The Solace of Children’s Picture Books on Death and Grieving

A collage of eight books. All Around Us depicts a woman's face, eyes closed, with a rainbow in the background. One Wave at a Time depicts a child with a sad expression on a beach with waves crashing in the background. A Map into the World shows a girl crouching to draw a house on the sidewalk. The Rabbit Listened shows a toddler clutching a toy rabbit. The Tenth Good Thing About Barney depicts a family of four looking out over a lake in the sunshine. Cry, Heart, But Never Break depicts the figure of Death having tea with a child who appears to be asking a question or imploring, with her hand on his arm. The Goodbye Book shows a fish in a bowl with a sad expression, and a picture of another fish, presumably a deceased friend, in a thought bubble over its head. Something Very Sad Happened shows a mother and child walking in the woods, with leaves falling all around. The child is clutching a robot toy.

by Emily T.

Sometimes there are just no words.  

For families talking with children about death and grieving, the words we want can be especially hard to find. But we are not alone. Heartfelt picture books are one of my favorite sources of solace. In aiming to speak clearly to children, the best ones are both simple and profound. They can help us open doors to deeply meaningful conversations. When we invite a child to read these stories together, we offer a special comfort.  

Fred Rogers described it this way:  

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” 

Maybe a child is grieving the death of a pet, friend, or family member. Maybe they are struggling to understand the tragedy of the current pandemic. Even if death is not on the doorstep right now, the following books can help a child understand what death means, the emotions that can come with it, and how they can process it all with someone they trust.  

Read through these books before inviting your child to share them. See how they suit you and if they are appropriate for your child’s age and experience. Don’t be afraid to change up the stories to personalize them to your child’s circumstances. Or, simply look through the pictures while your child tells a story or talks about their own experience. Sometimes a child just needs someone to listen. 

Something Very Sad Happened: A Toddler’s Guide to Understanding Death by Bonnie Zucker 

Simple, direct language tells this story for the littlest ones. Notes to parents and caregivers are included to help guide the reading. (Ages 2-4) 

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld 

A tumbled tower of blocks represents loss in this sweet story of a grieving child searching for comfort. (Ages 3+) 

The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr  

A grieving goldfish demonstrates the various physical and emotional ways we might process the death of someone special to us. (Ages 3+) 

One Wave at a Time: A Story About Grief and Healing by Holly Thompson 

Poignant and beautiful, a young boy describes the waves of many different feelings he experiences after his father dies. (Ages 4+) 

The book cover depicts a grandfather and grandchild holding hands and walking outdoors in a colorful scene, with a tiger, peacock, kite, and assorted flowers in yellow, blue, and orange tones.

Grandpa’s Stories by Joseph Coelho 

When her beloved grandfather dies, a young girl’s cherished memories of all their seasons together help her grieve and honor their forever bond. (Ages 4+) 

A Map Into the World by Kao Kalia Yang  

When a child wishes to comfort a grieving neighbor, her own grieving process comes to include creative and supportive expressions of condolences and connection. (Ages 5+) 

All Around Us by Xelena González  

A young girl and her grandfather honor the many circles of life they see, placing birth and death in a bigger picture of nature’s cycles and family traditions. (Ages 5+) 

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst 

Through a backyard funeral ceremony for his cat, a young boy finds comfort in memories and the circle of life. Questions of the afterlife are raised and left open. (Ages 5+) 

Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved 

Death itself takes the personified form of a compassionate cloaked visitor in this gentle story of four siblings coming to terms with their grandmother’s imminent death. (Ages 5+) 

For further support for your child, please be sure to reach out to your child’s physician, school, religious or spiritual community, or a mental health professional.  

Additional resources 

Sesame Street in Communities | Helping Kids Grieve

The Dougy Center: The National Grief Center for Children & Families 

National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC) – GriefTalk Resource Guides (Birth – High School) 

Actividades del NAGC – Respondiendo al Cambio & Pérdida (Español) 

Emily is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. She enjoys reading, knitting, and sunshine on her shoulders.

Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir by Tyler Feder

The book cover depicts an illustration of a woman in pink sweater and blue jeans dancing with the translucent, ghostly image of her mother, who is represented by a gravestone at their feet which reads "Mom, 1961-2009."

by Carmen J.

I hate to state the obvious, but an unfortunate fact of life is that we will gradually lose the ones we love. In this year alone, I’ve had the reality check of all reality checks as I said goodbye to my sister-in-law, my daughter’s great grandmother, my best friend from high school’s parents, my best friend from my first job out of college, a former colleague (RIP Joe McHugh), and two icons: Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman. Yes, 2020, I’m going to have to ask you to leave, please?

In Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir, the author writes about her experience losing her mother when she was 19 and dealing with the 10-year aftermath of grief. The writing and illustrations are insightful, poignant, and humorous at the same time. The author’s mother died of cancer and the author vividly describes the myriad of emotions caregivers endure, so readers can connect to her story on many levels.

Like the author, I lost both my father and sister to cancer, and I found myself nodding in heartfelt agreement at many of Feder’s descriptions of losing a parent and enduring the magnified heartache of cancer. In particular, she captured the reality of the endless trips to the hospital for treatments and cancer’s physical and emotional tolls on the ill and their families.

As a reader, I connected with Feder’s reflections on how death can be so difficult to talk about for some. No one really knows the exact right thing to say when you hear that someone has died. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and unexpected, much like death itself. I laughed at the author’s inflections of humor and her ability to find humor even in her darkest days.

I’m lucky I still have a living mother. As we celebrated her 80th birthday this year, my thoughts trickled to the thought of what life may look like some day without her. I hate that image. As Feder highlights in the book, I, too, consider my mom to be a rock star and an undeniable force in my life. More time is always what we want with those we love and, selfishly, it’s never enough.

Put this book in the hands of someone who is hurting from recent loss, has someone succumbing to illness, or anyone in need of finding the right words of comfort.

Carmen J is a teen instructor at HCLS East Columbia. Among her favorite things are great books, all things 80s, fall weather, Halloween, and pumpkin spice everything.