11 Books to Help Parents Explain Death to Children
Discussing death with our kids can feel like a difficult subject for many caregivers. Understandig age-appropriate responses to death can help guide us with our expectations of responses from children when discussing what can feel like a scary and unsettling topic. Western MA mom, Lisa Woods, shares what worked for her when talking to her kids about the death of their grandmother and also a family pet. Check out these titles she has selected that deal with a subject that might help your family as well.
Explaining Death to Children
by Lisa Woods
As adults, we sometimes hope that if we don’t mention a difficult issue, it will go away, but children are very sensitive to their environment and great observers. I have experienced that my children can tell something is wrong by body language and tone of voice. If I don’t talk to them about serious things, they become anxious and think they shouldn’t talk about it either. This can cause them to worry more, yet I’ve discovered that sometimes just a few words can help put their mind at ease, and reading a story about the subject helps set us up for a good discussion.
I found some wonderful books that have helped facilitate age-appropriate discussions on the subject. I checked out several from the library so I could read them first and decide which books I wanted to share with my children. The pictures and the text helped direct a complicated topic into a manageable conversation. Before my children learned to read I would sometimes not read books word for word. I would use the pictures to engage them and use some of the text and some of my own words to tell the story and get across the message I wanted. I’ve often seen some parents get bogged down with reading it exactly how it’s written and it’s sometimes too much and can be boring. Feel encouraged to make reading these titles shared below engaging to keep their attention.
I Miss You: A First Look at Death
by Pat Thomas (Author) and Leslie Harker (Illustrator)
This book is my top pick for helping children wade through the grief after someone they love has died. It really explains things more in depth and covers the stages of grief. In the beginning, it’s a bird that has died, but it goes on to talk about the death of the little girls’ grandmother and how much she misses her. It also goes over the memorial service and how the girl remembers a time when she said something mean to her grandmother and now feels bad about it. The book talks about all the feelings being very normal and that none of that is the reason the grandmother passed away. This is a great book to read over before you read it to your child in case there are parts you want to explain further. There is a page that talks about feeling like your heart is torn in two. My kids were little when I read this to them, and since kids are very literal, I wanted to make sure they understood that’s just a phrase people use to describe that type of sadness. This is a wonderfully comprehensive book that has great pictures and is written very well.
Water Bugs and Dragonflies Explaining Death to Young Children
by Doris Stickney (Author), Gloria Claudia Ortiz (Illustrator)
This is the book I always recommend to anyone that needs to explain death to children or as an excellent book for anyone dealing with the loss of a loved one. I found it after the death of my mother and have kept it in my own library ever since. It begins with a group of waterbugs that realize members of their group have been leaving and are never seen again. They come up with a plan to try to find out what is happening to them, but it doesn’t work out as they expect.
The Invisible String
by Patrice Karst (Author) and Geoff Stevenson (Illustrator)
This book is great for helping children to learn that even when they can’t see their loved ones they are always connected by love, an invisible string of love. The kids test out this theory with their mom asking if the invisible string would reach them at various locations like while they’re in school, in a submarine or on top of a mountain and finally they want to know if it can reach their uncle in heaven. I like that they also ask if the string goes away if their mad at each other and she assures them that it never goes away.
Our Tree Named Steve
by Alan Zweibel (Author) and David Catrow (Illustrator)
I love this book. It’s about a family who has a huge tree in their yard. When the kids were little they named it Steve They grew up playing all around the tree, and the book goes over all the things they used it for. They described it as the center of their outdoor life. When the kids are away at their grandmas’ house, a big storm knocks Steve over, and they have only a stump left. The parents write to the kids explaining what happened and how Steve protected them right to the end by not falling onto their house. The parents used the wood from the rest of the tree to build them a tree house on the other side of the yard. I just loved the ending, they are all sad about the loss of Steve but the tree will go on to provide many more years of enjoyment.
The Heart and the Bottle
by Oliver Jeffers
The book opens with a little girl playing with her grandpa or dad, it’s not clear who he is. They spend a lot of time together doing different things, and the girl clearly enjoys this. One day the chair is empty, signaling that he died, although the book never mentions that. She is so distraught that she decides it would be better to keep her heart safe in a bottle than to love again and risk the pain of losing someone. She puts her heart in a bottle that she wears around her neck for safekeeping. She stops doing the things she loves and grows into a sad and lonely young woman. In the end, a young girl shows her how to get her heart back, and she becomes the happy, curious girl she once was. This is a good book if you’re looking for something that doesn’t explain too much. It has simple pictures and few words but gets the point across.
by Caron Levis (Author) and Charles Santoso (Illustrator)
Ida and Gus are polar bears at the zoo. They lived near each other and spend all their days together. One day Ida doesn’t come out of her cave, so Gus goes looking for her. She is still sleeping in her cave, and it sounds like she has a cough. The zookeeper tells him that Ida is very sick and will not get better. Gus is distraught by this news, but eventually, he decides to spend as much time as he can with her. Ida continues to get weaker, but they still talk and spend their days together until one day she dies. The ending is full of hope and how Gus copes with the loss of his good friend. This is a very sad book but so beautifully written, and the illustrations are beautiful. These two old friends are facing a future where one of them will be alone, but they come to terms with it and cherish the time they have left.
When Dinosaurs Die
by Laurie Krasny Brown (Author) and Marc Brown (illustrator)
This book talks about what it means to be alive and what happens when someone dies. It’s all told in an interesting way with a lot of facts that are easy for kids to understand. The illustrations show cute cartoon dinosaurs as people in various situations pertaining to death. I liked this book for the accurate information, but it might be a little much for some people. We used this book to help our kids when a child in our neighborhood died after being struck by a car. I would recommend reading it beforehand so you know what to expect.
The Goodbye Book
by Todd Parr
This is a super simple and quick book to read for very young children. It has few words per page, and the illustrations are simple drawings. For such a small book it really helps by going through the stages of grief while also talking about how you will start to feel better and be happy again over time.
Something Very Sad Happened
by Bonnie Zucker (Author) and Kim Fleming (Illustrator)
This is another book with very few words and is great for very young children. It has beautiful pictures and talks about how people may cry or be mad, that it’s ok to feel those emotions. Also that we will always have our memories and the love that was shared.
The Memory Box
by Joanna Rowland (Author) and Thea Baker (Illustrator)
In this story, a little girl has lost someone they love, and they miss them a great deal. To help cope with how much she misses them, she creates a memory box. She travels to places they always wanted to go and puts something in the box from each location. It makes her feel happy to know she has a physical reminder of her loved one. The illustrations in this book are beautiful and really capture the feeling of the story.
A Message for Grandpa
by Julie Guardado (Author) Marjorie Allen (Illustrator)
This book is about a young child’s first experience with the death of a family member. His grandpa died, and he sees everyone grieving in their own way. His mother is a great comfort to him and helps him navigate all the big emotions everyone is feeling. I liked the way the illustrator drew the pictures for this book. They were simple cartoons, but the faces showed the emotions really well. My favorite part was when the boy is telling his dad about a memory of his grandpa filling a hummingbird feeder when one of the birds starts circling his head. His grandpa had said that he whispered a wish to it and the bird carried it away with him. Late in the book, the boy is outside when a hummingbird came close to him, so he quickly makes a wish for the bird to tell his grandpa he loves him. He felt great knowing that the bird would carry that message to his grandpa.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa spent a decade traveling the world for her work before realizing her dream was to create art and write. She now lives in Chicopee, MA with her husband and two children where she homeschooled her kids for the early grades. Lisa has a real passion for books, especially children’s literature, collecting children’s books since the age of fifteen. She is now working on her first children’s book.