Books to help children cope with loss and grief
Expert-recommended titles that address this difficult topic
For children, subjects such as loss and grief can be difficult to understand and process. A well-chosen picture book can be an invaluable resource for parents and caregivers who want to explain these challenging and emotional concepts in an age-appropriate, thoughtful way.
"I really encourage parents to use books as conversation openers with kids," says Andrea Warnick, a registered psychotherapist, RN, and thanatologist with grief-counselling practices in Guelph and Toronto, ON. "Not just reading the book and not having a conversation, but actually using it as a way to open conversation with their kids."
And it's a dialogue that you can start any time. In fact, Warnick recommends that parents be proactive, seizing teachable moments — anything from a squirrel on the street to death in an animated movie — to give kids some of the information about death and dying before they're actually experiencing it on a personal level. "I find some four or five year-olds get really inquisitive about death and trying to understand this big mystery, and they'll just want to read these books. I encourage families to have them around and let the kid take the lead," says Warnick. Don't feel like you have to have the answers; the goal is to open up the conversation and let your kids know that they can ask questions. And, certainly when you're already in a situation, get a book and see if your child wants to start reading. "Some kids might say, 'No, I don't want to read it' — then don't force it," says Warnick.
To find the right book for your child, Warnick recommends age as a good starting place, and then factoring in personality as a secondary consideration. For example, one of her go-to titles, I Found a Dead Bird, she only recommends for certain kids: "for the really inquisitive kids who want to know all the nitty gritty bits about how the body decomposes and stuff like that." Then, be sure to completely review the book in advance to make sure that it's appropriate for your child, and that there aren't spiritual or religious explanations or angles that might not be in line with how your family wants to talk about death.
Finally, Warnick recommends choosing books that use clear terminology that doesn't skirt around the issue. "Look very closely at the languaging [of the book] because all of the literature and the research on this [is] clear... when we talk to kids (particularly young kids who are two to five years old) it's important to use the words 'death' and 'dying' and not use euphemisms," she says. For example, saying "Oh, we lost Grandpa last week" can be confusing to kids because they lose things all the time and find them again.
Here are 13 children's books on loss and grief, as recommended by the experts:
Andrea Warnick, registered psychotherapist, registered nurse, and thanatologist:
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown
"I think this book should be in every hospital and every pediatrician office. The authors really understand how kids think about death. They [address] the physical pieces of the body not working anymore and not feeling anything... [and] that a lot of kids worry that it's going to happen to them, too.
It also talks about how many people have many different belief systems … reincarnation, heaven, the idea that our bodies go back into the ground and become a part of nature. And it addresses the anger and worries that a lot of kids feel, and how to find safe ways to express them. But, I do always give parents a heads up that When Dinosaurs Die includes a little section touching on suicide and also overdoses. While I love that the authors included these topics, not all families are comfortable with them."
Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen
"This is a beautiful book. They never explain what the big loss is that Grandy is grieving, but they do a beautiful job talking about grief. With the illustrations, it's written as though it's a children's book, but I find it's actually more for older children, [maybe] ages eight and up or even teenagers. It's often my go-to book for adults who are grieving as well. It's just a beautiful depiction of grief and the grief process, and all the different feelings and emotions and how people in the same family can [react] so differently."
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
"Lifetimes is a very gentle introduction to the concept of death and dying; this book I would recommend to any family. It's [intended] for children ages four to eight, but I have no hesitation [recommending] it for kids younger than that. I think we often underestimate how much two and three year-olds can understand, because they can usually understand far more than they can verbalize. [The book] uses nature and animals and things like that to introduce kids to the idea of our lives ending at certain points, and that we all have different lifetimes."
"I would recommend this book for children ages eight and up. With younger kids, I've recommended it for inquisitive kids who really want to understand on a physical level what death involves. It's a very scientific-minded book, and is not for all kids. Some kids, it would actually freak them out. But for the kids who really want to understand the physical aspects of death, this book nails it."
Sadie Tucker, Children's Librarian at Vancouver Public Library:
"There are many children's books about death, loss, and grief ... the book that works best for a given child will of course depend on their age and personality, as well as the circumstances that surround the recent loss. My go-to book is called Death is Stupid, by Anastasia Higginbotham. This is a non-fiction title that is non denominational, matter-of-fact, and pragmatic. It covers the confusing platitudes that children are often told, explains the process of grief, and gives tips on how to cope with the big feelings that can result from the death of a loved one. It does all of this while validating the child's feelings and experiences. Best suited for kids four and up."
"The colourful, bold images in Todd Parr's work makes this a perfect and simple story to share with a young child having to say goodbye. Grief and loss can look like many things in the early years and this book is open-ended enough to provoke important conversations with your child while building emotional intelligence. I appreciate the way he honours the feelings of confusion and uncertainty that [one might] be experiencing, while staying hopeful and loving."
Katharine Tutko, owner of Moonbeam Books in Toronto, ON:
"Best for kids five to eight, [this book] deals with the loss of an important person in a kid's life. We see a girl full of imagination and wonder who loses that wonder when she loses her father, the person that she shared her joy of the world with. Her grief becomes too much for her to bear so she simply shuts off her feelings by sealing her heart in a bottle.
It is at its essence about how we need all emotions, even the hard ones, to fully experience and understand all the amazing things in the world around us, and it encourages kids to feel their grief and not to ignore it or push it away. It's a simple and gentle story but there's a lot to take from it; and, because it's not overtly about losing a particular person, it can speak to a wide range of experiences with grief. The illustrations in this book have the same whimsy as Jeffers' other books and add a whole other dimension to the story."
Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved
"Death. A word that often invokes distress and confusion in children. Cry, Heart, But Never Break introduces "Death" as a gentle, compassionate and thoughtful character, aware of his reputation. 'Not wishing to frighten the children, the visitor had left his scythe outside the door. All the same, they knew that it was Death.' Death sits with the children, waiting patiently while their grandmother rests in the room upstairs. When the children ask Death why he has come for their grandmother, he regales them with a story of love and the relationship between sorrow and delight, grief and joy, and life and death.
Ringtved does a beautiful job showing that death does not have to be scary or feared. What I find especially compelling is Pardi's use of watercolour illustrations to further create a sense of calm around the topic of death. This picture book is a great tool for discussing death with older children, especially in those difficult times when a loved one is near death. Recommended for ages six to nine."
Rosemary Griebel, Service Design Lead for Readers at Calgary Public Library:
"After old Fox curls up in his favourite clearing and goes to sleep forever, his friends gather, one by one, to share stories. As each friend recounts a favourite memory, a tree grows bigger and bigger, until it shelters and protects all the animals in the forest. A comforting tale, beautifully illustrated, that reminds us it is OK to be sad and that through stories and memories we keep our beloved ones close to our hearts. Recommended for ages two to seven, although all ages will be touched by this gentle story."
Tyler Clarke Burke, author, illustrator and artist:
Where Are You Now by Tyler Clarke Burke
"I started [this] book as a little private project in my studio a month or so before the tenth anniversary of my mother's death. My kids were starting to talk more about death and dying, and they were also starting to ask questions about where my mother had gone.
In Where Are You Now?, I wanted to focus on the clarity, beauty, and growth left behind in the wake of death. I also wanted to acknowledge the lives that echo through the preceding generations, if even silently. Before my mom died, I didn't think of her every day, or maybe even every week? It was painful to feel her absence. After her death, I think of her always, and I frequently weave our best moments — and her humour, creativity, and baking — into the life I have with my children."
Amanda Lloyd, Children's Librarian at Fredericton Public Library:
"This is a simple and rather lighthearted picture book about four children who happen upon a dead bird while they are playing outside. The story provides a clear introduction to the process of death, what a death ritual can look like, and demonstrates how some people experience grief and loss. The Dead Bird is a great tool for teaching children in late preschool or older about the basic concept of death and about what some people do when they encounter it."
Winter's Gift by Jane Monroe Donovan
"Winter's Gift is a picture book about an elderly person who is grieving the loss of his spouse and forms a friendship with a weary mare on his first Christmas Eve alone. In addition to the simple and thought-provoking flow of the story, the author's detailed illustrations beautifully depict feelings of loneliness and the warmth of treasured memories of a loved one who has passed away. Winter's Gift is a beautiful story suitable for school-aged children about grief and moving forward after losing someone special."
Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.