Help your child understand death, dying and grief with our 'Book Lists to Read' series.
Understanding and accepting dying and loss can be a difficult journey for children in the road to adulthood.
Books are a rich and effective way for children and caregivers to find different ways to understand the very human feelings of sadness, confusion and loss that can confront us at these times .
Whether it’s the loss of a beloved dog, a school friend or a grandparent, these following books are beautiful ways in which to communicate, grieve and understand the cycle of life, and loss of loved ones.
Best Books About Death and Dying for Young Children
1. Something Very Sad Happened by Bonnie Zucker, illustrated by Kim Fleming
Something Very Sad Happened was written by the author when she realized that there were very few books written that helped parents to explain death and dying to very young children.
The story is written with many little features that allow the book to be useful to parents and caregivers. For example, there are further guides to discussing death and dying with the child at the end of the story, and within the text of the story itself, the name of the loved one is presented in a different colour, allowing the adult reader to substitute the name that appears for the personal name that the child will understand.
The story is non-religious and does not discuss an afterlife, allowing it to be used in a versatile fashion for people of all faiths, who may wish to supplement the story with additional books or tailored discussions based on their own beliefs.
A sweet book for pre-school aged children, The Rabbit Listened addresses a child Taylor who, upon being faced with loss, does not quite know how to respond. All the animals suggest different ways for him to react, but the best response is the rabbit, who is happy just to listen to Taylor.
Beautifully illustrated with simple, sweet illustrations, The Rabbit Listened is a beautiful way for children to know they are not alone, as well as an affecting reminder to adults of the value sometimes of just listening to the little ones in their life.
Simply and boldly illustrated, The Goodbye Book is perfect for helping very small children to understand loss. Narrated by a goldfish who has lost his friend, it discusses some of the feelings that young children can experience in suffering the loss of a loved one, whether through death or even moving away.
The tone and illustrations of the book are pitched beautifully for a younger reader, and while the tone never becomes excessively heavy or dark, there is enough detail to bring emotion to the staunchest of adult readers.
Best Books About Death and Dying for Older Children
4. A Sky of Diamonds: A Story for Children About Loss, Grief and Hope – by Camille Gibbs
Dealing sensitively with the loss of a mother, A Sky of Diamonds addresses the range of emotions that a child can feel on the loss of someone special – anger, guilt, fear – as well as the way people can have good and bad days on their journey through grief. Most importantly, it touches upon the idea that its okay to have happy moments again as time passes.
In the story Mia and her father explore the many different ways in which to express their feelings, including punching and throwing things (safely), writing questions on stones and sending them into the sea, and sharing happy memories of Mia’s mother. It offers not only a way to access a child’s grief, but also gives some strategies for parents and children seeking to understand the death of a dearly loved one.
Dog Heaven is not written to be an accurate religious book on where your child’s beloved pet might go when he dies, but is rather a comforting vision for children on all the things their special friend might enjoy and love in their own idea of ‘heaven’.
In the author’s Dog Heaven, biscuits are shaped like cats and postmen, and they come regularly to check on their humans. They turn about several times before getting settled to sleep on a comfortable cloud. Everything about Dog Heaven is designed to be a heart-warming reflection on what the child’s special friend might think was a perfect afterlife for dogs, as well as reassuring your child about the dog’s continuing love for them, and their love for him or her.
Illustrated in a bright, simple, naïve style, this book has remained popular with dog lovers for decades for its comforting take on the loss of a much-loved family pet.
6. The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, illustrated by Geoff Stevenson
The Invisible String is a book that was written for children to help understand separation from loved ones, particularly separation anxiety in young children, whether caused by daily life, distance or anger. It explains how everyone is connected to the people they love by invisible strings, and it is this connected love which allows children to know that they are supported and cared for, even when feeling alone.
This message of separation also comes in valuable when discussing death, dying and loss with children, who may feel comfort in the idea of invisible strings, and the knowledge that they can continue to feel love from their departed loved ones by means of this very special visualization.
Fox feels sleepy in the forest one day, lays down and falls asleep, forever. When his friends come together to remember his long and happy life, a tiny shoot emerges from the snow that becomes an enormous memory tree.
The Memory Tree is a sweetly illustrated book that is charming for its simplicity and would appeal to younger readers. It discusses the death of a beloved friend in a way that is natural, and emphasizes the sharing of memories in creating an enduring presence for the child’s loss.
Eli and Astrid are friends. They’ve been friends ever since Astrid was brought home from hospital. But as Astrid grows, she notices her best friend growing old faster than she is. She commences a bucket list to ensure that they make wonderful memories together before Eli gets too old.
Stay: A Girl, A Dog, A Bucket List, is a beautiful way of introducing children to aging and impending death without touching too strongly upon the fact of death itself (Eli himself does not die in the book, though the eventuality is pre-empted). As a preparation for the loss of much-loved pets or aging family members and friends, the story strikes the sweet spot between simplicity, emotionality and love – as well as making the most of the precious moments in our lives.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break is a translated story by well-loved Danish writer Glenn Ringtved that has found itself a place world over for explaining death to children in a way that is direct and yet poised with acceptance and generosity.
When Death comes to the door to visit four children’s grandmother, they try to distract him with cups of coffee at the kitchen table. A sympathetic and gentle Death explains to the children why death must come, pairing sorrow with joy, grief with delight, and eventually, after a respectful discussion, the children grow to accept his visit and the passing of their grandmother.
Although the illustrations can be confronting to some readers, Death is portrayed as a highly sympathetic figure who does his work not through malice, but through respect and understanding of life. Many readers around the world have found comfort in the direct way that death is introduced to children, and the intelligence and maturity with which they themselves are portrayed as characters within this story.
Michael Rosen’s Sad Book was written by a father on the loss of his older son, and so the story must come with the proviso that it may be a little advanced for early readers who are not ready for discussions about the death of a child.
What the book does do beautifully is discuss feelings of sadness, in all its forms, in a way that is original, touching and above all, honest. The narrator smiles sometimes even though he feels sad, because he thinks people won’t like him if he doesn’t. Sometimes he feels angry at his son who has died. Sometimes he doesn’t want to talk about it. Sometimes he does things just because, and he can’t explain why.
Illustrated by the classic children’s illustrator Quentin Blake, Micheal Rosen’s Sad Book is exquisitely accurate at capturing the fluctuating and inexplicable emotions of grief, giving comfort that humans grieve in very different ways, and demonstrating the beauty and humanity of our responses to loss.
Chuchu Manchu’s Jar of Toffees is a tender story about a little girl Preet, who loves her Uncle Chuchu Manchu. But one day, he dies.
As Preet spends time in his home, remembering precious moments together, she has an idea for a very special way to honour his memory with love.
Circles is a beautiful story that addresses the cycles of life from the point of view of a mother and baby vulture, who watch a gemsbock die; an event that the mother vulture describes as ‘something beautiful’. Together they watch as the body breaks down, and animals and plants turn a negative space into a positive one.
The Anxious Leaf is a highly symbolic story about a little autumn leaf who dreads falling to the ground, until he learns to accept the cycles of life. It is a very positive and gentle story that only lightly touches on themes of dying which can otherwise be hard to address with young children.
The power in this story lies in the subconscious safety and assurance that is found between the lines of a simple fairy tale story, and parents and children can choose whether they wish to discuss the themes more deeply, if at all.
Grandmother is a very short piece by Hans Christian Andersen, the famous Danish fairy tale author of The Ugly Duckling, The Little Matchgirl and other beloved classics. In his much lesser known piece ‘Grandmother’, he writes about a Grandmother who is much loved, and honours her peaceful passage into death.
The story is a short piece which would be better appreciated by older children who are able to grapple with both traditional symbols of passing, as well as concepts of lasting love within families.