a profound exploration of death and the intertwining of grief and joy

by Glenn Ringtved, illustrated by Charlotte Pardi – Enchanted Lion Books, 2016
ages 6 to adult years / emotional resilience, heartwarmers

Because grief, when it visits, consumes us and seems to blanket all the world in sadness, our inclination is to shield children from its depths, or to show them how to escape as quickly as possible.

It’s a strange, if quintessentially human, response. Our great love for the children we care about motivates us but we act as though we wish, in a way, to limit their experience of what it is be human and to love. Grief is, after all, the outgrowth and expression of great love that feels suddenly lost or irrevocably changed.

And yet there is no shield that is completely effective against grief. So we are each left to embrace it and learn from it and, hopefully, emerge to peace and brighter days. And, when loss is imminent, the fear of grief to come can be as overwhelming as the grief itself. Especially when we wait for the death of someone we love.

In Cry, Heart, But Never Break four children wait as their beloved grandmother dies. Death visits one night and the children recognise him even though he has left his scythe outside—they know he has come for their grandmother.

In the depths of their sorrow and their fears, they try to distract Death with endless cups of coffee, hoping that he will leave when morning comes, without their grandmother.

Death is compassionate and tells the children a story about two brothers called Sorrow and Grief and two sisters called Joy and Delight, and how they fell in love because:

Each couldn’t live without the other.”

The children aren’t sure they fully understand but they know Death is right when he says:

It is the same with life and death …What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for day if there were no night?”

And, as the children begin to come to terms with their grandmother’s passing because: “Life is moving on. This is how it must be”,  Death quietly invokes them:

Cry, Heart, but never break. Let your tears of grief and sadness help begin new life.”

They do. And:

In the years that followed, the children lived with their joy and their sorrow, but they always remembered Death’s words and took great comfort from their hearts which grieved and cried but never broke.”

For the reasons below and so many more, this is book to own, read often and love:

Death is characterised not as evil, terrifying or lifeless, instead, “Death’s heart is as red as the most beautiful sunset and beats with a great love of life.” Comforting words, and true. Death shows great love and respect for life.

It's a lovely metaphor for grieving in different ways: The children each deal with Death in their own way. The oldest children close their eyes, so great is their sorrow. A younger child tries to ignore Death, and Leah, the youngest, ‘stares straight at Death.’ Each child comes to understand Death, but they start at different points. 

The complimentary nature of Grief and Joy, and Sorrow and Delight are beautifully explained: 

Before they met, Grief and Sorrow lived in a valley, and Joy and Delight lived on the hill. When they marry, both couples build houses ‘halfway-up and halfway-down the hill. This way the distance to their old homes was the same.’ Grief and Sorrow do not simply become the same as Joy and Delight, rather they all understand that they are most fully themselves when they are together. Grief is complete only with Joy and Joy is complete only with Grief. Sorrow and Delight are the same. It’s a hopeful and profound way to love and live.

When Death does take grandmother he understands the pain of the children. When he beckons grandmother he says, “Fly, Soul. Fly, fly away” in a voice that is ‘somewhere between a cry and a whisper.’ Death’s compassion and feeling and the gentle morning breeze blowing through the window are echoes of grandmother’s love for the children.

The grieving hearts of the children are poignant and real. Children who have personal experience with death will understand the sorrow of the children and will be able to take hope and courage from the way they children remember their grandmother. And for those children who have yet to live through those feelings, there is an opportinity to grow in empathy and understanding.

The illustrations are heart wrenching but life affirming. Even without the depth and beauty of the written story, they allow us to see what grief, love and happiness look like.

This is a perfect read-it-before-you-need-it book. The story is so enticingly written that it will capture the thoughts and attention of children regardless of their personal experiences with death. And, as they listen to the story over and over again, they will build up a storehouse of responses to grief. They’ll understand that people respond in different ways, that grief is part of life every bit as much as joy, that sorrow is so deep because of the contrast with the delight they’ve already felt.

A small reading hint:

Here’s how I read this book out loud—there are of course as many way to read it as there are readers, but perhaps you’ll find this helpful. I don’t explain the connection with the scythe, at least not on the first reading. The symbol of the scythe is cultural and like all things cultural is best learned through osmosis. (Of course I happily answer a direct question.) I read the page where Death is drinking coffee quite quickly to reflect the urgency the children feel, and then slow down and whisper as I read, “Time passed” on the next page. From then on I read it slowly and quietly because, although grief is part of life and very much a reflection of earlier joy, it is still a solemn and reverent topic.

Grief, of course, isn’t limited to death, though that is usually where we feel it most profoundly. Grief can follow the loss of a dream, the end of a friendship, betrayal, disappointment or failure too. When we read books like this we are preparing children for all forms of grief and adding our own promise that hearts may need to cry, but never need to break.

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Names in this book – Nels, Sonia, Kasper, Lea