As adults, we know that death and dying are an unavoidable part of life. Children, however, may struggle with both the concept of death and the grieving process.
A number of children’s books address the topic of loss; their subjects range from the death of a pet to the grief of being close to someone who has memory loss. Sometimes a good book can be the start of healing.
Good-Bye, Jeepers: What to Expect When Your Pet Dies by Nancy Loewen is the story of a character whose pet guinea pig dies. The first-person narrative is the primary story, with the main character learning of his pet’s death, experiencing mixed emotions over the first few days, and ultimately honoring his pet and sharing stories with others who have experienced similar losses. Text boxes on each two-page spread address the reader directly with statements such as “Talking about your pet is a way of honoring him or her.” Ideally suited for children ages 3 to 7.
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst is a book that primarily focuses on the connections between people, encouraging children to draw strength and courage from their relationships, even when they are separated from those they love. In the book, this includes knowing that one’s “invisible string” even reaches those we love who have died. This is an affirming book that would be very helpful in preparing children to deal with separation anxiety.
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown (author of the Arthur series and related television program) is a nonfiction book that speaks to the conflicting emotions caused by loss. Beginning with definitions of life and death, the book goes on to address the many ages and circumstances under which death may occur. Therefore, if a child is confronted with the loss of a young sibling, or a death caused by suicide, this book touches on the topic and may help a child feel less alone.
On the other hand, if the death is the loss of a grandparent, messages about grieving could be lost amid the mentions of death by drug abuse, military conflict or, more vaguely, poverty and prejudice.
Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox is a touching story of a boy who befriends a woman living in the nursing home next door. Other residents there feel sorry for her because she has lost her memory. His attempts to understand the nature of memory result in him making a collection of objects that he shares with his friend. This exceptional book could help children understand the mysterious workings of memory loss in their loved ones, and offers a potential path to making a connection with someone whose memory works very differently than it once did.
Gentle Willow: A Story for Children About Dying by Joyce C. Mills uses the metaphor of a tree dying to explain the fact that some illnesses cannot be overcome, even in those who are not old. The characters in the story celebrate the life of the dying willow tree, offer comfort as they can, and cherish their memories of the tree. With an introduction and notes to parents by both the author and another therapist, this book goes beyond a beautifully told story to offer concrete suggestions and ideas for dealing with the serious illness and death of a child, in terms of helping that child, as well as his or her siblings, cope with such a devastating loss.
When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief by Marge Heegard is my hands-down favorite for addressing this topic. For children above age 6 or so, capable of expressing themselves through artwork and writing, this book goes beyond explanations by offering specific actions to promote healing. In its pages, children are invited to draw pictures of changes in nature, such as seasons and caterpillars.
Later in the book, children are prompted to draw pictures of their loved one, to draw those things that may cause people to die, and to write about things that make them sad, fearful or angry. The book goes on to encourage children to think about how they like to be comforted, and even to address any regrets they may have about things they wish they had or hadn’t done.
The book concludes with pages on which children can focus on the special people still in their lives and think about ways to care for others. It ends with a mostly blank page topped with the phrase, “I can still have fun and be happy! Living means changing and growing.” Words to live by, indeed.
Merrilee Witherell is the K-12 librarian at Red Creek Central School District. She lives in Cayuga County with her husband, daughter and dogs, all of whom love a good story.