The Hardest Lesson of All — Death and Dying

We tackled the greatest lessons of all this past week… life, living, love, dying and death.

It was a difficult week for our family… the final days of a beloved family member, the kids’ Great Grandmother, Vovo. Yesterday, she passed away. She was 93 and had lived an incredibly full life. She was well educated (had numerous Master’s degrees), well loved and made an incredible difference in the lives of many. She worked for many, many years at a university.

A week ago, Hubby’s grandmother had a stroke. After a flurry of phone calls, Hubby decided to fly out to Missouri to visit and to be with her. He spent Tuesday through Saturday out there along with his Mom and Uncle. He spent precious time in those final days with his grandmother, whom we call Vovo because she was raised in Brazil. For a couple of days when Hubby first arrived, Vovo was responsive (though unable to talk) and watched videos and pictures of the kids, saw their artwork. Hubby, his Mom and Uncle sang and talked to her and spent as much time as possible holding her hand and stroking her face and arms. It was clear as Hubby left to fly home Saturday evening that the end was near. Her breathing was shallow and labored; she no longer opened her eyes or communicated. Vovo passed away a few hours later at 2am (Saturday night/Sunday morning). Hubby’s Mom was with her and it was a peaceful passing.

Meanwhile, here at home I had to have some very sad conversations with the kids about death and dying this past week. They know my Mom and Hubby’s Dad have both died, but this is the first time they’ve had to accept the death of someone they know and love. As is my nature, I ordered a whole lot of books to share with the kids. We had some really deep (sad) discussions. I’ll highlight the ones we read…

The Invisible String

This isn’t a book about death/dying per se, but I loved the premise of this book–that everyone is connected by love, an invisible string or bond that exists even if you’re not with them.


Gentle Willow

This is a story about a squirrel and a tree who find out their friend Willow is not going to make it through her illness. It’s a story that explores the feelings of disbelief, distress and sadness that go along when someone (Willow) is going to die. This book was really valuable this past week — especially as the kids said they didn’t think Vovo was really going to die. We talked a lot about how the most important thing you can give to someone as they’re passing away is love. The kids did this by sending cards and talking to Vovo on the phone — telling her about their activities, what they were doing, etc.

In a Nutshell

This book came in the mail as we were heading out somewhere one day this past week and the kids read this one to themselves. They said it was really sad. The book traces the life of an oak tree from the nut, to seedling, to tree, to an old fallen tree that decomposes in the woods. Since we live in the woods and the kids have picked up acorns that have sprouted, see the tree that fell over in a storm two winters ago… can see the rotting logs right out in their backyard, this was something my family could relate to a lot.

We sat together to read it again after we found out Vovo had passed away the kids really wanted to talk about what would happen to Vovo’s body — and we talked with the older kids about cremation and/or being buried in a coffin. You’d have to assess how this style suits your family (some Amazon reviewers thought it was terrible because it talks about the tree decomposing), but for us it helped us address some tough questions. Plus, this was a gorgeously illustrated book.

Tear Soup

This was a book that really addresses the issue of grief really, really well. I loved the imagery of someone making Tear Soup… and sometimes making that soup long after others have “gotten over” making their own soup. We talked a lot about the pain of losing someone we love… and I talked a lot about how difficult it was to get over my Mom’s death. (Do you ever really stop making that soup?) Grieving is personal and important and completely okay. I really loved this book.

Two books we read addressed the very difficult questions of what happens after you die. You may or may not be interested in tackling these questions — or may have firm answers with your faith. I liked both these books for different reasons:

Waterbugs and Dragonflies

This small book talks about water bugs who live under water. Occasionally, a water bug will go up to the surface and no one knows what happens to it. They make a pact that the next bug to go to the surface will come back and explain what happens. One bug makes the journey, transforms into a dragonfly and realizes it cannot go back to its friends. It realizes every bug will have to make that journey and experience the wonderful change for itself.

While the story itself is not religious, it talks about going to a ‘better place’ rather than ‘Heaven.’ At the back of the book, it has suggestions of how to fit this into your Christian faith if that is your religion.

The Next Place 

We also read The Next Place. The kids thought the illustrations were beautiful. I don’t think they could relate to this book quite as much as Water Bugs and Dragonflies, but then on the other hand the girls took it off to the craft table and did some artwork based on one of the pages. It’s a book that poetically deals with what the Next Place will be like using descriptive words and imagery like — peaceful, familiar, free, quiet, brilliant… it’ll be beyond rainbows. It’s a beautifully illustrated book, but not a concrete story. That’s not a bad thing, but I’m glad we had a selection of different types of books to go along with this one.

This week I couldn’t help but to think a lot about that beautiful poem, The Dash by Linda Ellis… Go read it since I can’t reproduce it here. The dates on a tombstone show the beginning and the end, but it’s really the dash– how you spent your life — that matters. Our beloved Vovo lived her dash well.

So that’s about it. I have a few more batches of Tear Soup to make, I think.


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  1. by Kylie

    On November 12, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    So sorry for your loss :(

    We have 2 elderly great grandparents still with us, which is a blessing. But I have been preparing myself for the day when we too need to have these long sad conversations with the children. Thanks for the book ideas, much appreciated. xx

  2. by Liesl Den

    On November 13, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Thanks Kylie!

  3. by Jenny

    On November 13, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    I’m so sorry all of you have been suffering so much lately. Thank you for taking the time to share the books you learned about when the time comes for us, that list will be so helpful.

  4. by Liesl Den

    On November 13, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    Thanks Jenny. It’s been terribly sad, but it has been bonding in a way as I’ve talked to family several times a day for the past week or so. There are so many arrangements to be made at a time like this. Anyway, I sure appreciate your taking the time to leave a comment.

  5. by Around the Web… |

    On November 20, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    [...] How to help your little one understand death – [...]

  6. by Louise K

    On November 20, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    This is such a helpful post. My mother is very sadly in the final stages of ovarian cancer and I’ve had to explain what might happen soon. I will be sure to get some of these books as I have a feeling they might help me as well.

  7. by Loumin80

    On November 20, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    thank you so much for these helpful books, we are currently trying to talk to my 6 and 2 year old about their precious Nanny who has just discovered she has aggressive pancreatic cancer. We had the ‘waterbugs and dragonflies’ book given to us last year when a Great Grandad sadly passed away, along with ‘Badgers parting gifts’ – but I’m very keen to get hold of ‘tear soup’ now too. Im so sorry for your loss, best wishes to your and your family xxx

  8. by Liesl Den

    On November 20, 2012 at 8:52 pm

    I had to write to both you (Lou and Louise)… I am so sorry to hear about the terrible disease your families are facing. That is so difficult (sad, dreadful–I had trouble choosing just the right word). Cancer is such a scary disease. One of my very close friends helped her Mom face down breast cancer a number of years ago — only to have it return to her lungs this past month. Since her Mom lives with them, my friends’ kids (well, the entire family actually) will have a very difficult time in the coming month/s. Best wishes to your family. I hope you have lots of love and support to surround you and your family through this difficult time.

  9. by Nvy

    On November 21, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Thank you for this post! I especially love the sound of Waterbugs and Dragonflies.
    We lost a pet this week – he was a therapy pet to a family with young children. It is very interesting to read about other ways to approach the topic when talking about it with children :) .
    This will be useful to us, because I expect the topic will come back in the next few sessions.

  10. by Kimberly

    On December 2, 2012 at 10:47 am

    I am going through the same thing right now as I just lost my Grandma, my kids GG Mom. When I got home from the services out of state, I turned on my computer I have over 4,000 emails and yours was the very first one. My kids are 4 and 7. I will be picking up a few of these books soon.
    Our hearts go out to you and your family.
    Thank you,

  11. by Liesl Den

    On December 2, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    I’m so sorry to hear that. The memorial service for Vovo (the kids’ Great Grandma) is next Saturday, but it is in Illinois and unfortunately we can’t go. It makes us sad, but we’re so lucky that hubby was able to have a good final visit during her last days. My heart goes out to your family as well. ~Liesl

  12. [...] Since I am wrapping up the school year, I thought I would go through and share some of the most popular posts from this school year. Most of them had to do with some of the free materials I made, but two of them had to do with family life in general–3-The Most Stressful Number of Kids and the post I wrote just after our beloved Vovo, hubby’s grandmother, died – The Hardest Lesson of All – Death and Dying. [...]