How children's book 'The Ammuchi Puchi' can help your kid understand death
When you can’t find the right words…
My first brush with loss as a child was while watching The Lion King on VHS with my grandparents. I wept watching Simba tugging at his father’s ears, nuzzling under his big paw and trying to find comfort. It’s traumatic when I think about it even now. Loss is big for a human that young – a big feeling, and a big emotion. Even adults, who understand and accept the circle of life struggle with dealing with the loss of a loved one, and the grief that follows. For a child, death is an alien concept, one they inevitably need an introduction to.
When death hits a family, what first jumps to mind is the children – how do you talk to them about death, how do you start the conversation, how do you help them process loss? According to author Sharanya Manivannan, sometimes a story is the best way to open a dialogue.
She wrote her children’s book, The Ammuchi Puchi, to help children cope with loss. Raised by her maternal grandparents, her grandmother passed away when the writer was 23. “At some point in my grief, I began to wonder how I would have coped with the loss had it happened while I was still a child. This is what led me to write a book about bereavement for children,” she says.
The book is a poignant exploration of the relationship between two young children, their ammuchi (grandmother) and a butterfly. We read the story through the eyes of young Aditya. He and his sister, Anjali love (and slightly fear) their grandmother, with her red-stained mouth and “laugh so big she could have swallowed any moon at all” — they get chills every time she tells them stories of ghosts living in the trees of their garden.
As they grow up, their fear fades as ammuchi encourages them to be more imaginative and play along with her narrative. Anjali’s gifted a butterfly-shaped brooch on her birthday by her grandmother. A sulky Aditya demands a gift too, but she promises a grand one on his upcoming 10th birthday. As the day finally approaches, ammuchi passes away.
The children find little solace or joy in carrying on their storytelling game without ammuchi. One day, a little butterfly magically flutters into their lives, and the children feel an ethereal connection to their grandmother. A fluttering salve for their sadness.
Manivannan’s narrative style flows between magical, natural and real with fluidity. Illustrator Nerina Canzi’s bright colours and vivid images of nature complement the story beautifully. Manivannan doesn’t sugarcoat bereavement. Instead, she keeps her characters realistic as people’s relationships and personalities evolve.
It’s a natural human instinct to want to protect children from the pains of the world. But Manivannan knows that’s not always possible. “What we can do is offer tools, such as storytelling and empathic listening that assist in the healing process. The Ammuchi Puchi is one such way for families to help kids with losing their grandparents,” she says.
Choosing the right words can be tricky. When writing The Ammuchi Puchi, Manivannan was mindful about the language she used, making it gentle and accessible but never dipping into condescension. “I respect children as autonomous people who have great intuition and are often very intelligent,” she says. Children understand more than most adults give them credit for. Their emotions and reactions remain unfiltered by the battering of life experiences. The importance in the language for Manivannan lay in talking to them about a difficult subject without talking down to them.
She managed to do just that, connecting with young readers on a personal level to guide them through a tough time. At the launch of the book at a Chennai library, parents of two children came up to her and shared that in the 2-3 days of receiving the book, the kids had memorised every line. “They had recently lost their great-grandfather and had found The Ammuchi Puchi to be a source of consolation. I was very touched by this, and heartened to see the usefulness of my book in exactly the context it was meant for. The incident reaffirmed for me what power literature has — it moves us on such a deep and sometimes private level,” shares Manivannan.
WATCH THIS: HOW TO TALK TO KIDS ABOUT ILLNESS, BY SONALI BENDRE