Hi again, Nerdy Book Club friends. In case you missed it, I was here about a year ago, talking about my book FISH OUT OF WATER. That book touched on toxic masculinity and was a gentle but frank look at gender stereotypes while encouraging kids to find and follow their passions. Today, I’m here to talk about an equally fun topic: death. More specifically, grief and funerals and what happens when we die.
I know, I know. Not super fun at all. If you’re familiar with my work, you know I’m mostly a funny writer. I write books about things like bra shopping with ghosts, faking having a twin, and summer camp, but all my books have serious themes under the fun. Themes like being yourself, finding your strength, or exploring death and grief in a safe and accessible way. That’s what I aimed to do in SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS, which I think of as, ‘if Judy Blume wrote Six Feet Under’. It’s a book that pulls back the curtain on what happens behind the scenes at a family-run funeral home. It also contains other tween stuff, too: friendships, bullying, and some of my brand of humor.
But let me back up to why I wrote this book. I first came up with the idea of setting a book in a funeral home when I was thinking of writing a companion novel to my debut, SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE. That one’s a book about a tween who gets hit by lightning and can then hear ghosts. The plan was for the companion book to be similarly fun and frothy where kids encounter meddlesome ghosts in and around a funeral home. Inevitably, hilarity ensues.
It helped that my dad manages a small Jewish funeral chapel in my hometown. I did a tour and took lots of notes and pictures.
I had the idea and had done the research, I just had to start writing.
Except… nothing worked. I struggled with the dichotomy between serious topics like death, loss, and grieving with humor and silly, meddlesome ghosts. As happens with challenging ideas that aren’t working, I put it aside, telling myself I’d return to it someday.
Then in 2013, after a very brief illness, my mom died.
I was with my family at her bedside in the ICU when she passed. While we got to (sort of) say goodbye, I don’t need to tell you it was the absolute worst.
But only moments after she slipped away, my dad switched into funeral planning mode. I’m sure it was automatic and he was grateful for something productive to do. But it opened my eyes to the important work done behind the scenes. Important work that often people don’t think about because they are understandably busy dealing with their overwhelming grief and loss. But Dad was on the phone within mere minutes of when she died, making arrangements and taking care of her, his beloved wife of over fifty years.
When my family reconvened at the funeral chapel, in the back room marked ‘private’, we got to see her one last time. And as I looked around the clinical room that I had seen before, I felt an odd sense of peace. I already knew what would happen there. Thanks to the tour my dad had given me during my research, I felt comforted in knowing how she would be cared for. Part of the ritual for preparing a body for burial (in the Jewish tradition) includes asking for forgiveness for any inadvertent disrespect. It’s built right into the job that you have to take it very seriously and beg forgiveness. No chit-chat is allowed, no passing instruments over the body, adherence to a strict order of rituals, et cetera.
And in knowing that, despite it being the worst day, I felt comforted.
But I realized other people don’t have that kind of access. Especially kids. We protect kids from hurt and grief as much as we can—I get it, it’s in the job description of parent. But by hiding things away, are we really making them better? Can you eliminate grief by avoiding it? Can you stop a kid from wondering about death if you pretend it doesn’t exist?
Dying is an inherent part of living. Kids learn that. Some in harder lessons than others, unfortunately. But when we hide death from kids, I believe we’re doing them a great disservice. They aren’t able to explore concepts of grieving, what it means, or to build empathy and how to comfort those who have lost someone. Their feelings may seem too overwhelming or conflicted. They may not have the language and aren’t able to ask for help with grieving.
If we model suppressing these feelings or hiding them altogether, what are we telling kids about what grieving should be and what is healthy, that it’s okay to cry or be angry or just not even know what they’re feeling?
I wanted to give kids a safe, age-appropriate, and accessible way to look at death and grief. I hope the book inspires conversations about feelings and what it means to lose someone.
But more important to me than why I wrote the book, is that it gets into the hands of those who need it. Curious kids, hurting kids, kids who want to be a good friend to someone who is grieving. Kids who wish they knew what to say or how to act. Kids who need validation for their own feelings.
And of course, adults who may need it too.
Being human inevitably means one day we will experience grief, but I sincerely hope you and the young people in your life enjoy this book and find comfort in the pages.
Note: I’ve shared photos and some of my research on a special page on my website that includes links for further learning. There’s also a discussion and activity guide that you can download to use with your students. Find it here: http://www.joannelevy.com/sorry-for-your-loss-research/
Joanne Levy is the author of SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS, THE SUN WILL COME OUT, FISH OUT OF WATER, DOUBLE TROUBLE, and SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE. She can usually be found at her computer in rural Ontario, Canada, either creating spreadsheets (sometimes just for fun) or channeling her younger self into books. She loves doing virtual visits, though she warns there’s a good chance students will encounter a curious cat at some point during the session.