'Sometimes being a person is hard': How books can help children explore grief and loss
Published on: 11 July 2019 Author: Cori Doerrfeld
Cori Doerrfeld never set out to write a book about grief, but now she explains why she thinks stories are a great way to help children explore difficult emotions...
As my kids navigate the spectrum of human experiences and emotions, I often have to tell them, 'Sometimes, being a person is hard.' What else can I say?
Even though we all feel difficult emotions at times, it doesn't mean any of us are prepared to really deal with them. A few years ago, I was confronted with my own emotional shortcomings when two of my friends experienced the loss of a child.
I really didn't know what to do or say. It seemed as if nobody in their lives did, and it left my friends feeling very frustrated. I had never felt so helpless or such a desire to do something, anything, to make things a little better for everyone. And even though I am an author/illustrator, I never intentionally planned to write a book about grief, it just kind of happened.
I remember going on a long walk with my dog. I was thinking about my friends and how they both described all the misguided ways their family and friends tried to be there for them. One of them said, 'I wish someone would just listen to me.'
It reminded me of a letter I got back in college from my boyfriend at the time. He had experienced great loss at the age of eight, when his brother was killed in a car crash. The letter described how overwhelmed he felt by all the adults in his life trying to make him feel better.
The only thing that really helped was sitting by himself in his family's barn surrounded by the quiet presence of his pet rabbits. The rabbits didn't ask questions or suggest solutions; they simply let him process his grief on his own terms.
It was all of these thoughts mixing together that lead me to create the story for The Rabbit Listened. The main character, the blocks, the animals, and the message to simply be there and listen - all of it came to me on that walk. Making the book became a small way for me to actually do something that could not only help my friends, but help anyone who reads it understand what a grieving person needs.
How books can help in times of grief
Watching how it has been received, it soon became clear that a book like The Rabbit Listened can give someone lost in the waves of grief - as well as those around them - something to grab on to. Even if it's just a starting place, having something tangible to hold, read, and share can help start difficult discussions about emotions, with both adults and children.
Picture books are such a perfect way to connect with ideas because they play to so many of our senses. They are something we can physically hold and give to someone.
In the digital age, having actual ways to connect with people is so meaningful, especially with something like a picture book that is often read sitting close to someone.
Picture books also offer visual cues to help kids recognise what emotions look like. When I read The Rabbit Listened with kids, I always ask them to look at the illustrations and tell me how Taylor feels at various points in the book after each animal visits. This opens up discussions about how we can notice when someone is feeling sad, but also how we can tell if we are being the friend they need.
Picture books have an auditory component as well, because they are often read aloud. Listening to a story being read helps kids engage further with the information and topics being shared. I often enhance this by having kids make the various sounds the animals make as they approach. After clucking loudly like a chicken, roaring like a bear, or hissing like snake, it becomes so obvious how different the quiet calm of the rabbit really is.
Picture books offer such a unique opportunity to present an idea or topic to someone in a safe, clear way - a way that is often repeated as stories are read again and again. Ultimately, picture books can help kids to connect everything they see, read, and hear to the real life situations they encounter every day.
We need books about tough emotions
It has been beyond incredible to watch as The Rabbit Listened finds its way into the hands and hearts of people who need it. I often receive letters and messages from people who have also lost a loved one, are going through a divorce, or work in high-stress environments like prisons or abuse counselling.
The book has become a gentle guide through grief for so many. And each time I hear from someone, it only solidifies how great the need is for books dealing with sensitive subjects.
It reminds me that people will never stop going through tragedies, and that hurt and loss will always be part of the human experience. Sometimes being a person is hard, so why not offer people all the help that you can?