Post 76: 10 Children's Books That May Help You Talk About Dying, Death, and Grief
Updated: Oct 1, 2022
"Can you recommend any books I can read with my kids to help me talk about dying?" is a question I occasionally hear during a palliative care visit (read Post 1: What Exactly Does a Palliative Care Specialist Do?).
The following are children's books recommended to me by fellow colleagues or found through Google searches. There are plenty more books on Amazon, however the following are the ones I purchased and keep with me at home for "just in case" should I ever have a need to lean on them. Some of these are books that as a parent I may personally choose to read with my kids only with specific intention; they may be emotionally provoking, or what kids may describe as "sad."
If, however, you or a child in your life are experiencing profoundly sad loss, these books may resonate with you or the child:
Book about the cycle of life and death and life again
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages - by Leo Buscaglia
I love this book which covers living joyously, living with purpose, celebrating our differences, acknowledging that fearing the unknown is normal, and accepting matter-of-factly that dying happens. There may be too many words for some kindergarteners' attention spans, in which case you could choose to skip certain sections as you read.
Book about a loved one's death
Something Very Sad Happened: A Toddler's Guide to Understanding Death - by Bonnie Zucker
This is a short picture book that uses simple concrete language, which the author states she geared specifically towards 2-3 year olds. The book describes death in terms of "Grandma's" body no longer working (during the reading, "Grandma" can be replaced by whomever your toddler has lost in their life). It talks about "Mommy" feeling sometimes sad and sometimes mad because she misses "Grandma." When someone dies, you cannot see them anymore. The book ends with "Mommy" looking at pictures and telling stories of "Grandma." Note, the book specifically uses the word "die" and includes a wonderful section in the back consisting of practical tips on how parents and caregivers can talk to their toddler about death and aid their toddler in grieving.
Side note - I read this book to my 3 year old, who has not yet experienced the death of a close loved one. He could recognize that everyone in the book was "sad" because "Grandma" in the book had died. However, when I asked him if they would be able to see Grandma again, he grinned and exclaimed "Yeah!" I do not think he was able to grasp the permanence of death, perhaps because he does not have real-life experience to relate to this concept (and at this age, he does treat dead bugs the same as he does live bugs - "Put outside!"). My 6 year old, however, did want to listen to the book and remained engaged; when questioned, he did seem to grasp the themes of death, the various emotions one may feel when a close loved one has died, and how we can remember our loved one who has died. "When someone dies, we can share stories about them to remember them. If Mommy died, I would feel scared and alone. Talking about her with other people would not help because she's the one who makes me feel better."
Book about grieving change and grieving loss
Saying Goodbye to Lulu - by Corinne Demas
I am deeply moved every time I read this picture book that realistically depicts a loved one's body (pet dog Lulu) becoming older, weaker, more frail, requiring help in more and more areas of daily life by a loving caregiver (elementary-age girl). The book acknowledges that it is normal to wish that a beloved were strong like they were in the past and that it is okay to cry and require time to grieve before being able to accept loss and say goodbye after the death of a beloved. A way to both honor a loved one and cope with grief is by sharing stories and looking at pictures. Even though the book is about the loss of a beloved family pet, the pet dog could clearly represent a beloved family human.
Book about communicating feelings after loss
The Rabbit Listened - by Cori Doerrfeld
This is a sweet picture book illustrating that one may express their feelings after loss (in this case, the sudden destruction of an amazing, wondrous construction of blocks) in many different ways. Most importantly, this book allows children readers to articulate that sometimes they may not want others to try to "fix" their feelings or "fix" their loss; sometimes they may just want someone to be present, stay quiet, and listen.
Book that normalizes big feelings after loss
The Goodbye Book - by Todd Parr
I am impressed by this deceptively simple picture book that manages to cover the range of emotions one may feel after the loss of a loved one - normalizing all emotions - via a fish in a fishbowl as the main character. I thought the simple illustrations effectively conveyed the fish's emotions, making this character unexpectedly relatable.
Books about loss and remembrance
Ida, Always - by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso
Though I may get teary-eyed reading this picture book, it does not move me emotionally as much as when I read Saying Goodbye to Lulu. Perhaps this book is slightly less impactful (which you may want for a particularly sensitive child) because the characters are two polar bears who are best friends described in the third person (whereas Saying Goodbye to Lulu is told in the first person, specifically that of a caregiving elementary-age girl whose sense of loss is palpable).
I especially appreciate how this book demonstrates modifying activities to enjoy with a loved one who is sick and weak and points out that even when the loved one is gone that they are still with us - always - as the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches of day-to-day life evoke memories of them.
Chester Raccoon and the Acorn Full of Memories - by Audrey Penn
This is a wordier (but still meaningful and vibrantly illustrated) picture book than Ida, Always which covers similar themes of feeling loss after a loved one dies (in this case, Chester Raccoon learns that his good friend Skiddil Squirrel did not show up to school because he died) and memorializing the lost loved one by sharing stories and memories of their loved one. The book describes multiple animal friends in the forest coming together to celebrate their good memories of Skiddil Squirrel.
Books about remembrance
The Memory Book: A Book about Grief - by Joanna Rowland
This is a gentle book addressing a child's concerns of potentially forgetting someone the child has lost, told in the first person. The child talks about making a memory box to place items that make her think of her loved one. She eventually realizes that it is okay to make new memories with new activities and other people; when she "shares" these new memories with her loved one who is gone, she knows she is not forgetting her loved one.
Rosita y Conchita: A Rhyming Storybook in English and Spanish - by Eric Gonzalez and Erich Haeger
I happened to find this book in my 8 year old daughter's bookshelf, and I asked her if she had read the book. "Yes, it's cute," she replied. I asked her to tell me what the story is about. "It's about one day of the year, the Day of the Dead (in Mexican culture), when the spirit of the dead can join with the people who are alive. Rosita is the dead twin who tries her best to get to Conchita, who's alive, and Conchita helps her by baking Rosita's favorite snacks and singing Rosita's favorite music and things like that. But things keep coming up to stop Rosita until finally Rosita realizes she can follow the love in her heart. Conchita feels Rosita's love, and they both feel warm."
"That's exactly what the story is about. And what did you think of it?" I asked my daughter.
"It made me feel good because the girls found different ways to get together."
I asked a follow up question, "If someone in our family were very, very sick or dying or even dead, would this story make you feel sad?"
"Maybe, but I don't think so. I think I'd feel closer to the story because I would be going through the same thing. It would help me remember to think of good things about the person who died."
Initially I was ambivalent about including this book on the list because I was not sure if the Day of the Dead would be too specific to a particular culture for children of other cultures to understand. I changed my mind after the above conversation with my 8 year old.
Book about connectedness despite physical separation or loss
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
This is a gorgeous picture book that can be read at any stage and at any moment in a kid's life! It is an uplifting and reassuring book rather than a potentially emotionally provoking or "sad" book. The "invisible string" is the string of love that connects your heart to the heart of someone you love, and this string never goes away among people who love each other. This string has an infinite length, so even "Uncle Brian in heaven" can remain connected.
Initiating conversations in which we think our children will suffer in any way will never be easy, but it may be worse to never provide our children the opportunity to express their concerns and ask their questions. These same conversations could also provide opportunities to reassure our children that they are not at fault for a loved one's illness or death and that they will be loved and cared for no matter what happens (read Post 29: How Do I Talk to My Kids About My Illness? - Seven Pieces of Advice).
Perhaps one of these books could help start a much needed conversation.