Last year, Fianna, my five-year-old daughter, asked me, “Where is Grandpa Jack?” Both my dad and mom died when I was in my late twenties, before I was married or had children. When Fianna asked about my dad, my first impulse was to avoid the conversation since death felt like such a complicated, painful topic.
Before my parents’ deaths, I’d had little exposure to loss, and for many years afterward I felt overwhelmed by my intense feelings. As I grew older, I learned more about grief, which (slowly) has helped me live with my emotions. The process made me understand the importance of talking about grief, as it is an inevitable part of life for us all.
So, I didn’t ignore Fianna’s question. I researched how to talk to kids about death and then explained to her that Grandpa Jack had died. Now I regularly talk to her and her little sister about losing my parents and what grief feels like. One way we have continued the conversation is by reading children’s books. Here are five favorites:
1. The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown (ages 4-7). “The bird was dead when the children found it,” is the first line of the book. A group of friends decide to say goodbye by burying the bird in the woods, as well as singing “the way grown-up people did when someone died.” This book gently introduces the concept of death and mourning to young kids. I have read this many, many times to Fianna. She usually just listens, but she recently asked “If our dog dies, can we have a celebration for her, too?”
2. The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (ages 2-6). Taylor builds a tower of blocks but it gets knocked down. Different animals come to offer comfort, like the chicken who tries to get Taylor to talk or the hyena who laughs about it. But the rabbit listens as Taylor works through many emotions. This book illustrates how we can support loved ones by simply being there. Both my girls love this book.
3. Why Do I Feel So Sad? by Tracy Lambert (ages 4-8). Written by a counselor who specializes in loss, this book shares different reasons why we may feel grief — death, divorce, changing schools, losing friendships — and things kids can do to try to feel better, like moving their bodies, expressing themselves through music and talking to friends. At the end, Lambert also shares advice for parents, including how to talk to children about grief.
4. King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender (ages 8-12). In this award-winning chapter book, 12-year-old King loses his older brother, Khalid — and, in his grief, believes Khalid has turned into a dragonfly. The book deals with race, sexuality, friendships and love. I was moved by the bravery the character displayed in learning to love himself, and I can’t wait to read this book to my kids in a few years.
5. When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (ages 9+). When Lily was a child, her halmoni (Korean for grandmother) told her folk stories about tigers. When Halmoni becomes ill, Lily, her mother, and her older sister move in to help care for her. Shortly after their move, a magical tiger from Halmoni’s stories comes to life and Lily is forced to face the tiger while also grappling with the reality of Halmoni’s failing health. When You Trap a Tiger is a beautiful story of illness, family, and learning to find your way.
What are your favorite books about grief? Do you have any grief experiences you hope will be written about?
Katie Reilly is a writer (and mother) based in California. Her writing focuses on women’s health, mental health and parenting and has appeared in InStyle, the New York Times Magazine and Elle.
(Photo by Tanya Yatsenko/Stocksy.)