Thursday, October 3, 2013

When that Day Comes

There are two absolute certainties about death: it is coming to us all, and, no one is ever “ready” for it. Between birth and death there is also surely a “valley of the shadow.”

As our family walks through what could possibly be my mother’s last illness, I know the truth of these statements. Though we've heard the prognosis, see her strength departing daily, feel her leaving us bit by bit – we know the end may come soon and yet there is the instinctive pushing back against that inevitable day. It was a different experience four years ago when two close friends were struck down in an accident – two young mothers each with a house full of young children. That was unexpected, dramatically horrifying, and nothing known to man could have prepared us for that brutal shock.

The first time I remember meeting Death in a book was when Beth died in Little Women. I sobbed myself to sleep. Oh, I knew she was slowly fading from life, but when that final moment came and she breathed her last, I was bereft, broken, bleeding tears. Over the ensuing years, I lost many other fictional friends – too many to count – indeed, in almost every beloved story of my childhood someone died. There was old Jack, the faithful dog in Laura Ingalls’ childhood, Old Yeller, Dan and Annie in Where the Red Fern Grows – all beloved dog friends; there was Francie’s dear father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Uncle Matthew in Anne of Green Gables, and Sara Crewe’s beloved Papa. Though I ached for the losses of these fictional friends, it was reassuring to know that the main character went on living.

Considering what a common theme death is in all the great children’s literature, it baffles me when parents want to avoid any hint of this topic. To do so is to neglect the bulk of the best literature. I remember well my bewilderment when an early library family rejected the picture book The Rag Coat because, “There’s death in it.” I pondered over that reason a great deal at the time. Why would death be avoided? Never mind the fact that that particular story is the gentle handling of a tragedy in a little girl’s life and the beautiful way her family chose to comfort her in such an unbearable circumstance, I was truly alarmed for the children whose parents planned to postpone their children’s discovery of the event of death. I gradually realized that this was a very common attitude. My perplexity about it caused me to pay attention to such objections, to understand this common thinking, especially as it pertained to the literature. When would a child be ready, and would all the wonderful stories have to be marked with warning labels?

Apparently this is not a new controversy. Seventy or more years ago, when Ruth Sawyer won the Newbery Award for Roller Skates, there was an outcry against it because of the way it handled death. When I read of this incident, I felt some sympathy with that author. Roller Skates is one of our family favorites, and the death of Lucinda’s little friend Trinket is tragic, but the saddest part of that story would be if that day had never befallen Lucinda. Yes, her little world was rocked, as happens to all of us when death knocks at our neighbor’s door, but the beauty of the comfort and counsel she received from her friend to accept death as not only a normal part of life, but even a beautiful moment in the grander perspective on life, is one of the treasures we cherish in children’s literature.

The occurrence of loss, tragedy, and death in children’s stories is exactly why they need fiction. Because fiction helps a child enter into another life, another world, so the experiences in that created world unlock imagination. A “make believe” account is very real to a child. This is the excellence of it. Children learn by play, by pretend, by practicing unreality. That natural ability of theirs is the very process by which they learn to step in to life and cope with it. Stories greatly minister to them to shed light on the incomprehensible darkness that exists. The stories I have mentioned do not focus on death, but they do not deny its existence either. In truth, they make life more precious by facing its sure and certain side of misfortune and ugliness. A child who has wept over Beth’s death, will have some store of experience when a beloved grandfather’s life comes to an end abruptly on a cold and dreary November day, as happened in my case. I was not afraid to weep; I was not afraid to go on living either, because I knew from the stories I had read that life did go on, that those who suffered went on to laugh and enjoy that very precious gift of life.

On another occasion, an interaction with another family brought this clearly into focus. I was recommending the book Wild Animals I have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton to a family with children of middle school age. The mother had previewed that book and had decided against it because “Every animal dies.” Again I was taken aback. I hadn't thought of that aspect before. The mother went on to lament that it seemed there was so much death in recommended books and she summed up her concerns in a question: “Why does somebody always have to die?” And my wise daughter Emily calmly had an answer. “Somebody always has
to die - because Jesus came and had to die.”

Just as the prophets wailed to Elisha, “Father, there is death in the pot,” so we all, since Adam and Eve initiated it, know the reality of death is ever with us. This is what had troubled me with the young children who were being shielded from such knowledge. Death is part of life. As surely as birth is real, death is before us. I had been concerned that somehow children were being deceived into some warped view of life that it is all living and never dying, and I was apprehensive that if that moment should arrive for someone near to them unawares, they would be wounded beyond healing. There is nothing as destructive as discovering deception by those we have most trusted. Might not the possible betrayal be more dangerous than denial of reality?

Surely this avoidance of such literature reflects the attitude toward death in our culture. I think it is also a sign of our attitude toward story in general, most certainly of the beneficial and beautiful role it can play in our life. I have written many times about how books can be a parents great ally in navigating the treacherous waters of life. They give practice in keeping your balance when life spins out of control when something harsh hits, not that any explanation or consolation ever makes it easy to bear. However, ignoring the potential, pretending the worst will never happen is preparing a child for unbearable suffering when the devastating situation does arise. It is not always possible to postpone the actuality of scenes in an ICU or at the side of a casket. Nothing can ever truly prepare any of us, but not allowing exposure to imaginary possibilities will not prepare them at all.

The only truly “living book” is full of the promise of life with an unshrinking description of death. If you struggle with what I am attempting to express here, I highly recommend a newly published book (my latest favorite book), Death by Living by N. D. Wilson. It is a beautifully written reflection of the joy and sorrow of life and the author’s perspective is most simply summed up in his desire that on his own future death certificate he wants the “cause of death” to be noted as “life.” Emerging from the despair in a story can mysteriously renew our hope, our zest for real life. We are not being morbid in allowing children to face death, but setting them free to thoroughly enjoy every moment of life.

I conclude simply with this: a book that contains an element of sorrow can be the gentlest means to assure a child that life is a riddle, a tangle of beauty and ugliness, trial and triumph, but above all, a long and lovely story – all the way from “Once upon a time…” to the “...happily ever after. The end.”

For the joy of reading,

Liz

8 comments:

  1. Hi Liz,

    Thank you for this beautifully written post. I don't remember ever having read any of the stories you have mentioned so I have requests for them put in already at the Knox County Library. However, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment that we should not protect our children from the reality of death. I have always been so grateful that my parents took us to numerous "wakes" and funerals for family friends, church family, and biological family in our younger years. We lost my mom's father when I was 7-8 years old and then my dad passed on very suddenly just before my tenth birthday. I cannot imagine how much more difficult that would have been without having had all of that prior experience dealing with loss and loving those who have lost their loved ones. Children grieve and react very differently to death of loved ones than adults and, in my opinion, should not be "protected" from that sure thing in this life. Thank you for your sharing!

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  2. Lisa,

    Thank you for sharing. A couple of weeks ago my two-year-old granddaughter got in the toy car outside and said, "Bye, Mom. See you at home," - and I thought how practicing saying goodbye somehow gets us ready for the day when we have no other choice.

    Liz

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  3. So beautifully written, Liz. Praying God's grace and comfort for you as you minister to your mother in her last days. And praying for us all as we walk this road together that the human race has walked before us.

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    1. Thank you, Robin. The Valley of the Shadow is well trodden by that great cloud of witnesses. When in this place, I am thankful to know I have read so many joy-filled endings in stories as well, and that my mother's is near.

      Liz

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  4. Love your ending of this post with N.D.'s book. I keep quoting from it! A favorite too. I haven't read The Rag Coat and have it coming to my HOLD shelf at the public library. Thanks!

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    1. Bonnie, my like-minded friend,

      Anyone who enjoys Death by Living is the same kind of person who would
      still be reading children's stories at our generous age- never too old to enjoy what the young love.

      Liz

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  5. Beautiful. Thank you for this. My children and I wept over Jack's death in On the Banks of Plum Creek. I felt awful about it--they were so young (6 and 3)--as if I had somehow failed them, so I deeply appreciate your perspective here. Thank you so much.

    Also, I am in total agreement about Death by Living. It's my latest favorite book, too :)

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    1. Kimberlee,

      I'm glad you found the post helpful and that you are another kindred spirit on "Death by Living." Children are emotional beings just like us, and we need not fear their experiencing the full array of them as God has made them to rejoice and grieve like the rest of us.

      Liz

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