We go to the library every week and choose five or six picture books for DD (depending if I need any reading matter or not). The system works like this: we each choose a pile of books that we like the look of and then we sit down at a table to go through them. I read some of them to her and others we save for later with just a glance to make sure there aren't too many words. Some books we have to reject as they are too long, not enough pictures, too many pictures without a story, too boring, or unsuitable in other ways.
Last week I chose a book called Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola (G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1998) . DD wasn't particularly interested in it so we didn't read it at the library first. I thought it looked sweet though and it had about the right text to picture ratio. So I included it in the borrow pile and we brought it home.
That night in bed we started to read Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs as one of our three bedtime stories. It was a sweet story about a little boy called Tommy who visits his Nana every Sunday. She's usually downstairs cooking on the big black stove. However, upstairs is another Nana. This is his Great-Grandmother, Nana's Mother. Nana Upstairs is so old she has to stay in bed most of the time.
Tommy loves his Nanas and spends a lot of time talking to Nana Upstairs and hearing all her stories. DD and I were enjoying the visit with Nana Upstairs too. I thought, what a lovely story about spending time with a very old lady. Then I turned the page and saw that Nana Upstairs had died.
My first thought was to say she'd gone on holiday. We know about Grandmas and Grandpas going on holiday. What did I need to start talking about death for? But then I thought, why should I need to avoid it? So I read: His Mother came in to talk to him. "Nana Upstairs died last night," she said. "What's died?" asks Tommy. "It means she won't be there anymore."
Tommy has a good cry and asks if she will ever come back. "Only in your memory," answers his Mother. "She will come back in your memory whenever you think about her."
"What's died?" Asked DD.
"It's when you are very very old and you go to live with God in heaven."
"Very very old?"
"Yes, older than Grandma and Grandpa."
"OK." said DD and we continued with the story.
One night Tommy sees a falling star. His Mother tells him that maybe Nana Upstairs is sending him a kiss. Then he grows up and Nana Downstairs becomes as old as Nana Upstairs. One day she dies. Luckily there is another falling star to tell him that both Nanas are together again.
The library is closed for three weeks over the summer so we've read this book more times than we usually would. Sometimes we discuss it but only to the extent described above. We also always mention that very very old means much older than our Grandma.
I'm glad we've broached the subject and it's there as a concept if we need to face it in real life.