My daughter understands these are characters, not real people. She writes stories herself, mostly for school, and understands that "something has to happen." Yet the death of any character with more than half a paragraph of development will set her crying, and she'll have flashbacks for weeks. "Mommy, help me stop thinking about Frank!" she'll say in a panic, referring to a throw-away character in the first chapter of one of the Harry Potter books; and I had warned her in advance what was going to happen.

And yes, she is probably morally and empathically (though not physically) over-sensitive, but the real-life stuff she has a handle on. She is resilient in dealing with slights from classmates, for example. She is fairly good at challenging kids if she sees them being unfair to other kids. (With the side-effect that there is virtually no bullying in her grade, which is also still free of the mean-girl phenomenon, BTW.) It's the over-empathizing with well-drawn characters that is causing her so much distress.

Rumors are the kids will be assigned Bridge to Terabithia at the end of the year, and even though I've already told her the nature of the tragedy at the end of the book, I am afraid she will be devastated if she has to read it. I have read balanced mama's two related posts, and I can probably get her assigned another book if I have to, but will she have to avoid serious (and not-so-serious) literature for the rest of her life?

Update, 20 months later:

I never found a magic bullet. My daughter has gradually adjusted, though it has been painful for her, and her tolerance for character death remains lower than her peers'.

We went back to the Harry Potter books last summer/fall and finished all of them. At this time she was unhappy but resigned at minor "good guy" character deaths, and very sad about the deaths of the two major characters. For a few weeks afterwards she would mention how sad it was that they died, and we would talk about it, but she did not seem to need major help dealing with her feelings, as she had with Frank.

She got through Bridge to Terabithia with about the same amount of sadness, mainly because I told her what was coming. She did even better with Holes -- again I let her know what was coming -- and she handled The Giver without any warnings (other than a long discussion about dystopias/utopias), though we did need to talk about certain scenes afterwards.

I do believe reading together and deconstructing stories with her has helped. So does comforting her when she's sad.

  • Have the two of you talked about how to handle grief before (after the death of a pet or relative, or after having moved to a new place, or when a friend moved away, or when she got too big for her favorite shirt)? Coping with grief is the same (or can be the same) whether the person is real or fictional, and I would expect a 10-year-old doesn't have a lot of experience with that. The advantage to fiction is that you have time to prepare in advance.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 1:33
  • If I know a death is coming I can distance myself. She doesn't seem to have that skill. So, since fictional deaths happen far more frequently than real life ones, I want to help her feel it less. Keep in mind a good author will make it poignant and immediate, when in real life it generally happens off stage. We've had three unexpected deaths in our community (child; mom of friend; teacher); none affected her like Frank's. Her one true loss, that of her beloved grandfather last year (cancer), was worse; but we were helping care for him at the time. Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 3:03
  • I'll think about whether coping with grief is the same for a real or fictional character. At first glance, I'm not sure I buy it; but maybe there are strategies from the one that could be useful in the other. Thanks! Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 3:05
  • Your daughter's reactions reminded me of a book: Living with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults.
    – Chelonian
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 3:25

5 Answers 5


You have a very compassionate and courageous daughter! You told her about the death in Harry Potter, and she read the book anyway - she did not avoid it, though she knew it might be painful for her. Similarly, she does not avoid standing up for kids who are being treated unfairly, though it might be painful.

If she is not panicked about having to read Bridge to Terabithia, you might follow her lead. Reading literature where a death occurs allows your daughter the opportunity to begin to process something about which she is particularly sensitive. You might read the book with her if at all possible. Hold her and cry together. Agree with her that it is sad, and that it makes sense to cry when you feel sad. If it is still making her sad two weeks later, hold her again and make her feel safe while she cries.

If she is panicked by it, consider that your own fears about her upset might be contributing. You could read it together ahead of time, so she is farther along in her processing before she reads it together with her class.

Being able to face sad things without fear, even though you know they will make you sad, is a trait that can eventually mature into fine parenting, nursing, hospice care, a therapeutic career, or some other compassionate endeavor.

I doubt she will avoid serious literature for life, but she will probably become very selective about what she reads, not wasting tears on formulaic tearjerkers but instead choosing the occasional rich piece of literature that is worth her tears!

  • Thanks Mary Jo, but we haven't progressed that far. I was reading her the Harry Potter books the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade, and she never let me get past that chapter. You may have a point, though, that she's picking up on my over-protecting her, and another that I should encourage her to cry it out instead of just trying to take away the pain by helping her think of something else. I'll try the second, and be better about the first. Commented Nov 23, 2013 at 13:25

I usually just hold my daughter until she says she is ready for me to let go when she starts crying over something when I'm around. Sometimes I even cry with her a little. Then, we talk about it.

To answer your question, "will she have to avoid serious literature for the rest of her life?" I'd agree with the other answer and say no. The key is choosing books your child is ready for, but still engage her with difficult themes (like death). As she matures, she will be ready for increasingly complex and difficult aspects of any given theme.

If you'd like to "prepare" her for reading "bridge to T" with her class, I could find some other books that are shorter with similar themes in a simpler format. You can use a subject access guide to find such books. This link will take you to one a posting about one I have used. They are reference books that allow you to look up children's and YA books based on subject/theme.

One of the things I told my daughter when we read the Little Match Girl, which has partially helped with other stories is that the cool thing about books is, if you want the character to live again, all you have to do is pick the story up and read it again. My daughter, likes the idea so much that even though she hates writing stories, she has started writing her own fan fiction-like stories where characters she loved (but "are no longer with us") magically come back and live again. Or where she changes the story and finds a way to create story bumps that don't kill people off. It really seems to help her a lot.

As Mary Jo mentions, you can pre-read the book together so she can process things with you first. This is a great idea because just having heard it once already can make the blow a lot softer the second time around. My daughter lost it sobbing and crying when Gollum realizes he has lost his ring in The Hobbit the first time we read it, it was no big deal, "I knew what was coming mom so It's all good" - of courses that was nearly two years later so it may have also just been maturation on her part too. The teacher may have objectives regarding "predicting" however, so teaming up with the teacher even at this point may be helpful in terms of making sure your daughter gets the most out of her experience with the book.

While there is nothing wrong with crying, or getting emotional over a particularly sad "scene," doing so during class might be embarassing or awkward for your child and difficult for her whole class. I wouldn't bring the possiblity up with her (because then you are planting a seed of doubt that may otherwise never have arisen), but if she expresses this fear (having thought of it on her own), respect it. Even if you've done a prior read-through, this may be an issue if there is to be any "in-class" reading and it still makes your child sad enough to cry more than a quiet tear or two. Kids can be cruel. I'd at least give the teacher a "head's up" just in case. Hopefully, when it comes time for Bridge to Terabithia, with the class, your daughter and you will feel she is ready, but if you don't you still have options:

If you feel your daughter simply isn't ready for the book yet. Approach the teacher with your concerns but keep your concerns focused on your child. You might offer up an "alternative" book reading as an idea. Simply ask the teacher if there are other novels that will still meet the reading objectives for the unit your daughter can do instead of "Bridge." If you read the book, but your daughter is worried about reading in class, have her do the assignments etc. but talk to the teacher about which portions of the book will be read in class and which will be read at home - your daughter can practice with the scenes marked as "in class" reading, or you can see if she can opt out using the excuse she already read the book anyway.

Good Luck to you and please let us know how it works out for your daughter.

  • Thanks, balanced mama! I will try the idea of "if you want the character to live again, all you have to do is pick the story up and read it again." And maybe if we stop before Frank is killed and she writes her own fanfic alternative ending to the chapter, we'll be able to go on to the rest of the book. Commented Nov 23, 2013 at 13:42
  • I am thinking about the Little Match Girl, and while part of me thinks it would be gratuitous cruelty to subject her to that, I'm wondering if we can deconstruct it somehow and make it safe. Commented Nov 23, 2013 at 13:45
  • You know, instead of Little Match Girl, you might read his original version of The Little Mermaid - its pretty sad too. HCA was devastated by his daughter's death so a lot of his writing address death head-on. Since, most little girls know a version of the Little Mermaid that ends happily, I'm assuming yours would also have that counter-reference. It can be an example of re-writing how the story goes for her. Commented Nov 23, 2013 at 13:54
  • That's a thought. I'll try it -- probably after the holiday, though. Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 3:08

Just throwing this out, but I wonder if imagination and humor could possibly help her?

Maybe you and she can agree to work on a "Fictional Character Heaven" where all characters go when they die in fiction, and then you can get a little silly with it, put a light touch on it. She can work with you on what Frank is doing there, happy and whole, maybe playing badminton with someone else who died in another book. This way she can replace the scary/sad images that she is obsessing about with new imagery, and perhaps that will greatly mute her suffering and obsessing.

I suggest this because often the way something ends is the way it is generally remembered and overall perceived (for more, see The Peak-end Rule), and there is no clearer end than a death...unless there is an afterlife for the character. So your daughter is "frozen" on Frank's death/suffering, which is the entirety of the experience of Frank for her, but if you together can add a new ending, that may be how she generally accesses thinking about Frank, or whichever character. And that might really help.


If you have a child who gets too painfully deep into a story, try to supply her with tools to get out of the story, so it doesn't feel like it's really happening to her. Balanced mama suggested allowing her to make up alternate endings, and Chelonian suggested telling her the characters go somewhere else afterwards, where they are happy. What I've done with my daughter is encourage her to think critically about story.

It feels less real and immediate if you can think of the current tragedy you are (vicariously) experiencing as words on a page, decisions an author makes, skills an author is using to manipulate your emotions. I've talked to my daughter about the point the author wants to make and the story the author wants to tell. I've also talked about tone, and how the tone of a book implies a contract with the reader, letting you know whether it's going to be all jokes or whether something bad could happen; and how tone and foreshadowing can give you a clue about what might happen.

We talk about how something has to happen, to make a book interesting; and how problems have to occur, so the protagonist can solve them. We talk about the rifle hanging on the wall: if an author mentions something amazing or deadly at the beginning of the book, you could expect someone is going to be in danger from it later on. When I'm reading to her I'll stop several times and ask, "What do you think might happen now?" and giver her several guesses. I'll guess too, and we'll see who's right.

Then, when something sad does happen, one needs to think of the child's sadness not as something to be fixed, but as something to be comforted. I'll hold my daughter (if she wishes) and agree with her that it is sad. Likewise when she says, "That's not fair that so-and-so had to die," I don't argue, just agree. Eventually she will move on.


I know I sometimes feel a minor sense of betrayal when enough information is given about a character to provide future potential -- just to have them killed off shortly after. You invest in the character and feel the loss.

Anyhow, this is going to sound off the wall but I will suggest it anyway. Have you considered video games? Most modern games involve characters, either your own or game characters, that undergo defeat. While games for younger children don't usually have characters die but children generally use that language to describe what happens during a character loses.

While I might sometimes worry about games having a desensitizing effect towards violence in general perhaps a small amount of desensitizing is in order? I did see your update though so perhaps things are far enough along that the issue is no longer causing an inordinate amount of stress.

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