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The Magic Tree

When I was growing up I used to revel in stories that my parents told me about their childhoods (particularly the ones when they were naughty). As Ben can’t regale Sas with these tales himself, it’s down to those who were with him – his parents, sisters, aunties, cousins – to share as much with her of the little boy Ben as they can possibly remember.

Ben’s Mum, Delia, did just this yesterday when she dug out some of his school books from when he was at infant school and told Sas and I about how he loved writing stories and showed great talent, even at the age of five. Then she started to read them out loud to Saskia, including this little gem, called ‘The Magic Tree’ (you can just about read it if you enlarge it a bit)

'The Magic Tree' by Ben, aged 5

‘The Magic Tree’ by Ben, aged 5

 

There was beauty in that act – it brought father and daughter together, through these treasured stories, now read in the arms of the woman who has in her life held both of them on her knee.

It gives me an image of our family not as a line, with a gap where Ben once was, but as an enfolding, encompassing circle, where shared stories and love across the generations continuously fuse us together.

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‘When Dinosaurs Die’ and other tales: Eight children’s books about death and bereavement

Although we don’t like to think about it, the truth is most children will experience the death of someone close to them. According to Childhood Bereavement UK, 92% of children will have experienced a ‘significant’ bereavement before the age of 16. So having a book or two to hand isn’t just a good idea for families like ours, it’s a good idea for any family.

As I said in yesterday’s post, I’ve been on a bit of a spending spree lately – curious to find out more about the books that are available and to find one that fits with the conversations that Saskia and I (and her young friends and their parents) have been having lately about Ben. And I’ve discovered some amazing books – some heart-breaking, some bizarre, some practical, some metaphorical.

Though none is a perfect fit for where Saskia is right now, and our own unique situation, I envisage that all will work as useful resources at some stage, even if it’s just a page here or a bit of dialogue there. So here’s a bit more about the ones I’ve got so far…

1. When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown

This is a non-fiction book with page headings such as ‘What Does Alive Mean?’ and ‘Why Does Someone Die?’, and is all told in cartoon-strip style by a host of unusual looking dinosaurs (not like any I learned about at school). It deals with everything from reasons for death, to feelings about it, different ideas about what happens after life, and ways of saying goodbye. Its target audience is obviously older than Saskia as a three year old, and there are parts that are too sophisticated that I would skip over, but in general its pragmatism is a really good fit for the very literal kind of questions that Saskia, and her friends, tend to ask. Also, with its non-fiction format, it isn’t as emotionally charged as some of the story books – which can be saving grace sometimes.

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2. Is Daddy Coming Back In A Minute? by Elke and Alex Barber, illustrated by Anna Jarvis

This is one of the heart-breakers, as you can probably gather from the title. It’s a richly-illustrated picture book, with real life dialogue between Elke and her three-year old son Alex after the sudden death of his father from a heart attack. The latter half of  the book will be particularly valuable to us, as Alex asks Elke questions such as ‘Mummy, will you have to die?’ and ‘Who will look after me when you die Mummy?’ and she gives wonderfully vivid, easy to understand explanations, using pictures and nature to show what she means. I can definitely see myself turning to this as a reference book for inspiration on how to answer these tricky questions.

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3. What Happened to Daddy’s Body? by Elke and Alex Barber, illustrated by Anna Jarvis

This is the Barber’s second book, and is again based on real conversations between Elke and Alex, this time about his Daddy’s cremation and the spreading of his ashes. There’s also a part where Alex asks about burial and Elke gives an explanation that I think I should memorise it’s so good! Amidst Jarvis’ gorgeous illustration of autumn woodland, Elke’s words compare the dead leaves that turn into soil and feed the ground to what happens to a buried body – ‘Wow’ says Alex. ‘That’s really cool.’

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4. The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb
This book will delight you then with the turn of a page completely take your breath away. The dancing rhythm of the words and childish simplicity of the pictures belie the rich and poignant subtext of loss, memory and regeneration that suddenly come into the story. Though the impact of this subtext is powerful to adults, for very young children it is so subtle that most would be unaware of it. At three, Saskia loves the book simply for its music, humour and imagination. As she gets older, its beautiful and positive messages will no doubt begin to sink in and move her as they do me.

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5. Missing Mummy: A book about bereavement by Rebecca Cobb

In this book, the illustrator of The Paper Dolls, Rebbecca Cobb, is both illustrator and writer. Told in first person by a young child (helpfully the gender is not explicit so we say she’s a girl) whose Mummy has died, the story deftly tells of her confused feelings about her Mummy’s death and then of how, through talks with her Daddy, she comes to understand more of what has happened and what her feelings mean. This book has worked out well for us and for a few weeks Saskia chose it every night as one of her bedtime reading books. The reason I like it is that it has a very light touch, the minimal text only glancing over the different emotions and themes. This makes it easier to weave our own story into it, and skip over less relevant parts and draw out and explore more relevant ones. Don’t get me wrong though – its lack of detail doesn’t mean lack of depth  – it’s simple text and pictures cut right to the heart.

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 6. Water Bugs and Dragon Flies: Explaining Death to Young Children by Doris Stickney

First published in 1982, this is the oldest of  the books I have. It’s an allegorical tale about a colony of water bugs who wonder what happens to their friends when they disappear above the water, never to return. They promise to come back to tell if it happens to them, but when one of them finds himself climbing up the lily stalk and transformed into a dragonfly, he realises that he cannot go back below the water any more. Instead, he flies away on the breeze, knowing that his friends will discover the truth for themselves one day. It’s a lovely way of painting the afterlife, and one that can be adapted to any creed. The big drawback, however, is that the small and delicate water colour illustrations are not like the large and engaging pictures that modern children are used to in their books. It’s certainly not a book that will catch Saskia’s eye, but then it’s an easy story to remember and retell so can stand alone without the book itself.

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7. Always and Forever by Debi Gliori and Alan Durant

Always and Forever is about a group of woodland animals whose friend, Fox, gets ill and dies. After a long period when they lock themselves away with their sadness, a visit from another friend, Squirrel, helps them to start celebrating their friend’s life rather than just commiserating his loss. It ends with them talking about how Fox will live on in their hearts and memories forever. This would be a lovely book for children who are suffering grief and seeing their families go through it, helping them to see ways back to happiness, and to know that it is ok to feel happy.

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8. Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch

This is a bizarre one and takes some getting used to. The two characters are Duck and yes…Death – no scythe or black hood, but he is a skeleton in a dress, and therefore not at all the kind of character most Brits would be comfortable with in a children’s book. I say Brits because Erlbruch is German – I don’t know much about German culture but perhaps it’s a more common sight in their children’s literature. I’m fascinated by its unconventionality, and my slightly appalled gut reaction to it. I also feel an affinity with its message that death is always with us, a part of life that we should not fear. I read it to Saskia once – she quite liked it, and asked for a second reading. It certainly didn’t spook her. But I think it’s too old for her in general – the colours are too washed out and spartan, the themes too abstract to appeal to her at this age. Maybe when she’s older – although she might be as weirded out as I am by it by then!

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So that’s the lot – a collection that I hope will be useful to us both going forward – and maybe to friends and family too as they face the little darlings’ tough questions. If you’ve read any of these books, or any others, and have any comments to add, I’d love to hear them.


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Reading with Sas about death

Not long after Ben died I started searching around online for books for children about death and bereavement. I found a few books that I ordered but nothing was quite right. For a long time I didn’t bother with any more, but recently, after conversations with friends who are keen to know what’s out there for them and their children (as they’re kind of in this with me – they need to answer their two or three year old’s questions about where Saskia’s Daddy is), I decided to do a bit more research and get hold of some more.

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I now have quite a stash (rundown of these to follow in my next post). Of course, as curious as I am to see what Saskia makes of them, it’s not right to inundate her. With reading, as with our conversations, I want to draw on the books in response to what she says and what’s going on in our lives, rather than force the topic on her. I actually see them more as a resource than anything – books to introduce when the need arises and pages to refer to for ideas about how to explain a certain thing. After all, unlike most books for children of her age, there’s inevitably a lot of sadness in them – why dwell on this if she’s ok and happy?

This is a bit of dilemma for me with one particular aspect of the books: the fact that most of them are told from the point of view of characters (some are animals, some are young children) who are grieving: suffering sadness, guilt, fear, anger. Saskia is happy – her very young age when Ben died (only 16 months) and the fact that he didn’t disappear suddenly, but slipped gradually from her life due to his illness – means that she hasn’t as yet suffered the typical feelings associated with grief.

So to an extent I’m concerned that these stories might give her the impression that she should be feeling sad, that this is the normal or right way for a child to feel. On the other I think, well if she ever did begin to feel feelings of grief, at least through reading the books we would have opened up doors for talking about it.

As usual, I’m probably over thinking and common sense is all that’s needed. I certainly won’t force the books down her throat, but I won’t hide them away either. They’ll be on the book shelf with all the others, and if she wants to read one then great, and I guess we can talk about the feelings that the characters are going through and chat about what she feels or doesn’t feel. It’s me that goes through all the angst about this after all – she tends to just proclaim ‘Next! or ‘Again!’ without a slither of apparent emotion!

I’ll write more in my next post about the books we’ve got and which ones I recommend.


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Spring boards and surf boards

On Sunday afternoon we met up with Lizzie, Liam and the boys down at the creek. As soon as Saskia saw Liam, the first thing she said was ‘My Daddy’s in heaven’ – she’s saying this a LOT at the moment as you may have gathered! Funny though, that she should do this again having greeted him the exact same way a week ago. The need to talk about where her own Daddy is when she meets her friends’ Daddies seems really strong at the moment.

Or even just the mention of Daddies, will set her off, telling whoever’s listening all about her own. Just yesterday, she was telling her friend Emmeline all about how he was poorly and so he had to go to heaven. She got a bit confused at one stage saying it was because he was old, but overall she’s very keen and confident about talking about him, which I’m really proud of.

Having said that, ‘my Daddy’s in heaven’ can be a bit of a conversation killer, especially with adults who are tongue-tied by cultural taboos and anxiety about what’s ok to say and what’s not.  And even if you are quite at ease talking about it, it’s not always appropriate in that moment. I sense both Liam and I were searching around for the next thing to say on Sunday after Saskia’s challenging opening gambit! As it was, I think one of the boys joined us and turned the conversations to pumpkins, or boats maybe, but not wanting to ignore Saskia’s comment, what would have been the right thing to say if we had carried on the conversation? I’ve been thinking about it since and realised that the thing to do isn’t to be stumped by the subject of death, but to steer the talk towards Ben’s life instead, encourage her to talk about what she knows: his name; who his parents, sister, friends were; Pickle, his cat; his love of the sea and surfing…

I do already try to do this whenever opportunities arise. Ben’s things around the house are ideal starting points for me to tell Saskia about things he liked, his character and his experiences in life. In our bathroom there’s a picture of a surfer, and an old surf board that Ben’s school buddy and surfing mentor, Dave, gave to him. Quite a few times Saskia has asked me about them and it’s been a lovely opportunity to talk about how Ben loved surfing, took me surfing, and latterly fantasised about living his surfing ambitions vicariously through her. To be honest, I was never a fan of the photo or the surfboard as additions to our bathroom decor, and put up with them under sufferance. But now they’re there to stay – partly because of the way they bring Ben into the room and generate memories for me, and stories about her Daddy for Saskia, but mostly because Saskia thinks the super buff surfer ripping up the waves is actually Ben, and I couldn’t possibly disillusion her! image


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Fascinating little brain

I didn’t realise until I asked some friends to write down conversations they’d heard Saskia having with their children, quite the extent to which Saskia associates other Daddies being at work with her Daddy being in heaven.

It is really fascinating to see her mind piecing things together. Liv remembers a conversation between Saskia and Bertie at her house last spring. One of the children asked where I was and Liv told them I was at work. There were a couple of exchanges between Sas and Bertie before she said, ‘My Daddy used to go to work, in heaven’. Then as Liv recalls, they went back to the more  pressing business of pretending to spit yoghurt at each other and shouting POO!

Also in the spring, Lizzie remembers Sas and Elliot playing ‘house’  – Saskia was sweeping up and Elliot announced he was off to work (internal groan at these hopelessly stereotyped play choices!). Lizzie overheard Sas musing to herself ‘Maybe that’s where my Daddy’s gone. No, he’s gone to heaven.’

At this time she was obviously getting quite mixed up between her Daddy being gone, and other Daddies being out at work. But by late summer, she’d figured out that they definitely weren’t the same thing, to the extent that she was very emphatic with both Emmeline and Jack, as I wrote in the last post, saying ‘Your Daddy has gone to work, my Daddy has gone to heaven.’

At this point I think I should explain our use of the word ‘heaven’. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you might remember the post where I explained my extensive deliberations about how to talk to Sas about what had happened to Daddy. I’m not a believer in heaven myself, so seriously baulked at the idea of using the word. However,  at that time I didn’t feel comfortable about just saying ‘he’s dead’, and also needed something to say to the glaring question of ‘where is he?’. To me it’s a convenient catch all word that I use to mean the ‘after-life’ (or the what happens after life, which I shall in time tell her is something nobody really knows about for sure, though people have lots of ideas…and here are the best ones…).

In the meantime, since I wrote that post, I have found myself able to use the ‘d’ word after all (though ‘he’s died’/’he died’ rather than ‘he’s dead’ – softer, isn’t it?). Several times, quite a while ago now, Sas would ask where Daddy had gone, and I might say he was in heaven, but I’d also say ‘he died’. Numerous times the conversation would stop there and Sas would move happily onto another topic. But quite recently she wanted to know more, and she asked why he’d died. I explained that he’d been very poorly, and his body wasn’t able to get better, and so he died. Again, as always, she accepted this answer and just carried on playing.

Since then if we’ve talked about people dying (like Ben’s Nan whose burial service Saskia and I went to about a month ago), I’ve tried to emphasise that people only usually die when they get very old, as I don’t want her to worry that someone she knows is going to die just because they’re ill. So far though I haven’t seen any evidence that she’s thinking that anyway.

Right, will leave it there. Am on a roll and loads more to come. But shorter better for you too I’m sure. We’ve all got Sunday night telly to watch!

 

 

 


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Eavesdropping

Disobeying all the right advice about blogging, I haven’t written for ages, but have instead hoarded bagfuls of stuff to write one day when I got round to it. Could this finally be the big blaaah? We’ll see. Where to start?

Well this post is to be about Saskia, my conversations with her about Ben and death, as well as the conversations that my friends and I have overheard her having with her little buddies about the same thing.

Anyone who has watched a child go through the first years of life will attest to how utterly lovely and endearing it is when somewhere between two and three they start having their first proper conversations with their friends. They have all sorts of serious little chats, very earnestly debating this or that.

From time to time, the conversation has been about Daddies. Last month Saskia and her friend Jack were sat in the back of the car chatting…

Jack: My Daddy’s at work.
Saskia: Daddies don’t go to work! They go to heaven.
Jack: My Daddy DOES go to work.
Me: That’s right. Jack’s Daddy works in Canterbury. He’s a manager.

And so I wittered on, commandeering their conversation in my parenty way.

Not long after that we were round at Marylka’s, who overheard Sas say to Emmeline, ‘Where’s your Daddy?’ Emmeline, ‘He’s at work.’ Saskia, ‘Your Daddy goes to work, mine goes to heaven.’

It’s that matter of fact way she says things…like that’s just the way it is. That, plus the funny way her and her friends make confident pronouncements as though they are the absolute authority on a subject that they’ve only just learnt for themselves about 3 seconds previously. On any other subject it’s all just funny. With this it’s tragic and funny – she makes me smile, even though what she’s actually saying is sad beyond her imagining.

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Lately Sas has learned that DADS = FUN. Mums are alright, but Dads do really good stuff like charge around pretending to be monsters, and hilAAAARIOUS pantomime style goofing around at the swings. So now I get ‘Mum, be funny like Adam and Dan’ when we go to the park and I either have to feel totally inadequate or like an utter prat. We’re so lucky to have such brilliant Dad friends who always make sure she gets swung around in the air and held upside down by her ankles just as much as their own eager urchins.

However, as I’ve noticed how much she revels in this interaction, I’ve also been watching closely for signs of resentment, or sadness, that her own Daddy isn’t here. After all, with anything else, be it food, toys, a manky old stick or a bit of fluff, if anyone else has got something that she hasn’t, she’s in a wild fury of hot tears at the injustice of it. But so far, this injustice, she seems to be taking very calmly. Last week, Sas and I were at the pub with Lizzie and Janine and their children, enjoying a cheeky Friday afternoon couple of pints. A little later, Lizzie’s husband Liam joined us after finishing work. As he walked in he kneeled down to hug his two boys, and then Saskia came up to him and announced, ‘My Daddy’s in heaven.’ No drama, just that. And Liam accepted her pronouncement with an easygoing ‘That’s right’ and a smile, and carried on with the everyday chat about what the day had held for us all. The things she says are all the more poignant and moving for the unremarkable way that she says them – because it’s just normal for her I guess. I’m sure  it touched Liam – later that evening I noticed he had an extra big hug for Sas when we bumped into him at the chippie.

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Well this is isn’t all the blaaah, but in the spirit of little and often I will post this now and promise the rest soon. Maybe more little people conversations, definitely more about the conversations I’ve had with her. Thanks for reading.


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A NOT HAPPY day

Today Saskia was NOT HAPPY, or so she told me. She also described herself as ‘grumpy’ and ‘sad’, not feelings she’s prone to I’m proud to say. Usually I can shake her out of any grump with tickles, cuddles, offers to play with her, or the big guns, cake or telly. But today she didn’t want ANYTHING!! as she hotly exclaimed on several occasions.

Whether sad and grumpy were just her ways to express her being dog tired, which I knew she was, or her voicing a deeper unhappiness, I don’t know, but in the midst of her whining and whimpering this afternoon, she suddenly came out with ‘I need my Daddy!’, then she just cried ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ over and over again for maybe five minutes. Eventually she stopped as she began to drift off to sleep in my arms.

I was shocked, and really sad for her. This is the first time she’s shown strong emotion about not having her Daddy. My instinct is that she was feeling rotten – exhausted after a run of late and restless sleeps – and was so out of sorts that she felt she didn’t want anything, but she wanted something. Something, or someone, who was missing, but could look after her and make her feel better.

I asked her what had made her think about Daddy and she said it was Pickle, our cat. She knows he was Daddy’s cat, bought especially to cheer him up when he was poorly.

The last few days have been relatively intense in terms of talking about Daddy, and death. On Sunday we visited the burial ground, and Saskia brought a new stone that she’d chosen on the beach in Cornwall to go with the one she’d brought to put by the tree on January 3rd. And yesterday we attended the committal (just the burial part of a funeral) of Ben’s Nan. Although Sas asked questions about what was going on, she didn’t seem upset at all at the time – she was much more concerned with taking her shoes and socks off so she could run barefoot in the grass! Who knows what she’s absorbed, what she’s understood and what she’s taken to heart, but it’s very possible that the events of the last few days were jumbled up with her unhappiness when she cried for Daddy today.

Poor Sas. There will be many more moments like this ahead as her loss gathers meaning in her mind. I still don’t feel I have the right words. I’m just hoping that cuddles and kindness will be enough for now.

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