I’ve been worrying a lot lately about my 9-year-old son and the massive losses he has experienced in the last 12 months. Prior to March 25th, 2016, Tomi hadn’t experienced any form of loss. We’ve never had a pet; my husband and I haven’t separated; he’s never had to change schools.
Tomi has always been a thinker and would often say at bedtime that he didn’t want me to grow old because old people die. That was his idea of death.
His first experience of death was so different to this, there is no way possible that this wouldn’t have an impact on him. On March 25th, 2016, his little brother Ned and his grandmother died in a horrific car crash. Ned was 5 years old.
Tomi came to Ned’s funeral and became deeply traumatised by Ned’s burial. He kept saying that Ned was trapped in the ground. Only once after the funeral has he been back to the grave with me. He cried and said, ‘We’re never going to have Ned back are we?’
He started having counselling (and continues to) and we’ve been given specific books that talk about death and grief. But reading them, I felt that Tomi was detached. Eventually he said he didn’t want to read them (he didn’t like reading anyway).
Fast forward to April 15th, 2017. My dad, Tomi’s grandad, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Another massive loss. When I told Tomi, he looked bewildered and lost. He was silent. He turned away from me. I suppose it was too much for his young mind to process. How can Taid be gone now too? How can his whole world shatter even more than it already had?
Although Tomi doesn’t like reading himself, he does enjoy listening to stories. I began to look for books where the main character had suffered a loss. Not the books given by counsellors, but just fiction books for children (although I think children’s books should equally be enjoyed by adults). I thought that if we read a story together where the character had the same feelings etc as Tomi, maybe he would begin to see that his feelings are ok. Maybe he would begin to understand. This is how powerful fiction can be, in my opinion. Yes we can escape to another world, but we can also find someone, ‘a friend’ who we can identify with. This is what I wanted to find for Tomi. I wanted to read a story that wasn’t explicitly about death and grief to him. I wanted him to have a ‘friend’ who felt the same as him.
Two books grabbed me – two very different books. Now, please don’t think that I’m writing this blog to judge either book. Who am I to say that an award-winning book is ‘wrong’? I simply want to explain my reaction to reading these two books as a grieving parent.
The two books I’ve read are ‘Time Travelling With A Hamster’ and ‘Bigfoot, Tobin and Me’ (read in that order).
As I read ‘Time Travelling With A Hamster’, I quite quickly had a heavy feeling in my stomach. I became anxious about how the story was going to end. I wanted to finish the story, I had to know. If you haven’t read the book I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but I can’t explain my reaction without mentioning it.
As I read it late at night I began to beg silently – ‘Please don’t say that Al’s dad will come back to life at the end. Please don’t do that to me. Don’t give me a book that has a happy ending that is filled with false hope.’
Like I said, I am not judging. I’m simply stating my opinion. The fact that Al does manage to ‘save’ his dad and that Dad is back at the end of the book left me crying angry tears. I wanted to shout ‘No! No you don’t get to have the dead person back. They’ve gone.’ I would do anything to have Ned and my dad back, but I can’t. It’s impossible. How could I read this to Tomi, a 9-year-old who desperately wants his little brother and Taid back? How could I let him see that in stories you get to have the happy ending, but in real life, sorry but you get to suffer.
This is how it made me feel as a grieving parent. I’m not saying that my feelings are right. Maybe for another reader the ending would be a relief, an escape. But when you long for a happy ever after and know that you’ll never get it, I found it a really tough read. I haven’t read it to Tomi. I can’t. I can’t let him have the tiniest belief that maybe he can build a time machine and go back and save Ned from that crash. Because that’s what he would think. The story is so powerful it made me believe for a while that maybe time travel could be possible. That’s when the anger and uneasiness began. I didn’t want the story to give me something I could never have.
So I looked again. I found ‘Bigfoot, Tobin and Me’. When I got to the ending of this book, I cried again. But this time, they weren’t angry, frustrated tears. They were sad tears yes – Lemonade doesn’t get to have her mum back – but I also felt peaceful, hopeful. I cried when Lemonade thinks about her mum and says, ‘If somebody gave me that chance again, I’d never let her go. Not ever… when he (Tobin) got to even hope that his dad was coming back, I wished I could hope too. You know, that Mama would come back to us, too… But Mama is never coming back. I can’t even hope for it. And it’s just not fair, that’s all.’
And there it is. The reality of losing a loved one. It isn’t fair. They can’t come back no matter how much we want them to. But the story ends with hope for Lemonade. She has her grandad and new friends. It doesn’t say that things will be easy for her and that she’s going to be happy every day for the rest of her life. But she will be ok. She’ll make it.
That’s what I want Tomi to see and feel and understand. Here is a young girl who has lost her mum and who is grieving and angry and sad and experiencing all the emotions that he is, but she’s going to be ok.
This book I will read to Tomi. It has become such an important story to me. It’s so beautifully written, and sprinkled ever so slightly with magic, the real magic of hope.
I have cried the whole time I’ve been writing this blog post, but I felt I had to write it. It has made me question whether children’s books should always have a happy ending. In a way yes, I think for younger readers they should. But a happy ending that is based on false hope makes me feel cheated. An ending that leaves me feeling hope – that’s a happy ending for me.
If I hadn’t lost Ned, I probably wouldn’t have reacted like I have to ‘Time Travelling With A Hamster’. But I have lost Ned. Tomi has lost Ned. Tomi has lost his grandmother. Tomi has lost his Taid. Tomi needs to know that despite this devastation, he’s going to be ok. He’ll never have them back, but he will be ok.
I would be really interested to hear from anyone else who has read these two books and what your opinion is. Are there other fictional books that you feel deal with bereavement ‘correctly’? Should we hide reality from our children? Should fiction merely be escapism? Does fiction have the power to ‘help’ a child who feels alone in a world where bad things happen?
I think fiction does have this power which is why I feel so strongly that if a story is going to deal with real-life issues, then they should be dealt with in a ‘real’ way. This doesn’t have to be brutal. It doesn’t have to leave a child crying. It can leave a child feeling that someone else knows. And that someone else is ok at the end.
Tomi’s counsellor feels that children are shielded from bereavement. It’s not something to talk about. Why talk about something so incredibly sad with a child? But when tragedy strikes and your child’s whole world becomes a world he no longer understands, that’s when you realise that shielding a child from it causes more harm than allowing them to ‘experience’ it gently and safely.
My little boy is grieving. He doesn’t understand his emotions. Why him? Why did he have to lose his brother? No one in his classroom has suffered like this. He needs a ‘friend’ who understands. He needs a story that is like the story of his life. He won’t ever get the happy ever after, but he can be given the gift of hope. He can learn that it’s going to be ok.