This post isn’t going to be as heavy as it sounds.
It also contains serious Little Women spoilers, so if you haven’t read that most cozy of classics, please stop reading this post, grab a few pickled limes (you know you have some handy) and read Little Women right now before someone ruins it for you.
(And read it in time for Christmas when the new film adaptation comes out!)
My husband somehow made it to college without reading Little Women, despite the fact that his high school sweetheart (Megan Elizabeth, here) was named after two of the sisters.
He and I have always loved reading aloud together, even before we had tiny Asbys, and as soon as I realized the giant hole in his literary experience, we added Little Women to the top of the read-aloud list.
All this to say . . .
Marcus and I were sitting inside his red Grand Prix (I’m still so nostalgic about that car) between classes, reading about the first time Beth gets sick. Once Marcus knew for sure she was going to make it through, he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “I was really going to hate this book if Beth died.”
In the end, Marcus didn’t hate the book. To be honest, he was probably afraid I wouldn’t marry him if he did. And anyway, his favorite character in any novel or movie or miniseries is always the Beth character, and she always dies. He’s had to get used to it.
I’m speaking lightly, but death, real death, isn’t light, and it can be hard to know how to talk about it, especially with children.
I do talk to my kids about death. I talk to them about everything, really, and I’m sure I’m blundering massively along the way. Nevertheless, I fall firmly into the let’s-talk-about-it camp, and I’m in good company I think (check out Mr. Roger’s “Death of a Goldfish” episode, which – full disclosure – I haven’t actually seen, only read about). I believe that it is possible to talk about death with children in a way that is honest without being overwhelming.
The following are titles that have made it easier for me to talk to my sweet boy and girl about the reality of life and death and loss. Do preview them before sharing with your children, as some of them are heavier than others. And have a box of tissues handy, if only to signal that it is okay and important to cry.
Of course Margaret Wise Brown knew that kids want to talk about death. Beautifully illustrated by Christian Robinson, The Dead Bird follows a group of children who find a dead bird and hold a ceremony to honor it. My children asked to read this over and over when they were younger.
Ida, Always is the first book that comes to mind when I hear a child has experienced a loss. This one feels pretty close to perfect to me.
Rosie & Crayon is about the death of and grief over a beloved pet.
Aunt Mary’s Rose tells the true story of one family’s loss and love through generations.
Grandpa’s Stories is poetically written and beautifully illustrated and is “for everyone who misses someone.”
Her Mother’s Face explores loss when the memories of the loved one are few because the time together was short.
I almost didn’t check out Cry, Heart, But Never Break, because the cover felt a little too scary. I couldn’t resist the title, though, and it is more gentle than the cloaked representation of death would suggest.
Finn’s Feather is about a child whose brother has died. It manages to be both deeply sad and uplifting.
Walk With Me is imaginative and poignant and explores a complicated grief exacerbated by poverty.
For a graphic novel that explores loss, check out Pilu of the Woods.
Imaginative, dream-like, A Ladder to the Stars is fantasy, and as such, can invite some questions that a more literal book may not.
The Purple Balloon by Chis Raschka is inspired by children drawing purple balloons as they approach their tragically early deaths.
The boy in The Scar has lost his mother and is desperate to hold on to anything that will keep her memory present with him.
And What Comes After a Thousand is a celebration of relationship, first and foremost.
Where the Red Fern Grows is one of many chapter books that addresses death and grief, but it was the first (after Little Women) that I thought of for this post, in part because I could hardly get the words out through my sobs when I read it to my son, and since he too rarely sees me cry it felt very important in our family’s story. There are thousands of chapter books that deal with death and loss, of pets, family members, friends and strangers. My children are still young and we have barely scratched the surface of the chapter book world, so please share in the comments the novels that have helped you or your children think about death and grief and life with loss. I would love to hear from you.
Hugs from the Asbys.