Wednesday, 31 October 2012

How To Talk To Children About Death by Hilary Robinson (Guest Blog)

Caroline’s last hours in the hospice were peaceful for her but they were painful for us.   When the phone call finally came that she had died, despite the inevitability, the emotion was overwhelming.  


Caroline had battled breast cancer for seven years before dying at the age of 39.  In the days that followed I thought a lot about her parents, and husband, but I thought also about the children in our families as well as the children at the school where she’d been a much-loved teacher.   To help my young daughters through their grief I encouraged them to think about the legacies their Aunt had left in terms of what she had shared, taught and imparted and in what was probably an effort to exorcise the grief, I then wrote a story about a teacher who dies. 

The Copper Tree developed into a story of a small group of young school children who are encouraged to prepare for, and come to terms with, the subsequent death of their teacher, Miss Evans.  At the centre of it all I considered the simple needs of young children, many of whom would be exploring the feelings of grief and loss for the first time.   I realised that a relationship with a teacher mirrored so many relationships in other areas of our lives – from parents, family, wider family, friends and even pets. 

I wanted the story to be real and accessible and revised core elements of the text after seeking advice from bereaved families, from teachers and bereavement consultants.   One mother whose seventeen-year-old son had died from cancer told me that those with terminal illness, quite often – despite the pain and fear – remain cheerful.  They see and appreciate the pure beauty of life and find joy in simple pleasures.    Justine, a young mother of three children who was dying of breast cancer was critical of the lack of books that featured people as main characters, rather than animals, while teachers advised against using ambiguous language  - saying to a young child we have "lost" someone can lead them to believe that we may find them again and when a friend was told, as a young girl, that her grandmother had died of a stroke, she became then fearful of stroking the cat.   I also avoided whimsical notions of heave, leaving parents, teachers and carers free to consider those elements in their own respective and personal ways.

Dr Paul Fitzpatrick, an expert in bereavement counselling from Cardiff University, explained that ‘continuing bonds theory’ is now considered by many to be an integral part of helping those who grieve.  Recognising and celebrating the legacies of those who have died is considered far more effective than ignoring, as previous generations have done, the fact that someone had ever existed and this was borne out when our local hospice, St Gemmas, established a Tree Of Life on to which bereaved relatives could hang copper leaves inscribed with the name of a loved one who had died.


So with all this is mind The Copper Tree took shape and in the story the children are gently taken through the difficult process.  There are light hearted moments and moments of poignancy – just as in life - and following a period of reflection after the death of Miss Evans, they are encouraged to think about all that their teacher has shared with them - or taught them.   These memories are then inscribed on to copper leaves and fixed on to a copper tree as a reminder of her lasting legacy.

We cherish our memories of Caroline and we are proud of the legacies she has left.  The Copper Tree, may not have happened had it not been for her and that, in itself, remains a lasting legacy to her.  We recognise also that, while at times the emotional pain has been difficult to bear, we have, as Caroline did in the end, found some measure of peace.

_____________________________________________________
The Copper Tree by Hilary Robinson, 
illustrated by Mandy Stanley
Published by Strauss House Productions   
ISBN: 978-0957124509
www.thecoppertree.org

Our Guest Blogger, Hilary Robinson,
has written over forty illustrated
children's books.
You can find out more at http://www.hilaryrobinson.co.uk/

23 comments:

  1. A wonderful, and important, post, Hilary. I'm sure you are absolutely right in saying that we must be honest with children about death. If we aren't honest, they will know it, and lose trust in us, and that would leave them horribly adrift in their grief.
    I've seen and read The Copper Tree, and it's both honest and positive. Just right.

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    1. Hi Pippa

      Thank you for this - I wish more was made of the way in which adverse experiences and negative external influences can affect cognitive development. Loving Just Imagine btw - very well done!

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  2. This is such an important issue and often people think that children shouldn't be involved in discussions about death, as if they are too young to find out about it, which always seems strange to me. We teach children about relationships, about how they cope with all sorts of things but death still seems to be taboo.

    If it is so scary for adults why should we imagine that it may be less so for children?
    It is lovely to think children may never have to encounter death untill they are older but the reality, as we all know, is that it can happen in any family, or to friends or teachers, and often very suddenly.
    This is the time when children need some kind of help and reassurance and often it is also when that their parents and family are themselves struggling with their own grief.
    The Copper Tree sounds like a great book about such a difficult subject.

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    1. Thank you Linda - death is very difficult because I think there is so much that we don't understand and that we fear. I hope the book is of help to everyone.

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  3. This is such a beautiful post. Thank you Hilary. I agree with the comments above - death, and how we deal will the loss it brings us is an important but neglected issue in picture books.

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    2. Thank you Abie. Picture books are an ideal forum for exploring such issues for me as much as anyone else! The inner child and all that ... !

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  4. Thank you, Hilary. I agree with all the comments above, plus it will be fascinating for everyone reading the blog to see how much careful thought has gone into your picture book, which sounds (and looks)perfect.

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    1. It's a pleasure Moira - I hope the blog and the book does help others - and, as someone said to me yesterday, even those who are facing up to their own mortality - which is something I hadn't considered before.

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  5. Such a poignant and thought-provoking post. Years ago my children had books like 'Heaven' by Nicholas Allan and 'Old Pig' by Margaret Wild. 'Heaven' always makes me smile and perhaps delightful books like this are a good way of preparing a child for the possibility that something might happen (especially with pets). However, when there's the reality of a major death, I don't think books like this are enough and it's very hard for adults too. 'The Copper Tree' sounds like it would have helped us ALL to cope and I'm going to read a copy. Thank you so much, Hilary.

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    1. Thank you Paeony for giving me the opportunity to write this. The Picture Book Den is a wonderful port for the celebration of the form and I am grateful for all the extra work you do to make the postings happen.

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  6. What a wonderful legacy and tribute to Caroline. The Copper Tree sounds like exactly the right sort of book to help comfort bereaved children.

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    1. Thank you Jane - one of the reviewers talked of the powerful effects of memory as a means of healing and it's comforting to look at a loved one's life like that.

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  7. Beautiful post, and as you say, important to have at least one picture book text that doesn't deal with death through furry creatures. I alsp appreciate the way you've chosen the words so carefully, recognising the way that young children can easily misinterpret words.
    This is a very beautiful book, and Mandy's use of warm, golden colours in the illustrations means that the Copper Tree, though serious, comes across with the mood of joyful celebration you'd wanted for Caroline.

    I am so pleased that you got this book published, Hilary. Many congratulations on a book that can makes a difference at a difficult time.

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    1. Hi Penny

      Thank you Penny - and you know I valued your input so much in the development of the story - for which I will be eternally grateful x

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  8. Thank for this excellent post, Hilary. It takes courage to write a book like that.

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    1. Thank you Candy. I was fortunate in having wise advice from experienced people - I am not sure I would have had the confidence to do it without that. I was also well supported by the illustrator, Mandy Stanley who helped with the overall creative direction from the nuance of words and phrases to the complete look and feel. H

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  9. Thank you, Hilary. A really interesting post. You're so right about the use of words. Margaret Donaldson (developmental psychologist) quoted Laurie Lee when he started primary school, who had misunderstood the term 'Sit here for the present' (meaning 'Sit here for now') and was really upset and confused as a child that he didn't actually receive a present. How much more confusing when adults use woolly language when someone has died? Good books on death can be hard to come by -and hard to write (I've been working vaguely on the idea for one for a long time now). I look forward to reading yours. All the best, Clare.

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    1. Thank you Juliet. Laurie Lee is one of my favourite authors and yet I never knew that about him - interesting that he never ever forgot how that felt. I can remember all too rawly so much from my young life - we don't have the experience of life to reason disappointment and misunderstanding. And I look forward to reading yours! H

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  10. I look forward to reading your book as well. It is one year since the mother of a young boy at our church died. He discovered her in the bathroom when he was about six years old. I'd like to buy a copy of the book. It may not be appropriate to give him now, but it sounds like a really useful book and I'd like to read it anyway.. I love the idea of the copper leaves and the memories.It must have taken a long time to write.

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    1. Dear Odette

      Please contact me via my website and I will send you a signed copy for him. This is really upsetting but I expect the church community has been hugely supportive - they say it takes a whole village to raise a child. Thank you for keeping an eye on him. H

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  11. I look very forward to reading your book. As an adult who had to deal with the death of a parent as a young child, I can definitely say that a picture book is a comforting way that would help a child relate to this very serious topic, and also help them through the grieving process. I tip my hat to you for creating a book on the most difficult thing that a child might one day have to face.

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  12. Thank you Dana. I am so sorry this happened to you as a child. I hope you were well supported and I hope also that The Copper Tree brings you some come even today. H

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