This little bird flew into our window last weekend.
First we heard the thud. Then we found the little ball of fur lying lifeless on the ground.
At first, we thought he wouldn’t make it. But after a few minutes cradled in warm hands, he perked up and flew away safely.
Lucky thing. I just wasn’t prepared to talk to my daughter about death that sunny Autumn day.
But she does want to talk about it. Sometimes.
So, how do you talk about something that you’d rather not?
For me, a well-written and illustrated book is the best way to start a difficult conversation like this. It gives us a focus, a limited time and space to deal with the issue. Then when her curiosity is satisfied, we close the book and move onto something more fun.
So, a few days after the near-death experience of our little bird, I pulled out my copy of the aptly-titled The Dead Bird.
Published in 1958, and now sadly out-of-print, The Dead Bird contains simple text by Margaret Wise Brown and lovely illustrations by Remy Charlip. It is a wonderful little picture book for younger children (recommended for ages four and up).
It starts where other books might end–with a dead bird:
“The bird was dead when the children found it. But it had not been dead for long — it was still warm and its eyes were closed. The children felt with their fingers for the quick beat of the bird’s heart in its breast. But there was no heart beating. That was how they knew it was dead.”
“The children were very sorry the bird was dead and could never fly again. But they were glad they had found it, because now they could dig a grave in the woods and bury it. They could have a funeral and sing to it the way grown-up people did when someone died.”
“They put dirt over the bird as they sang, and then they put more ferns and flowers and a gray stone on top of the dirt. On the stone they wrote: Here lies a bird that is dead.”
“And every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.”
Many adults deny or mystify the topic of death. But in The Dead Bird, Margaret Wise Brown talks about death with all the directness, wisdom and curiosity of a child. You won’t find any euphemisms here. The bird does not “go to heaven” or “go to sleep”. The bird is dead. The children mourn. And then they play.
My only caution is that while Brown’s book is not morbid, it might be a bit too direct for some children. My daughter was initially put-off because there wasn’t any reference to an afterlife or to an “happy-ever-after” where the bird suddenly wakes up and flies away. But that’s the brilliance of the book. It gives children the facts about death in simple storybook style, and lets you fill in the blanks with your own personal philosophy or religious beliefs.
Importantly, it encourages your child to share their own thoughts on death and dying. You can ask, “What do you think happens after the little bird dies? How do you feel about it?” Children need the opportunity to express their ideas and feelings on this subject–especially if they are worried or feeling guilt (here’s a great article on why this is important from the charity Partnership for Children).
You might be happily surprised by the response. At five-years-old, my daughter was convinced that after death we go to an amusement park in the sky–a place where you eat ice cream for breakfast, play all day long and never go to bed. My perfect heaven? A giant bookstore full of comfy chairs and free books, where hot coffee and chocolate grow on trees and you have all the time you need to read and dream. Now my daughter is six, and she is interested in the concept of reincarnation. And that gives her comfort at the moment.
This book has no moral or religious messages, but it does remind us that life goes on and that’s a good thing (which is especially important for children to learn, I think).
Ultimately then, Brown’s story does have a happy ending: the children mourn the dead bird, then they go on playing and enjoying their lives. And that is as it should be.
The Dead Bird is hard to find in comparison to Brown’s other books Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon. If you’re lucky, you’ll find it at your local library (though it’s not available at mine) or your favourite second-hand bookshop (like I did).