Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Would you 'go to heaven' with your child?

Okay, so a while back I told you about a book I read called Simon’s Choice. I met the author, Charlotte Castle, on Authonomy, while I was garnering opinions on my YA novel, Samael.
Simon’s Choice is an unusual and very brave book that deals with one of the great taboos – a child dying. But there’s a twist.... here’s the pitch....

Doctor Simon Bailey’s previously perfect life is shattered when his seven year old daughter is given months to live.  Whilst he can almost come to terms with her impending death, he cannot stand the idea of his child facing death alone.
“But Daddy, who will live with me in heaven?” she asks.

He answers her question in a moment of desperation, testing his marriage, his professional judgement and his sanity to the limit. He offers to go with her.

Despite its subject matter, this actually isn’t a hard, gloomy read. It’s thought-provoking and, while certainly tugs at the heart-strings, it manages to have moments of wonderful humour. I was keen to know more about how Charlotte wrote this book and she kindly agreed to answer my questions.

Hi, Charlotte. First of all, could you tell us a little about you?
I'm 29 (hanging on to my twenties by my fingernails, 30 in a few weeks.) I live in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire with my husband Simon (yes, I really am that unimaginative) my two children, Arabella and Alexander and my cat Deborah-The-Bad-Puss.

What gave you the idea for Simon's Choice?
A friend and I were chatting in his van one day. He was talking about how his world revolves around his daughter and he said that, if she was dying, he might 'offer to go with her'. It sent a shiver down my spine and I thought "There's a book in that." I sat down and started writing it that afternoon.

You say in your author's note that it's not based on personal experience. I think many people will find that incredible as it seems so 'real'. Do you know parents of children with leukaemia?
No, thank God. Nor did I speak to any. I've always had a bit of a knack for empathy. I can get inside people's heads. I probably spend far too much time thinking about how I feel and how others feel. I had a fair idea of how I would behave (Melissa, the mother, is partly me) and I knew how my real Simon would behave. There is a lot of Simon in Simon!

As parents, it's all too easy to flinch from reading about children being ill or dying. Wasn't this a terribly hard book to write, as a mother?
I was pregnant as well! I started the book in my 7th month of pregnancy and finished it when Alexander was a newborn - often with him on my lap. Yes there were many times when I thought "Christ. Should I really be writing this? Am I tempting fate?" Certainly I now have a deep understanding of what it must be like to be losing a child and I can only pray it never happens to me. That said, I was interested in the mundanity that continues in one's life during such times. Your precious child is dying and the washing up still has to be done. I find that very striking.
I was very keen that the book shouldn't be maudlin. I hope that I have managed to temper the more upsetting aspects of the book with a little humour and some more light-hearted vignettes. That also provided light relief for me!

I love the depiction of Madron House, the children's hospice. Presumably you visited places like this? It sounds incredibly upbeat and really rather wonderful - is that the reality or are only a few like that?
I've always been aware of Martin's House Hospice in Wetherby near Harrogate. However Madron House (Madron is the patron saint of pain relief, so I thought it was apt) is entirely fictional - I made a lot of stuff up and it might even be slightly idealized - but generally children's hospices are wonderful, upbeat places. The work they do is stirling. The larger percentage of their funds have to be found through fundraising. If you ever see them fundraising, please do try to find a quid or two. To use a tired old cliche, every penny counts.

How DO you think you should talk to children about death? Other people's and their own?
I live next to a graveyard, which has prompted quite early discussions with my 5 year old daughter. She knows that we all die - normally of old age but we can have accidents or get dreadfully ill - and she knows that our bodies, or overcoats as I explained it, get put in the ground. (I think I'll deal with cremation at a later date!) There is absolutely no point in trying to skirt around the issues of death. Children have wonderfully open and positive minds. I told my daughter that we would all meet up again in heaven and that death was in many ways wonderful as we get to see people and animals we wouldn't be able to see in life. That may be rubbish of course and it is up to her to decide what she believes, but for now, she's happy.

Death is such a taboo - and children's death above all - do you hope books like yours will help us talk more readily about it? I clearly remember my father dying when I was ten and nobody – but nobody – talked about it.
When I was thirteen, a friend's father died of cancer in the school holidays. When she came back to school, none of us spoke to her. We didn't know what to say. I remember rushing out of the common room so as not to be left alone with her. She went from being popular and surrounded by friends to being a bit of a loner for the rest of her school career.
I swore to myself many years ago that I would never, ever do that to someone again. I'm not sure that Simon's Choice will have any effect on the world and the way we deal with death, but I certainly learnt a valuable lesson and perhaps Simon's Choice was part of putting that right.

Simon and Melissa find people avoid them, as they don't know what to say. What SHOULD you say to parents in a situation like that?
Nobody likes an uncomfortable conversation, but shying away from those who are grieving is emotional laziness. If you bang into someone you know, ask how they are feeling. Remind them that you are there if they ever want to talk but also try to bring something into the conversation that isn't all about death. I know that many people who are grieving also find that other people seem to think it is wrong for them to do normal things - or to even be seen laughing. Sometimes people will welcome a break from their sorrow. Offer to go to the cinema. Include the grieving person in a trip to the pub or football match. They may well say no, but it will mean a lot to still be asked.

Simon is comforted by his faith - are you a religious person? How does your faith (or lack) affect your parenting?
I'm on the atheist side of agnostic. Our children are brought up as Christians though - Arabella goes to Sunday School and I keep my skepticism to myself. It is for them to choose their own beliefs when they are older. Even if they do not believe, our entire culture is lain on the foundations of religion and so it is important that they know the stories, hymns and rituals that most of our artwork, politics and music is steeped in.

Porridge, the family's Labrador, is a great character....hmm, is he drawn from real life???
Ah - I thought you'd like Porridge, Jane. No, he's completely made up but I noticed that dogs in books always seem to be incidental characters. In real life they are so much more important - a large Labrador is a big part of family life - hence Porridge gets a starring role.

What are you writing now? Is it going to be very different?
The working title is 'Scared to Death'. It’s about a Theatre Studies teacher in a super-elite school who plays a silly prank on his students. A girl (whom nobody realised was bulimic) has a fatal heart attack. It asks the question, would she have died anyway or was she 'Scared to Death'? We also explore his past and what has shaped him as a person. I like character driven novels. I like to explore personality - people fascinate me.

Huge thanks, Charlotte.  Most important of all - how can we buy your book?
It is out of stock on UK Amazon right now but hopefully will be back soon.  However you can buy it from here
Charlotte also blogs and you can find her on Twitter

If this interview has interested you in the work of children’s hospices then check out these links to learn more

And let me know what you think.  What would you do if you were in Simon's position?  How do you talk to children about death and illness?


Lara said...

Great interview, but goodness, I am wondering whether I would be able to read a book with such a theme, I blub at most things.
Certainly an interesting idea for a book

Exmoorjane said...

GG: I thought exactly the same but truly it isn't a gloomy read. I was actually far more traumatised by the Kate Atkinson I read recently - Case Histories (about sudden death). Hmmm, wonders why I've been feeling a bit low recently! :)

martine said...

what a strange comment, she is agnostic but her kids are 'bought up christians', what rubbish, you can only bring up your child as a Christian if you are one surely, it is about imparting values and attitudes, or is she leaving that up to the Sunday school. makes me think a lot less of her as a parent and less inclined to read her book.
Sorry, I never write anything negative in a comment but have rarely read anything so peculiar.
best wishes

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great read. I dont know how I would cope if my son was to die, as for talking to them about death I dont have much idea either - I dont even know what I beleive. A star in the sky seems to be the best explanation for them, although technically we all know its a lie.

Dan Holloway said...

I remember this super book from Authonomy.
My mother taught me to read from gravestones when I was 3 - they're actually incredibly good for it because the fonts are so easy to read, and the text is often the same, so you get the benefit of mainly repetition with slight differences.
This may, of course, explain a lot about my books :)

Suzie Grogan said...

I think it is amazing that she has been been able to write without talking to parents of children with leukemia. I wouldn't feel confident enough to assume I had sufficient empathy to really understand how one would react in that situation. Great interview though.

Exmoorjane said...

Martine: don't apologise - I love hearing all points of view, and sure Charlotte will too. It's a whole other question, really - how one brings up one's children spiritually. Too long and involved for a comment. Another blog post, methinks.

asmallhand: Ah, I don't know either. Not sure I have any answers which is why I'm interested to see what everyone thinks.

Dan: you have done the impossible - made me snort with laughter on what has been a really grim day!

Suzie: I found that amazing too. Quite an extraordinary feat.

Mary Poppins said...

Ohooo poignant subject. We experienced much pain and sadness when our son was born stillborn in 2005, I wanted our nearly four year old daughter to meet him and she spent some time cuddling him and talking to him. I think children grasp alot more than maybe we give them credit for. Although she never got to know her little brother, she often talks of him and he is buried in our pretty village church and I have to say on many photographs of my DD there are orb type visions, and I wonder if it could be him watching over her. Ohoooo have to sign off soon, getting motional, I often wonder whether we are too open in my family about such things, but it is an experience that has effected our family so feel in my heart i have done the right thing by letting her meet him, hold him, experience him. she shall have those special memories for ever XX

Anonymous said...

Gosh, I've got so much to say on this I'm not sure I can fit it all into a comment.

I'm very wary of people who say they "now understand what it's like to lose a child". I'm not certain any of us possibly can until it happens.

My son died three years ago. Would I have gone with him? Like a shot - if I hadn't have had so many other people who loved me and who I loved right back.

I don't think you can generalise either about the 'right way' to deal with people who are grieving. What was right for me on the Monday would have been wrong on the Tuesday and right again on Wednesday.

I'll read this book, although I can't guarantee finishing it. Thanks for a great post.


Exmoorjane said...

Mary: thank you so much for sharing that... Do you follow Crystal Jigsaw - she would have a lot to say about orbs...

Emily: I can't begin to get my head round how it must feel - sometimes I think about it but my mind pulls away, in sheer terror. Like you, my first thought is that I wouldn't want to stay around (except, as you so rightly say, it would be too cruel for the others).

Wally B said...

When my son was 3, I had a very vivid dream. I dreamt we were both in a car accident, and when I awoke in hospital, attached to lifesupport, I was informed that my son had not survived. I asked them to switch off the machine so I could go with him as he would be lost without his daddy. Apart from waking up in a cold sweat, it made me consider what type of supreme being would take a small child away from his parents and subject them both to an eternity of torment.
To Martine's point, I am an atheist, if one needs a label, but my son is brought up with values inherant in all major religions, including christianity. My lack of belief in a deity does not diminish these values.

Alison Cross said...

Interesting concept and good interview, Jane!

For me, it's too horrible a thought to even contemplate, even in the abstract.

Out there tonight there is a woman who is HAVING to endure the death of her child and I can't bring myself to stand in her place, even hypothetically.

I'd be a blubbering wreck if I read this book! I cry at adverts :-)

Ali x

Rob-bear said...

Brilliant interview, Jane. I'm sure the book would make a fascinating read.

Having spent a lifetime visiting the dying, burying the dead (from infants to elders), and comforting the grieving, the book sounds a bit too much like work.

Dying with my child? I think not. I really don't see the purpose, especially if one believes that the child might be in much better hands than mine.

Naomi Devlin said...

The book sounds fascinating, but I couldn't even get past the tagline without tears springing up! Losing a child has to be one of the most emotive subjects there is. A brave book to write!

x x x

Charlotte Castle said...

Hi Martine

I'm not sure that my doubt about the existance of God means that I don't have 'values'. Certainly I agree with the 10 Commandments (though I suspect you could do away with them all with a simple 'Do As You Would Be Done To'. I was brought up a Catholic and whilst I'm a little unsure about whether there is a God, I'm still a perfectly good person and I tell my daughter that there is a God. To be honest, I do an awful lot more to help others than some of the church goers I know.

Dan - I might try that!

Suzie - I did read a lot of accounts of people who had been through this and also spent some time on child bereavement forums.

Not sure it will let me leave a comment this long so I shall come back and respond more in another...

Charlotte Castle said...

Me again, part 2!

asmallhandinmine - that's a lovely idea, a star.

Mary Poppins - I'm so sorry you had to go through that.

More Than Just A Mother - Again, I'm so sorry that you have been through this. Certainly, I cannot profess to know how YOU feel and felt, but I do maintain that through the writing process and the soul searching that that entails, I do have a good idea of how I would feel. I lived, ate, breathed and slept this book for over 3 months - and I got to know my character's feelings very well.

Alison Cross - seriously, it's not that bad! I don't dwell on Sarah much - it is more about Simon's day-to-day battles.

Rob-Bear - Simon's offer to 'go with' his daughter is because he believes in heaven and is distraught about the idea of his daughter being alone. He can almost deal with her death, but can't cope with the idea of her being somewhere alone and scared.

Legend - me too! I still have values!! ;)

Oh dear - have I missed anyone out?


Charlotte Castle said...

I think I left out GoldenGirl and Naomi - whom I just want to thank for taking the time to read the interview. I do hope that you feel able to give Simon's Choice a go - as Jane says, it really isn't as sad as it sounds!

Thank you again Jane for a great interview with some really interesting questions.


Candice Adams said...

Martine--What a ridiculous and small-minded comment to make. Agnostic means that you question the nature and existence of God. In order for one to have faith, you can't be certain that God exists. Everyone should be questioning. You can only be certain of your faith. And to be so ignorant as to think that someone can't impart values to their children without being Christian is about the most idiotic thing I've ever heard in my life. I would presume this author is able to teach her children humility (which you clearly don't have or understand) since she is able to admit that she doesn't understand the full nature of a complicated and unknown creator. She probably is able to teach her children to be open minded (which you clearly are not) because she is able to accept that people can have ideas and understandings of the universe that differ from her own. She probably is able to teach her children to be respectful (which you have already proven you are not) because she could have taken the same low, judgmental road you did in her response to you. She behaved as a follower of Christ should--with patience, empathy, and kindness to someone who didn't deserve it. She was the better person in this scenario. In that one comment you insulted every other belief system other than your own by saying non-Christians can not raise children with values. I seriously question the values you are imparting to your children. I'm sure you will raise dutiful bigots.

And for heaven sakes, what does this have to do with the author's ability to write a book?!?? I read the book and it's brilliant.

JD Revene said...

Great interview, ladies. It's always wonderful to get an insight into other writer's thinking about their work.

martine said...

HI Legend, I did not mean to imply that anyone's child is not having values imparted to them by their parents, what I mean is that the reasoning behind your values are different if you are a christian. I would consider that I hold to many of the so called 'christian' values, and I hope imparted them in some sense to my children, but I would not call that giving them a christian upbringing. I hope i imparted *my* values to my children, wherever they might have originated or supposedly belong to (I don't like the way religion seems to imply it has the monopoly on certain values). I also thought it was strange for her to "keep her skepticism to herself", that too is a mistake, children need to know that there are differences of opinion, and also that adults do not have all the answers and have doubts about what might be right or wrong on some issues and in some situations.
with best wishes

Exmoorjane said...

Dear that this post is creating debate... I am going to be away for a week on holiday so please do continue to discuss but may I ask that it's kept calm and respectful of other people's opinions? Aware that whenever religion comes into the mix, things have the propensity to get heated!

Charlotte Castle said...


I think I should probably bow out of any row on this. But thank you for taking the time to comment.

Parenthood is a tricky road, with many choices of path. The same can be said with religion. We're all just struggling to do what we feel is best for our children. Clearly, there are different ideas on this and I am sure that it is possible to raise good, caring, moral children in a number of different ways.

Best wishes


Ben said...

If only more people "on the atheist side of agnostic" had Charlotte's balanced and mature approach to religion - her tolerance for others' beliefs, her understanding of the influence of those beliefs on our shared heritage, and her desire for her kids to develop that same understanding.

This interview, and Charlotte's response to some of the subsequent comments, make me think far more of her as a parent and very strongly inclined to read her book.

Posie said...

I love the description of the body being like an overcoat. An interesting and thought provoking read I am sure but I would shy away from reading it I am too emotional, would be in tears the whole way through it. Posie

Unknown said...

Sounds like a very powerful and interesting book, but as one of my biggest fears is something happening to my children, I'm not sure I could read it. Wonderful interview and interesting responses x

CAMILLA said...

A very good interview Jane on such a poignant subject.

Cannot ever imagine what it can be like to lose one's child, I have dealt a lot with death and the laying out of them when in nursing, but one's own child I could not come to terms with.

We just hope that our children live on before we die, if not (God forbid), how could I ever come to terms with the heartache as I turned away to leave them there if they did.

My children are more to me than life itself, I know we bring them into the world and they are not ours for ever, that they should go on to enjoy their life's rich pattern and we should ourselves along the way.

If we saw our own child drowning, or come to that someone else's child, what would we do. My first instinct without a doubt would be to save them no matter what, sparing not a thought for myself.

This interview and the subject matter has made me sit up and think deeply about it, and I shall be ordering Charlotte's book.

likeacrow said...

I do think it's very strange to send your kids to Sunday school & tell them there's a god when you're leaning towards the atheist side of agnostic. Why would one not simply impart good values without the reliance on a 'god' that is one of many gods from one of many religions constructed by man?
You can still have an awareness & understanding of the effect Christianity & other religions have had on our religion without favouring one over the other, which, to me at least, would be the most reasonable approach.
Book sounds good though!

likeacrow said...

Broken link there, sorry!

likeacrow said...

And I meant 'the effect Christianity & other religions have had on our culture' not 'religion'!