When I was ten years old, a friend I met at a summer camp passed away. She had Spina Bifida, just like me, and she died of complications from it. That same year, both of my parents were going through cancer treatment. This was the first time I was faced with death. Not only was I faced with the possibility of both my parents dying, but also the thought that I could die at any time. I spent many days terrified that I was going to die, something no child should ever experience. No adult or peer of mine could possibly understand how I felt, so I kept those feelings to myself.
One month into my seventh grade year, my father died. He had fought cancer for two years, and ended up having an unexpected stroke. My peers could not relate to having lost a parent. Having faced so many difficult events early on, I often felt like I could relate to adults much more than I could my peers. Even so, I felt alone. I didn’t have anyone to turn to when my father died. My mother was still recovering from her own cancer treatment for the second time. With so many things going on in our family, no one really talked about my dad after he died.
My mother was not someone who was comfortable talking about emotions when I was growing up. She had a very matter-of-fact style. She grew up in a generation where the mentality was to “pick yourself up and move on.” There was no time to dwell on negative or difficult things that happened. I have heard similar comments from my grandmother, her mom. She has always looked to the next thing, without dwelling on the past. Due to this generational legacy, most of us were not taught as children how to talk about emotions or difficult and emotional subjects.
However, I was not wired that way. I was, and still am, the most outwardly emotional person in my family. Having two completely opposite grieving styles, my mother and I struggled to understand each other through my adolescence and into my adulthood. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that she and I handled things so differently, and to realize that there was nothing wrong with the way I grieved.
In the twenty years since my father’s death, over fifteen people I’ve been close to have passed away. I realized when I was twenty-eight, a year where I lost four close friends, that death was and always would be a theme in my life. There was no getting around it. The older I would get, the more people around me would pass away.
I am glad that we have come a long way, regarding death and grieving, and that today’s adults are able and willing to have conversations with children (and with each other). More books, resources and relatable content are available to children than ever before.
One great example is The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld. In the book, many animals come and visit a little boy after something he built came crashing down. Each of the animals try to tell the boy how to cope with his feelings, in the way they best know how, but the boy does not want to do anything the animals suggest. Eventually, a rabbit comes along and instead of trying to fix the situation or tell the boy what to do, the rabbit quietly sits with him and listens.
This book brought tears to my eyes because so many times in my life I wanted someone to stop trying to fix a situation or tell me to see it in a different light. Despite a person’s good intentions, there are times in life you cannot fix a situation, like when a loved one dies. Sometimes simply being with someone in their emotional pain can be one of the most impactful things you can do. While The Rabbit Listened is written for children ages 3-5, it is a great example for people of all ages of how to support a loved one, not only in grief, but with many different emotions and difficult situations.
The Memory Box: A Book About Grief, by Joanna Rowland, also resonated with me. It tells the story of a child who creates a box and fills it with written memories and meaningful items that remind the child of a loved one who has died.
A few years after my dad passed, I was afraid I was forgetting things about him, and I too made a memory box. Having somewhere to keep special memories has helped me to keep them alive. I made another memory box many years later as an adult and found I had more memories to add. I would recommend the book, and the memory box project, to anyone, young or old, coping with the loss of a loved one. The book includes a parent guide and instructions on how to make a memory box.
If you are looking for a book for a teenager, check out 37 Things I Love (In No Particular Order), by Kekla Magoon. It tells the story of Ellis, a high school sophomore, whose father is in a coma, and whose relationship with her mother is tumultuous. With her mother thinking of turning off her father’s life support, and friendships being tested, Ellis realizes that nothing will ever be the same.
If you have ever been thrown into a storm of emotions after a loss, and struggled with merging your life before loss with your life after loss, Lovely, Dark and Deep by Amy McNamara is the book for you. Wren thinks that retreating to her father’s cabin in the woods will help her escape from feelings she is flooded with, after surviving a crash that killed her boyfriend. McNamara’s hauntingly beautiful writing pulled me in from the first paragraph, and I couldn’t put it down.
Books like these could have normalized my experiences as an adolescent, and given me ways to cope at different stages of my journey through grief. While we have come a long way as a society in removing the stigma of talking about death and dying, we still have a way to go. My hope is that we continue to give children a safe space, without fear of judgment, and language to express how they feel -- and also, that we be mindful that even though a child may not express their emotions about a situation, it does not mean that child does not have feelings about it.
You can find these books, and many more, by searching under ‘Issue: Grief and Loss’ on our database at www.anovelmind.com.
Margaret Lennon is an intern at A Novel Mind. She is currently at work on a memoir detailing her experience with disability, grief, and mental health. In addition to other creative projects, Margaret also coaches the only women's wheelchair basketball team in San Diego.
Here are a few more suggestions from the A Novel Mind team, on Grief and Loss. Do you have stories you can recommend? Please tell us by commenting below. Thanks!
When Sadness Is At Your Door by Eva Eland
Pixie Pushes On by Tamara Bundy
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish
The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr
Where Do They Go? by Julia Alvarez
Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Feder