Goodnight Star: A story for when you’ve lost someone
In 2014 my cousin Ashley died in a car accident, leaving behind a 5-year-old son. His aunts, grandmother, and great-grandmother all live nearby, and they all help him remember his mother in a variety of comforting ways. They are all, in their own ways, still grieving.
Jodi Meltzer was moved to write Goodnight Star, Whoever You Are after her ex-husband died, leaving her with their son, age 4, and his daughter (her bonus daughter), age 21. Both kids, on separate car rides, asked Meltzer if a star that seemed to be following them was their dad. And thus, a book was born.
We often say children are resilient and they are, but not uniformly so and certainly not 24/7. Grief can come in waves. It may hide, then jump out when a new loss occurs — like that of a pet — reminding us it’s still there. How do we prepare our children for that surprise? This book is one way.
The story begins at sunset, after a mother-son day at the beach. The sleepy boy spies a bright light: “It was a star, and it was following me.”
The illustrations invite us to project faces onto the child and the mom, neither of whom we ever see quite clearly. They live in a liminal, starlit space.
The mother in the story quickly realizes her son’s question is providing a teachable moment. It’s not a time for science, but for feelings. Even though the two of them have had a fun, no-tears day at the beach, grief can still seep in, on a fading sunbeam.
The boy in this story has had other losses — a grandmother and a cat. Both of those are not unusual for a child to experience. But losing a parent is unusual. Or at least, it used to be.
More than 140,000 children have lost a parent during the pandemic, making this book very timely. November 18 is Children’s Grief Awareness Day, and the book was released in time to be a resource for any child who might need it. For every child who is grieving, there is also a family member who is grieving — a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle, another parent. Both adult and child may need the solace of a picture book to get the conversation started. Meltzer’s story explains that just as a star is always there, even during the day and even when it’s obscured by clouds, so too is the beloved parent still there.
When a person dies, they can sometimes feel quite close. I have a friend who says she saw an eight-point buck and knew it was a message from her husband. Another sees her son every time a red-shouldered hawk flies above her ranch. In an article about losing her mother to ovarian cancer, Meltzer writes that her mother promised, “I’ll send butterflies.” It took a while, but the butterflies did arrive. If a visitation can come via butterflies and hawks and bucks, then why not in a magnificent star?
Meltzer was a news anchor before she turned to writing. This book and her first one, When You Lived in My Belly, are illustrated by her best friend since kindergarten, Jody King Camarra. Even though the book was just released last month, it has already won a Gold Mom’s Choice Award and earned a strong review from Kirkus.
Goodnight Star contains other resources for children and parents to use together, including an “I Remember” page to write down memories of the loved one. The foreword, by multi-platinum-selling artist Andy Grammer, encourages kids to find ways to remember a parent — perhaps by baking a cake or by playing a sport they loved, like basketball. It doesn’t matter how we remember, only that we remember.
The same week my cousin died, I bought a car. I love to drive it down deserted highways, to pop the clutch, shift gears, and think of Ashley.
While reading Meltzer’s book, I had composer Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel running through my mind. This reflective piece of music, described by one listener as “The cello breathes, while the piano’s heart beats peacefully” reflects the tone of this book: quiet, thoughtful, and bright.
Look up, child. Who do you see?
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