Book therapy - FamilyEducation

Book therapy

April 10,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Ever since we found out last week that our cat has mouth cancer, I've been waking up in the morning with a vague, sad feeling in my chest. I get up and think, for a few moments, why am I sad? Then I remember, and I shower, feed the other animals, coax our kitty to eat, and start the round and around of thinking about how we're going to address this situation with our kids.

A couple of years ago, L. and I were reading a particular book at bedtime and the last chapter brought up the discussion of mortality. I had been steeling myself for that discussion for some time because it had been unfolding over about two months, with casually placed questions from L. cropping up at unexpected times. Suddenly, at breakfast, out would pop a difficult question from L. Conversations would go like this:

Me (gulping coffee and slurping cereal): "L., hurry up and eat or we'll be late for school."

L.: "Does everybody die?"

These are not easy conversations to tackle over Gorilla Munch cereal at 7:52 in the morning, when you have to leave at 8:00 for school. But little by little we had the conversation with L.--bits and pieces of the story of life and death coming together over the months and years--and we exhaled a little, hoping we had done a good job with a tricky business. But this present situation in different; it's not a discussion in the abstract, but a real one we're living through, and apart from the trauma of losing her favorite fish, T. hasn't experienced the loss of a pet. It's also very different, I think, to have looming over the household the reality of putting a beloved pet to sleep.

So yesterday afternoon, after I picked up T. from Scott, we headed over to the public library. While T. was busy picking out Angelina Ballerina books with a new friend she'd met seconds before, I leaned over the librarian's desk and asked her if she could help me find a children's storybook or two about the loss of a pet. She recommended three books: Cat Heaven, by Cynthia Rylant, Saying Goodbye to Lulu, by Corinne Demas and Ard Hoyt, and Up in Heaven, by Emma Chichester Clark--the same author who writes the wonderful Blue Kangaroo books T. loves so much.

After the librarian had tracked down those three books for me, and piled them on top of my stack of Angelina Ballerina books, Little Bill books, and assorted books on CD for L., I sat on a tiny blue chair at a tiny blue table and tried to read through them, while T. sprawled out on the floor nearby with her new friend, chatting about their library finds. But by the end of Cat Heaven I was an emotional mess--tears springing to my eyes, and my throat closed by a hard, painful lump. How on earth could I even read these out loud to L. and T.--ever, without my voice catching uncontrollably? They are all three of them wonderfully and sensitively written stories for small children dealing with the loss of a pet, but they are not books that necessarily prepare a child for an impending loss. Rather, they are perfect for pulling out on those sad, heavy days after the companion is gone, when you can take your child onto your lap and turn the pages, letting the pictures and the rhythm of the words soothe away some of the emptiness left behind.

When T. and I got home from the library and she busied herself in her room with some toys, I pulled out the books again and read through them. I had a good, quiet cry, and then I put the books up on my dresser, next to the photos of the kids I keep there. Still we wrestle with the how and what and when of trying to explain our cat's illness to the kids (and I certainly welcome advice from readers on this one). We wait and watch, and deal with our own sadness. When the time comes, we're still not sure how we'll talk about it, but the books are there, propped up on my dresser, words waiting to take away a little of the pain.