How to Talk to Your Child About The Loss of a Dear One?

Oliver Jeffers is a renowned painter, illustrator, and acclaimed for a series of picture books for young children. The Day Crayons Quit (2013) and its sequel The Day The Crayons Came Home (2015), both are #1 NY Times Bestsellers. One such picture book of Oliver is “The Heart and the Bottle.

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The story is of a little girl; her father nourishes the girl’s curiosity by reading various books to her. The imagination and knowledge of the girl grow with the genre of books read by her father. Oliver portrays a strong father-daughter relationship through his illustration. Oliver makes the father sit on a red chair by the window while reading books. One day the girl finds the chair empty: denoting the death of her father.

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Playing his strengths, Oliver depicts the pain and anguish by darkening the setting of the chair by the window. The girl, helpless to manage her emotions, decides to remove her heart and puts it in a bottle. She hangs the bottle around her neck.

In the following pages, Oliver shows the girl still in a gloomy state with the play of colours in the illustrations.
Things have changed; the curiosity and passion in the girl vanish. She grows up with the heart in the bottle hung on her neck.

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Until one day, while walking on the beach, she sees a small girl filled with boundless energy and curiosity. She gets reminded of herself when young. The realisation of the loss and its effect dawns on her. And she decides to set her heart free.  Oliver depicts the various ways the girl tries to get the heart out of the bottle. All the common ways that any of us would suggest getting a thing out of the bottle. But all in vain! The little girl helps get the heart out of the bottle.

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The change in mood manifested by the bright backdrop marks the beginning of another journey.  The book ends with an illustration of the girl sitting on the red chair by the window and reading books.

A picture book meant for young children has the appropriate mix of illustrations and words. The pictures areself-descriptive; words are to bolster the drawings. Through the figures, Oliver shows the effect of losing a dear one. Life continues, but we shield ourselves in trepidation. The incident, hopefully temporarily, thought at times permanently, oozes the spirit, cheerfulness and enthusiasm.

Young kids often are unaware of the way to deal with such a situation. Being an educator and mother, I am mindful of
this and experienced the aftermath of when not appropriately dealt.

A few months ago, I lost my father. My kids were attached to their grandfather. In my pain and anguish, I rushed to be with my mother. Never got a moment to have a conversation with my kids about their emotions. I stayed with my mother while the kids came back to Bengaluru to continue with their school. Within a few weeks, my daughter developed a continuous headache. Her teachers got worried, and so did we. On my instructions, the housemaid ensured my daughter ate well and had a routine. She was distracted at school and was perpetually low on energy. My husband got her eye checkup done and possibly all medical tests to rule out chances of any disease. Since there was no disease in the first place, hence there was no diagnosis.

Upon my return to Bengaluru, there was a remarkable change in the frequency of headaches. Intuitively, I knew the reason for her problem; but my emotional state didn’t allow me to broach the topic with her. Eventually, keeping aside my pain, I decided to have a conversation with her about my dad’s death. We spoke at length about the loss and his absence in our lives. I had a similar conversation with my son, and helped him blurt out his thoughts and feelings about the incident.

Later I remembered about the book “The heart and the Bottle”. We never address and educate our kids to deal with loss and pain. Instead, we say, “Don’t cry; everything will be fine.” Nothing remains the same after such events or episodes in life. A better way is to deal with the pain and maybe prepare our kids to handle such tragedies. Let them cry and share their feelings. Empathise with their emotions by acknowledging them, rather than trying to reason them out. In her books, “How to Talk so Kids Can Learn” and “How to talk so teens will listen and listen so teens will talk”, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish mention the following:

  • Identify the child’s feelings.
  • Instead of denying feelings, acknowledge the feelings.
  • Instead of ignoring feelings, accept feelings, even as you stop unacceptable behaviour.
  • Instead of dismissing thoughts and feelings, put thoughts and feelings into words.

According to Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence is the ability to recognise and manage our emotions. Emotions control our thoughts and consequent actions. Teaching kids to manage their feelings is a life skill and better to teach in the early growing years. Research has shown that EQ “predicts over 54% of the variation in success (relationships, effectiveness, health, quality of life).” Additional data concludes, “Young people with high EQ earn higher grades, stay in school, and make healthier choices.” [https://www.psychologytoday.com]

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers is a great book to teach about emotions when we lose a dear one. Death
of a person close to heart is a depressing phase for anyone in his/her life. At the same time, each one of us has to endure this situation. It’s always better to teach our kids the way to manage emotions during this phase. And a book, The Heart and the Bottle, will help you simplistically achieve this task.

Here is the letter from my son on my father’s death.

 “Everybody will die, and no one is mortal- that are strong words to say, but not easy to accept. Last night my grandfather died. I was shocked and crying. After some time I realised that crying wouldn’t solve the problem. It just makes problems worse. So what should we do? Put a smile on our face and remember that he who dies was a hero, a superstar and a friend. Think about the good times you had with him. Those happy memories can continue in our heart.”

 

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