Helping your child grieve the loss of a loved one

A NH school counselor‘s book helps to make talking about death easier for kids and their parents

As an elementary school counselor, Lisa Laroche Oliver sometimes deals with young students who are suffering from the loss of a loved one.

 There were storybooks that Oliver could read with them, but she wasn’t able to find books with follow-up activities that could aid her in connecting with the child to help them process their grief.

So she wrote her own book.

Oliver, a counselor at Pelham Elementary School, is the author of an illustrated, soft-cover book, “Becoming an Angel: What Happens When Someone You Love Dies (with activity pages).”

“I have lots of nice little storybooks. In five minutes we’re done with the storybook and the child is not done with their grief,” she said of the children she’s interacted with.

“Children don’t process grief in a single lesson or a single day,” said Oliver, who has spent more than two decades counseling students. “It’s really a process of getting used to a new way of life that does not currently involve a loved one.”

“Becoming an Angel” tells the fictional story of Marcie Weatherbee, a young girl saddened by the recent death of her grandmother. She would no longer get to bake cookies, play checkers and water flowers with her grandma.

Mrs. Darby, Marcie’s neighbor whose husband died a year ago, sits down with her and explains that similar to caterpillars transforming into butterflies, people transform into angels after they pass away.

Discovering that her grandmother isn’t gone forever – that one day Marcie would transform into an angel and see her again – brightened the girl’s spirits.

“Each day that passed the sad feelings lasted for a little less time and the happy feelings lasted a little bit longer,” the book reads.

The 16-page illustrated story is accompanied by 18 activity pages in which a child can express thoughts and emotions through writing and drawing.

 The child can dedicate the book to a deceased loved one, and they are encouraged to express how they felt when they learned their loved one passed away, write about something they enjoyed doing with that person and draw a picture of the people they can share their feelings with.

“Marcie baked cookies with her mother to help her feel happy again,” one activity reads. “What is something you like to do that can help you feel happy again? Use this space to draw yourself doing that thing.”

 Oliver has worked as an elementary school counselor for more than 25 years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of New Hampshire and a master’s degree in counseling from Plymouth State University.

Before coming to Pelham, where she’s worked for 19 years, she spent eight years in Pittsfield and Nashua.

Although she describes herself as being very spiritual and was raised Catholic, Oliver didn’t include the word God in her story. She wants it to have universal appeal.

“I think it would be helpful for (kids) to know that when a beloved person or pet passes away, they don’t cease to be, that it is a transformation of spirit,” she said.

“I feel that when we say someone died, I feel like it’s a misnomer…. a more accurate representation is to say that person transformed into an angel.”

The book is intended to be a keepsake because it will include the child’s drawings and writings. Oliver encourages her young readers to buy or create a photo box to store special memories of the person they lost.

After the death of loved one, according to Oliver, many children will become depressed and withdrawn; they may be unable to concentrate or take pleasure in activities they previously enjoyed such as dancing or sports. They may also think they will never be happy again.

“Ideally, after they’ve read the book and done the activities with someone, they will feel comforted knowing that their loved one is still with them,” Oliver said. “It’s just that they’re an angel now. They can’t see them with their eyes. Their presence is still with them every day. And one day, when it’s their turn to turn into an angel, years from now, they will see them again.”

The book, Oliver said, is appropriate for anyone in elementary school and ideally they will use it with a parent, caregiver or clergy member. Oliver plans to reach out to hospices and funeral homes to make the book available to children.

Oliver gave copies to two girls at her school who’ve lost their mothers. Mother’s Day, she said, was hard for them.

 “As the year progresses, they’re going to have their first Mother’s Day, their first Father’s Day, the first birthday without the loved one,” she added. “Every first brings a new life experience.”

Kathleen Vincent, a Pelham mother of three, loves the caterpillar analogy that Oliver uses in her book. When Vincent’s mother was dying from pancreatic cancer, she told Vincent’s children to think of her when they see a butterfly.

Oliver, who knows Vincent’s children through school, reached out to Vincent’s family around the time of her death. Family members read the book, including Vincent’s youngest daughter, now 11.

People struggle with dealing with death and talking to their children about it, Vincent said, but Oliver’s book is “a beautiful way of dealing with it.”

She has purchased several copies for friends and relatives, and after her great aunt passed away, she sent a copy to her cousin to share with her children.

“I hope it will help other people,” Vincent said. “I appreciate having a resource you can read with your children, and have a conversation (with them) in a nice, easy way.”

The book, illustrated by Daniel Majan, is self-published through Balboa Press, a division of Hay House, in Bloomington, Ind. Oliver is donating a portion of the net proceeds from her book sales to animal rescue organizations. 

Darrell Halen of Londonderry has been a journalist for 17 years, and is currently a videographer and freelance writer.  

Categories: Depression and Anxiety