Reading About Death and Grief with Children

When Rob and I didn’t understand something, we had a go-to response: read a book about it! When we became homeowners, we devoured DIY books. When we had children, we found books about parenting. When we wanted to chart an epic cross-country road trip, we went to a downtown Seattle map store and bought a stack of books! It is little wonder that after Rob died I became an even more voracious reader. Death was something I needed to figure out, and I faced a steep learning curve. I did it the only way I knew how: I began to read.

Over the last six months, I’ve read more books about grief than I’d like to have read in a lifetime. I read a stack then switch to fiction to give my brain a rest. Some have been great; others not so much. Books have also provided an excellent place for my children to process their loss. As we grieve, I’ve found these books particularly helpful for children, and I hope you’ll check them out. Whether you know a child who is grieving or work with children regularly, I think you’ll find these resources to be great conversation starters for children and youth. If you know a child who has recently suffered loss, these books make great gifts. (Please, ask a parent first if you’re unsure how a child would receive such a gift!)

One note: If you search your local bookstore or Amazon, you’ll find shelves and shelves of books about death for children. Most of them are heavy-handed and didactic with sentimental illustrations. They tell rather than show. In my experience, children love a beautiful and compelling story first. They can sniff out a thinly-veiled moral in a story like black beans in a pan of brownies. (A tale for another time …) The stories below make my short list because they are gorgeously illustrated and compellingly told. My favorite part of discussing books with children is seeing them discover emerging themes on their own. The more subtle the theme the better; it makes the conversation richer. In my opinion, these books do that well.

For Parents, Relatives, Church Workers, Community Leaders, and Teachers:

When Children Grieve: For Adults to Help Children Deal with Death, Divorce, Pet Loss, Moving, and Other Losses (James, Friedman and Matthews)

From the authors of The Grief Recovery Handbook, this book focuses specifically on children’s needs in grief. Our family used the “grief completion” prompts each night at dinner to share memories of Rob as we began our grieving process. This resource was foundational to my understanding of the developmental needs of my children as they mourn. This is a must-read for all those who work with children.

For Younger Children:

After a Death: An Activity Book for Children (Lindholm)
This book is an amazing hands-on resource for young children grieving the loss of a loved one. From the absolutely fabulous Dougy Center for Grieving Children, After a Death offers activities that walk a young child through the grieving process. Brightly colored pages and engaging prompts allow children to narrate their loss and give it context in their lives in developmentally appropriate ways. This resource has been invaluable for my 7-year-old as she has processed her father’s death.

Home in the Woods (Wheeler)
From the creator of Miss Rumphius and Miss Maple comes Marvel, a darling little girl who must find a new home with her mother and siblings after her father dies. This gentle, beautiful story of grief and resilience helps to shape a narrative of hope for young children as they reckon with loss. Wheeler’s lush illustrations create a beautiful landscape for this tender story. We’ve read this book over and over again, and it still makes me cry. (All credit for this selection and the next is due to my sister, elementary librarian extraordinaire, who gifted these to us after Rob died.)

Goodbye to Goodbyes: A True Story about Jesus, Lazarus and an Empty Tomb (Chandler)
When talking to children about death, it is vital that we tell the truth. I’ve found this becomes a particularly complicated task for Christians who feel like every story must end with heaven, joy and resurrection. The truth of death is that it hurts, badly. The pain of death runs deep and spreads out wide across a lifetime. Children know this. Our beliefs about Jesus, God and heaven offer comfort, but they do not remove the sting of death in this life. (Paul writes that the sting of death will vanish only when Jesus returns again.) We do children harm when we gloss over this pain of loss. They are wiser than we give them credit for. 

I love Goodbye to Goodbyes because it speaks the truth about death. In its beautifully illustrated pages, we see people hurt and grieve. Retelling the story of Lazarus, this book places death into the narrative arc of God’s redemptive purposes. Instead of mostly being about heaven, Goodbye to Goodbyes is mostly about dying. This refreshing honesty resonated in our household when we read it the first time, and it’s the book I return to when we need a reminder of God’s good plans for us in the midst of sorrow.

For Older Children:

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise (Gemeinhart)
This book was our first family read aloud after Rob died. I bought it because it was about a girl whose mom and sister had died, but I had no idea how integral its themes would be in setting the course for our grieving. Readers will take a wild ride with a father actively running away from his grief and his daughter discovering how she can express hers. In the early weeks after Rob’s death, our family talked about this book every night — hashing out what healthy grieving looked like, exploring how we would express our own grief. It was the perfect “show don’t tell” novel for us.

The Tiger Rising (DiCamillo)
It’s probably no surprise that a Kate DiCamillo book made my list. She’s one of my very favorites. Like Coyote Sunrise, Rob Horton is fighting despair after the death of his mother. The narrative is thick with metaphor as we see Rob face and release his own deep grief as he fights to save a caged tiger in the woods. For middle grade and YA readers, grief is all about sorting out feelings. This book allows us to observe a character doing just that. Our family read The Tiger Rising before Rob died, so I hear his voice now whenever I read it. 

After the River the Sun (Calhoun)
I’m a sucker for local writers and novels in verse, and After the River the Sun had both! Set in the stunning Methow Valley of Washington state, this sequel to Eva of the Farm tells the story of a boy whose parents have died in a rafting accident. Courage runs through this book as a dominant theme, and I love this for grieving youth. Showing up to your grief takes lots of courage, and After the River the Sun shows readers they can be brave in the face of loss too.

The Big Wave (Buck)
My final choice is a short classic from Pearl Buck. This story is All. About. Death. We watch a village destroyed by tsunami, and we watch as the village grieves and rebuilds. One of my favorite passages about grief in any book I’ve ever read comes from The Big Wave. (I challenge you to read it and see if you can figure out what it is!) I found Buck’s portrayal of grief comforters particularly poignant. Their insight into the journey through loss informed my own as I learned how to companion my children after Rob’s death. This book offers great opportunities to talk about sorrow, despair and resilience.  

Published by Clarissa Moll

Discovering grace in grief

9 thoughts on “Reading About Death and Grief with Children

  1. Clarissa, I ordered every book you recommended. For me. Then to be equipped to talk with my grandkids who are 1-10…nine of them. I am tanking God so much that you are a reader and He is ussing you to equip me. Cynthia

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. I can’t match Cynthia’s claim to order all of those books, I will also be checking out a bunch of them.
    My wife is also a librarian (retired, secondary) and knew of many of your recommendations and said she needed to check out the others.
    She also is a huge DiCamillo fan and said “The Big Wave” is a classic.
    Keep writing Clarissa. Every single one a treat.

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  3. So The Big Wave came to the Auburn Library yesterday. I took it home and read it right away and was very touched by it but cannot figure out what your “favorite passage on grief” might be.

    I loved the role of both of Kino’s parents (his dad’s wisdom and his mom’s gentleness) and loved that Jiya did go back to live near the sea and that he did put a window on the ocean side of his home.

    I also thought it was significant that Jiya’s dream of returning to the sea did not materialize quickly and did not actually happen until his neighbors started rebuilding the village.

    Great book, lots of great stuff to talk about, but I have no great guess as to your favorite grief passage.

    I liked the bottom of page 39 through 41 that starts with Kino’s father saying, “Yes, he will be happy someday, for life is always stronger than death’ and I also liked page 47-49 where Kino and his dad are talking about being brave in the presence of death and danger, but that is two guesses, and we were only allotted one.😊

    Plus, I just got email notification that After the River the Sun is waiting for me at the King County Library!

    Keep on writing. Prayers from Rob’s Washington coffee gang to all of His precious family.

    Steve M

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  4. I brought The Big Wave and The Tiger Rising with me for my week with Annalise. I devoured them both quickly. Both authors set the stage in ways that were gripping emotionally for me. I will give both of them to my 10 year old grand daughter. Thanks so much for your recommendations.
    Another friend says he went through the Grief Recovery Handbook himself on three different occasions on the death of each parent and of his best friend.

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