Explaining death to young children is such a touchy thing. It’s usually something parents don’t want to do, so we put it off until we are grappling with difficult loss and in no position to be mature, thoughtful creatures. And then we desperately turn to books to help us choke out a few reassuring words.
When my older daughter was a preschooler, we had a rough couple of years in my family. We lost my brother-in-law, my grandmother, my father, and a beloved elderly cat. That was a whole lot of death in a short amount of time, and it was difficult for us to process, as adults, but even more difficult for the young children in the family.
My daughter’s preschool teacher handed us Lifetimes, by Bryan Mellonie, from the school library, along with a few other books. I read through all of them carefully before reading them with her. I found Lifetimes to be the most calming, direct, and gentle book amongst the lot.
When I was recently asked to recommend a book about death, I came back to Lifetimes and re-read it. I was again reminded of its strengths, and I was again reminded that this is the perfect book to read whenever — not just after a loss.
Mellonie’s text has a peaceful cadence, and the beautiful illustrations support the language well. We are reminded that every living creature has a beginning and and an end, but the in between — the living — is the story of its life. Children look at examples of things in nature and gain some context of what a lifetime really is. The story gives them a vocabulary for death that is not strictly about loss or mourning.
While adults are quick to project their own feelings onto young children, the author is careful not do to the same. We don’t hear about how sad death is, or how much crying a person does when their grandmother dies — nothing that tells the child how she should be feeling. Mellonie merely creates an explanation of beginning, living, and end; and it’s one that allows adults to customize a dialogue based on the child’s own reactions, feelings, and questions. Similarly, Lifetimes does not discuss an afterlife at all, allowing parents’ own beliefs to supplement the text. I found this tremendously valuable and helpful in making this a book I could recommend to friends of all faiths and belief systems.
Kate Glinsmann (she/her) was an owner-partner of BabyNames.com, a lifelong educator with a masters degree in Education. For over 30 years, she worked with preschoolers with special needs, kindergartners, and English language learners.
In her spare time, Kate was a stained glass artist, who built her own studio and gave classes to her local community. Kate was a tireless advocate of those in need, particularly children, mothers and refugees. Kate passed away in December of 2019.