As an entirely inevitable conversation unfolds about death, loss and grief this week, I wanted to share a children’s story I wrote some years ago. Many adults feel unsure about how to discuss death with children, and as a result the subject can be avoided entirely or made oblique to somehow soften the blow. I can say from experience, as the parent of a child whose mum died when he was just two, that I needed to explain the truth about death from a very early age. Despite having all the resources to do this in indirect ways – through animal stories that avoided the words ‘death’, ‘dead’ or ‘died’, for example – they never worked for me or my son. From a publishing point of view, it seems that these kinds of stories are the only ones deemed palatable enough to print. Almost every person I know who has either personal or professional responsibility for bereaved children say they disagree. Perhaps that’s because the worst thing that can happen is someone dying – not saying the words association with death. I believe children need to be empowered with the truth about death in order to be able to empower themselves to rebuild a life after it. And that’s what this story is about. Intended as a picture book, the words are written from the point of view of a child like mine – now 11 years old and with experience that he can share with other children who are living with death. As always, I share in the hope the words can reach and help others.
GROW YOUR OWN SUNSHINE
Sometimes I get sad.
I stare off into space and the world around me seems to stop.
Sometimes it happens at school when I’m supposed to be listening in class.
The teacher is talking and I drift off with my sadness to a place where I feel alone, even though all my friends are right there in the room.
Sometimes it happens at a party when I’m supposed to be having fun.
There are balloons and cakes and happy music is playing, but my sadness takes me to a place where the party seems to stop.
My dad says it’s okay to feel sad.
He says it’s normal when somebody dies.
He says that the sadness of losing someone can feel like it will never end, that it’s impossible to just make it stop when we want it to go away.
He draws me an enormous heart.
He tells me that the sadness we feel when someone dies can grow as big as the love we felt when they were alive.
He says that all of our feelings seem to grow so much bigger when we miss someone with all our heart.
I really miss my mum.
Sometimes I miss her so much that I don’t know what to do.
I’ve tried running really really fast to try to get away from how I feel.
I’ve tried rolling my socks up into a ball, putting my feelings inside and throwing them against the wall.
I’ve tried kicking things and shouting at people when I get really cross.
I’ve tried lots of things to stop myself from feeling angry that she’s gone.
But when I run away or throw things or get cross about how I feel, I usually still feel sad. It’s like being stuck in a grey and cloudy day, waiting for the sun to shine again.
Lately I’ve been trying something new.
I’ve been trying to make the sun shine for myself.
I’ve been talking about my mum and not keeping the sadness inside.
I’ve been listening to stories about her and feeling happier again.
I’ve been remembering her in special ways that make me smile.
My dad had an idea to make a memory bear.
He let me choose a jacket my mum used to wear and had it turned into a bear I called Fred The Blue.
Now Fred The Blue sits on my bed every night and looks over me while I sleep – part bear, part Mum.
On my mum’s birthday we made a cake.
My dad says there are no rules on birthdays so we ate it for breakfast instead of waiting until tea.
He promised me we can do that every year now.
A new tradition to remember my mum with a smile.
And I realised my dad is sometimes wrong.
He told me there were no birthday rules but there is actually one: nobody is allowed to be unhappy when they eat cake.
At Christmas we put up the tree.
My dad has all the decorations in a box that he says keeps the memories safe.
When we open it up it is full of the baubles that my mum bought and others that we collect each year to make her part of the celebrations, even now she’s gone.
One of them has a picture of her inside cuddling me when I was really small.
I love to see the two of us together there, on the tree.
I do some things on my own, too.
I take some time to myself and look at pictures of my mum.
I imagine what she would have sounded like and how she might smell.
Dad plays me a video of her talking and buys me the perfume she used to wear so I can hear and smell her for myself.
Sometimes I just need to talk to someone new.
I ask my dad if there are other children like me or if I’m the only one.
“You’re not the only one,” he says, “There are other children out there just like you.”
We meet some and it’s nice not to feel alone.
I tell them all the ways I try to keep my mum’s memories alive and they share their ideas, too.
They tell me about the stories they write to remind themselves of the mums or dads, brothers or sisters, or even grandparents who have died.
They talk about the memory jars and memory boxes they fill with all kinds of things that remind them of the people they love.
A little girl even tells me about the sunflower seeds she planted so that she could grow memory sunshine for herself.
And I remember learning how flowers grow.
That flowers bloom not just with light from the sun, but also with rain from the clouds.
And then I realise that I can grow this way, too.
That grey skies will form and I will feel sad again, but I will grow understanding that my sadness is made of love.
That tears of sadness will come and fall like rain again, but I will grow knowing that my tears are made of life.
That rainbows will appear across the sky, but I will grow believing that they are upside down smiles made of colour.
That storms will come and I will feel scared, but I will grow knowing that behind the clouds shines a constant sun made of promise for brighter days ahead.
And I will learn to grow my own sunshine.
And I will learn to grow.