“The main reason is that the kids in the book handle, even nuzzle their faces in the feathers of a dead bird they find on the ground. From a germ perspective that bothered me.”

Although I’d heard much about popular classic Bridge to Terabithia, I read it only recently when I learnt that my niece had been moved by the tragedy that occurs in this book. Evidently, the author has put in a lot of thought into her portrayal of the different stages of coping with loss. When the protagonist – a young boy – hears about his friend’s death, he’s swept away by a whirlwind of emotions. At first, he’s in complete shock. Later, still freshly wounded from the news, he considers all the attention that he is likely to get in school: “He was the only person his age he knew whose best friend had died. It made him important.” And eventually, when he finally accepts her death, he asks his father, “Do you believe people go to hell, really go to hell, I mean?” and his father replies: “Lord, boy, don’t be a fool. God ain’t gonna send any little girls to hell.”

While speaking to a friend of mine – an expert librarian – about this subject, she pointed out to another aspect of loss I hadn’t yet deeply thought about: seeing your loved ones cope. To illustrate this painful aspect, she read aloud this passage from Ruskin Bond’s Angry River in which a girl learns about her grandmother’s death: “But even as she spoke, she knew that Grandmother was no longer with them. The dazed look in the old man’s eyes told her as much. She wanted to cry – not for Grandmother, who could suffer no more, but for Grandfather, who looked so helpless and bewildered; she did not want him to be unhappy.”

The Scar – the story of a little boy whose mother dies – is another book that highlights this aspect of loss. It’s amazing how the author has managed to use humour while approaching a theme as complex without being the least bit insensitive. Here’s a peek: “Luckily, I’m still here, and I can explain everything to Dad. I said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.’ And I cried a bit because I don’t really know how to take care of a dad who’s been abandoned like this. I could tell that he’d been crying too – he looked like a flannel, all crumpled and wet. I don’t like seeing Dad cry.” What also strikes you about the book is the authenticity of the child’s voice, which is a significant achievement. Jayasree Kalathil’s The Sackclothman is also centred around a young girl who is struggling to make sense of her sister’s death which has left her parents in complete darkness.

Most of the books mentioned above are ideal for Bibliotherapy – healing through books (read more about Bilbliotherapy here). We recommend that a parent reads these books before handing it to children under the age of 7.

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Parents’ responses: Making sense of death

“I told her that death is very real and everyone does ‘disappear’ forever at some point in life. People die due to various reasons and it’s is very hurtful but also very true. Since her grandparents (my parents) are old, I did take their example and told her that although they are very healthy, we should be prepared to let them go back into the universe.”

***

“When Akshara was around 6, I told her when a person dies, she/he becomes a star and will eventually be reborn. Until he/ she is reborn, they remain a star. Sort of like the waiting period. Now that she’s 14 though and since we follow certain traditions, I talk to her about cremation too. And why it’s important to go back to the Earth to make space for others.”

***

“I told her that everything has a ‘start’ and an ‘end’. We spoke about a few infants in our building and the ‘start’ they were making. During the conversation, we spoke about how the infants are incapable of doing anything by themselves. The conversation then veered towards people getting old and it becoming very difficult for them to do things by themselves. I explained to her how they gradually withdraw from active life and responsibilities.

After one point when it becomes difficult to sustain, things come to an ‘end’…people pass away. She asked me if I will die when I will be old. I said, mostly, if I remain healthy and don’t meet with an accident. We also spoke about how she will have to see me getting old just as I am seeing my parents now.”

***

“Like most parents, we have talked to them about the cycle of life. How things are born, then they grow, become older, then very old and eventually die because that’s the process just like how birth is a process, growing up is a process. They have seen plant life cycle in their pots, they have seen their own baby pics and how they look now. So they understand that all living things grow older. And old things wither away and die.

We compost at home, so they have seen how organic material decompose and become fine compost. Since I do not believe in heaven, hell or spirit, I find it easier to say everything becomes compost, including humans. The first time I told them that they were like, ‘No Amma, I don’t want to become compost!'”

Children’s books that explore death creatively

The Tenth Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst (Aladdin Books)

The Sackclothman by Jayasree Kalathil (Mango, DC Books)

The Scar by Charlotte Moundlic (Candlewick)

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (Puffin)

• My Two Great-Grandmothers by Lisa Aisato N’jie Solberg (Pratham Books) – An evocative book filled with lush descriptions and vivid illustrations, this is about a child’s relationship with her two great-grandmothers, one from Norway and the other from Gambia.

Facebook Phantom by Suzanne Sangi (Duckbill) – Centred around the lives of a few Indian teenagers, this is a fairly dark story exploring the nature of friendship and desire. Recommended for young adults.

If you have come across children’s books which explore loss, especially from an Indian publisher, please share it with us by leaving a comment below.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yamini Vijayan is a freelance journalist based out of Bangalore. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yamini Vijayan is a freelance journalist based out of Bangalore. more

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  • Soumya Menon

    The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Random House Children’s Books) for young adults could be an addition to this list

  • DrFaustus777

    An excellent take on a very sensitive subject. My son’s quite young but I expect this, and many other challenging Qs, coming up soon.