Sunday, September 7, 2014

Stories for Difficult Times

Story works to help us through challenging life situations. Stories can live in our soul and accompany us through the various ups and downs of our life. Stories speak to the heart, and eventually work their way to the head. 

Over the years I have been asked many times how to help young children either prepare for, or deal with, death and illness. Death is a subject our culture tries to avoid. We just don’t want to talk about it. And yet, it is inevitable and simply a part of our life’s cycle. My advice to parents is to speak about death openly when it comes up. Young children certainly do not need details of someone’s illness or passing, but the acknowledgment of death and illness is important in helping the child begin to embrace these aspects of life. 

An effective tool for helping people of any age begin to move through grief and towards a grasp of death is story. For young children there are many wonderful stories depicting life endings and illness in imaginative ways. I think these stories can be read to children at any time, not only when there is a death in the family. That way the child is internalizing the picture or the idea of the cycle of our lives and more prepared when the inevitable occurs. And when there is a loss, these stories can support the grief process. Additionally, a story might offer a vocabulary that you can use with your young child when discussing death and illness - a vocabulary that allows them to live into the pictures rather than an intellectual explanation of what is occurring.

There are tree stories that speak to this theme. Our Tree Named Steve by Alan Zweibel is the story of a beloved tree in the yard of one family that they name ‘Steve.’ “Yes. right there in the center of our yard, this weird looking tree grew to become the center of our outdoor life.” Steve participates in their family life over many years, gets ill and has a visit from the tree doctor and finally comes crashing down in a big storm. 

Gentle Willow by Joyce C. Mills tells the story of a tree that develops a sickness that even the Tree Wizards cannot cure. Beautifully done in language young children can digest, this is a must read for anyone wanting to find ways through the serious illness and dying of loved ones toward an embracing of life and love and change.

Another one is The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia. Freddie’s questions and fears about dying are answered by his wise leaf friend Daniel until he eventually feels the peace of being part of nature’s cycle of the seasons and life and death.
At my local public library I found a wonderful book called Thank You Grandpa by Lynn Plourde, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft. It tells the story of a girl and her grandfather who enjoy many walks in nature together over years as Grandpa and the girl get older. He teaches her about gratitude and accepting death as it comes to the creatures of nature. And when Grandpa dies, she walks alone in the forest and knows just how to be thankful for what she and her grandfather shared. This book has beautiful images of nature. It shows the joy grandfather and granddaughter share and their acceptance that death is part of the natural cycle of life. This one is a simple story, not too wordy, that is perfect for young children. 

Butterflies offer us a great opportunity for observing and experiencing transformation. Their life cycle is widely used to help develop a grasp of metamorphosis and renewal, probably because caterpillars are earthbound crawling things, and butterflies are beautiful flying creatures. The difference between the two stages is extreme. 
Prince of Butterflies is written by Bruce Coville with amazing watercolor illustrations by John Clapp. This book seems made with slightly older young children in mind, perhaps 6-years-old and up. It tells the fictional and fantastic story of a boy who loves butterflies and grows up to be a scientist who tries to preserve their habitat. There is a wonderful scene when butterflies come en masse to the then elderly man and take him away on a flight. 

A wonderful tale of aging and dying is The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola. It is a retelling of the legend of a Renaissance era juggler who gets old and eventually gives one last performance - his best ever - and dies knowing the gift of his last performance had made a difference.

There are many more picture books that I think could be helpful on this theme. I’ll just mention a few more:

Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaolo
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
The Story of Jumping Mouse by John Steptoe

A great online resource is the Healing Story Alliance. HSA explores and promotes the use of storytelling in healing. Their goal is to build a resource for the use of story in the healing arts and professions. On their website is an article related to the theme of this post called Seeds, Mirrors, Hands and Keys: Stories to Support Mourning by Gail Rosen. Ms. Rosen takes us through the stages of grief accompanied by story suggestions. Read her article and remember to adapt her suggestions to the developmental level of your young children.

What other books are out there for young children to begin to grasp death and illness? Please comment with your suggestions. This can be so much help for families in need of support during times of grief.

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