SOME YEARS AGO, I was assigned to cover S the funeral of a woman bank teller who had been shot during a bank robbery. It was one of those particularly useless killings. She'd done what the bank robber wanted. No pushing of secret alarms or anything like that. She was young. She had a child. She wanted to live. But she was mourned in one of those wrenching ceremonies in which the women openly wailed and the music alone was enough to make you weep. Afterward, her husband stood on the church steps, a figure of dignity and grief, holding the hand of their son, a beautiful little boy who seemed to understand some measure of his loss and was trying to be very brave.
It was just such an experience of witnessing a child suffering the loss of his mother that started Jill Krementz thinking about how the death of a parent affects a child. The result is an extraordinarily moving book called "How It Feels when a Parent Dies" (Alfred A. Knopf, publisher) in which 18 young people ages 7 to 16 speak in the first person about the death of their mother or father.
Some parents were killed in accidents, others had cancer, still others committed suicide. The children talk about how their parent died, how they found out about it, whether they went to the funeral or not, whether their parent was cremated or buried and how they felt about that. They talk of how their classmates reacted to them, how their siblings and the surviving parent reacted and how they feel about the widowed parent dating or remarrying. Some express approval at a parent's remarriage as long as the stepparent doesn't take the dead parent's place, while others say they simply don't want their parent to remarry, they don't want to share, and still others say they don't want their parent to remarry because they fear the loss of yet another father or mother. Krementz has interviewed each of her children with the kind of depth and compassion that has allowed them to express the full range of emotions toward one of the cruelest blows life can deal.
"Dad said I didn't have to go to the funeral, but I wanted to," says Nick Davis, 15, whose mother died in a taxi accident when he was 9. "I would feel bad now if I hadn't gone. When I walked in, everyone was looking at me and I felt a strange sort of pride, like, 'I'm the one you have to feel sorry for.' "
"At our school they told my class that my father had died," says Alletta Laird, 9, whose father died three years before in a car crash, "and it sort of made me mad because nobody ever played with me. I guess they were embarrassed. It's hard because they think you're different. I've never known anyone else whose father died, but if I did, I would try to cheer her up."
"My father and I didn't really get along," says Helen Colon, 16, whose invalid mother died when she was 11. "My mother was the only person I really had -- and my brother Joe. It was just the three of us most of the time, my mother, my brother, and me. So when she died, I felt really sad. And then I started feeling angry -- angry that my mother had died and left me."
The best of stepparents cannot fill the void. Meredith Meryman, 15, lost her mother to cancer and her father remarried a woman Meredith loves. Yet, she says, "There are so many times I wish I did have a mother -- like I wish I could bring a friend home and say, 'This is my mother and my father,' or I could just come into a room and say, 'Hey, Mom, guess what happened in school today.' I haven't said the word 'Mom' for five years."
There is nothing self-pitying about these children. They have felt great grief and survived. Each of the 18 chapters is complemented by Krementz' photographs of the child who is speaking and her portraits of those special attachments that have emerged in the child's life to help fill the void -- a little sister, the dead parent's horse, the surviving parent, the stepmother who joins in a portrait of the new family -- all portraits of recovery, survival and hope.
"Greg is littler than I am," says Gail Gugle, 7, whose father died nine months before in a car accident, "and he thinks Daddy didn't really die -- that he's in Italy or Iowa and that he's going to come back. He thinks it's a dream or something. Last summer when we came back from vacation, he thought Daddy would be in the house waiting for us when we came home. Greg says he misses Daddy most in the fall. That's because he and Daddy used to rake leaves together and they would make a big pile and we would all jump in. He and Mommy do it now and Mom's getting pretty good at it. I like the jumping part."
"I still have dreams about my father -- happy dreams," says Alletta Laird. "They make me feel good. And sometimes I see the light outside my window -- it's on our garage -- shining into my windows, and I think it's Dad -- his spirit. It's a secret. My mother doesn't know and my sisters don't know either. Nobody knows about it because the light only shines into my window. It makes me happy."
This is a book for children and parents who have suffered the loss of a parent, but it is also one that reaches beyond them. Krementz has given all of us a rare and precious chance to reenter and perhaps regain an understanding of the emotional world of children from which time has separated us so completely.