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Should we Broach the Topic of Death with Children?

If we don’t ever discuss death, we risk strengthening the feeling of isolation that a grieving child may be feeling, says Holly Webb...

  • Should we Broach the Topic of Death with Children?

My latest book, Evie’s War, opens with the funeral of the main character’s younger brother, shortly before the outbreak of WW1.

When I started writing the first draft, I knew that this was what the story needed – something that would shake up Evie’s comfortable family life, so that her beloved governess is sent away, she and her little sister Kitty are sent to school, and most importantly, their mother is so stricken with grief that the two girls feel abandoned.

All this is happening just as the world around them is about to be shaken up too.

Including seven-year-old Alexander’s death was a hard decision to make though – it became even harder as I wrote about the girls’ memories of him and he became a character, rather than just an absence in the story.

A class of schoolchildren in 1914 would be familiar with the death of a loved one, and many of them would have lost a brother or sister.

These days, children are much less likely to have experienced a death in the family, and if they have, it may well be the death of an older relative, rather than a child.

I wrote about the death of a beloved grandfather a few years ago in another novel, and at the time I did a lot of thinking about grief and how difficult it can be for children to understand not only what’s happened, but how they’re supposed to feel.

In a way, this was almost easier for children a century ago to negotiate. There was a process – even the clothes you had to wear were laid down in a complicated system of mourning dress.

Evie and Kitty are quite relieved that their new school has a uniform, as it means they can get away with black armbands, instead of wearing all black for three whole months, the suitable mourning for a brother.

When death was so public, and so miserably familiar, grief must have felt more acceptable.

So should a class of children today read about the death of a sibling, when thankfully it’s so much less common now?

Obviously this book might raise very difficult issues for children who have recently experienced a death or serious illness in the family, and it’s vital to be sensitive to that, but it’s unlikely there will be many classes without a child who’s experienced grief over a family member.

Is it a good idea to hide that grief away? We may not feel sympathy with elaborate Victorian and Edwardian mourning customs, but they did give family members an outlet for their sadness.

If we don’t ever discuss death, we risk strengthening the feeling of isolation that a grieving child may be feeling.

Because Evie’s War is set 100 years ago, in a time when flu and respiratory infections could easily kill, Alexander’s death may seem comfortingly remote.

It’s historical. It couldn’t happen now. But Evie and Kitty respond to their brother’s death as children – with uncertainty and guilt and bewilderment, and that’s something timeless.

Talking with a class about the differences between then and now can help open up communication about these emotions, and allow children to express their fears about illness and death.

Conversation starters

There are many different ways to show that we feel sad – colours can really help to describe moods, including the intense sadness of grief.

In Evie’s War, Evie and Kitty wear black to show that they’re grieving. Today, families might ask those coming to a funeral to wear their loved one’s favourite colour.

We sometimes think of the weather as sad too, particularly when it’s raining, or a ‘grey day’. But a sunny day could be equally sad, if it brings back memories of a special time.

Can you draw a picture of sadness? What colours would you want to use? What would you draw?

In the book, Evie’s family aren’t very good at talking to each other about how they feel.

Talking to people about loss can be very hard, especially if you don’t know what to say. Do you think it would be easier to write a letter to someone who’s grieving than to talk to them face-to-face?

A letter is easy to keep and look at again, but talking to someone might be more comforting in the moment – there are good points about both.

As a class, imagine that you knew seven-year-old Alexander. Try writing a letter to Evie and Kitty, telling them how sorry you are about his death.

Perhaps you could share some memories about him and how funny he was, or the things you did together.

Are there any other things you could do to show a grieving person that you’re thinking about them?

Discuss the ways that different cultures around the world grieve, and remember their loved ones. In Jewish culture, families may choose to ‘sit shiva’. The family gather together for seven days to mourn their loved one.

They may sit on low stools or boxes, to show that they have been brought down by their loss. Mirrors in the house might be covered up, to encourage mourners to think about their loved instead of themselves during the shiva period.

You can also think about Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, where families visit the graves of their relatives to share stories about them and remember them together. Families tidy and decorate the graves and bring photos of their relatives, as well as their favourite foods.

The Pixar film Coco is a good starting point for this topic.

If you want to then go on to look at other related books along a similar theme there are many to choose from, but I recommend the following:

  • Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
  • Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Holly Webb is the author of Evie’s War (£6.99, Scholastic). Find her at holly-webb.com and follow her on Twitter at @hollykatewebb.

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