When I was four years old, my grandmother accidentally killed my pet goldfish, aptly named “Goldie.” Despite my young age, I know I probably went through a range of emotions: anger at my grandmother for her unintentional fish murder, sadness for my loss, a sense of injustice that I hadn’t gotten to say goodbye, and probably most of all – confusion over what it even meant that Goldie was dead.
HOW was she dead? Are we SURE she wasn’t just feeling lazy? Can fish be in comas?
My family’s conversation over how to dispose of Goldie’s tiny fish body brought up even more questions and feelings. Someone suggested sending her “back to the sea” via the toilet, and I remember being absolutely horrified by the thought. Goldie may not have been a running, jumping fur baby, but she’d been my baby, and I wouldn’t have her unceremoniously flushed down the toilet. Eventually, we came to an agreement that she’d be buried in a tiny little grave in the backyard.
Death is a difficult enough concept for adults to discuss with each other, but it becomes even more complicated and delicate when it comes to discussing it with children. What words should we use? What’s too much information, and what’s just enough? How do we balance honesty with gentleness? As much as we want to pretend that our words won’t matter in the long run, many of us can remember our first introductions to death and how it was handled. And those feelings stay with us years after; if one of my family members were to read this post and inform me that, actually, Goldie HAD been flushed down the toilet after all, I’d probably still feel bothered by it. Two+ decades later.
Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to having these painful conversations. Children’s books are not only helpful at normalizing little ones’ feelings and teaching them new things, they’re also good for guiding adults in knowing what to say and how to say it. In order to help caregivers and other loving adults find the right resources, I’ve created a list of books that cover different kinds of death and loss, validate young feelings, and provide gentle suggestions for moving forward.
All of the books listed here are aimed for children nine and under, but some may still be useful for older children. (Titles accompanied by asterisks are my personal favorites.)
This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start! As I come across other books in the future, I’ll add them here, and additional suggestions are always welcome in the comments.
Books that Cover the Death of a (Human) Loved One
**Death is Stupid (written by Anastasia Higginbotham)
- Ages: 6-9
- About: Things things people say after a loved one dies, some of which seem really “stupid.” Also covers how connection can be maintained with the one who died.
- What makes it stand out: Includes really cool, collage-style illustrations. Main characters are people of color, and language is respectful to all beliefs about an afterlife.
- Final note: Don’t let the harshness of the title throw you – this is book is very well done!
Missing Mommy (written by Rebecca Cobb)
- Ages: 5-8
- About: A young child who loses a parent and explores questions and feelings about that.
- What makes it stand out: The child comes to understand that his family is still a family, even with one person gone. Includes colorful, child-friendly illustrations.
We Were Gonna Have a Baby, but We Had an Angel Instead (written by Pat Schwiebert, illustrated by Taylor Bills)
- Ages: 3-5
- About: The death of a little boy’s unborn sibling. He discusses how he used to talk to the baby in his mother’s belly, how he imagined they’d play together, etc. Feelings like disappointment and loneliness are talked about honestly.
- What makes it stand out: Not many children’s books cover pregnancy loss. Also, while the book does refer to the sibling as an angel, there are no other religious or spiritual terms used.
When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief (written by Marge Heegaard)
- Ages: 6-9
- About: What death really means, and how people may view it differently. Normalizes all feelings around death
- What makes it stand out: Pages are left blank so that children can illustrate them themselves or write their thoughts. Also includes tips for adults on helping children cope.
Books that Cover the Death of a Pet
Goodbye Mousie (written by Robie Harris, illustrated by Jan Ormerod)
- Ages: 4-8
- About: A child grieving the death of his pet mouse, and how he helps make plans for its burial.
- What makes it stand out: The parents’ responses to the child are excellent – they balance honesty with compassion and patience.
**Saying Goodbye to Lulu (written by Corinne Demas, illustrated by Ard Hoyt)
- Ages: 4-7
- About: A little girl who cares for her aging dog and goes through different feelings when it dies. She also mentions things that help her feel better.
- What makes it stand out: Focuses specifically on pet death, and does not minimize feelings around that. Honest and poignant, with a lovely, uplifting end.
The Tenth Good Thing about Barney (written by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Erik Blegvard)
- Ages: 6-9
- About: A child whose cat dies, leading him to brainstorm ten admirable qualities about his cat that he can share at its funeral.
- What makes it stand out: The child gets into a mild argument with a friend about whether the cat has gone to heaven, or is simply resting in the ground. The argument is resolved by the child’s parent, who states that no one can know for sure.
When Your Pet Dies: A Healing Handbook for Kids (written by Victoria Ryan, illustrated by R.W. Alley)
- Ages: 6 and up
- About: How and why different pets die; normalizes feelings
- What makes it stand out: Includes message for adults on what to say and do for a grieving child
- Warning: Includes a lot of religious language around God, Heaven, and prayer, which my not be appropriate for some families.
Books that Cover General Loss, Separation, or Death
The Dead Bird (written by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Christian Robinson)
- Ages: 4-8
- About: A group of children who discover a dead bird in the park and give it a simple funeral
- What makes it stand out: Could be good for covering the general idea of death, as opposed to processing the loss of a specific loved one. Beautiful illustrations.
- Warning: The book talks quite a bit about how the dead bird physically feels to touch (cold, with stiff limbs); this could be helpful and validating for children who have touched or seen a dead animal and need to process that aspect of it, but may be upsetting for some children.
The Heart and the Bottle (written by Oliver Jeffers)
- Ages: 4-8
- About: A child who puts her heart in a bottle to keep it safe from hurt, but soon learns that this keeps her from fully enjoying her life.
- What makes it stand out: Could be used to talk about general loss or separation, as death is never directly mentioned, though it is somewhat implied. Includes lovely, painted illustrations.
The Goodbye Book (written by Todd Parr)
- Ages: 3-6
- About: The different feelings one might experience when saying goodbye to a loved one
- What makes it stand out: Is a very quick, simple read that even very young kids will be able to follow. Could be used for different types of “goodbyes,” as death is never mentioned.
**The Invisible String (written by Patricia Karst, illustrated by Geoff Stevenson)
- Ages: 4-8
- About: Missing someone you’re separated from, whether by distance or death, and the invisible “string” that keep you connected to them.
- What makes it stand out: Great for covering separations of any kind, even more minor ones (such as being at school while parent is at work). Death is never mentioned.
**When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death (written by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown)
- Ages: 4-7
- About: Different ways and reasons in which people (illustrated as cartoon dinosaurs) die, what it means to be dead, and how different families mourn the dead.
- What makes it stand out: It thoroughly explores many topics around death and loss, while being respectful to different moral and spiritual beliefs about it. Covers all kinds of death, so could be used in a number of situations.