Picture Books dealing with death

I was new at a big city library when a patron came in one night with her small son. They were carrying a newly purchased copy of The Velveteen Rabbit. The little boy solemnly put it on the counter, while his mother explained that they were donating it in memory of a stillborn child born to a friend.

I had just gotten a stern lecture about city policy on the undesirability of donated books. Usually they weren't needed in the collection and we should never promise to crowd our shelves with them. I knew that we already had two copies of the classic in our crowded library. I took the big, beautifully illustrated book from the little boy and promised that it would find a place on our shelves.

Sometimes we all need a script when we're trying to make explanations to children for things we don't like ourselves. Books can supply us with the right words.

Photo by Clinton Little at Flickr

How I Picked These Books

The story about the stuffed velveteen rabbit becoming a “real” rabbit isn’t often found on lists like this, but it’s a wonderful example of how books can find phrases and provide analogies for things we want and need to say when we use them for that purpose. I’ve picked out a variety of books on the losses that children may suffer, but I tried to find books that could be read and enjoyed at any time. A few refer to something like an afterlife, but otherwise they could be used by families of any or no religious beliefs.

Some children are more sensitive to issues than others. My daughter thought Madeline had a sad ending because she had to have her appendix out. Some children may be unready for the subject. That’s why the first book on this list, Lifetimes, is such a good one. It’s not about death. It’s about…lifetimes.

Children suffer death on two levels: 1) They don't understand what's going on. For example, what is cancer? Can they catch it? Inform them, even if it means probing a little to see what they do know. Because 2) like you they still have to suffer death as a loss. Don't let them suffer from fears too.

Teach children to respect the grieving process, in themselves and in others.

Give grieving children a chance to talk about their sadness, their loss, and their fears. Cry in front of them and share your own sorrows. Use puppets. Or read a book...

Help your child recognize that change is a natural part of life. Maybe that's why we love "A Very Hungry Caterpillar."

Get an idea of your child's level of understanding, and then be willing to enter into their feelings and talk about how you've grieved in the past. This is the time to share.

For More Information...

Sesame Street Helps with Grieving
A short handbook and information about how a family can deal with grief and loss.
Scholastic gives us an excellent analysis of how a child grieves.
Professional and insightful
Art Therapy for Grieving Children
Some very simple projects and tips for helping children deal with their grief through the process of art -- which they love so much anyway.
National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children
Describes very clearly how children understand what death is at what ages, how sudden death affects them, and how artwork can help them heal.

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