Children's Books on Death, Loss & Grief
Updated: Apr 6, 2020
When I decided to write 'Can You Hear Me?' I searched around for a range of children's books that covered similar themes. I already had a story outlined and knew what I wanted to write but it was still helpful to read up on what was already out there. Some of them gave me an idea of how to tell a captivating story around such a difficult subject matter, and still be able to make it heartwarming and up-lifting. Others inspired new ideas and elements to add to the story.
After I had finished writing, I also asked some fellow writers and readers, parents and teachers to suggest even more books on these themes. Below is a list of some of the books that I enjoyed and found helpful. They each offer different perspectives on the issues - from the loss of a family member, friend as well as different ways to cope with the loss and grief. I have provided a brief summary and my personal review and thoughts about each book.
In no particular order:
1. 'The Invisible String' by Patrice Karst
'The Invisible String' has become a phenomenon across the world and has been used by therapists, social workers and educators as a tool to help kids cope with, not only loss and grief, but separation anxiety as well. The mother in the story tells her two children that they're all connected by an invisible string made of love. Even though you can't see it with your eyes, you can feel it deep in your heart, and know that you are always connected to the ones you love. This heartwarming picture book is loved by readers of all ages and explores the concept of the intangible yet unbreakable connections between us, leading us to deeper conversations about love.
I came across 'The Invisible String' a few times during my searches and it came up in different people's recommendation lists as well. It has become quite a sensation. This simple concept wove into a beautiful story that teaches children the power of the invisible force of love. No one can see love; you can't physically touch it, yet you can feel it - how? It can be a difficult concept to explain to a child sometimes. We are all connected by an invisible string. We cannot see it but we can feel it. It also gives us great comfort knowing that someone somewhere on the other side of the world also has an invisible string, just like us, that can somehow be connected to our invisible string whenever we pour out our love to others. This book does not explicitly discuss death or grief, but it can surely be used as a tool for children to understand the concept of a love that never fades - even when those who love us or those we love are no longer with us.
2. 'My Forever Guardian: Healing with friends from the loss of a loved one' by Kristina B. Jones
This is a very recently published book that offers a different perspective on loss. (All the proceeds from sales for April to May will be going towards families who have lost a loved one due to Covid-19.)
This book is simply a conversation between kids about how to heal from the loss of a loved one or animal. It teaches kids to connect and communicate more with friends and heal as a community. In the story, one of the characters, Sasha, explains to her friend, Kevin, that even though his brother is gone, he is now his Forever Guardian, transitioning from the physical world to the spiritual one. The book also teaches children what to say to friends who have experienced a loss and we can learn through the different perspectives of kids who have lost a sibling, a grandparent, a dog, and a parent. "My Forever Guardian" is about transitioning a relationship with a loved one after they pass away, and how to speak openly about what you are going through with friends.
I like how this book focuses on the conversations kids have with one another about the topic of loss and grief. We often forget that kids feel loss and grief just as deeply, perhaps even more than adults. Kids can find it difficult to comprehend or accept that someone they love will never come back and will never see them again. This story shows us just how open kids can be when talking about their feelings. It can be helpful for them to find a friend sometimes, and this book teaches all kids how to have these tough conversations with one another and provide support, understanding and love as they share about the different loved ones they have lost in their lives. The teacher encourages them to share their experiences with one another who have experienced loss as well. I also love how the book represents different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, showing readers that feelings of sadness, loss and grief are common among all cultures and it is something that can bond us together, despite all our differences.
3. 'Ida, Always' by Caron Lewis
Gus and Ida - the two adorable polar bears in this story - are best friends. They spend every day together in the park. Their friendship is so beautifully portrayed in the story, that when Ida gets sick, it is heartbreaking. The pair try to help each other through the difficult times. They laugh, they cry, they cuddle and continue to stick by each other until Ida finally passes away. However, even though Ida is gone, Gus realises that she will still be with him—through the sounds of their city, and the memories that live on in their favourite spots. He remembers what Ida had told him: "You don't have to see it to feel it. Listen... It's right there with us. Always."
This beautiful story reminds us that even when our loved ones are gone, it doesn't mean they are lost forever. They can still be with you, in your heart, through your memories, the sounds you hear, your experiences, places you visit, and the things you see. You may not see them again, but you can still feel them near and close to you. This is exactly how I felt since my dad passed away. I always felt his presence and kept him close to my heart. His spirit and the memory of him lives on in the hearts of those who love him.
4. 'When I'm With Jesus' by Kimberly Rae
This book was written by a mother, fearing that she may not be there to watch her children grow up due to her multiple health conditions. She wanted to leave behind a message for them to let them know how much she would still loved them even when she is gone. She wanted to make sure that they knew she would be all right when she is with Jesus in Heaven to allow them to heal. Many children often wonder about Heaven, especially when someone they love goes there. They are often afraid to ask other grieving adults about it or talk to them about how they are feeling. They need reassurance that those feelings and questions are normal. This book helps children see that a loved one's transition to Heaven is a joyful thing and it reminds and comforts children to know that they have not been forgotten and are still loved by the ones they have lost, as well as our Father in Heaven. It uses this verse from Revelation (21:4) as a reminder of what eternity with God in Heaven will be like: "There shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain."
Reading this book brought tears to my eyes. My parents are devout Christians and always spread the message of having faith in God. I didn't fully accept Jesus to be my saviour until after my dad passed away and this story just brought it home for me. I feel like if I go into detail about it I would start crying again (and this may turn into a really long post), so I will keep it brief! I love the message this book is bringing out. It reminds us that God knows all about us, He knew us before we were born, how long we will live, our fears, our sufferings, our pain, our deepest darkest thoughts and secrets, even how many hairs we have on our head! He loves us, just as we are, just as He had made us. But sometimes, when the time comes, He will want us to leave this Earth and go to Heaven to be with Him. Sometimes he will take away someone we love to Heaven even when we want them to stay. He ultimately decides how long we will stay and when we have to go. Though it sounds scary, it is actually a wonderful blessing and a gift from God! Because, although we have pain, suffering and death on Earth, we will only have joy, peace and life in Heaven - eternal life with God, Jesus, all the angels and those we have lost before! We are all adopted into God's family! There is no fear in God's ever-lasting love. I love how the author includes the section "How to become part of God's family" at the end of the book to teach us about 'The Problem' (of sin), 'How God fixed the problem' (by sending Jesus to die for our sins), and 'What we can do' (ask Jesus to forgive our sins and be our Saviour). I wish I had read this book sooner! It's such a beautiful story that teaches us about life after death and how wonderful it is to be adopted into God's family in Heaven for eternity! It may not be for everyone, especially those who don't believe in God, but it's the only source of hope for Christians. Before my dad passed away, he was so full of hope, joy and peace that there was not a hint of fear or sadness in his eyes.
5. 'Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs' by Tomie dePaola
Tommy is four years old, and he loves visiting the home of his grandmother, Nana Downstairs, and his great-grandmother, Nana Upstairs. He visits them every Sunday and they have a whole routine where Nana Downstairs cooks in front of the stove, and Tommy goes upstairs to see Nana Upstairs who tells him to get candy mints from the sewing box. Together they sit in their chairs and eat their candies. When Nana Downstairs attends to Nana Upstairs, she ties her to the chair so she will not fall out, since she is 94 years old. Tommy asks to be tied to the chair, too, which is the sweetest thing to see in the illustrations! Next, they all take their naps, and brush each other's hair. When Tommy hears that Nana Upstairs has passed away, he doesn't understand it at first. When he later sees a shooting star, his mom tells him that it might be a kiss from Nana Upstairs. Years later, when Nana Downstairs also passes away, he sees another shooting star and says, "Now you're both Nana Upstairs." DePaola explains that this is a true story - even the tying to the chair and the candy mints.
This is such a beautiful story that shows the loving connection and relationship Tommy has with both Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs. He loves spending time with them and looks forward to seeing them every Sunday. It is so important for young children to have this bond with their grandparents, but it can be really painful for the young child to see them go, especially when they don't quite understand the concept of death and never coming back again. The ending where he sees the shooting star simply represents a symbol for us that we can be reminded of the presence of the ones we have lost. That symbol can be anything. In my story, it is a butterfly. No matter what it is, we can have a sense of comfort knowing that they are never too far away from us, even after they are gone. My grandmother of 94 - the same age as Nana Upstairs - has a lot of pre-existing conditions that lead to numerous visits to the hospital over the last ten years. And sometimes those visits turn into long and extended stays from a week to over three months. Just last month, she was admitted into the hospital and stayed for almost three weeks. She was discharged last week and sent back to the elderly home, only to return to the emergency room a day later due to difficulty breathing. Reading this book has helped me, in a way, to slowly come to terms with the possibility that my grandma could leave this world very soon. The way Nana Downstairs takes care of Nana Upstairs also reminds me a lot of my own mother taking care of Grandma. She is always cooking something for her - preparing soups and porridge, blending different kinds of vegetables, pumpkin and rice together to take to the elderly home almost every day to feed her. We do not have the resources to take care of her at home but that didn't seem to be any less burdensome. I like how the story shows this lifecycle of ageing with the younger generation taking care of the older generation. It reminds us of the responsibility we have to our family and how important it is to take care of our parents and elders when they age.
6. 'Lifetimes' by Bryan Mellonie
Lifetimes is a moving book for readers of all ages that explains life and death in a sensitive, caring, and beautiful way, using free verse. Lifetimes tells us about beginnings and endings, and living in between. The message is simple - all living things must come to an end. It shows us the lifetimes of plants, animals and people and tells us how dying is as much a part of living as being born. This is a great book to use when first introducing the concept of death to children. It takes on a scientific perspective as well, comparing and contrasting the lifetimes of different animals and other living things.
This book can be very useful for all teachers and parents to teach children about life and death. When they are still young, they do not have much understanding of what death is, and this book explains everything in a clear, matter-of-fact way that all living things will eventually die. It is not harsh; it simply shows a reality, and uses examples of plants, people, birds, fish, trees, animals, even the tiniest insect. I also like how it highlights the fact that living things become ill or get hurt and may die unexpectedly - when they are young or old, or any age in between. It acknowledges that it might be sad but this is simply the way of all things that live. The only thing that I had an issue with was the age the author wrote for people - when their lifetimes usually end - 60 or 70. This is too young as an average life expectancy, at least in Hong Kong. We have an average of 84.7, which is ranked the highest in the world. The world average is about 72 to 73. But I think if we told the kids in Hong Kong that their parents or grandparents would only live until 60 or 70, it may cause some unexpected fear or anxiety. Other than this, I do think this book is a good way to introduce the topic to children.
(All book cover images were taken from Amazon)
There are surprisingly a lot of great children's books out there on death, loss and grief. However, I rarely see them being read or introduced to children to read in a lot of Asian cultures. Not many authors from my part of world write about these topics either and these books are generally more popular in western countries. I had never even heard of some of them until others shared these titles with me. But now, more than ever, we need these types of stories to be shared and read.
As the pandemic of COVID-19 continues to spread around the globe, we are suddenly witnessing death and people dying in every part of the world every day in the news and media, even affecting the ones we know and love. It has been happening over the past few months and will likely continue on for another few months ahead; getting worse before it gets better. We can't ignore this elephant any more. It is happening. There is no use trying to avoid the issue.
For decades, death and the number four (which sounds like 'die' in Chinese) are unlucky for Chinese people. They do not like to talk about it - they don't like to use the number for buildings and lifts, street numbers, licence plates and telephone numbers, superstitiously thinking that if you talk about it or even say something that hints at death, it would happen. As you can see, even if you don't talk about it, it is going to happen. Death is simply an inevitable part of life. The more we avoid talking about it, the more it is going to hurt and hit hard when it happens to the ones we love. Not everyone will process grief in the same way, so it is important to know what works or doesn't work for you and your kids or students. I actually had a lot of difficulty opening up and talking to my own family about it, but I was able to pour my heart and feelings out to my friends at church, in a grief support group, and even wrote them down in my journals and blogs. Reading others' stories and listening to others share their experiences also helped me to understand my own feelings. That is why books and resources like these are so important. If you are unsure about how to approach the subject, maybe you can start by reading some of these books together.