Madeleine Davies

Teenage grief in fiction

In Uncategorized on May 20, 2020 at 7:15 pm


I don’t know if reading books like What Katy Did was the chief cause – maybe I was simply anxious by nature, maybe it’s a common worry – but as a child I was afraid that my parents would die. It wasn’t just Katy Carr and her siblings growing up without a mother. Anne Shirley and Mary Lennox were orphans and Emil Tischbein and Sara Crewe were the cherished offspring of widowed parents.

Although I was conscious that these books were old – the appeal of a puffed sleeve still eludes me – I was also aware that both of my own parents had lost a parent before reaching adulthood. It was something that could happen. When my Mum told my younger sister and I that she had been diagnosed with cancer, I was devastated, but I don’t think I was shocked.

Compared to the age in which many children’s classics were written, the loss of a parent in childhood is thankfully rare. Growing up, I became used to the embarrassment or horror that would swim over a person’s face when I had to explain why my Mum wasn’t around. As a twelve-year-old I felt defined by her death – an embodiment of other families’ deepest fears.

Looking back through my bookshelf while writing my own book last year, I found that, in a lot of classic children’s literature, early loss isn’t the central thing about the protagonist, but rather the backdrop to their adventures – something briefly mentioned in matter-of-fact tones. “The children hadn’t any mamma,” writes Susan Coolidge. “Katy could remember her pretty well; to the rest she was but a sad, sweet name . . .” In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox’s parents are swiftly dispatched, unknown and unmourned.

A dead parent (or parents) is often a useful plot device: a catalyst for our heroine’s transplantation to a new environment, or a spur to a sort of premature maturity. Even the parents who are alive or the guardians appointed to keep a watchful eye, tend to be pre-occupied. These stories seem to reinforce the notion that children are ultimately resilient creatures – a convenient thesis, perhaps, for adults afraid of witnessing the grief of a five, seven, or 13-year-old.

Reading more contemporary young adult fiction, I was struck by the greater psychological depths they plumb, and the centrality of loss. I returned to Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume, a book I first read shortly after my Mum died. The first chapter begins: “It is the morning of the funeral and I am tearing my room apart, trying to find the right kind of shoes to wear.” It ends at a graveside, where 15-year-old Davey Wexler concentrates on the blisters forming on her little toes, “because that way I don’t have to think about the coffin that is being lowered into the ground. Or that my father’s body is inside it.”

I remember thinking as an adolescent how brilliantly Blume had captured the surrealness of death and the rage that can accompany grief. At my Mum’s funeral I couldn’t really make any connection between the shiny wooden coffin on the trestle at the front of the church and the person who had vanished from the house. I felt self-conscious knowing that the rows of chairs behind us were full of people feeling sorry for us and a sort of territorial anger towards those weeping.

Even now, when I look at the dog-eared cover of my paperback copy, I regard Davey as a kindred spirit. The fact that our lives were poles apart (even if my Dad had moved us there, I doubt I would have processed my grief while climbing mountains in New Mexico or starring in a school production of Oklahoma) wasn’t lost on me as a teen. I suspected that in real life she and I wouldn’t even have been friends. But the nice thing about people in books is that they can’t reject you. You can simply align yourself with them, gradually building up a club of fictional allies, transcending time and space.

I think this carries on being true into adulthood. It’s been a long time since I have loved a character as much as Polly in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s books Cazalet saga, whose father is “marooned in grief” after the death of her mother. The third book in the series, Confusion, begins with an account of Polly going through her mother’s possessions – the “awful gaiety” of the daffodils outside the window, and the dread of touching the clothes hanging in the wardrobe (“it was as though she would be colluding in the inexorable departure, the disappearance that had been made alone and forever and against everyone’s wishes…”). It’s such a compassionate, knowing portrait of the tendency of eldest daughters to assume responsibilities after a mother dies.

Occasionally, concerns are raised about the dark, even morbid, nature of young adult fiction. But their popularity shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even those readers who haven’t lost someone close to them, will probably have reflected, at least fleetingly, on mortality. And while charities and non-fiction books offer self-help resources for those wrestling with loss, I’d still prescribe fiction, for its consoling properties. I quote from a mixture of classic and contemporary fiction in my own book.

Fiction’s specificity is part of its appeal: rather than attempt universal truths, novels offer a window onto one manifestation of grief, reminding us that there is no one “normal” way to respond to a death. They also lay out for us a potential path through grief. This often entails some kind of truth-telling – within a family, or internally. “If you speak the truth, you will be able to face whatever comes,” whispers the monster in Patrick Ness’s brilliant A Monster Calls to Conor, a young man struggling to contemplate the meaning of a recurring dream in which he allows his dying mother to slip from his grip.

Whether written in the first person, or narrated, novels also provide a sympathetic perspective on adolescent grief, ushering it onto centre stage. Working through grief is recognized as a daunting task in its own right, deserving of deep attention. Whatever the protagonist feels – guilt, anger, resentment – is held up as legitimate, understandable, normal.

In fact, it is often the behaviour of the surrounding adults that is subject to scrutiny. I loved Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, in which the aftermath of the death of a teenage girl is related by her ten-year-old brother, Jamie. It is through this naïve lens that we learn about the heroism of his surviving adolescent sister, Jasmine, tasked with holding the fort while their father crumbles. Reading it, I thought of the hospice counsellor who explained to me how her teenage clients’ primary concern is usually the well-being of their surviving parent. Studies suggest that how well this parent copes is one of the key determinants of outcomes for bereaved teens. Pitcher isn’t the only author to explore this on the page – many of the novels I read foregrounded the challenges faced by young people with a parent struggling to cope.

As I got to the end of writing my own book, I reflected on how fiction tends to provide a neater resolution to grief than we might encounter in real life. By the final chapter, fraught relationships are on the mend; honest conversations have brought a measure of understanding and healing; the protagonist is vowing to live their life to the full, in defiance of death. In Blume’s book, Davey is finally able to let go of the clothes she was wearing on the night her father was killed, and her mother decides the family can return back to their own home after months spent with slightly overbearing relatives. “Some changes happen deep down inside of you,” Davey observes. “And the truth is, only you know about them.”

Real families tend to be more complicated, and professionals supporting them are usually wary of talk of “closure”. But in my own experience of the chaos of grief, fiction’s orderliness can be reassuring rather than alienating. Novels offers the promise that things can get better, signalling to an anxious teenage reader that more lies within their power than they might realise.

Young grief in fiction and memoir: a reading list

These are some of the books that I read, either as a child/young adult or while researching my book . . . It’s by no means exhaustive and I would love to hear recommendations.

Losing a father

Tiger Eyes, Judy Blume (Macmillan)
The Sacred Journey, Frederick Buechner (Harper Collins)
Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery (Penguin)

Losing a mother:

The Lost Boys’ Appreciation Society, Alan Gibbons (Orion)
Alone at Ninety Foot, Katherine Holubitsky (Orca)
Marking Time, Elizabeth Jane Howard (Pan MacMillan)
Confusion, Elizabeth Jane Howard (Pan MacMillan)
The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis (HarperCollins)
The Names They Gave Us, Emery Lord (Bloomsbury)
On Eagles’ Wings, Sue Mayfield (Lion)
Patterns in the Sand, Sue Mayfield (Lion)
A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness (Walker Books)
Paper Aeroplanes, Dawn O’Porter (Hot Key Books)
Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter (Faber & Faber)
The Wild Other, Clover Stroud (Hodder)
Wipe Out, Mimi Thebo (HarperCollins)
How not to be a Boy, Robert Webb (Canongate)

Losing a sibling

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, Annabel Pitcher (Hatchette)
The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (Penguin)
The Life and Death of Charlie St Cloud, Ben Sherwood (Pan MacMillan) The The Last Act of Love, Cathy Rentzenbrink (Pan MacMillan)
Where the Past Begins, Amy Tan (HarperCollins) – also the loss of a father

Losing a friend/boyfriend/girlfriend

Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson (Random House)
The Fault in Our Stars, John Green (Penguin)
Goodbye Days, Jeff Zentner (Anderson Press)

For small children

No Matter What, Debi Gliori (Bloomsbury)
The Huge Bag of Worries, Virginia Ironside (Hachette)
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, Michael Rosen (Walker Books)
Water Bugs and Dragonflies, Doris Stickney (Bloomsbury)

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