Don’t Fear the Reaper
Shielding kids from the Yizkor memorial service, or death in general, is misguided—as children’s books suggest
The Doyle book is a ghost story about four generations of Irish women that makes death seem like a kind of intimacy. Twelve-year-old Mary is facing the imminent death of her beloved Granny, Emer. Then she meets and befriends Tansey, the spirit of Emer’s own mother, who died when Emer was only 3. The book moves back and forth among the stories of Mary, Tansey, Emer, and Mary’s mom Scarlett. It’s clear how Tansey’s untimely death has had an impact on generations. But a wacky, spontaneous road trip undertaken by the four women gives them the chance to talk, joke, and prepare for even more loss. I loved it; the girls merely liked it. “Nothing much happens,” they said. They wanted time travel. I’m older, and I’ve lost more, and the notion of talking with a dead parent felt like the most wonderful kind of time travel to me.
The death of an animal, which many kids experience before the death of a beloved person, can be a good way to prepare kids for loss, and grief, and Yizkor, and there are plenty of books that use this as a jumping off point to start a conversation about death. For picture-book readers, I love Judith Viorst’s The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (which shows that anger is often part of grieving), and for middle-grade readers, I adore Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog (which shows that not wanting to talk about grief is also normal). Many kids and adults, me included, are moved by the folk-arty paitings and words in Cynthia Rylant’s Dog Heaven, but despite its faux simplicity, I don’t think this book is great for small children who are struggling with the permanence of death (wait, how do dead dogs run around?) or for parents who want a vision that works within Jewish belief systems (it’s very sweet but not very us to say that “every angel who passes by [in Dog Heaven] has a biscuit for a dog”).
But perhaps the greatest children’s book about death is Charlotte’s Web. In my opinion, it is the greatest children’s book about anything. Part of the miracle is that it can be appreciated by 6-year-olds as a read-aloud about animals, and by tweens as a book about growing up and creating a separate identity from their parents. In it, Charlotte the spider, facing her own mortality, tells Wilbur the pig that life will go on after she’s no longer in it. But befriending him, and doing the mitzvah of writing words in her web that has saved his life, has given her life meaning. “After all, what’s a life, anyway?” she asks him. “We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” And she reassures him, in E.B. White’s gorgeous language, that death is part of the cycle of life. “Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days …”
This Yom Kippur, let’s not rush our kids out of the room at Yizkor time. Let’s share stories of our departed loved ones. Let’s read books that help kids see death as part of life. And let’s think of the meaning of the traditional Yom Kippur benediction, g’mar tov: Finish well. We should finish the year on a note of thoughtfulness and courage.
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Who volunteers to sing in the synagogue choir for Kol Nidre? This year, I joined and found out.