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When You Die Project
Map of Memory Lane – with Francesca Arnoldy
Johanna J. Lunn: This is the When You Die podcast. If it has to do with death and dying, we’re talking about it. I’m your host, Johanna Lunn.
Today, I welcome back to the show Francesca Arnoldy. In addition to being a birth and death doula, she is the course developer, facilitator, and program director of the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine, End-of-Life Doula Professional Certificate program.
I’ve spoken with Francesca before about her wonderful book, Cultivating the Doula Heart: Essentials of Compassionate Care, and I’m delighted to talk with her today about her new book, Map of Memory Lane, a richly illustrated book for children that introduces the important idea that memories of those we love can be a lasting legacy. You can reach Francesca at either of her two websites, francescalynnarnoldy.com, or at contemplativedoula.com.
First, I have to say, Francesca, I’m so happy to be talking to you about this, especially because children are an essential part of our human society, and yet, are often the ones that are left out of some of the most important passages, death being a big one. There are not a whole lot of resources for children (although there are some out there). I’d love to hear you talk about your inspiration for this wonderful book, Map of Memory Lane.
As you are a birth and death doula, I’m wondering, was there something in your experience professionally that made you want to do this, or is it because you’re also a mom?
Francesca Arnoldy: Yes, all of that. Thank you for the invitation to talk about it.
I kept hearing (within our graduate community, especially, but even more broadly than that) that people are seeking these types of resources. There are usually questions posted and posed to other people. What do you utilize if you’re working with a family and there’s a young child or if a young child is deep in grief? What do you lean on? There would be some resources shared, and I kept feeling pulled in that direction. As you said, I’ve been a birth doula for quite a while, and in my birth doula bag I have quite a few picture books that I utilize. I also would teach sibling preparation classes. I think that’s such an important part of the family journey when there are children already there, and then the family is pregnant. It helps them to welcome in a new life.
Then, with my death doula work resources are not as readily available and not as generally infused into the preparation period. I wanted to be able to offer a new resource to people, and the original inspiration for the actual storyline comes from my own childhood and the memory of spending time with my grandmother.
I was quite young, and we were at her kitchen sink. Clear out of the blue, I think, which often happens with kids, I looked up at her, I looked up at her face, and I noticed some wrinkles, and I said, “Grandma, are you going to die?” I think she was completely caught off guard, but my gram is my gram. She chuckled and she smiled at me in a really reassuring way, and she said, “Yes, I will die. Someday I will die, but that’s okay, and I’m not afraid of that. I’ve lived a good life.” That was it. I didn’t have any follow up questions. I felt like I got the information I needed. She was honest with me, which I really appreciated, and I was able to move on. She planted a seed there that has obviously stuck with me ever since.
JL: That’s great. I love what you were just saying that as a birth doula you’ve used picture books as part of preparation. And as a death doula, when you can work with a family and an individual as they’re dying, it seems like those kinds of resources are equally important for the family. I like that idea. Maybe you’ll be teaching children death preparation in the future. You never know, but that isn’t a bad idea, really.
FA: I think, ideally, we could start even sooner, when a loved one is facing imminent death, but perhaps even sooner, when everyone is in good health. It can be part of a life lesson early on. I think that the way we talk about death and dying with children is very important, too, isn’t it? Using words like “dead” or “dying” and not “passing away” or anything that could be symbolic or ambiguous to a child. It’s important to be concrete and clear. Again, I think there’s a huge education around death and dying for a broader public, not just about advanced directives and all those kinds of preparatory things that we as adults generally think about (if we’re thinking about it at all).
With children, they have pets that are going to die. I can’t tell you how many turtles of mine died. It was always a little shocking. And then I had a hamster that died. And it was whisked away, and I was told, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you a new hamster.” Well, wait a minute, you know? [Chuckling] What happened to the first one?
JL: It’s interesting you mention that because we just wrapped up our Companion Animal Training Program. I hear these stories that adults are carrying from their childhood, and they often include this unhealed wound from a loss such as you described. They weren’t told the truth about it. They weren’t involved in the decision making. There was no preparation, and then suddenly, their pet has disappeared from their life, and they’re left feeling confused and alone in that experience.
FA: As you said, as adults we’re very well-intentioned: we want to try to spare children pain and suffering. Yet we leave them to their own imaginings, to whatever they come up with and whatever they might feel. For example, children often wonder if they are to blame for what happened. That’s a very lonely, upsetting feeling for a child to hold silently. We can open up these conversations and plant seeds.
This book is about a grandchild asking a grandmother about the inevitability of loss, in a more tactful way than I did with my grandmother. Lee, the main character, asks, “Will you live forever, Nana?” It’s applicable to any sort of loss. From that came a companion activity book, and in it I’ve explained that this activity book helps to personalize a keepsake, in honour of a beloved, that is, a person or a pet who has died. Or two people can work on it together to capture their favourite moments that they share.
JL: This is what I love about Map of Memory Lane and My Map of Memory Lane, the companion piece to it. It’s the question, are they memories, what we hold when someone has died? Maybe you could work on that with your child or grandchild before you die, just recalling together these good times, memorable times. Whatever those memories are, that our memories are potent.
I lost my mother when I was 19. I wasn’t a child, but I wasn’t really an adult yet. Now, so many years later, decades later, what I still have of her are these beautiful memories. To be very conscious about that, I think is a wonderful idea. By no means do I have an exhaustive knowledge of children’s books on death and dying, but I’ve never seen one quite like this, that honours memory and that provides the opportunity to say, “Now you create your own map.” I was actually very surprised.
FA: When this idea came to me, I thought about what’s universal. Well, loss is universal, difficult as it is. The meaningful moments that we spend with people are universal. While they’re unique, depending on who the person is and their relationship to us and where they live and all those factors combined, we still share these meaningful moments.
When I came up with the concept for Map of Memory Lane, I thought to myself, “Someone’s already done this. Of course, this has been done.” But I researched, and I couldn’t find any books that are focused for children on memory lane. So, I thought, what a beautiful invitation. While the book gently introduces that reality, that future loss that a child will experience, it focuses on those memories.
They’re not extravagant. They’re very simple, they’re very sweet, because I wanted it to be as applicable and accessible to as many children as possible, and not everyone has gone to Disneyworld or travelled on a yacht in the Caribbean with a loved one. Most people have spent simple times, maybe making a special meal that’s their thing that they do or going out in the rain and splashing in puddles. Those are the times where you and your loved one are so focused on one another and not anything else, and that’s what makes them special.
JL: It’s true. You think we should have these grand moments, these big moments, these bucket list kinds of things with our children or our grandchildren, but you’re right. The most meaningful memories are very simple, very human, really, when we’re most relaxed in a certain way and our hearts just touch. It’s almost a wordless sort of thing. Food, of course, is always a good one. [Chuckles] Preparing food, but it could just be, like you said, being outside doing something in the rain or in a garden.
FA: Right. Or silly things. I take inspiration from my life, of course, in these creative endeavours. My mom is a fantastic grandmother. My mother-in-law is as well. They’re both wonderful and they love my children so much. Something that my mom came up with is she would make up silly stories about my kids, featuring my kids. They would be the main character in these stories. They loved them and they would beg her to come up with the sequel and what’s coming next. I wanted to capture that in the book as well. So, Lee and Grandma are reflecting on all the stories that Nana makes up about Lee.
JL: That’s so great. I’m just curious, since I know that you do active listening with some clients, and I imagine this is part of making meaning in a person’s life which is so important at end of life. Making meaning, having some sort of life review. I’m wondering, in that context, a book like this is also incredibly important for anyone thinking about their life and being able to reflect on those moments together. Whether you’ve got a diagnosis or not, if making meaning isn’t something we could do throughout the course of our life.
FA: I couldn’t agree more. I have a death journal that I keep, and I’m constantly adding to it. My children and husband know of it, and they know where to find it, and so does my mom, depending on the order of our dying times. In it, I have included messages: sometimes letters, sometimes just little notes, sometimes lyrics, poetry, my wishes for them, some helpful instructions for once I’m gone, some mementos, postcards, photographs. So that when I am gone, they will have this legacy project that I’ve created. They can still hear my voice and hear my stories that I have created just for them, because I won’t be there to comfort them, but I know that this will. I know that reflecting on the beautiful times that we have shared will help to carry them through their grief.
I’ve worked with other families as well, including those with young children, and it is quite a deeply held fear for a parent to wonder, will my child remember me? If an adult is dying at a younger age, for example (this is a more recent experience from my work). This gentleman’s deepest fear was if his youngest would remember him as a parent because that relationship that he had with his son was so important to him. He would have done anything to be able to live longer and see his children through their childhood years. Yet, he knew that that wasn’t going to happen for him, so what could we do? So, we created legacy projects. After this person died, I also went to visit and invited his young son to remember things about his father. We recorded some of those because he might not be able to access those memories later.
At that time, I did not have this companion activity book, but if I had, this would have been a great tool, so that I could have supported them in creating this keepsake together. The younger child could have done coloring in it, he could have added his own pictures to it. The older child, who’s a teenager, could have written some text, could have taken some photographs. There are so many ways that you can personalize this. To know that they worked on it together with their father while he was alive, it’s profound how much that means to someone.
JL: Such a beautiful, beautiful project. And a beautiful story, too, Francesca. Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate it.
I think we’re moving forward in a more death-aware culture. I think it makes us treasure even more the moments that we have right now. That’s what I really hear from the story you just told. When you think of it, these moments are precious, so let’s capture them.
FA: I’m so appreciative of the courage that takes. I think the pandemic has really brought that to the fore for so many people for the very first time. I don’t lose sight of how difficult that work is, to be able to acknowledge one’s own mortality and the ending of our relationships.
I think sometimes people think, well, my goodness, it’s about time, of course. I’m in awe of where we are getting ourselves culturally with these shifts we’re experiencing and this evolution of thinking. Especially, I see it with our elder generation who are saying, “Hey, woah, slow down! Pause! I want to really be in this. I want to be in this day, I want to be in this moment! I want to be present in my life, and I want to make intentional choices! I’m not just along for the ride, I’m not just a zombie going through the motions.” I think it’s beautiful, and I think that this is another way that people can embrace this and be able to set up our children in healthier ways, to be able to navigate hardship, because it’s going to happen to all of us.
JL: Yes, absolutely. I love the emphasis here on intentionality. That seems to be a big word these days. Perhaps you are looking to your old age and planning: what is a good life for me at this stage in my life? And you have real intention about that. Making choices about everything from what kind of medical care you might want to where you want to spend your final days. And to include children in that is a beautiful, life-giving addition, if you will.
FA: I agree.
JL: There’s so much to this project. It touches on so many aspects of end of life. It’s important.
FA: Thank you! I hope it will be useful and supportive. I hope that people will feel like they can tuck this into their doula bag or their doctor bag or their nurse bag, or whatever role they’re holding, it’s mental health work. I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from people who are social workers, and even spiritual care providers, that this is something that they’re going to utilize, both for families in good health and when children are facing a crisis.
JL: Perfect. Do you see a place for this in schools?
FA: I hope so! I think it takes some courage, because what’s difficult is that sometimes the adults in the children’s lives aren’t quite ready for this. I think it’s important that we honor that, and we don’t force it. But my hope is that it’s such a gentle introduction and that the focus is not so much on death and dying, but about our connections and our relationships, and ways that we can honour those relationships, that parents might be more open to this, and, potentially, open to some other resources that are focussed on death and dying.
I can anticipate that My Map of Memory Lane, the companion activity book, could be introduced, and children could work through, perhaps with a counsellor in their school, or alongside their trusted teacher. They could look at this activity book, complete it together, and think about and go through a loss they’ve experienced. It could be a loved one, it could be a family member, it could be someone in the community, it could be a pet, or it could be something else. It could be that you had to move from a home that you really loved, and you miss that terribly. There are so many kinds of losses that we can acknowledge together in communities. My hope is, yes, schools, libraries, hospitals, and hospice homes might have this.
JL: That’s great. I see it as a great benefit. I also think that perhaps My Map of Memory Lane might become a digital edition as well? Things like the photos and all that would be easy attachments.
FA: Definitely. I think it’s easily adaptable to people’s needs and preferences and what they have available to them. It can be quite simple or quite complex. People can print off numerous copies of different pages that they love more than others. That’s my hope. It’s truly customizable.
JL: That’s great. Where can people see this project right now?
FA: Right now, there is a Kickstarter campaign for pre-orders that’s running through almost the end of July. You can find that on kickstarter.com. If you google my name or Map of Memory Lane, it will show up. Also, people can find it through my website, francescalynnarnoldy.com.
JL: Your website will also give people future information about where to purchase it or download it, or whatever form it might be widely available in.
FA: Yes, definitely. I hope people do come visit to take a look at it. It’s one thing to hear about it, it’s another to see the beautiful work that my illustrator has done to bring this to life.
JL: What’s the name of your illustrator again?
FA: Her name is YoungJu Kim. She lives in Georgia and does amazing work. She’s originally from South Korea. Part of the story that I love is how collaborative our relationship has been, and how I have encouraged YoungJu to honor her own heritage within the book, as well as to include mine. She’s the daughter of an immigrant, a Chilean immigrant. In our cross-cultural double spread we have some images from South Korea and from Chile as well, including the flag from there, and other places around the globe so that we can really honor as many people and be as inclusive as possible.
Our main character is a child of color. As someone with a polycultural heritage, it’s non-specified in terms of race or ethnicity. I think it’s important that children of colour see themselves in picture books, and it’s not happening nearly enough. That was an intentional choice. Lee does not have any gendered pronouns attached. Lee might be a little girl in some readers’ eyes, or a little boy, or non-binary in another reader’s eyes.
JL: That’s perfect. I really hope that people do go to your website, do go to the Kickstarter campaign, to see the beautiful illustrations that are being put together and get a good feel for what this book is, and the ground-breaking work that you’re doing to bring children into our end-of-life-care.
FA: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it, and I appreciate the work you’re doing in the world.
JL: Thank you. Is there anything else we haven’t talked about that you want to share?
FA: Well, the companion activity book, while it’s a wonderful keepsake, also has a tip sheet that will be a part of that download and that file. It covers things like tips for supporting children through difficult conversations and through loss. Tips about following their lead, using clear language, not feeling pressure to know everything, and welcoming it all. And it goes into more details about that. And then there are tips about completing the book and prompts for getting your story started. I hope that will be helpful for people.
JL: That’s great, because a lot of times it’s where do you begin, right?
FA: Definitely. Even as adults, we have a hard time entering into these conversations with other adults. Often, we feel like, I don’t know what to say to a child. I don’t want to upset this kid and say the wrong thing, and not saying something generally leads someone to feeling lonelier in their grief than saying the wrong thing.
JL: So true, so true. I love the care that you’ve put into this. Thank you again.
FA: Thank you. I appreciate it.
The When You Die team is committed to bringing death back into our everyday conversations as an integral part of our human journey.