Models of Coping: Representing Grief in Young Adult Literature
Written By: Erik Mandsager
All people will experience some form of loss at some point in their lives, and learning how to cope with it at a young age is crucial to mental and physical health. Many authors have addressed grief in novels for young adults in an effort to show how it is acceptable and healthy to experience grief in the form of sadness, anger, and other emotions. However, authors, knowing the anxiety associated with this topic, use metaphors to talk about grief without making the reader have to think about their own grief when they start reading. Authors also attempt to provide a model of recovering and connecting with others through grief, without dismissing the negative emotions. Novels are most impressive when they discuss both healthy grief and recovery. This investigation serves as an examination of several novels for young adults and how they use metaphors to talk about grief and recovery.
The young adult novels in this study are informed by psychological studies and generalizations about how young people understand death and grieving. When examining the psychology behind them, it becomes clear that grief and recovery are simple terms that describe a long and complex process. As Dr. Catherine A. Sanderson says in her book, Health Psychology, many children do not learn much about death from their parents and society as a whole because “most people are very uncomfortable with the topic of death--because it causes anxiety” (436). Masha Kabakow Rudman confirms this in Children’s Literature: An Issues Approach, “death is not an easy topic about which to write or talk,” due to adults having “yet to resolve questions and anxieties surrounding this issue” (148). Despite this anxiety, children have gathered enough information to understand death in a similar way to adults by age 9 or 10, based on studies by Nagy, Speece and Brent, and, as Davíd L. Russel claims in Literature for Children, “children are quite capable of facing the subject of death with honesty and sensitivity” (Sanderson 437, Russel 234). However, many authors confront the anxieties associated with death by using frightening and uncomfortable metaphors. Knowing the ability of young adults to understand death and grief but also social anxieties produced by overt discussions about death, many young adult authors use metaphors to reach young adults and ultimately provide mature messages about grief and recovery.
Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd, and Jim Kay draw on the anxiety and fear of readers by discussing grief and recovery through a monster in A Monster Calls. While the yew tree monster is a clear metaphor for the shame and anger experienced by the young protagonist, Connor, as his mother is dying from cancer, it is easier to get invested in the novel because the reader’s negative emotions are at first displaced onto this monster. The first few pages of the book display the dark, looming, gnarled, stringy images of the yew tree monster, drawn and painted in black and white, making the reader feel uneasy. When the tree is introduced it is whispering and growling Connor’s name (Ness 2). The illustrator, Kay, and the author, Ness, make the reader focus on the horror of the monster, acknowledging the anxiety the reader feels when approaching the topic of grief, while displacing and magnifying it with the yew tree monster. In this way, Ness can discuss grief and the negative emotions associated with it without forcing readers to confront their own grief.
In Out of the Dust, Karen Hesse displaces the anxiety of the reader by focusing on the protagonist’s encounters with dust, and uses this metaphor to discuss the grief she feels at losing her mother. After her mother and baby brother die in Oklahoma during the dust bowl, she gets on a train to Arizona to escape the dust. However, the “dust” has become a part of her being and she “can’t get out of something that’s inside [her]” (Hesse 205). Hesse uses dust to say she cannot run away from her grief by putting distance between herself and her home. Hesse discusses wanting to escape grief without having to overtly talk about death. Instead, she uses a metaphor which makes readers uncomfortable. By imagining being consumed by an uncomfortable substance like dust, Hesse also displaces and magnifies the anxiety of the reader. Other young adult authors do this as well. In Harry Potter, Rowling projects these feelings onto chilling villains like Voldemort, the deatheaters, and dementors. In Skellig, Almond projects anxiety onto a creature that looks like an old man with wings who lives in the garage of a family.
One of the reasons readers are anxious about approaching grief and death is because of the severe negative emotions that come along with them, however, once authors have gotten the attention of their audience with metaphors they can help readers better understand these negative emotions. Sanderson stresses how significant the negative emotions surrounding losing a loved one as a young person can be, and they will feel the need to express these emotions whether they be “anger, guilt, anxiety, helplessness, [or] depression” (429). In A Monster Calls, Connor hates himself for being relieved his mother is dying and the painful process of her struggling with cancer will be over. The monster encourages Connor to get angry and destroy things so he can punish others and himself. Ness takes these negative emotions seriously by showing the reader they are reasonable, if destructive. In what Sanderson refers to as lingering-trajectory deaths, close family members often mourn in anticipation of the loved one’s death and when the person finally dies, their health may improve and their depression may eventually subside after grieving (424). In A Monster Calls, Ness addresses the guilty feelings associated with this process, and specifically how young people can forgive themselves for wanting to have a life beyond the grieving of a loved one.
Other young adult novels also validate the negative emotions associated with grief. In The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Starr isolates herself and lays in bed for a couple of days after her friend Khalil dies. While this is not celebrated, Starr and the other characters see it as a reasonable response. In Out of the Dust, Billie Jo and her father both somewhat isolate themselves from each other for a while after the death of her mother. In Skellig, by David Almond, the main character is frustrated because he is helpless to support his premature sister in the hospital. In Harry Potter, Harry experiences physical and mental pain as a result of losing his parents. These young adult novels reach young people because they tell their readers that it is healthy to have negative emotions when experiencing grief.
However, finding meaning in the death of a loved one is also central to many young adult texts, helping young people learn to cope with death in their own lives. Despite the necessity of negative emotions, if they persist they can severely affect one’s physical and mental health (Sanderson 428). For this reason, authors provide young adults with examples of characters constructing positive, supportive relationships during and after the death of a loved one. This is especially effective if the author can provide examples of reconstructing without reducing the severity of the loss. Using metaphors to talk about grief, many authors draw on Jungian approaches to literature in which stories function as “allegories of the inner-life” and there is “an original wholeness that can be regained after alienation is overcome,” as explained by Hamida Bosmajian in “Reading the Unconscious” (104). However, Bosmajian also argues that literature is more powerful if it can acknowledge the changes that occur with grief. Novels can function as allegories, but young adults will learn more and be more eager to read if authors acknowledge that there is no returning to the way life was before the death of a loved one.
As in a bildungsroman, young adult novels about grief encourage the reader to cope with their emotions by finding their new role in their family or community. Nearly all young adult novels are, by necessity, bildungsromans. That is to say, in most young adult novels, the protagonist feels they do not belong in their community during the exposition, in the rising action and climax they literally or metaphorically leave the community and learn to conform or change the community to make it conform to them, and in the denouement they find their new place in the community. This formula often mirrors and works in tandem with the grieving process in young adult novels about grief. As Martin Swales argues in “The Bildungsroman as a Genre” grief and young adult bildungsromans pair so well together because bildungsromans typically depend on psychological and social development, as does coping with grief (Swales 36). In young adult novels about grief, characters try to escape their grief and their complex relationships during the exposition, but by the denouement, realize they will grow if they communicate and construct relationships with others in their communities.
Ness and Hesse both provide examples of protagonists recovering and constructing new relationships with the loved ones around them in their novels. At different points in A Monster Calls, the yew tree is discussed for having healing properties. Connor’s mother is taking medicine from a yew tree in a desperate attempt to save her life. This fails, but the yew tree monster facilitates Connor’s recovery from grief by helping him accept that part of him wants the horrible process of his mother dying to be over. Connor leaves his family, and through three stories, that also serve as metaphors, the monster shows Connor how he can forgive himself and accept his own feelings about his mother dying. As the plot progresses and Connor copes with his grief, he also develops a relationship with his aunt, finding a new role in his community. In Out of the Dust, Hesse’s protagonist, Billie Jo, continues her dust metaphor by referring to herself as wheat and her father as not dust, but sod. After she runs away, she realizes she can grow with him if they stay together (Hesse 205). She decides grief/dust will be with her wherever she goes but starts to view her father as someone who can lessen her grief and help her grow into a better person if she works to construct a better relationship with him.
In Skellig, David Almond uses the protagonist, Michael, to show how people can cope with grief by finding new ways to care for others. Michael wants to play a role in his family by caring for his sister, but feels unable to. Much like Connor in A Monster Calls, Michael is already grieving the loss of his sister who will be born premature, but is not dead. However, instead of feeling shame and anger, he feels helplessness. He copes with his helplessness by caring for a strange old man with wings appearing in his garage. He takes care of him by giving him drinks, chinese food, and medication for arthritis. Until Michael had the chance to help his little sister and the rest of his family, he decided to help Skellig. While this is a strange metaphor, Michael learns the coping strategy of helping others, and finds comfort in playing the part of nurturer for Skellig.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling, Harry learns, along with the reader, he must accept death as a fact of life in order to be successful and connect with his friends at Hogwarts. In the first book of the series, Harry is obsessed with the mirror of erised because it shows him images of his parents. However, Dumbledore convinces him to leave and build a life with the living. In the final book, the deathly hallows are first presented as objects to be used for conquering death. The hallows are objects that allow one to hide from death, defeat anyone in a duel, and see your dead loved ones. However, when Harry possesses all three objects, he decides to accept that Voldemort will kill him and that he is grateful for the time he has had with his loved ones. This allows him to save humanity and construct new relationships with his friends and family that are alive. Through these dramatic metaphors, Rowling gives the reader examples of accepting loss and working to maintain new relationships.
Young adult novels about grief also provide an opportunity for those who feel unresolved in their grief to relive the grief and recovery process along with the characters. In “Managing grief and Loss,” by Westervelt and Cook the authors describe how “frozen grief,” grief without ceremony, ritual, gathering of loved ones, or acknowledgement in general can keep individuals from recovering and forming new relationships (76). This aspect of young adult literature is especially significant because in young people’s inability to fully participate in the grieving process due to their age or lack of understanding, they may experience some form of frozen grief. Young adult literature allows these readers to experience a form of grief alongside a character and relive their own experience. They can also then recover and construct new relationships along with the character in the novel, developing and learning coping strategies with the character as well.
Another reason why young adult novels use metaphors is to avoid being didactic. The last thing authors want to do is remind readers they are adults telling adolescents how to deal with their loss. Young adult novels are always in danger of coming across as preachy given the age gap between the writer and the reader. Authors employ several strategies to keep this from occurring. The first, as discussed before, is using complex metaphors. A monster, dust, Skellig, and Voldemort all serve to distance the reader from the author. The second is that they often have young characters teach the older characters what they have learned about grief. In The Hate U Give, Starr rebuilds her community after the death of Khalil by participating in a protest, brings her uncle and her father together, and integrates a white character into her family. While Starr learns many lessons from her father, she also ends up teaching him lessons about coping with grief and constructing a community. In Out of the Dust, Billie Jo chastises her father when she decides to come home and tells him, “I can’t be my own mother…I can’t be my own father, and if you’re going to leave me, well, what am I supposed to do?” (Hesse 205). After telling her father she is frustrated with his lack of effort, they are able to come to an agreement and improve their lives together. While both of these characters come back to their parents and their communities, they communicate their frustrations and change the minds of the adults.
The conclusions of these novels also show the beauty of recovery and new relationships though their metaphors. In Out of the Dust, Billie Jo’s father tells her about the life they will build together, and that he will dig a pool that will be filled with water and catfish once the rain comes (Hesse 206). In contrast to the dust and grief, her relationship with her father will have water and growth. After the violence and fear throughout A Monster Calls, Connor holds his mother and cries. This moment of tenderness contrasts the destruction throughout the rising action. The final page of the book is also a yew tree, but it is not gnarled and monstrous like in the previous pictures, it is covered in soft painted leaves (Ness 206). In the denouement of Skellig, Micael get to care for his sister instead of the old angelish man (Almond 182). In Harry Potter and The Hate U Give, Harry and Starr construct new communities with the friends and family they have. The dust, the yew tree, and the conflict are not gone, but they become less threatening with the presence of new communities.
As stated before, young adults need to hear their angers, fears, sorrows, and anxieties about death are valid, and be shown that it is possible to recover from grief and construct new relationships. Authors of young adult novels have a unique opportunity to share this message with young readers and have been impressively creative in their efforts. By representing the reader’s anxieties and other emotions in metaphors, authors allow their readers to be as emotionally invested as they want to be. Using this strategy, authors can reach a wide audience while deeply affecting the readers who need to relate to their protagonists.
Given their powerful messages and stylistic draw, all of these works could be used in schools and families to help young people develop strategies for coping with grief. With the rates of suicides and gun-related deaths amongst young people, these books are welcome alternatives to those in the canon that glorify violence and suicide. These books also help parents, teachers, and young people become more comfortable talking about death and grieving. While the metaphors the authors use are beautiful, they would not be necessary to discuss grief if societies were more comfortable talking about the grieving process. As David L. Russel points out, death has been a topic in literature for young people since the eighteenth century, when young people were more accustomed to seeing people die, and death was not confined to hospitals and nursing homes (234). However, since the advance of healthcare and health in general in the twentieth century, death has become more taboo. However, Russel also argues if children are able to understand and experience a concept, they should have the vocabulary to discuss it. By using novels, authors are filling in gaps in vocabulary and understanding of grief that young people experience because of the societal anxieties surrounding grief. These novels function as valuable vehicles for young people to understand grief and recover, while still being complex pieces of literature that all readers can enjoy. In the ever developing canon of young adult literature, novels about grief will continue to be highlighted if they are as successful as the ones mentioned in this investigation.
Almond, David. Skellig. Delacorte Press, 1999.
“The Bildungsroman as a Genre.” The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse, by MARTIN SWALES, Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 9–37. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x14cn.5.
Hesse, Karen. Out of the Dust. Scholastic, 1999.
“Managing Grief and Loss.” Life after Death Row: Exonerees' Search for Community and Identity, by Saundra D. Westervelt and Kimberly J. Cook, Rutgers University Press, 2012, pp. 72–82. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5hjftc.11.
Ness, Patrick. A Monster Calls. Walker Books, 2013.
“Reading the Unconscious: Psychoanalytical Criticism. ” Understanding Children’s Literature, ed. by Peter Hunt, Routledge, 1999.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Scholastic, 2009.
Rudman, Masha Kabakow. Children’s Literature: An Issues Approach. Longman Publishers USA, 1995.
Russel, David L. Literature for Children. Pearson, 2012.
Sanderson, Catherine A. Health Psychology. Wiley, 2013.
Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. HarperCollins, 2018.