“Why won’t anyone talk to me about dying?”
In 1981, a 13-year-old boy named Dougy Turno who had incurable brain cancer sent that question to Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist who wrote the now-classic book “On Death and Dying.” While Dougy underwent experimental treatment at Oregon Health & Science University, Kübler-Ross connected him and his family with Beverly Chappell, a former nurse living in Portland.
In working with Dougy, Chappell developed a model for peer-to-peer grief support that became the basis for The Dougy Center, a now-40-year-old Portland nonprofit that’s served as a model for hundreds of other grief support programs worldwide.
The new book “A Kids Book About Grief” brings The Dougy Center full circle. Written by the nonprofit’s executive director, Brennan Wood, the book talks frankly and forthrightly about grieving in child-friendly language. It anticipates questions that young readers might have, such as whether what they’re feeling is normal (yes) and whether they need to try to get over their grief (no).
“The reality is that grief is a part of the human experience,” Wood said.
Wood’s expertise on grief is both professional and personal. She has worked for the center for nearly two decades, starting as the receptionist and program assistant and moving into the top role six years ago. But she first encountered The Dougy Center in 1987 as a 12-year-old child mourning her mother. And she’s raising a daughter, Jordyn, who joined her family after losing both biological parents – the book is dedicated to Jordyn and all the kids “who’ve experienced the life-changing circumstances of death far too young,” as well as to Wood’s parents.
Wood was connected to the founder and publisher of the A Kids Book About series, Jelani Memory, by a Portland friend, Rebecca Alexander, who’d written “A Kids Book About Body Image.” Memory was willing to meet.
“I shared my story with him and we started talking about what a kids’ book about grief would be,” Wood said.
She found that the A Kids Book About series and The Dougy Center had a lot in common.
“One of the things that the founder of A Kids Book About shared with me one time was, ‘If kids are old enough to ask, be brave enough to answer.’ And that’s just a real motto at Dougy Center. We encourage telling kids the truth, answering their questions in an age-appropriate way when they ask them, even if the real answer is, ‘I do not know.’ ”
The book was a go. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived. Parents and caregivers started dying of COVID-19. As of April 5, 2022, nearly 200,000 children in the United States alone had lost one or both parents to COVID-19, according to Imperial College London’s COVID-19 Orphanhood dashboard. When other caregivers, such as custodial grandparents, were factored in as well, the number of affected children approached 250,000.
To Wood, that makes her book “a critical resource for families.”
“Even without COVID in the mix,” Wood said, “one in 13 kids in the United States will have a parent or a sibling die before they turn 18.” The Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model, a partnership between the National Alliance for Children’s Grief and the New York Life Foundation, similarly estimates that 5.6 million of the 76 million children in the US will experience the death of a parent or sibling by age 18.
Given those numbers, “this should be a national health priority, to provide support to kids and families when they have experienced the death of a parent or a sibling,” Wood said.
Wood hopes her book will be part of that support. She hopes it will “be a catalyst for wonderful conversations, not just about grief, but also about the people in kids’ lives who have died… laughing about them and remembering them with both sadness and joy, (understanding) that both of those things can exist at the same time. ”