Book grief is real – and my children are sufferers

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

It's interesting, don't you think, how we try to shield our children from life's slings and arrows – we turn off the news, we whisper about terminally ill relatives when the children are in the next room, we tell them our sick dog has "gone to live on the farm"

OK, we really shouldn't do that, but you get the picture.

And yet we read children some truly brutal tales of fiction. Roald Dahl is a case in point. He writes of orphans, extreme poverty and child abuse. The good children always come out victorious, but not before they've been subjected to extreme suffering. David Walliams has modelled his books on the same concept, and my children lap him up too.

They love those stories, seemingly oblivious to the realities of such a world, for which I can only be grateful. But as they get older, and their grasp of the world in which we live becomes firmer, they are becoming more affected.

My 15-year-old son now goes through a serious mourning period after reading books that move him. When he read The Fault in Our Stars (spoiler alert), it was like Augustus was a close friend of his, and when he died, a little piece of my son died too.

He needed time after that book had ended, to process his emotions and to heal. It affected him in a very real, day-to-day way for weeks. Augustus may have been a fictional character, but my son's feelings were genuine, as was his sadness.

This week, my son finished reading A Streetcar Named Desire at school. This opened his eyes not only to a tragic tale of suffering – but also that bad deeds aren't always punished, and that awful things can happen to good people, and they don't always win in the end.

It's true, of course, but also, what a massive bummer for a kid.

I can see he is affected again, and although he will recover, it feels like a little piece of his innocence is lost.

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My younger children, who are nine and seven-years-old, aren't affected in the same way yet.

The books they read are less realistic, less involved, and less tragic. Even the Roald Dahl and David Walliams books have humour in them to distract them from the painful truths of life. And nobody they love dies in those books.

But I know, as they grow older, they too will suffer as they fall in love with fictional characters and then lose them. Even if the characters don't die in the book, there is something sad about turning that last page and knowing you'll never see them again.

Author and teacher librarian Megan Daley of Children's Books Daily says book grief is certainly real.

"Book grief is very real to very many readers," she says. "Not all readers, but many readers, fall into stories and become deeply entrenched and invested in the lives of the characters. Beautiful and sophisticated writing had this effect on many people and when characters die, the loss felt by a reader can be immense and very, very real.

"I say this having experienced multiple actual losses in my life (brother, aunt, husband) – but the loss of a beloved book character still hits me hard."

But Daley says books can be a great way for children to learn about grief in a manageable way.

"Books are a really safe way for young people of all ages to experience and 'play' with big emotions," she says.

"Television and movies are a much more visual medium and can be more confronting whereas a book can be put down if it becomes too much and it can be read when and if the young person is up to handling the emotions and at their own pace.

"Grief experienced through books can help young people to develop a language around grief and loss – books give us the words when we may not be able to fully articulate emotions ourselves.

"Children are more able to deal with the light and the dark of life than we give them credit for," Daley adds. "The very best creators of children's books weave sorrow and heartbreak with love and comfort.

"Books which deal with loss and death and grief in all its forms develop empathy and resilience in our children. I don't know of a better and more gentle way to introduce young people to 'the dark' of life than through age-appropriate, carefully chosen literature."

Daley says that, for parents, handling book grief in their kids is all about balance.

"Sometimes I think books which deal with heavy emotions are perfect, and many tweens greatly enjoy books with 'all the feels'," she says.

"But books are also an escape – so mix it up with some humour or some realistic fiction that is light and hope filled. The 'dark' books should be available to, but not forced upon, a child."