Dealing with Death: Books to Help Young People Cope with Grief

Article excerpt

ALTHOUGH DEATH IS UNIVERSAL, GRIEF IS UNIQUE TO EACH INDIVIDUAL, GRIEF IS A NATURAL REACTION TO LOSS, AND AS CHILDREN PASS THROUGH DEVELOPMENTAL STAGES, THE GRIEVING PROCESS IS ONGOING, THERE IS NO CORRECT WAY TO GRIEVE AND NO TIMETABLE FOR MOURNING, FROM THE DEATH OF A PET TO A DRIVE-BY SHOOTING, YOUNG PEOPLE MUST LEARN TO COPE WITH GRIEF.

Culture, family, faith, and developmental level each play a role in how a young person deals with the death of a loved one. When death and grief become part of the experience for young people, they are often unprepared to deal with their own emotional, cognitive, physical, and social reactions.

Adults who work with children should be aware of the common grief reactions. Emotional grief behaviors may include anger, sadness, anxiety, helplessness, denial, depression, guilt, shame, relief, mood swings, repression of feelings, and hypersensitivity. Cognitive reactions may include limited attention span, decline in academic performance, confusion, memory problems, spiritual questions, and a preoccupation with death. Physical reactions to grief may include crying, disruptions in sleep and eating patterns, stomachaches and headaches, increased susceptibility to illness, and change in energy level. Social reactions may include change in personality or family roles, withdrawal, acting out, increased need for attention, aggression, fighting, tantrums and outbursts, pretending to be unaffected, and regression. The important thing to note is that each child will react differently.

Caring adults must be prepared to provide support and guidance to an individual child or group of children. School counselors, psychologists, and teachers can use books in therapeutic and classroom settings to help children cope with death and grief. Parents and caregivers are often searching for books that deal with grief as springboards to encourage adult-child discussion. Teacher-librarians and youth services librarians can provide assistance and valuable resources to these adults. Knowing how to select these materials is critical in the helping process.

SELECTION CRITERIA FOR BOOKS ON DEATH AND GRIEF

Not every book that deals with death and grief is appropriate to use when young people are grieving. Books-even well written, creative books--that focus on unhealthy or unsafe adaptations of grief, such as self-medication, running away, suicidal behavior or talk, persistent denial, or over-identification with the deceased, should be shared judiciously. Even so, because of its diversity, using available literature to assist children and teens in understanding death and their own unique grieving process is very valuable.

To establish criteria for selecting materials for individual, biblio-therapeutic, or classroom use, it was necessary for me to search the professional literature that deals with grief in young people, to identify the tasks of and behaviors associated with grieving, and to review the uses of biblio-therapy with children. With that research and my own experience selecting books to aid young people in coping with death, grief, and mourning, I am able to suggest the following criteria to librarians, counselors, and psychologists who work with children.

GENERAL CRITERIA FOR MATERIALS DEALING WITH DEATH AND GRIEF

* Respects individual, family, and cultural differences associated with death and grief

* Developmentally appropriate for the intended audience.

CRITERIA FOR PICTURE BOOKS

* Deals honestly with death and grief; avoids euphemisms that may confuse or frighten children, such as, "at rest" and "asleep"

* Uses illustrations that match the changing moods and emotions of the characters

* Aids in the child's understanding of death and personal grief

* Incorporates the tasks of grieving and suggests constructive ways to cope

* Encourages discussion. …