Book helps explain death to children
By Tony Staley
GREEN BAY -- Life gives us many mysteries of which death - the end of life - ranks among the most puzzling. As hard as it is for adults to understand death, explaining it to a child is harder yet.
Dianne Ahern tackles the subject forthrightly in "Today Someone I Love Passed Away" (Aunt Dee's Attic, Ann Arbor, Mich., 2008. 82 pp. $19.95).
Ahern uses a story to explain death, Catholic teaching about death and the after-life, the anointing of the sick, the viaticum (penance, anointing of the sick and Communion), and funerals to children and their parents.
"Today Someone I Love Passed Away" is the fifth in a series of books on the sacraments Ahern is writing for children (the others have been on Baptism, Reconciliation, Communion and Matrimony). She also is the author of the "Adventures with Sister Philomena, Special Agent to the Pope" series of mysteries for young readers.
"Today Someone I Love Passed Away" opens just after Mr. and Mrs. Walsh told their middle child, Danny, that he will have to move into his older brother Ted's room.
Neither Danny nor Ted is happy about sharing a room again, but it is necessary because their grandfather, Vernon, a widower whose health is beginning to fail, can no longer live alone.
Grandpa Vernon soon wins over Danny, Ted and Ella (their 5-year-old sister) by spending afternoons telling them stories about their grandmother and their round the world adventures on a sailboat.
When the children ask where their grandmother is and what is happening when a 6-year-old neighbor girl dies, Grandpa Vernon answers their questions about death and what the Bible and Catholic teachings say about eternity.
At the visitation for Christina, the neighbor girl, her young friends are taken to a separate room and invited to make a memorial for her by writing something or drawing a picture. At both the funeral Mass and the cemetery, Grandpa Vernon reassures Danny and answers his questions.
As they leave the cemetery, Grandpa stumbles, a sign that his health is worsening. Grandpa Vernon decides to receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, along with several other parishioners, at a Sunday Mass.
Eventually, as Grandpa Vernon nears death, their pastor, Fr. Joseph, comes to administer the last rites. This include reconciliation, sprinkling with holy water, an anointing of his head and hands with oil, prayers and his final Communion, called Viaticum, which means food for the journey.
The entire family is with Grandpa Vernon as he dies. Later, the children make their own memorial for him as their parents greet family and neighbors who come to mourn.
"Today Someone I Love Passed Away" is a moving story, nicely illustrated by William Shurtliff, that both touches the heart and teaches children and adults a great deal about what the church teaches about death and eternal life.
Ahern said the book was written for early readers, ages 8 and older. Some of the vocabulary may be too advanced for children that young to read, but certainly they and younger children could understand it if their parents read it to them.
"Today Someone I Love Passed Away" is an ideal book for parents to read to and discuss with their children, particularly after a death in the family.
Beyond the story, Ahern included several pages of background and reference materials, including prayers of comfort; Scripture quotes on the anointing of the sick, God's judgment and purgatory; a summary of funeral customs, traditions and beliefs of Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and atheists.
Ahern said she included the funeral customs because "It is important for children to learn about other religions and how to show respect for others' beliefs. With our multicultural society, our children make friends with people of all creeds and traditions. I find it very interesting to study how various groups deal with death in their culture, and what is the proper expression of condolences."
Adults too will find her explanations informative and helpful.
She also included a glossary of terms and phrases used in the book and several pages with suggestions to assist someone in writing memories of a loved one who has died.
"Today Someone I Love Passed Away" has a nihil obstat and imprimatur, the official church declaration that it is free of doctrinal or moral error.
(Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.)