Death, Grief, and the Rebirth of the Child in "Bridge to Terabithia"
Many modern children’s books suffer from adult censorship because of their ‘too mature’ content. One such case refers to themes of death and grief in the kids’ world. What parents and adults fail to comprehend, though, is the necessity of these stories for children. They need to learn to cope with the hazardous nature of death and heal from it. Published in 2005 and based on real events, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson illustrates just that through the death of its character Leslie Burke and her friend Jess Aarons’ managing of the ensuing grief.
Leslie’s apparition in Jess’s life and their subsequent friendship unlock his creativity, pushing him to follow his dreams. She is the spark Jess needed in his life, the one to uncover Terabithia for him through her imagination; she chooses a secluded space in the woods, names the place, creates a language and rituals, all so they can have a safe spot to come to “at times of greatest of sorrows or of greatest of joys” (47). Terabithia’s presence is vital for Jess’s development because it is here that the artist and man in him grow (Misheff 134). Leslie’s death comes unexpectedly in the middle of the story, akin to most real situations. Her dying as a mere child, drowning, marks the event as tragic and leaves Jess dealing with grief and loss. The event shows the suddenness of death and its impartiality, but also what happens after it: in this case, Leslie’s memory carries on through Jess and her creation, Terabithia.
Jess’s redemption and Terabithia are part of Leslie’s legacy. As Sue Misheff notes, “Leslie’s self-sacrifices had come in life rather than death,” the artist in Jess being reborn as he works through his grief (136). By revealing Terabithia to his younger sister May Belle and choosing to continue to paint, Jess keeps Leslie alive in his memory of her: “She wasn’t there, so he must go for both of them. It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.” (126). Even though Leslie dies, life is not over because the matured Jess is there to push forward until he, too, will inevitably succumb to the same natural fate. As such, Leslie’s death just emphasizes the natural cycle of life; she finds rebirth through her and Jess’s connection while Jess matures and learns to appreciate every second of his life and the people in it.
Katherine Paterson deliberately surprises readers with Leslie’s premature death because it better exemplifies the shocking nature of death. Nonetheless, the author also reveals how children can face the aftershocks of such an event and cope with grief in a way that helps them push forward in life, continuing to live with the experience, in a way, reborn. The natural cycle of life must continue, and “seeds must be buried in order for new life to grow” (Misheff 137). As it stands in the canon of children’s literature, Bridge to Terabithia is a powerful story of a child maturing into the world, experiencing loss, and learning to keep people’s memory alive through them until the end.
Misheff, Sue. “Beneath the Web and Over the Stream: The Search for Safe Places in Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 29, no. 3, 1998, pp. 131-41.
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. Illustrated by Donna Diamond, Harper Trophy, 2005.