Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers on March 29, 2022
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Beach days with Uncle Mike always bring something unexpected, like a shiny shell that turns out to be a hermit crab. But Uncle Mike has cancer. Not every surprise is a good one anymore. Soon Uncle Mike starts spending more and more time at the hospital, and the grown-ups start saying “we don’t know” over and over. One day Mom says Uncle Mike is gone. Gone where? What place could be better than his house on the beach? How could he leave without saying goodbye?
This gentle, evocatively illustrated story addresses illness and loss from a child’s perspective. Though grief, confusion, and anger can be overwhelming, we can find ways to move forward with the memory of our loved ones.
I’ll Say Goodbye is a story about death and loss. Told in the first-person perspective of a young child, we see him with his uncle Mike on the beach where they discover a hermit crab. He decides to keep it as a pet and name it Herman. “Someday Herman will outgrow this shell,” Uncle Mike says. It’s poignant, beautiful foreshadowing of what’s to come.
Uncle Mike develops cancer. The understanding of the cancer is told through the lens of a young child, but is never simplistic. As time moves on, uncle Mike goes from playing with the child, to watching the child play, to only being able to watch from the window. Mike is hospitalized, then placed in intensive care, and then…he’s gone. My parents say that my uncle isn’t coming home ever again. They say he’s in a better place. But I know they’re wrong. What place could be better than Uncle Mike’s house on the beach?
When the child comes back from the funeral, he finds that Herman the hermit crab has moved out of his smaller shell in favor of a larger one. The metaphor is weighty, poignant, and memorable. I’ll Say Goodbye doesn’t gloss over death. It doesn’t attempt to nullify earthly grief with the hope of heaven. Instead, it sits and laments and grieves…and then offers hope in a simple symbolic fashion. There’s no talk of heaven overtly and quite often the platitudes of “a better place” ring hollow when said at funerals, but here author Pam Zollman recreates the platitude into something new and no longer superficial.
Frances Ives provides the illustrations, using color to great effect and creating emotions through brightness and darkness, contrasting happiness with sadness and hope with lament. I appreciate the way I’ll Say Goodbye rests in the grief of it all, offering hope but acknowledging the overwhelming sense of loss. It’s a well-told, beautifully-executed story that’s perfect for talking about loss, no matter your religious background.