Children's Books for the Bereaved
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
Following on from my blog post about talking to my rainbow babies about their big sister who came before them, I wanted to outline how our discussion of death (that cheery topic) has gone so far - not just what it means in relation to Esme but how my son's comprehension of death has been unfolding so far and the books that we've found useful to explore things further. It is very natural for young children to develop their understanding of the permanence of death over time. Because I haven't wanted there to be any confusion or misplaced expectations in the possibility of Esme ever physically being here, I have tried to be very clear about what I believe death actually means. I personally don't have strong beliefs about a spiritual afterlife (but wish for my children to make up their own minds as far as possible), so I have attempted to offer ideas for what some people think about what happens after we die rather than offer any definitive explanations. This has included reading other books together and I wanted to offer a review of those to help signpost others to further reading that might prove useful if they feel similarly.
I distinctly remember having a natural curiosity to discover more about the world around me from a young age, so I have wanted to nurture this in my children too by offering up 'real' (as far as is age appropriate and within my limited understanding!) explanations for how everything works from a young age. I have been asked several times where Esme is, but I have deliberately steered clear of offering up suggestions that Esme 'lives in the clouds now' or is 'the brightest star in the sky'. I didn't want to offer up false hope that if he did become a fighter jet pilot or astronaut he could 'visit' Esme. But the harsh reality is difficult for us both to truly accept, and I must admit it is very tempting to go with a more comforting explanation at times. The first time he didn't accept my answer of a simple, "she died", and instead asked me again earnestly, "but where IS she?" (during bath time as it happened!) I paused and said simply that, as with anyone we love, she is "in our hearts". I explained that we can't see her or touch her, because she died, but we can still love her and think about her whenever we like. I can't say if that totally satisfied him but he didn't ask any more and seemed happy enough to return to splashing about with his bath toys. Phew.
We have in the past been to some playgroups in our local area that are based in Christian churches (so occasionally he has heard Bible stories there), and we have watched quite a few Disney/Pixar films together, and it's been interesting and challenging in equal measure to see how they have influenced him already. Hearing about Jesus returning from the dead and seeing Arlo's dad in The Good Dinosaur 'reappear' briefly (not to mention Moana's grandmother, Simba's conversation with Mufasa in the Lion King, etc, etc.) have clearly given him some ideas around resurrection and dead people coming back. Without wanting to totally quash any possible emerging religious belief, or destroy his enjoyment of kids' movies, I felt it was important to emphasise that Jesus was a special case who 'lives' in heaven now, and stories where someone who died 'returns' are usually in the character's imagination rather than them actually coming back to life. Jago has since started to share that he believes Esme is in heaven, but this has only come up once so far, and we haven't gone into any great detail about what heaven actually is. With Easter approaching it might come up again, but seeking to turn it around to him as much as I can - "What do *you* think?" - seems to me the fairest and most free way to allow him to develop his own explanations for what happens after we die.
In These Precious Little People, I try and leave it as ambiguous as possible to give space for families to provide further explanations as necessary and as will fit with their belief system. The yoga teacher I had seen for pregnancy yoga classes during my pregnancy with Esme reminded me after she died that our energy never dies, just changes form, and the fact that we all come from the same ultimate source is something that brings me comfort, so I felt happy to include imagery based on our origins as stardust.
For obvious reasons I appreciate that it might be difficult to take my word for it about how useful my own book is (!) so please do head here to the reviews page for more insight into how and why other families have found it helpful.
Stewart's Tree by Cathy Campbell looks at how Ellen's new baby brother Stewart has been 'lost'. Ellen looks in all the cupboards for Stewart - even in the washing machine - then her family help her understand that Stewart has died and isn't going to come back. Together they plant a tree for Stewart, so they will always have a place to remember him. Despite this book focusing on neonatal death (there is an image of Ellen meeting Stewart in what appears to be a NICU setting before he dies), I feel it helps my family consider how and why some babies can die and the things we can do to honour their memory. We have planted things for Esme, so we can relate to this story in that respect, and I love the colourful illustrations. There is a varying amount of text, but the language is simple and honest, factual but gentle, and the pictures can be concentrated on instead of the words for very young children or if that suits your family better. The book ends with a guide to bereavement for children written by qualified clinicians.
No Matter What is a Debi Gliori book that explores the anxiety children might feel around a parent's love wavering depending on their appearance or behaviour. The mention of love lasting forever, even beyond death, just like starlight, can be related to the love we feel for our precious little people gone too soon. This is a gorgeous book for young children with a classic and timeless quality. The board book version has changed the wording slightly (presumably to make it more age-appropriate for babies/toddlers) so you might want to seek out the paperback if it's important to you to have the parts about dying and death included. This book features in Alexis' 2.6 Story Challenge for Sands on YouTube if you'd like to see it being read.
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst is a story involving siblings feeling scared by a storm and seeking out their mother for reassurance. The book emphasises that love can be felt between people whether they are near or far because they are connected by a "very special string made of love." This is a wonderfully comforting idea to return to with children struggling with being physically separated from those they love, including anyone who has died, although it's worth mentioning that the word 'Heaven' is used in this context. We only have the original version but there has been another published since with updated illustrations that looks lovely too - this is featured in Alexis' 2.6 Story Challenge for Sands on YouTube if you'd like to see it being read and check out all of the new illustrations. I would say this is great for pre-school or younger school-age children, and my son has very sweetly talked to his little sister about this concept when she's expressed reservations about going to nursery, so the message has clearly helped him.
That's Me Loving You by Amy Krouse Rosenthal contains gentle rhyming verse that reminds children of our unbreakable bond with those we love. I adore how it offers up the idea that the beauty of nature all around us can bring us comfort and help us feel closer to those who might not be physically with us, as this fits with my beliefs perfectly. The illustrations hint at the relationship between a mother and child, but I definitely thought of my daughter Esme giving her younger siblings little messages of love as I read it. The text and illustrations are suitable for even very young children but this would be perfect for younger school-age kids too.
The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson is brought to life beautifully by Rebecca Cobb, who also illustrated the interactive bereavement support resource, 'My Book About Our Baby Who Died', available through the Angus Lawson Memorial Trust website. The Paper Dolls uses the idea of a delicate plaything, a paper chain of dolls that becomes a favourite toy to a little girl, and reveals what happens to something important to us after it is gone. A beloved 'kind granny' featuring in the little girl's memory alongside other 'lovely things', including the paper dolls, and this is an understated way of explaining that things that are special to us can remain with us in our thoughts even after they are seemingly lost forever. As with most Julia Donaldson books, this book is aimed at toddlers, pre-school or younger school-age children.
The Magical Wood by Mark Lemon and Maia Walczak is well suited to a situation where a central figure in a child's life has died (it was inspired by the author's father being killed when he was just 12 years old), as it uses the symbolism of the 'Strongest Tree' in the wood being destroyed in a storm. The messages that sadness is a normal emotion to feel when grieving, that it is important to remember those we love who have died, as well as explaining that people we love can remain in our hearts are ones that can also be related the death of a baby. The amount of text and vocabulary used in this book suggests to me that this is more suitable for school age children, but the overall message is suitable for even very young children.
Lifetimes: The Beautiful way to explain death to children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen explains death in a simple, matter-of-fact tone so is perfect even for very young children. It contains stunningly realistic illustrations of dead and living wild animals and does not touch on any beliefs around what happens after we die.
What Does Dead Mean? - a Book for Young Children to Explain Death and Dying by Caroline Jay and Jenni Thomas, OBE, is illustrated by Unity-Joy Dale. The book is aimed at children aged 4 years or older, and guides the reader gently through 17 of the 'big' questions that are often asked about death and dying. Questions such as 'Is being dead like sleeping?', 'Why do people have to die?' and 'Where do dead people go?' are answered truthfully and clearly to help adults explain to children what happens when someone dies. Prompts encourage children to explore the concepts by talking about, drawing or painting what they think or feel about the questions and answers. It also includes some useful ideas to explore the feelings that grieving brings up.
Life is Like the Wind by Shona Innes and illustrated by Írisz Agócs is written by a clinical child psychologist, and introduces the concept of death to young readers by likening life to the ever-moving wind. When the wind is present, things move and fly and flutter about. When the wind goes away, things become very still.
"Life is like the wind. When life goes away, the body is very still The body cannot move or feel or do anything anymore. Where does life go when it goes from the body?"
From there, the author explores the feelings we have when a loved one's life goes away, how we cope with missing them, and how we can celebrate their memory. It also introduces the various things people believe happens to a life that has moved on, including the concept of heaven and praying, so although these are only spoken about as being ideas that some people believe in, this is worth bearing in mind if you these ideas do not align with your family's beliefs. Endearing illustrations of animals enjoying, missing, comforting, and honouring one another do a wonderful job of conveying the message that life is very precious.
What Happens When We Die? explores the death of a bird through the characters of Annabelle and Aiden. With the help of their dear friends (Tardigrade Tom and Skeptisaurus), the children discover how our atoms rejoin the universe, which remains forever changed by our lives. How our energy lasts forever, along with the stories of our loved ones we keep alive by honouring their memories. And most of all, how mortality can inspire us to appreciate the incredible opportunity we’ve been given: to live the best, most meaningful lives we can, surrounded by the people we love. It is worth highlighting that this book has an atheist agenda at its heart, so some of the wording won't suit everyone, but I have found it useful to read it to start discussing some of my personal beliefs with my son, and I think as he gets older he will find it easier to ask more questions about the concepts introduced.
In The Stars by Sam Kitson and Katie Faithfull is a really sweet Sands-endorsed publication that can be used to open up questions and thoughts with children about death and grieving. It is sure to comfort children when anyone special to them has died. It uses a conversation between siblings Martha and Moss to talk about what they think happens after we die, including what they believe about their sister Kitty.
The book was inspired by Sam's first and much-loved daughter Kitty, who was very sadly stillborn at 38 weeks. Sam wrote it in Kitty's memory and to help her two living children develop their understanding about death. Sam's friend Katie, through the understanding of losing her dad from a young age, was able to relate to this story with a very sensitive yet hopeful and positive approach, and created the vibrant illustrations to accompany Sam’s words.
Some of the questions asked by the little boy in the story are ones I have had from my son already, and I feel it pretty perfectly encapsulates my personal beliefs about our lives continuing through nature and the memories of those who love us. If you'd like to see the book being read (and see all the illustrations) please check out this video, as it features in Alexis' 2.6 story challenge for Sands.
Another publication that Sands champions - 'Where Are You Lydie?' by Emma Poore is also featured in Alexis' 2.6 story challenge for Sands on YouTube - you can hear it being read and see all of the illustrations. Please check out my blog post featuring Emma and her son George's story as further background to this book as part of my 'Forgotten Mourners' series that I posted during Children's Grief Awareness Week.
Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake, is a modern classic, described as a heartbreakingly honest account of a father's grief for his son from the illustrious pairing of two former Children's Laureates.
In part it chronicles Michael's deep and lasting sadness at the death of his son Eddie from meningitis at the age of 19 but much of the text would be applicable to anyone mourning or even suffering from low periods of mental health not necessarily related to grief.
In my opinion this book works well for both children and the adults reading it with them. The sincerity and raw honesty of the language used is complimented by its simplicity, and although I would suggest the complex emotions and concepts are more aimed at school age children even young children can start to grasp what might be behind a person's sadness through having it read to them. The text and illustrations acknowledge that sadness is not always avoidable or logical nor are reactions to it always reasonable, and perfects the art of making complicated feelings plain and accepted.
I love how it offers up ideas for coping with difficult feelings, and reassures those reading it that the worst of the sadness isn't always present. My sister has read this book a number of times with her children to help them understand more about why she was crying a lot around the time of Esme dying, and why she sometimes feels very sad still, and it's one that I anticipate being useful to read with my children whenever a particularly rough wave of grief hits me hard to explain to them why things might seem more intense than normal.
Let's Talk About When Someone Dies uses clear, easy-to-understand language to answer complex questions about death and how a child might feel when someone dies. It covers all manner of tricky subjects with sensitivity and honesty, from what death is to why people die.
Each double page spread takes a child through how they might feel, what they might think and how they might behave. Some of the phrasing is only appropriate for when a person well known to the child has died - rather than a baby they were waiting to meet - but much of the book is applicable to any bereavement.
Gentle guidance and simple advice for parents and carers further help adults start conversations with children about this difficult topic in an accessible and supportive way.
I was recently recommended a book called 'Finn's Feather', written by Rachel Noble after the death of her young son Hamish. The illustrations will, I believe, appeal to adults and children alike in their simplicity and artful use of close up detail and colour.
Finn finds a feather that he believes to have been sent by his brother Hamish. What I found really lovely about this book is that Finn's friend Lucas is so comfortable talking to him about Hamish and eagerly joins in with the imaginative play that they engage in with this feather - they both see it as a gift from Hamish, and an invitation to enjoy themselves in his honour - Lucas playfully suggests, "Maybe he wanted you to have fun with it?"
The positive association and continued memory making even while acknowledging the ongoing grief, especially amongst peers, was very special. Finn speaks to his friend Lucas about missing Hamish, as he was a "really cool brother", which might not feel so relatable to children who have no tangible memories of their sibling.
My other reservation about recommending this book wholeheartedly is that I have to be honest and say that I loved the concept and story until there were references to Hamish being an angel. Finn also writes a letter to Hamish at the end as if he is in heaven, so it's worth taking this into account if this would be noticed by your child as something that's at odds with what you have talked about. There's no direct mention of Hamish having died either so that important fact could be something that would need pointing out to younger children.
A book that I have been meaning to include in my list for the longest time (since its publication six months ago in September 2019) is 'Perfectly Imperfect Family' by Amie Lands. There is a beautifully written review by the wonderful Valerie Meek from Pregnancy After Loss Support which does it far more justice than I ever could.
It's written from the perspective of Amie's oldest son, who is explaining to the reader how his sister who was born and died before he came along is still part of their family. I love the simple, honest but gentle language used. The illustrations are adorable, and totally child-friendly. It is so heartwarming to hear Ruthie-Lou proudly spoken about as his sister, that she is included in all of their family celebrations, that her memory is so cherished by them all. Particularly poignant for me was the inclusion of ladybirds as these also remind us of Esme. I think this book moved me more than I perhaps initially realised, especially because of it being Esme's birthday right around the time it was published. Truth be told it's actually been a little painful reading this book at times because I wish I could share this book with my living children and feel that it reflects our experience but we're just not there yet. Maybe it will come in time, and develop as naturally and beautiful as it has done within Amie's family (and many others I know), but I realise it may not, and that a special bond between my two at home with me and the firstborn that lives on in my heart cannot be forced. I am so glad this book exists for the many families who talk about their precious little people with the love and pride that beams out of its pages - to help them feel less alone and to validate their experience.
Another book that I came across not so long ago is 'Maybe Tomorrow?' by Charlotte Agell. Elba has a big block that she's been dragging around for a long time. In contrast, Norris dances wherever he goes, is always surrounded by a cloud of happy butterflies, and continually urges Elba to join him in embracing life. She rejects the offer of a picnic - "Maybe tomorrow?" Norris suggests. Undeterred, even by the rain, Elba finds herself accepting Norris's next offer of a cup of tea, and eventually agrees to attempt a day trip with him to the seaside.
The book's subtle but tender exploration of loss will resonate with anyone who has experienced hardship or grief but it is one that I personally felt I had been waiting a long time to discover. Given my experience so far of talking about Esme with my son Jago, and now Ayla too, I nearly wept tears of joy at the recognition within this book that sometimes we just need our grief to be sat with, to be heard and accepted rather than truly understood or shared.
Its magic lies in how cleverly it illuminates how kindness, empathy, and companionship can lift our spirits and see us through difficult times.
It's also a gentle reminder not to lose ourselves in the darkness of grief; that it might just help to talk about our sorrow, to loosen our grip over things we can't control, and to let others in to help shoulder the burden.
I can honestly say that my husband and my living children Jago and Ayla have unknowingly played the role of Norris for me by showing me that it's ok - more than ok - to fully engage with life again. Those of us who have experienced the death of a baby will continue to feel heartache. Grief is the price we pay for love - but that grief doesn't have to weigh us down so heavily if we have people in our corner. People who will be there for us even when we're sad, and who will gently steer us towards lighter, happier days again.
Another book that we have started reading together more recently is 'When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death' by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown.
Although I've had this for a while I saved it for when my son would better be able to understand it and have the patience to take more of it in - now he is 5 and a half I feel it's more appropriate. It has a lot of information in it about death, dying, and coping with grief - about biology, psychological responses, spirituality - and although it doesn't cover the death of babies it also goes into specifics of how someone might die, including death at a young age, death by suicide, accidents, in wars, and due to old age, so definitely one to read under careful supervision at the right time to explain these gently and sensitively. It certainly does well to dispel some of the mystery and negative connotations associated with death. This helpful book provides answers to most-often asked questions and also explores the feelings we may have regarding the death of a loved one, as well as the ways to remember someone after he or she has died. My son especially likes exploring all the speech bubbles from the different characters depicted and that has helped us expand the concepts in conversation - the scene in a classroom where children are discussing their reactions to supporting a bereaved classmate stands out to me as giving an insight into how people around the bereaved can find death hard to confront too. There is a YouTube video reading the main text of the book out loud and showing all the illustrations if you want to take a look in greater detail.
I have written before (here and here) about why I think it's so important for us to accept that children have a right to remember precious little people within their families who have died and to grieve along with us if they need to. You can read more about how to talk to children about death and find further support here.
I would love to hear about how you have dealt with this topic within your family - and how your children have developed their understanding of death as a concept - especially if you have any words of wisdom to share on how to make any of this easier on all involved.
* These are all books that I read or plan to read with my living children. Any views I have outlined about them are my honest opinions. The links I have included in this blog post will simply help you find out where to purchase copies yourself - I was not gifted any of these books to promote and will not personally benefit from any sales generated through you clicking on them. If you have any suggestions of books that I could add to our collection please do let me know.