“I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
As parents, we long to protect our kids from pain. We’d spare them loss if we could. But loss comes to all of us at some point, and death is something even we can’t protect our kids from. For a Solo Mom who might be navigating grief of her own, helping a child process the pain of loss may seem overwhelming. Other loved ones can be a help, of course. So can books.
The following titles are a small sample of resources that are available to help children grasp and process death and loss:
When a Pet Dies: First Experiences
By Fred Rogers
Puffin Books, 1998
Age range: four to eight years
For some children, the loss of a beloved pet is their first experience with grief. Warm and reassuring, When a Pet Dies assures kids that though it hurts terribly when an animal friend dies, in time that hurt will ease, and memories of our pets can eventually bring happiness again. The book’s illustrations—photographs of children, parents, cats, and dogs—are somewhat dated, but the simple text is direct, comforting, and effective, reminiscent of Fred Rogers’s reassuring presence on his iconic and long-running television series, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Rogers himself was a spiritual person, but he does not promote specific beliefs in this book. Rather, When a Pet Dies opens the door to conversation with the simple statement, “You might have questions . . . like ‘What is dying?’ That’s something everyone wonders about.” The importance of discussion is emphasized: “It isn’t always easy to talk about sad and angry feelings, but talking to someone you love can help the hurt go away.” And Rogers draws on his own experiences to guide families: in the preface, he describes his childhood dog, Mitzi, and how bad he felt when Mitzi died. “Because of Mitzi,” he says, “I discovered it was all right to cry when somebody you love dies. I learned, too, that loss takes time to understand.” It’s important to note that Rogers intended the book to be helpful when dealing with loss of all kinds; as he notes in the preface, “Since all living things die at one time or another, I trust that this . . . book will be of service to you beyond the death of a pet.”
By Maria Shriver
Golden Books Adult Publishing, 2007
Age range: five to eight years
Journalist and activist Maria Shriver takes a nondenominational, heaven-based approach to the topic of death in her book What’s Heaven?, which originated in the questions her own children asked after the death of Shriver’s grandmother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. In the story, Kate’s great-grandma has died, and Kate’s questions for her mom flesh out an idea of heaven as a place where souls go after death. The book is open to different interpretations and different religious beliefs: at one point, Kate’s mother says, “Some people believe in different kinds of heaven and have different names for it.” One of the book’s themes is how loved ones live on in memory—and the way we live our lives—even after death. As Kate’s mom explains, “Everything [my grandma] ever taught me is alive in me. She taught me that it is really important to love my family, to treat others with respect, and to be able to laugh a lot. Most important, she taught me to believe in myself.”
If the book’s pastel illustrations border on the treacly, its strength lies in the honest dialogue between mother and daughter, and the book’s willingness to address potentially tough questions and observations, including whether it will “hurt” great-grandma to be buried in a box and why some people act in different ways when they are sad.
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children
By Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
Age range: five to eight years
For those wishing to steer clear of any religious references, Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children may be a helpful and consoling resource. Gorgeous, realistic illustrations complement the text, which presents the cycle of life and death in a gentle, matter-of-fact way. Though the title has been around for decades, its themes and images are presented in timeless fashion, and certain repetitions in the text reassuringly underline the fact that all living things—from plants to people to birds to fish to trees to animals—have a lifetime. As the book says, “[N]othing that is alive goes on living forever.” Indeed, some lifetimes are longer: a tree might live for a hundred years or more, say. Rabbits and mice, on the other hand, grow up in a few weeks and might live for a year or two. “That is how it happens to be for rabbits and mice,” the book explains. “It is the way they live, and it is their lifetime.” The value of the life lived is ultimately the key: “[Lifetimes] have beginnings, and endings, and there is living in between. That is how things are. For plants. For people. For birds. For fish. For animals. Even for the tiniest insects.”
When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief
By Marge Heegaard
Woodland Press, 1996
Age range: nine to 12 years
Dedicated to Heegaard’s three sons, who were nine, 10, and 12 when their father died, When Someone Very Special Dies encourages kids to illustrate their copy of the book with their own story. The book is divided into six sections, which present themes such as change, feelings, and memories, and basic black-and-white line drawings provide structure for a child’s own work. For example, in the section about change, a page includes printed “frames” in which a child can draw how he or she has changed from babyhood to the present day, and how he or she might look as a “very old” person. Some pages are almost blank: one, headed with the words, “There are things I wonder about / I would like to ask someone these questions . . . ,” includes plenty of white space, so that a child might write down what he or she wonders or fears.
When Someone Very Special Dies is notable in its recognition that anger can be part of the grieving process and is intended to be a positive outlet: one page, headed “Sometimes I get angry because . . . ,” also notes that “Putting anger on paper doesn’t hurt anyone!” The book goes on to suggest “OK ways” to express anger, including punching a pillow, writing, and physical activity. As the author writes, “Do not try to protect children from difficult feelings.” Heegaard is all about helping kids identify and express feelings in a productive way so that they can “develop coping skills for the natural difficulties of life.”
An opening section on how adults can help children navigate death and grief is also helpful; here, adults who may be grieving themselves are gently reminded of the power of active listening and the importance of avoiding vague terms that associate going away or sleep with death.
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death
By Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 1998
Age range: four to seven years (at parents’ discretion)
Friendly, brightly colored illustrations by Arthur creator Marc Brown anchor a book that doesn’t tell a story so much as address children’s questions about death head-on. When Dinosaurs Die is part of the Dino Life Guides for Families series, and it’s notable for the direct way in which it addresses those questions; for example, in the section on why someone might die, answers range from illness and accident to death in wartime, drug abuse, and suicide. (Parents can make their own judgments about the book’s suggested age range: although the illustrations are reassuring and appropriate, the content might be too much for some younger children.)
The book’s breadth is admirable. There’s a section on how friends might not know how to act at first after news of a death. Another section explores how different cultures honor their dead: as the book notes, “Some families burn incense and bow low in front of the grave. . . . Still other families spend several days in mourning by sitting shivah. They sit on a simple wooden bench and light a candle every day.” The book concludes by suggesting ways in which to remember a loved one, including writing a poem or planting a tree, and a glossary in the far back defines words such as autopsy, mourn, and next of kin (this last part being an unusual and helpful inclusion that, again, may best serve slightly older children).
Grief is a personal—and profound—journey, and helping kids cope while navigating sorrow ourselves can be a significant challenge. But books such as these (and others) may provide solace by opening the door to dialogue, normalizing the grief experience, and letting kids (and their Solo Moms) know that they are not alone.
If need be, you can find support and connection in our closed Facebook group ESME Bereavement.
Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.
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