Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.
Today, I shine a light on a Danish story in which four young children make the acquaintance of the grim reaper. In this particular “grim reaper’s” defense (and mine), the picture book Cry, Heart, But Never Break reveals Death as less grim than empathetic—thoughtful enough to have left his scythe outside at the door. Here, he has a face—one that is careworn and weary. He also has a task to which he’s sadly resigned.
That said, it’s impossible for the children to ignore this unexpected nighttime invader in his black cloak, sitting with them at the table in the bright kitchen while their ailing grandma lies upstairs in bed. The kids sense what’s up. “They knew Death had come for her and that time was short.”
So they do what anybody with Scandinavian sensibilities would do. They offer Death one cup of coffee after another, just the way he likes it. Their secret pact is to prevent her permanent departure. With any luck, as light dawns, he’ll have to take leave of them and their loved one. But Death isn’t going anywhere. And when the youngest asks why their grandmother has to die, he consoles her by telling a story about how Sorrow and Delight, Grief and Joy, cannot live without each other.
“Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained?” Death asks the little sister.
Would these kids buy this? It’s clear that they already fully appreciate their grandma, with little need to suggest they’d value even more this form of “sunshine” in their lives given a long run of rain. Maybe a full-blown blizzard and resultant withering frostbite would better serve Death’s argument? I shared the book with my two grandsons who already have experienced the loss of two great-grandmothers and a grandpa—each of these beloveds once an integral part of their everyday lives. They said they do understand what Death is trying to convey.
In any case, this rare and beautiful book brings us to the threshold of a human’s life and steps with us beyond it. Delivering the message to the young and uninitiated that death is inevitable is no easy task, but Danish author Glenn Ringtved and illustrator Charlotte Pardi are up to it— gently, subtly revealing the “Must-be” of such loss in the midst of the “Can’t-be!” Moreover, the siblings are involved; this author ignores the cultural taboo that keeps children out of the loop and in the dark all too often.
Reading the story reminded me of Humpty Dumpty, the time I was sharing nursery rhymes with daughter Liv; she was two and a half. I came to the verse and, without a bit of hesitation, delivered the familiar news of Humpty’s “great fall.” Continuing on, I blithely read, “And all the kings horses and all the kings men/Couldn’t put Humpty together again…” and the little one in my lap burst into tears. Stunned, I realized she was crying inconsolably about the egg’s demise, and to my surprise, already confronting a fact of life—that sometimes things, whether eggs or people, can be irreparably broken.
The difficulty of making a picture book about death that satisfies everybody and somehow treats all kinds of deaths, not to mention the range of beliefs about it, surely accounts, in part, for the shortage of books on this topic, but so does the inclination to avoid addressing the fact that each of us, in our own time, ceases to physically exist. That said, children will be better served by having explored such a story, not if, but when they find themselves experiencing the death of a loved one.
The book is a conversation starter, a way to honor and explore together a gamut of feelings and perceptions. The characters in Cry, Heart, But Never Break, come face to face with their loved one’s unavoidable passing and the sadness that comes with it. Lines from a classic, Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, come to mind: Sometimes sad is very big./It’s everywhere. All over me.
But the closing assurance in Cry, Heart… is that one’s heart will not be irreparably broken. Readers can see that something of the one who has left us does remain—in the breeze at the open window, both a reminder and a caress. The image of the grandparent reaching out to one of the children reveals that love, indeed, endures all things.
For some, it symbolizes treasured memory. For others, it’s palpable, numinous spirit. This latter presence of those who have crossed over has become a part of my reality, a part I’ll reflect on in future posts.