Coping with Death in Young Adult LiteratureBy Gail Radley
As a society, we have become distanced from the realities of certain stages of life. Once, children grew up close to older relatives. Farm life allowed children to witness death as a natural part of life. Now children and teens are often raised in cities and suburbs, far from extended family. Literature is one means of enabling them to examine and cope with their world. But how effective is young adult literature in portraying death? Among the few available studies of the portrayal of death, some criticize adolescent literature as unrealistic. Moore and Mae (1987), for example, state that death--that "unmentionable" subject of contemporary cultureÑis portrayed for dramatic effect and often without accompanying reactions that children may experience...(61).
Perhaps because of increased realism in YAL generally, it is possible to find a variety of accurate, helpful models for coping with death in YA books. Three examples of YA novels in which death is addressed are Angela Johnson's Toning the Sweep (1993), Paula Fox's The Eagle Kite (1995), and Cynthia Rylant's Missing May (1992).
Angela Johnson's acclaimed novel, Toning the Sweep portrays Emily in the anticipatory grief stage, the stage in which one begins mentally and emotionally preparing for an expected death. Stricken with cancer, Emily's grandmother Ola has decided to spend her remaining days with family, though it means leaving the desert home she and Emily love. One of the charges leveled against much adolescent fiction is that it fails to offer faith or a philosophy of life (58). Aspects of Emily's philosophy are brought forth as Emily contemplates loss, past, present, and future. During the days of packing up Ola's house, Emily makes a video depicting Ola's life and relationships. A significant view is brought out as Emily thinks about Ola's friends:Daddy says that everybody has [a story] and their stories are all part of us. If Ola loves these people, then they must be a part of me, too. It must be true about all of us being part of one another like Daddy says. (Johnson 17)
Such a philosophy of interconnectedness counteracts the tendency toward isolation often seen in adolescents seeking independence. Ola, she knows, still mourns the untimely loss of her husband years before, and the aunts (neighbors) mourn the loss of a sister. And yet when they get together for a farewell visit with Ola "...they are finishing each other's sentences and slapping their legs when the talk gets too funny" (41). It is possible to survive great loss, Emily sees. It is possible to grieve and still experience real joy. The message has greater impact because of Emily feels interconnected.
Mama reinforces the triumph of the positive in telling the story of Emily's past departures from the desert. The end of each visit was a time to grieve and protest for Emily as a small child. No amount of comforting would end her wailing tantrums. Finally, Mama and Ola left her to wail with all her might, to thoroughly vent her feelings. Ola went about her own business, singing louder and louder all the while. Eventually, the singing prevailed. This leaving-grief was a rehearsal for the greater loss yet to come, the loss of Ola.
Emily sees yet another rehearsal in Ola's upbeat behavior as she closes down her desert life. Some of Ola's possessions are packed to go with her; many more are given away. Throughout this process, Ola takes time for private reflection, deals honestly with her pain, and finds moments to laugh and play, continually present emotionally for those she loves. Emily struggles to keep pace. She finds, though, that she is "being smothered by old books and towels that a week ago were just things" (83). In an ominous forecasting of Ola's death, Emily dreams that she is standing on the side of the road as Ola passes her by. She chases Ola but cannot catch her.
Though survival is the emphasis presented to Emily, Emily's mother also reveals to her the inescapable need to grieve first. Mama relates to Emily her feelings about her father's death when she was a child, and the subsequent move from her Alabama home:I never said good-bye to my father, Emmie. This new place happen- ed too fast. Ola thought she was saving me from ugliness. Death really. She did her best and I guess I've never forgiven her for it. (98)
It is a significant point because, as Glass notes, adolescents tend to bury their feelings both because of their need for independence and private reflection, and because they attempt to respond to others' needs. As a result, "their need to grieve is [too often] forgotten" (Glass 156-7).
In a ritual that connects Emily to her forebears and allows Mama to finally let go, the pair "tone [Mama's daddy] to heaven" (Johnson 99) by repeatedly striking a hammer on the water tower. Afterward, Mama announces, "Time to celebrate now, baby" (99) and they join the picnic with its "dance of life" (100).
Ola's death is yet to come, but with a strong support system, philosophy and resources, Emily is equipped to weather it. As the three women drive away, closing a chapter in their lives, Emily reports that "the sun has broken on through" (103).
Liam, of The Eagle Kite, by Paula Fox (1995), has a very different anticipatory grief experience. While Emily knows the facts, is surrounded by loving support, and is given tangible ways to deal with loss, Liam is set adrift to seek out information on his own. His mother can barely choke out the words that his father is desperately ill due to tainted blood received in an operation. Later, she calls it cancer. Daddy must explain to Liam that he has AIDS.
Liam reacts first with the shocked numbness, a sort of denial, that commonly strikes, and insulates, those just delivered devastating news. Typically, he suppressed the emotions that came: "Liam wanted to cry out loud. But there were no words for what he felt" (Fox 13). His adjustment is complicated by his realization that his parents have distorted the facts and left much unsaid. This separates him from them when he needs them most, virtually eliminating them as sources of comfort and understanding. Liam knows that blood transfusions have been made safe. He recalls an odd memory of his father holding a young man on the beach. And he overhears his parents' arguments and endures their silences, realizing "[t]hey're enemies" (17). Because of the stigma of AIDS, Liam finds himself lying to his friends, thus cutting himself off from further potential support and adding to the guilt his anger has already aroused.
Liam's natural disinclination to admit that he needs support is compounded by his anger and disillusionment. Yet, in another way, the anger helps carry Liam through. Glass notes the following: Expressions of anger can give adolescents a feeling of power which counteracts their emotions of fright and helplessness (157).
Daddy moves to a rented cabin. For two months there is no contact and then Liam and his mother begin monthly visits. Finally, Liam decides to visit on his own, taking little more than his anger. Anger helps him get past the vision of Daddy's "thinness, the flesh barely covering his bones, that made Liam's heart grip his chest" (Fox 37). It also allows him to shirt his thought from the closeness he's enjoyed with his father and thus the pain of loss. When the anger finally boils into a stormy outburst, the way is cleared for Liam to receive a bit of the help he has warded off. Daddy advises Liam to let his mother know that he has discovered the truth surrounding his father's illness. For now, Liam rejects the idea, but he has passed a milestone:The realization of his father's physical suffering entered his consciousness. Until that moment, everything about him...had been simply more proof of his father's responsibility for the misery he had caused Liam and his mother. (66)
Now Liam is able to feel compassion for his father. Instead of delivering barbed jibes, Liam begins to really talk with his father--and listen. "Liam supposed he had thought being grownup meant doing whatever you wanted to do" (77). Now he begins to understand something of adult vulnerability and fallibility. The increased maturity Liam displays is one of the coping strategies noted by Harvey and Dowd (146). It signals his move into what they describe as the "middle stage" of grief, a time marked by depression and readjustment (148). With their closeness re-emerging during this time, Liam samples some of the interconnectedness that buoyed Emily during her distress. His father's Christmas present to him--a short wave radio to link him with the rest of the world--underscores the need for interconnection.
By the time death comes, Liam is fully there for his father and has already accomplished much of his grief work. Though there will surely be days of sorrow--and perhaps anger--ahead, Liam's first reaction to the death is relief:The year was gone, lifted from his back like a boulder he had been carrying. He wanted to leave Springton at once...School was little more than a week away. He had things to do. (Fox 113)
This response marks his strong desire to let go of mourning and thoughts of death and to operate in the world of the living. Liam has grown and changed through his ordeal; because of his growth, he is able to offer effective support to others. When his feeble grandfather calls for information about his son, Liam gives him the truth. He also tells his mother he knows how his father contracted AIDS, opening the way for greater closeness with her.
Cynthia Rylant's novel Missing May (1992) is the story of Summer's efforts to come to terms with a death that has already occurred (her aunt's) and to help her grieving uncle. Because Summer has lived much of her early life as an unwanted orphan passed from home to home, the situation also takes on elements of a survival story. May and Ob rescued her from an unloving, precarious life to take her to their rusting mountain trailer which "was as close to paradise as I may ever come in my life" (Rylant 5). But with May gone, what will become of Summer?...we're not strong anymore. And I think Ob's going to die, truly die, if I can't mend his sorry broken heart. And if Ob does go, goes off to be with May, then it'll be just me... (16)
May was their strength and their joy. Summer's fear of yet another loss is a real and natural one for a child who has had to face mortality (Harvey & Dowd 143).
A glint of hope comes early on in the story when Ob reveals that he's felt May's presence in her garden. He describes her as feeling torn, uncertain, and he longs to know the purpose of her return. Summer believes that May has visited, but it is not a comfort to her:...the least I expected of her was that she'd be able to make up her mind. I needed that from her. I needed to know that dying and going to heaven didn't involve any regrets or sorrows or worries. (Rylant 13-4)
But if May's fleeting reappearance doesn't comfort Summer, it does give hope to Ob. Perhaps she will return. Perhaps she has a message for him. When Summer's schoolmate, Cletus, tells Ob of his own near-death experience, Ob concludes that Cletus might act as a mediator between himself and May:This conclusion only heightens Summer's distress. Having already lost May--- Ob--- her only support in life, seems to be slipping further away: I felt more than ever cut apart from him, sent off on my own while he took off on his, while he made plans to set aside this life we both knew so purely to try to make it to another one he knew nothing about except that somewhere in it he might find May. I didn't know how to keep him tied to me. Already he was starting to live among the dead. (30-1)
Like Liam of The Eagle Kite, Summer is experiencing the intense isolation so commonly felt by adolescent mourners.
In spite of herself, though, Summer begins to believe in the possibility of Ob's contacting May. When early efforts to contact May fail and Ob's emotional state worsens, she finds herself leaning more on the strange support and guidance Cletus offers. Without the slim hope Cletus has come to represent, Summer realizes she might lose Ob completely.
The trio sets out on a trip to meet a real medium only to discover she is deceased. Seemingly defeated, Ob turns homeward. But somewhere in that time of dashed hopes, Ob apparently realizes that while he may have lost communication with May, there are two people remaining with him. He turns back for a promised side trip to the state capital, in effect, turning to life and the present.
This shift frees Summer from worry over Ob and her own survival. Now that she need not try to take care of him, she can allow herself to be taken care of--and to give herself over to her grief, a luxury she has not had. This change happens on their return to paradise, the trailer home:But for every bit of life I cried away, Ob held me hard against him and he put more life back in me. He did not even speak. Just held on to me and wiped away the tears with his strong wide hands until my body was emptied of those tears and I was no more burdened. When I could finally felt I could speak, I whispered to him, "It's been so hard missing May." And Ob said, "She's still here, honey. People don't ever leave us for good." (83-4)
In letting go and accepting, they have gained all--love, security, each other and even a feeling of communion with May--a feeling they celebrate the next morning in a joyous, liberating personal memorial in May's garden.
These three novels portray adolescents anticipating death, facing death, and dealing with its aftermath. Each presents death as plausible, albeit complicated phase of life--no high drama here. Instead, we find adolescents struggling through the very typical reactions of shocked disbelief, anger, fear, sorrow, and isolation. Through their struggles emerge philosophies of the need for both grief and acceptance, an afterlife, emphasis on the positive, the importance of connecting with others, the role of ritual, and above all, the durability of the soul.
No one story should be expected to offer a complete philosophy, to portray all the stages of grief or adherence to the "typical" set of circumstances. A more appropriate request is that a YA book portray some aspect of the grieving process in a way that contributes to readers' understanding and growth. The novels presented here are three of the many YA novels offering pieces of the puzzle for young adults attempting to come to terms with death and dying.
Fox, Paula. The Eagle Kite. NY: Orchard, 1995.
Glass, J. Conrad. "Death, Loss, and Grief in High School Students." High School Journal. 73 Feb./Mar. 1990: 154-160.
Harvey, Carolyn and Frances S. Dowd. "Death and Dying in Young AdultFiction." Journal of Youth Services in Libraries. Winter 1993: 141-154.
Johnson, Angela. Toning the Sweep. NY: Scholastic, 1993.
Moore, Timothy E. and Reet Mae. "Who Dies and Who Cries: Death and Bereavement in Children's Literature." Journal of Communication. 37 Fall 1987: 52-64.
Rylant, Cynthia. Missing May. NY: Orchard, 1992.
Gail Radley, a lecturer in the English Department at Stetson University in Deland, Florida, is the author of fifteen books for young people, ranging from preschoolers to young adults. Her most recent titles are Dear Gabby, a paperback original from Avon and Odd Man Out, by Macmillan, a Junior Library Guild selection and a Young Hoosier Award nominee. Scheduled for release in 1999 is the Vanishing series, a set of four annotated poetry anthologies on endangered animals through the Lerner Group.
Copyright 1999. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Radley, Gail. (1999). Coping with death in young adult literature. The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 1, pp. 14-16.