The POPPO Books where written on behalf of my Graduate School Professor, mentor and dear friend. In the spring of 2005, a phone call from a former classmate informed me of my mentor’s passing. I sent a sympathy card only to learn he was not dead! I met with him to apologize and soon realized that my mistake had given me the opportunity to reconnect with a wonderful friend and happen upon his journey through illness and death.
So what began as an embarrassing mistake became one of the greatest gifts of my life.
My friend, also known as Poppo, asked me to write a story for his granddaughters, to help them understand the progression of his debilitating illness. And once again, I found my mentor inspiring me to stretch, to learn and grow even as he struggled to walk, to talk and to do all the things that I took for granted.
During the summer of 2007, Poppo took on the incredible task of attempting to illustrate the first of the POPPO Books. He was diligent, and worked tirelessly despite his failing health and increasing limitations. However, Poppo died before he finished.
As you read the POPPO Books, take a moment to embrace the ones you love, and remember the determination that led Poppo through the final journey of his life. His legacy and his incredible spirit filled with joy and hope, will forever remind us to live life completely.
About Annie MacDonald, M.Ed.
Working as an elementary school counselor, Annie is no stranger to children dealing with death. Having received her master’s degree in education, she has worked with children in many capacities, including parent, teacher, social worker, and counselor. Her unique and varied perspectives create for her a broad and well-rounded approach in how she views children and their experiences.
Over a four-year span of time, Annie experienced the death of her mother, graduate school professor, and her father-in-law. With each loss, she gained greater insight, and through the consistent practice of meditation, reflection, and prayer, she began to see death with a new perspective. With great enthusiasm, she set out to learn more about the topics of spirituality, children and death. She welcomed many new opportunities, including the publication of The POPPO Books, a series inspired by her graduate school professor. These books offer death education to children coping with the failing health and death of a loved one. Through this book series, Annie teaches children some of the central issues of loss and bereavement.
In 2012, Annie presented at the ASCA (American School Counselor Association) National Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She spoke about S.M.I.L.E.; an approach for grieving that offers tools children can use to deal with loss in a positive way. This approach is based on the concepts presented in Poppo’s Memory Book; the fifth book in her series.
Annie is an ordained minister; a path she chose to support her work with both children and adults through their issues related to grief and loss. She has a strong dedication and compassion for those who are grieving, and aspires to offer hope and healing through her book series.
READ ANNIE’S RECENT ARTICLES IN THESE MAGAZINES AND NEWSPAPERS
Helping Children Learn to S.M.I.L.E. After Loss
November 7th, 2012 by Annie MacDonald
My mother’s passing was my first intimate experience with death. Gathered in the living room, our family surrounded her to say goodbye during her final moments. There was an unbearable sadness in me that day. I was heartbroken. It was hard to imagine how my life could go on without her.
Over the next four years, I experienced personal death twice more: Poppo, my graduate school professor, and my father-in-law, a man I affectionately called Bucko. With each loss I gained greater insight, and through the consistent practice of meditation, reflection and prayer, I began to see death with a new perspective.
Somewhere along the way, I realized that saying goodbye is not really what death is about. Of course in one sense, I did need to say goodbye to my loved ones. How could I not? They left my physical world. But with time and healing, I found truth in the age-old adage “time heals all wounds.” I learned that with love and patience my sadness would eventually lessen, and the loss I felt would unexpectedly transform into acceptance. In fact, I discovered that I really didn’t have to say goodbye at all. Our relationship hadn’t ended. I just thought it did.
Death is a difficult but natural part of life that impacts everyone. Children mourn and yearn for their loved ones just as we do. As adults, our natural desire is to protect and shield them from the sorrow and pain that arises when loss occurs. Through the death experience, we have an opportunity to teach our children how to grieve. Our personal religious or cultural beliefs can be helpful to us, but these beliefs vary, as do the explanations of death. We need to find a way to offer a spiritual framework for children to understand death, while providing them the tools they need to help them to move beyond their grief and feel happiness once again.
As a school counselor, I have worked with many grieving children. Parents often seek guidance when a loved one has passed. Some struggle to find the words that will help their children understand. I offer to create a memory book with the child, one that embraces the lessons I have learned. In this book, the child explores S.M.I.L.E. – Share, Memories, Imagine, Love, and Enjoy, an approach that provides children with a healthy way to cope with grief. After all, when we lose someone we love, the best we can hope for is to be able to smile again.
Five steps to help children move forward after loss
Share: Share your feelings with someone you trust.
Share all your feelings with the people that love you. Whatever you are feeling, express it through writing, drawing, or talking to someone that you trust. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Everything you have to say is important!
Memories: Remembering keeps your loved one close.
Memories are also important! Look through old photographs, participate in special traditions, share stories and spend time in places that remind you of your loved one. It doesn’t matter how you remember, simply that you do!
Imagine: Use your imagination to create mind-magic.
Imagine! Use mind magic to keep your loved one close in your heart. Imagine your loved one is with you keeping you company, just like you did when you could really be together. Feel your loved one’s spirit close to you and loving you. Your love for each other will never die.
Love: Love yourself and others too.
Love and show kindness to yourself and others in every way you can. Remember the love you shared with your loved one, and allow yourself to feel it in your heart now. Practice kindness by smiling, helping others, and by doing things that make you feel happy inside.
Enjoy: Enjoy your life in a new way.
Enjoy your life in a new way. Keep your loved one close through your memories. Imagine your loved one is still with you, and feel all the love in your heart. Find reasons to be grateful for each and every day and for all the good things that come your way.
Moving on after someone dies does not have to feel difficult and scary. With love in your heart, you can build your own bridge, one that connects you to your loved one. It’s my hope that everyone reaches for this, and learns to live joyfully in the memories of those they hold dear to their hearts
Coping with Tragedy – How to Offer Hope to Grieving Children
Written by Annie MacDonald, M.Ed.
Has someone important in your child’s life passed away? As a school counselor, I have worked with many grieving children. Parents often seek guidance when a loved one has passed. Some struggle to find the words that will help their children understand.
I offer to create a memory book with the child, one that embraces the lessons I have learned through my own experiences with death. In this memory book, the child explores the S.M.I.L.E. Approach – five steps I personally use to keep my loved ones close. After all, when we lose someone we love, the best we can hope for is to be able to smile again.
The S.M.I.L.E. Approach: Share, Memories, Imagine, Love and Enjoy offer children tools to help them deal with their loss in a positive way. It also provides a spiritual framework for children to understand death, while giving them the tools they need to help them to move beyond their grief and feel happiness once again. By learning how to smile, children learn how to hold the relationship with their loved one in their hearts, so that it can continue to be a source of great comfort and love. They learn that life must go on and that they can continue to live and be happy with the knowledge that their loved one is still with them in their hearts, even though they may no longer be alive.
When children learn to S.M.I.L.E., they learn five key points:
1. Share. Share your feelings with someone you trust. Share all your feelings with the people that love you. Whatever you are feeling, express it through writing, drawing or talking to someone that you trust. And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Everything you have to say is important!
2. Memories. Remembering keeps your loved one close. Memories are also important. Look through old photographs, participate in special traditions, share stories and spend time in places that remind you of your loved one. It doesn’t matter how you remember, simply that you do!
3. Imagine. Use your imagination to create mind-magic. Imagine! Use mind magic to keep your loved one close in your heart. Imagine your loved one is with you keeping you company, just like you did when you could really be together. Feel your loved one’s spirit close to you and loving you. Your love for each other will never die.
4. Love. Love yourself and others, too. Love and show kindness to yourself and others in every way you can. Remember the love you shared with your loved one, and allow yourself to feel it in your heart now. Practice kindness by smiling, helping others and by doing things that make you feel happy inside.
5. Enjoy your life in a new way. Keep your loved once close through your memories. Imagine your loved one is still with you, and feel all the love in your heart. Find reasons to be grateful for each and every day, and for all the good things that come your way.
Moving on after someone dies does not have to feel difficult and scary. With love in your heart, you can build your own bridge, one that connects you to your loved one. It’s my hope that everyone reaches for this, and learns to live joyfully in the memories of those they hold dear to their hearts.
Benjamin Franklin Elementary school counselor Annie MacDonald hopes to teach young children how to handle illness, death and grieving in their lives and to learn to live joyfully in the memories of lost loved ones through her latest book on the subject.
“Poppo’s Memory Book: A Child’s Guide to Remember and S.M.I.L.E. After Loss” is the fifth installment in her children’s book series and works as a workbook/companion guide to the third and fourth books in the series — Poppo’s Very Best Trick and Bubbles for Poppo.
MacDonald started the series with “What’s Up with Poppo” and “Poppo’s Half-Birthday Wish.”
MacDonald wrote the books from the perspective of a young child and in them addresses the progression of terminal illness and eventual death of a loved one.
She began writing the books after a serendipitous reunion with a former college professor. The reintroduction was mortifying at first, she said. A friend had told her that her old Keene State College graduate school professor and mentor Stephen Smith had passed away, so she sent his family a sympathy card.
The family wrote back saying he had not died. She met with him to apologize and learned he was ill with ALS. They started up a friendship that was a rekindling of their teacher/student relationship. Except this time, “I wasn’t a student there to learn about counseling. I was a student there ready to learn about dying.”
“In that time when I reconnected with him, he asked me to write a children’s book for his granddaughters so they could understand what he was going through,” she said. “We talked about ways the stories could be used to help others and worked on the curriculum a little bit together. … It was an amazing journey and it really changed so many things for me and I learned so many things from that experience. He was a great teacher till the very end.”
Poppo was the name Smith’s grandchildren had called him. He was to have been the illustrator of the books, but died soon after he began drawing.
“He was really an inspiration,” MacDonald said. “He talked a lot about my magic and looking at things in a positive way and believing in yourself and positive thinking and living in the moment and finding what you love doing and doing it,” she said. These lessons MacDonald learned from Smith are the foundations of the book series and what MacDonald wants to teach children, she said.
While her first four books cover illness, death, and after loss, Poppo’s Memory Book is a workbook that covers S.M.I.L.E., MacDonald’s approach to grieving that has tools elementary school children can use to deal with their loss in a positive way.
S.M.I.L.E. stands for Share, Memories, Imagine, Love and Enjoy.
When you can share your feelings with someone you trust, keep your loved ones close through memories, imagine a bridge between you and them, love yourself as well as those who remain and enjoy your life in a new way, you can learn to live joyfully, MacDonald said.
“That’s really what we need to do. We still have a life to live. We might feel left behind, but we still have to keep going. I have to still make the best of my life and be a joy to the people around me,” she said.
While there are other books on grieving, as a counselor, MacDonald said, she has never found one before that takes her approach. MacDonald teaches kids that even though they are separated from their loved one, they don’t have to feel separated. They can use their imaginations and memories and feelings to continue to have that person in their life.
“I’ve never seen a book that really does that. That teaches that. And that is what I wanted to teach,” MacDonald said. “We need to be able to move on in our lives. … It’s about changing your perception. This person is not with me now, but they are still with me in my heart.”
Her books, unlike many others on grief, also steer clear of religious explanations or imagery. MacDonald said her books are spiritual, but never religious, so they are appropriate for all children regardless of their religious background.
“Especially as an elementary school counselor in a public school I never want to impede on anyone’s beliefs systems,” she said.
By MEGHAN PIERCE, Union Leader Correspondent
BY MICHAEL GELBWASSER SUN CHRONICLE STAFF, FOXBORO
What started with a graduate program in counseling became a lesson in life. Annie MacDonald calls Steve Smith her mentor.
Back in 1991, she was his student and graduate assistant at Keene State College in New Hampshire. Smith, a North Attleboro High School graduate, ultimately became Annie MacDonald’s Morrie Schwartz, the subject of the New York Times best-seller, “Tuesdays With Morrie.”
This spring, AuthorHouse published MacDonald’s “What’s Up With Poppo?” a children’s book about a girl whose grandfather gets progressively worse from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. MacDonald is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to the ALS Association.
Smith, who died from complications related to the disease on Oct. 9, 2007, asked MacDonald, a former Foxboro schools’ guidance counselor, to write the book.
They reunited in November 2005 at a Panera Bread in New Hampshire after MacDonald sent Smith’s family a sympathy card that June when a former classmate mistakenly heard that he had died.
At the time, Smith – “Poppo” to his two granddaughters – was more than three years into his battle with ALS. “He said, ‘I’d really like you to write a children’s book for me on behalf of my grandchildren,'” she said. Coincidentally, MacDonald had written about “the embarrassing mistake that brought him back into my life” as the final assignment for a graduate correspondence course in writing children’s literature. At that time, she had only spoken with Smith on the phone.
Her writing teacher found the story compelling – and incomplete. “I don’t know if I would’ve pursued it if he hadn’t written back to me and said, ‘Your story is not done,’ ” said MacDonald, who worked in the Foxboro schools from 1999 to 2007. She now resides and works in New Hampshire.
“She was the one that said, ‘You’ve been given a second chance to say goodbye. Go take it.’ ” MacDonald calls her relationship with Smith “my own version of ‘Tuesdays With Morrie.'”
“Tuesdays With Morrie” is Mitch Albom’s New York Times best-seller chronicling his reunion with one of his former college professors after a 20-year absence. Albom’s professor, Morrie Schwartz, was dying at the time. The title refers to their weekly get-togethers in Schwartz’s study. The book later became a TV movie starring Hank Azaria and Jack Lemmon.
Smith, MacDonald said, was “just one of those teachers that you remember. He thought outside the box, and pushed you.” “I was having to learn again from my teacher. He was showing me about dying,” she said.
“He laughed. He thought it was so funny I made such a stupid mistake,” MacDonald said. At the time they reunited, he could barely speak, she recalled. “After a while, I didn’t see it anymore, because the teacher I remembered was still in there,” she said.
Smith provided a list of “all of the things he thought might scare a child” with a relative with ALS, MacDonald said. He wanted them included in the book – which he agreed to draw, but did not finish; Ashley MacNeil illustrated the book.
The book is narrated by an unnamed girl who enjoys visiting with her grandfather, “Poppo,” who “giggles when I dance.” As the story progresses, Poppo becomes more and more ill. The girl asks her parents, “What’s up with Poppo?” and they explain in general terms, and tell her how she can help him. “Poppo’s sick,” Daddy says. “The muscles in Poppo’s legs don’t work like they used to work. He needs the wheelchair to help him move around.” “Give Poppo extra hugs,” says Mommy.
Smith appreciated MacDonald’s tribute so much that his family mentioned it in his obituary, which ran in the Oct. 13, 2007, Sun Chronicle. He was 60. “He was an avid artist and was in the process of creating artwork for a series of children’s books he was developing with a former student,” the obituary states.
MacDonald said she has written four “Poppo” books. She finished the first one in the spring of 2007, and the second one, “Poppo’s Half-Birthday Wish,” before he died. Teacher and student also began developing a curriculum to go along with the book, she said. “He would talk about those books as part of his future, too,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald wrote the third and fourth books, “Poppo’s Very Best Trick,” and “Bubbles for Poppo,” after Smith’s death. Only the first book has been published. She is unsure if she’ll publish “Bubbles,” in which mind-magic “takes the illness away.” “It would provide a wonderful message, but I don’t know if it’s a realistic message for children,” MacDonald said.
Foxboro students dealt with ALS several years ago. Ahern Middle School Principal William Palladino died from the disease in April 2000. He had been principal for nearly four years. The school’s media center is named in his honor.
“Through this caring series of books, Annie MacDonald brings some much-needed death education to children in a sensitive and creative way. She teaches young people some of the central lessons of loss and bereavement; including how to be present with someone who is dying, how to say good-bye, and perhaps most importantly, how to hold the relationship with the deceased inside your heart so that it can continue to be a source of deep comfort and love.” Linda Belliveau, Beacon Hospice