Monday, January 31, 2011

Children's Books on Grief: What's Heaven?

This next book in our series of children's books that deal with grief has a famous author, which will often add to the appeal in buying a book. Perhaps from the media's input, I had also already heard of this book before actually getting it from the library.

The author, Maria Shriver, points out on the back that this book came from actual discussions with her 6 year old, at the time of the daughter's great-grandmother's death. I think knowing that perspective helps in the review as well, since the previous books Tear Soup and When Someone Dies was written by a hospice worker and grief counselor, respectively.

What's Heaven? is written by Maria Shriver and illustrated by Sandra Speidel. Published by Golden Books in 1999, the age listed for reading 4-8.

Although the title would imply a book all about Heaven there are definitely other topics covered.  The plot line follows Kate who comes home to find her mother sad and news that her great-grandmother has "died and gone to Heaven".  This prompts not questions about death or what "died" means but questions about what Heaven is.  The concepts specifically in question are:  Where Heaven is?,  Are animals there? and How do you get there?  I think these are questions I myself would like to know!

There is also discussion about what a funeral is and thanks to cousin Bobby, questions about the actual casket. Here's an example of a conversation Kate has with her mom: "Bobby told me we are going to a funeral where we are going to bury Great-grandma in a box. Why are we going to do that? Will it hurt Great-grandma? How will she breathe in the box? What if she wants to get out?"

As is typical of little ones, there are many more questions than answers in the book.  As parents have learned, it's more about the concept we are sharing than the specifics of each question.  This book is similar, the general message is one of hope; that after death there is a distant, safe place where all the best parts of someone goes... that it's okay to be sad and it won't last forever and that by remembering our loved ones they remain alive in us.

The illustrations are done in pastels, with a more vibrant feel than some of the grief books I've seen.  The pastel's also allow for a dream like or memory like quality, as sharp details are left out.  There are a lot of words on each page, and no paragraphs, perhaps emulating the way children can move from one topic to another in stream-less fashion.  Each page does have one phrase that is doubled in font size, I suppose then if just browsing the book you could pick up on the highlights.

If you have a child with some of these specific questions, it would be a great book! What's challenging in these types of personal stories, is that your family may not agree with all of the concepts presented.  For instance if you don't want to teach your child, "when your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you up to Heaven to be with him" Then you'd have to either skip the page or do some other teaching on what your family concept is.

In comparison with the other books reviewed thus far, this book is by far the most specific in terms of one family's beliefs and/or opinions.  And rightly so, as the author makes no presumption of being an expert, but simply using her own experience to share with others...

Stay tuned, we have a few more to review!

Monday, January 31, 2011 by Amy Clarkson · 2

Monday, January 17, 2011

Children's Books on Grief: When Someone Dies

As mentioned in the first in this series on children's literature dealing with grief, there is an abundance of material out there to recommend to families with children dealing with grief.  In fact, it's often overwhelming with so many choices.  Hopefully this random sample from my local library will, if nothing else, illustrate the wide variety of books out there.

Often until you actually see inside the book yourself, it's hard to know which book is the right one. In fact, if you went on just book lists, the book I'm reviewing today is by far on more lists than any other books I'm reviewing, making me assume it is very popular. Yet without reading it, as you may see, I wouldn't have discovered it's unique style, different than Tear Soup, or even The Goodbye Boat reviewed in an earlier post.

When Someone Dies is written by Sharon Greenlee and illustrated by Bill Drath. Published in 1992 by Peachtree publishers it is written for a reader aged 8-12.

The book is considered plot-less, with each page making more of a conversational statement in second person. This approach seems to lend itself to a normalizing of the emotions and issues surrounding grief.  The statements center around feeling sad and mad, but also about concepts of dreaming of your loved one, and worrying if other people around you will die too.  For example, here are some of the statements:

 "If the person who died was very important to you, you get to worrying that all the other important people might leave too.  I've never heard of it happening that way, but it's hard not to think about it"

"When people die, they can't come to your house anymore. You wonder what they'd look like now, and you do all you can to make a picture of them in your mind."

Towards the second half the author begins to task the reader to actually do some things such as finding someone to cry with and writing a letter to the person who died.

Besides normalizing grief with the second person speech, I noticed that the word "dies" is used 10 times out of  a total of 15 pages of statements.  I can't help but think even using the word is a way to normalize the experience. No metaphors in this book, death is definitely the main character.

The illustrations use a washed out almost dull tone, adding to the mellow nature of the book. One thing I found interesting is that all of the scenes are out doors in nature and the people all Caucasian, which doesn't do much to normalize to a wide audience.

I think for certain children, this type of writing style is what is needed. Due to this books popularity on many of the lists out there, it's definitely good to be familiar with it!

 Stay tuned again for more books coming up...

Monday, January 17, 2011 by Amy Clarkson · 2

Sunday, January 9, 2011

AAHPM's 2011 Bookclub: Cutting for Stone

I am excited for the upcoming meeting in Vancouver, BC.  It's a city I have long dreamed of visiting, and a meeting I enjoy returning each year.  Last year, the Spirituality and Humanities SIG tried something new: a bookclub.  It was a huge success, with a tough but good read.  This year, a very different book was chosen - Abraham Verghese's first novel, Cutting for Stone.

Some reviews:

"I will not cut for stone," runs the text of the Hippocratic oath, "even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art."

Washtington Post: Healing the Past - A review by W. Ralph Eubanks
Verghese's narrative moves over decades and generations from India to Ethiopia to an inner-city hospital in New York, describing the cultural and spiritual pull of these places.

The surprising, stunning denouement both arises from and reenacts the major themes of Cutting for Stone: love and betrayal, forgiveness and self-sacrifice, and the inextricable union of life and death.

From Abraham Verghese's own site: his reading group guide.

If anyone is interested in helping to lead the discussions (it was a lot of fun last year) - please contact Emily Muse, from AAHPM.  The online social discussion group is through Goodreads.  

To purchase the book:

An Indie store near you


In Europe

Sunday, January 9, 2011 by Unknown · 2

"The Porous Scrim between Life and Death": Elizabeth Alexander & Krista Tippett

This morning, as on many Sunday mornings, I listened to Krista Tippett's "Being" - today's show, "Words that Shimmer" which featured a discussion with Elizabeth Alexander on "what poetry works in us and in our children and why it may become more relavent in hard and complicated times."  I could not wait to sit down, think about what I had heard, and share it with you.  The entire show is worth listening to, but I'd like to hightlight the moments or words that caused the heart of this palliative care clinician to whorl and dance.   

38:07 minutes into the show, Ms Alexander began to speak about the juxtaposition as a caregiver to her two babies and to her "very beloved mother-in-law" who was dying.  She said,

"I came to learn what is means as a poet to be the person who can sit with those profound, profound, essential human experiences, and to let them happen, and to not fight them, and learn from them.   
I never would have thought before that it was a privilege for someone to let you be intimate with them as they move towards dying.   
But it was.  And I think I understood that because I was having and raising these little babies." 
Two poems then were shared - almost in tandem, bringing to light this theme: 
"[...] birth is like jazz,
from silence and blood, silence
then everything,  
and then Autumn Passage
"On suffering, which is real.
On the mouth that never closes,
the air that dries the mouth.
On the miraculous dying body, 
its greens and purples. [...]" 

The "scrim between life and death" - Ms. Alexander's words, and the continuum of legacy from mother to child to grandchild threads throughout the conversation.  She leaves us with One week later in the strange - an incredible poem about ... well, what can happen after death.   
In the expanding collection of poetry and humanities around this topic of life and death, meaning and suffering, Elizabeth Alexander's new book of poetry, Crave Radiance, is now on my "must own" list.  

Crave Radiance:
New and Selected Poems 1990-2010
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Date: 2010
Language: English

Available at:

by Unknown · 0

Monday, January 3, 2011

Children's Books on Grief: Tear Soup

If you look at any bibliography of childhood grief books, it is likely to be quiet extensive! Take for instance the bibliography on the Child Grief Education Association website, here.  The good news is that there is no shortage of literature available.

My question is, though, with so many choices- which ones are the best? This answer probably has much to do with the child's age, the questions they are asking and simply the child's personal preferences in books.  A simple title of a book won't give any insight into the intricacies of the book, thus we must rely on word of mouth or websites such as, or the many other hundreds of grief websites that give a synopsis of the books. But even this doesn't give a clear understanding of what the book is like.

The best option, would be to read them all ourselves. While a lofty goal that I have not yet achieved, this week I did the best I could; I went to my local library in rural America and checked out all the books I could find on childhood grief.  Hopefully the reviews of these books, with illustrations and story plot will give you a more thorough idea of some of the children's books out there.

For this first post I have chosen a book that has great appeal for adults as well as children. I would consider it a "cross-over" book, and may in fact be more of an adult book disguised as a children's book.

Tear Soup is written by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck Deklyen, Illustrated by Taylor Bills.  Published as a 3rd Rev. edition by Grief Watch in 2005, the age level listed for reading is age 4-8.

The main character is Grandy, who has suffered a 'great loss'. She spends the pages working on her tear soup, which serves as a marvelous symbol of grief.  The universal statements packed into the book are so subtle, sometimes it takes a moment to recognize them.  For example, "It seems that grief is never clean... To make matters worse, grief always takes longer to cook than anyone wants it to"

She deals with adding memories to the pot and even the profound concept of the time that memories seem to run out, and the emptiness felt then. There are interactions with neighbors and friends, as Grandy says, "They filled the air with words, but none of their words took the smell of tear soup away." Or when she comments that, "most people can tolerate only a cup of someone else's tear soup."

The book also approaches faith issues, as Grandy "demanded to know where God was when she was feeling so all alone."

As one might guess, Grandy works through her grief until she realizes it's time to eat something else instead of only tear soup.  The book ends with a nice summary of Grandy's journey, "I've learned that grief, like a pot of soup, changes the longer it simmers and the more things you put into it. I've learned that sometimes people say unkind things, but they really don't mean to hurt you...and most importantly, I've learned that there is something down deep within all of us ready to help us survive the things we think we can't survive."

This book has wonderful illustrations and while I am not sure a pre-school child would understand the significance of all the metaphors, it would certainly provide a starting point for topic discussions. It may also serve as a great recommendation for a family with an adult who has been resistant to dealing with their own grief... by innocently entering into the realm of a kid's book, they may be surprised to have issues raised within themselves.

Stay tuned over the next weeks for more reviews of children's literature and feel free to leave your own favorite children's books about grief in the comment section below.

Monday, January 3, 2011 by Amy Clarkson · 8