'Potter' book may force kids, adults to confront death

The Baltimore Sun

Author J.K. Rowling has said two major characters die in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Few know which characters these are, but speculation has been rife that hallowed Harry Potter himself may meet his maker.

This could be devastating for some impressionable children who have grown up with the bespectacled boy-wizard for the past 10 years.

"I'm an older person, and I feel, let them have a nice ending; let's 'imagine' what happened to them all grown up and married and that they went on with their lives," says Esther Segelman, a Florida mother of eight children ages 12 to 32.

"I wouldn't want my kids to read it, and, after all these years, [the characters] die. They become so involved it becomes a little hard to take. I wouldn't want my 12-year-old to feel cheated, almost. I know they have to learn about a certain part of life, but today's children grow up too fast. They should be entitled to enjoy it and dream about it when they are finished reading it."

The sense of loss, dealing with death, even the passing of a fictional character, can have a profound impact on children, experts warn, and parents should be prepared to handle questions and pay attention to behaviors that could arise after reading the final book.

"Different people identify with different characters in all forms of literature. Parents should be cognizant of whom their child deals with in any book," says Dr. Mitch Spero, a licensed psychologist at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood, Fla.

"With loss issues, if a child is prone to separation disorder, any type of loss will kick up any other loss this child has experienced in life," for example, flashbacks to the death of a relative or other loved one, he said.

Problems can include depression, sleeplessness, temper tantrums, reverting to bed wetting. Older kids could become irritable, frustrated.

At Camp Songadeewin of Keewaydin, a girls camp in Vermont, unit leader Erica Harlow is expecting as many as 27 teary readers on her hands.

"I'm planning discussion groups," she says. "'If you've finished chapters 1 to 10, come discuss!' It's OK to let them be sad. It's not OK to let them be sad and to not understand why."

Here are some tips to help children cope:

Communicate openly with your child before and after reading the book.

Children may have intrusive thoughts about a character's death even while engaging in fun activities. If there is a reaction, "don't label it as an overreaction, but recognize that everyone has their own reactions to loss," Spero says. "If it truly reaches a point where it kicks up other losses, it may be the tip of the iceberg for someone who is anxious or depressed."

In general, a child of 6 begins to understand that death is permanent, Spero says. Before that age, a loved one could die, and the child may still wonder if that individual will show up for dinner or a family gathering. Understand that each child is unique.

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