When a Child Loses a Parent
A few days ago I opened a recent middle-grade release by Laura Geringer Bass, The Girl With More Than One Heart.
I bought the book a month or so ago and had forgotten what it was about. (Mortifying to forget such things, as I now routinely do.) But I was ready to go: It had a catchy title and a lovely cover that reminded me of cutting hearts out of construction paper for Valentine’s Day, and all that aside, I was going to be in Ms. Geringer Bass upcoming middle grade workshop at Stonybrook Southampton’s annual writer’s conference. That book was my destiny.
I opened it up and read this: “The day my father’s heart stopped…” No! I thought. One morning Briana, the main character, finds her dad slumped over his exercise bike. She’s not sure at first why he looks funny and his eyes are closed. No! I thought. During the funeral, in Chapter 3, I had to put the book down.
I was just at such a funeral. That is, at the funeral of a man who died too soon, before his children were grown. The man was a close friend of my husband’s. He died suddenly—not of a heart attack, felled by lung cancer—leaving three sons. Jeff’s cancer was inoperable; his prognosis, grim. Still we all hoped for the impossible. And no one expected him to die when he did. One moment he was at home with his family; the next he was in the hospital with pneumonia. He needed a ventilator. Still we held onto hope, a fragment of it, until the very end.
I returned to Chapter 3 and learned that Briana intended to speak at the funeral. I marveled at her strength and courage, at twelve, thirteen (I wasn’t sure of her exact age, but I knew she’d just begun eighth grade). She changes her mind at the last minute. I couldn’t fault her for that. At Jeff’s funeral, his sons weren’t on the program but at the end it was announced that his eldest son would say a few words. The three of them got up and went to the podium together. Jeff Jr., age twenty, spoke movingly about his dad, tears courses down his face.
One day you have a father; the next, you don’t. How to make sense of it, how to live past it? I’ve tried to imagine being a widow with children at home and I haven’t managed it. The anticipated pain is too great. Ms. Geringer Bass is braver, and thank goodness she is, because we need her. I don’t think I’ve seen a fiction that addresses the sudden death of a parent, at least not for middle-grade readers. Not to say parents aren’t frequently absent in MG fiction; orphans are common, or common enough, and main characters are as likely to be raised by a single parent or a grandmother as a traditional mom and dad. But a parent doesn’t often die right in front of the main character (and the reader).
MG fiction reflect social trends. Americans are having children later in life. Thirty years ago, Briana’s parents most likely would’ve married and had kids ten years younger. Had her father had that heart attack at the same age, Briana might’ve been in her twenties, living on her own. Briana would still be heartbroken, she’d be devastated, but she’d be able to manage the grief far better than a girl starting eighth grade.
In the next year, we’ll begin to see stories of middle-schoolers coping with a parent’s suicide. It’s horrifying that we need such stories, but such are the times we live in.