Child sits on grandpa's knee


9 Books to Help Kids Understand Death

Aug 18, 2017

Of all the things that I’ve taught my son since I welcomed him into the world nearly four years ago, one topic has proven to be more challenging than any other: death. Between Pixar movies and family pets, it’s a subject that I knew I’d have to tackle eventually — Betta fish only live for so long, after all — but “eventually” came much sooner than I’d expected. Suddenly, I found myself searching for the right words to convey one of the most heartbreaking truths of life; that the people we love will one day have to leave us. 

My paternal grandfather, known affectionately in our family as “Bumpa,” passed away earlier this year, not long after his 88th birthday. My son knew that Bumpa had been sick — we visited him in the hospital, where he smiled at my boys and gently explained to my oldest that he couldn’t walk anymore, and would have to stay in bed. Not long after that, things took a turn, and his health quickly deteriorated. The fact that my son had the chance to know and spend time with one of his great-grandparents is a rare and special gift, for which I will always be grateful. But when it came time to tell him that Bumpa was gone, I was at a loss. How could I explain the concept of death to a small child without making it seem scary and overwhelming?

More Recommended Reading: How My Kids Helped My Deal With The Loss Of Our Beloved Pet

Sometimes when the things you want to say don’t come easily, the best option is to turn to the words of someone else. With that in mind, here are nine children’s books that help to introduce the concepts of death, loss, and grieving to little ones in a gentle way.

The Goodbye Book (Todd Parr)

Recommended for ages 3-6

Book cover: The Goodbye Book (Todd Parr)

Once there were two fish swimming in a bowl, but now only one remains. This colourful book with simple text and child-friendly illustrations takes little ones through the wide range of emotions that they might experience after they say goodbye to someone that they love.

Tess’s Tree (By Jess Brallier, Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds)

Recommended for ages 3-5

Book cover: Tess's Tree (By Jess Brallier, Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds)

Nine-year-old Tess loves spending time with the old tree in her yard, whether she’s swinging from its branches or playing in its leaves. When the tree is badly damaged during a storm and has to be cut down, Tess is sad and angry. She decides to have a service for her tree so that friends and family can share their special tree memories. With cheerful illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds (The Dot, Ish), this book tackles loss and grief, as well as introducing the concept of funerals to young children.

Life Is Like the Wind (Shona Innes, Illustrated by Írisz Agócs)

Recommended for ages 4-7

Book cover: Life is Like the Wind  (Shona Innes, Illustrated by Írisz Agócs)

This book, written by clinical psychologist Shona Innes, introduces little ones to the concepts of life and death by comparing them to the wind. The story touches on the emotions associated with death and loss, as well as the different ways that people cope with grief, and the various beliefs that people may hold about where we go after we die.

Sidewalk Flowers (JonArno Lawson, Illustrated by Sydney Smith)

Recommended for ages 4-7

Book cover: Sidewalk Flowers (JonArno Lawson, Illustrated by Sydney Smith)

In this beautifully illustrated book with no words, a little girl walks through the busy streets of Toronto, collecting flowers along the way. When she encounters a dead bird in the park, the little girl stops to leave flowers by its side — a small gesture of kindness and grace that reminds little readers that all life is precious.

The Heart and the Bottle (Oliver Jeffers)

Recommended for ages 4-7

Book cover: The Heart and the Bottle (Oliver Jeffers)

Fans of Oliver Jeffers (Lost and Found, How to Catch a Star) are sure to appreciate his unique take on loss and grieving in this must-read book. A little girl responds to the loss of a special person in her life by trying to shut her heart away in a bottle so that it will never be hurt again. Though her heart doesn’t experience any more pain, it also doesn’t experience the wonder and joy that she once felt, and over time it becomes heavy. But with a little help, she’ll find a way to free her heart and enjoy the world around her once again.

Grandad’s Island (Benji Davies)

Recommended for ages 4-8

Book cover: Grandad’s Island (Benji Davies)

With an uplifting story and vibrant illustrations, Benji Davies explores the idea of losing a loved one in a way that gently introduces the topic to even the youngest reader. The book follows a little boy named Syd and his Grandad on an epic adventure to a faraway island. When the time comes to head back home, Grandad tells Syd that he’s decided to stay, and the two must say one last goodbye.

Badger’s Parting Gifts (Susan Varley)

Recommended for ages 4-8

Book cover: Badger’s Parting Gifts (Susan Varley)

Wise old Badger knows that his life is nearing its end, and he worries about how his friends will feel once he’s gone. Though he tries his best to prepare them for his death, his passing leaves his friends feeling very sad — especially mole. As winter turns to spring, the animals gather together and share their happiest memories of their dear friend, and all the wonderful things they learned from him. This sweet book teaches children that the memories of their loved ones are special gifts that will last forever.

Ida, Always (Caron Levis, Illustrated by Charles Santoso)

Recommended for ages 4-8

Book cover: Ida, Always (Caron Levis, Illustrated by Charles Santoso)

This bittersweet tale of two inseparable polar bears is based on real-life pair Gus and Ida, the former residents of Central Park Zoo in New York City. When Ida becomes ill, the zookeeper explains that there is no way to make her better, and one day she will die. Gus is angry at first, but the friends try to enjoy their remaining time together as much as possible until they have to say goodbye. When Ida is gone, Gus is sad and misses his friend, but finds happiness and comfort in his memories of her.

Cry, Heart, But Never Break (Glenn Ringtved, Illustrated by Charlotte Pardi)

Recommended for ages 5-8

Book cover: Cry, Heart, But Never Break (Glenn Ringtved, Illustrated by Charlotte Pardi)

In this beautiful and poignant story, Death comes to visit a home where four children live with their beloved grandmother, who is very ill. Try as they might to keep Death away from her, they can only delay the inevitable. Sitting around the kitchen table, Death tells the children a tale about Sorrow and Joy, Grief and Delight, in an attempt to help them understand why the people we love have to die. Through this explanation, author Glenn Ringtved depicts Death as a character full of sensitivity and compassion, rather than something to be feared.

Article Author Alicia McAuley
Alicia McAuley

Read more from Alicia here.

Alicia McAuley is a freelance writer, editor and all-around web nerd who never met a pop culture reference she didn't like. The former editor of a parenting website, these days she shares a home office in the suburbs with her husband, two adorable boys, and two lazy cats. You can find her cracking jokes on Twitter @aliciamcauley and pinning projects for her to-do list on Pinterest.

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