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Grief is a complex and multifaceted feeling. Grief is not linear, does not adhere to a formula, and often can manifest in ways we do not expect – especially in our little people.
When I set out to start gathering books for this post it was because of the incredible loss of life that we are collectively experiencing due to this pandemic. There is also a secondary loss of losing the life that we once knew before the pandemic, and missing our social circles. Our children, in my opinion, have given up more than anyone. They are deeply missing their classroom environments, friends, family, mentors, and caregivers. They are missing out on a lot of love. Love that they absolutely deserve. Love that we may not be able to provide for them. Love that is meant to come from outside of our homes to feed their soul.
Then, we are confronted with ALL of the events of 2020 (and beyond) and our children are also facing a loss of their innocence. While its vital we have age appropriate conversations with our children it is absolutely vital that we have those conversations with them. There was a terrorist attack on the US capital carried out by white supremacist neo-nazi’s. This isn’t the conversation I wanted to be having either, but these conversations must happen. There is grief in that loss of innocence, and I wish I had books for that right now, but I don’t. That grief that they are feeling is absolutely valid though and we as parents and caregivers absolutely, positively, cannot ignore it.
The other kind of grief that deserves its whole own post is the kind that comes from generational trauma. I am continuously working to learn more about this and confront it within myself, it will take me quite some time to do it proper justice so that will not be a part of today’s post. I do want to validate that it is real and deserves the proper treatment though.
Today, specifically, we will talk about books to address grief that is primarily around loss: either death or due to separation due to distance or the pandemic. Children need the space to talk, ask questions, understand, and process. Right now we are missing opportunities to say good bye, opportunities to grieve, and to process together. We are hurting as adults with some understanding of death, but many children are (unknowingly to us) lacking a solid enough basis of knowledge around loss that is required to help them process their thoughts and feelings.
There are many larger ongoing conversations to be had around this – and this is also absolutely non-exhaustive list. This is a place to start. I have been gathering and evaluating books for many months for this list, and still I will surely have missed something and I will add amendments to this post as time goes on.
The books are a start, and then we can work on providing them with tools to process and space to express themselves.
To start, if you are looking for a book that is secular, SPECTACULAR, important, and appropriate for (in my opinion) all ages. Lifetimes is a perfect book, with an incredibly ugly cover.
This book provides a factual, beautiful, to the point, easy to understand explaination of the lifespans of people, animals, plants, fish and all living things. This book just hits every point in such an incredible way. Every word in this book is absolutely perfect, and there is a reason its been an enduring classic since 1983. The illustrations need a major update to re-market this to a new generation. The publisher needs to pick this one up and give it a makeover!
We could absolutely stop the list there because I cannot say enough how thankful I am that I was introduced to Lifetimes in 2020, but there is ALSO more beautiful books that deserve a spotlight and deal with more specific issues and types of grief so I will move on to those.
Saturdays Are For Stella is a beautiful intergenerational story which is particularly poignant right now as so many children have directly lost important elders in their life in the pandemic.
George’s grandmother, Stella is one of George’s primary caregivers and he spends time with her every Saturday. Until one Saturday he awakes and gets himself ready to go to her house and finds his parents crying. This beautiful book ends with a renewal of life in a new baby sister, named after his beloved grandmother – and the bond that they grow together. This book is affirming of his grief and confusion and still helps to provide hope for the future to both move on and still remember and honour the memory of his beloved grandmother, Stella.
In a similar intergenerational story, A Stopwatch From Grampa is a beautiful and validating story.
This beautiful book hits hard from page one, as our protagonist talks of how they dont want grampa’s stopwatch, they want their grampa back. It is a story filled with beautiful memories and emotional validation, that ultimately helps children to understand that time cannot take away their memories. That they can feel happy about what is going on presently, like freshly baked cookies, and still have those memories ticking away in the back of their mind. They are tiny legacies of those that they loved.
The Remember Balloons deals more specifically with dementia and loss of memories as we age.
This is a beautiful one that uses the metaphor of balloons to explain the collecting and then eventual loss of memories and dealing with a loved one or grandparent facing dementia. It’s a gorgeously told story that is the perfect tool to explain a difficult concept to children.
Grandpa’s Stories (titled If All The World Were in the UK) uses the seasons to express aging and the passage of time, this story is about beautiful journal that a girl’s grandfather makes and gives to her and then she uses to record her memories of the two of them. She hopes a lot for her grandfather to be back. It focuses on keeping the best memories together, and remembering the fun times together. The smiles, the love, the joy! The ending of this one is a little more metaphorical then the others, but it is a beautiful story with stunning illustrations and MUCH needed representation in the area of grief books for kids.
Finally to cap off the theme of intergenerational loss is The Phone Booth In Mr. Hirota’s Garden.
This beautiful story is inspired by the real phone booth installed in Itaru Sasaki’s garden after the death of his cousin in 2010. The phone is not connected, but still it serves as a means of communication to the the other side. It’s a beautiful story that also serves as a means to help us create ways to feel close to those who are no longer with us. Writing letters, “talking” to them on the phone, speaking out loud to them. These are all healthy outlets and I adore this book!
The Boy and the Gorilla is a heartbreaking and important illustration of grief as a literal giant gorilla.
While this story is directly about a child who has lost their mother, I was also very taken by the device of the gorilla as an illustration of the boy’s grief. Naming a feeling and giving it life feels very validating and makes it feel more real. If a child has something big looming over them it probably DOES feel like a gorilla is following them around. In this story, the gorilla is also helping to explain and watch over the child. When he asks why his mom had to die, the gorilla simply tells him that all living things die, even though it hurts not to be able to be with someone we love. The gorilla is able to leave in this story when parent and child finally connect and begin to process together. It’s a powerful message.
Similarly, One Wave At A Time deals with parent loss as well.
I have reviewed this one on instagram before, but I will reiterate that it is a gorgeous book that is validating, useful, and important. I adore the ideas that are suggested like building a memory box. It also definitely does a good job of talking about the massive RANGE of emotions including numbness that you encounter with a loss as huge as that of a parent or caregiver.
Dear Moon is about a child losing their friend to cancer.
I can’t sugar coat this, I had a HARD time reading this book. This is truly a book the you need to approach with a measure of caution and be prepared to have conversations with your kids. With that said, childhood cancer is real and when it hits, its unavoidable and doesn’t always have a favourable outcome. This is a beautiful and loving story of friendship that will hit hard and close to the heart for many.
The loss of a pet is an event that often is the first catalyst of conversation around death for kids. from a personal standpoint I think we are doing a disservice waiting to tell kids about death until it’s happening, but regardless, this is often the first touchpoint.
As is the case for many of my favourite of my favourite books that centre around a tough issue, Daniel Tiger deal with this beautifully.
This follows the storyline of a matching episode of Daniel Tigers Neighbourhood, a joint CBC / PBS production that is based off of the original Mr. Rogers Neighbourhood. These books (and of course the show) keep social emotional learning and the validation of feelings at their core. They are well researched and crafted stories with a familiar character leading them down the path of learning and managing emotions. Remembering Blue Fish does not disappoint and talks about ways to memorialize and remember their dead fish. Moments like this may feel trivial to some of us as adults, but our children will deeply remember how we help them to process their first losses, no matter how small.
Continuing on the theme of the loss of a pet, Remembering Barkley is a beautiful book that is from the perspective of the OTHER dog in the family.
Next lets touch briefly on grief books that I think are more specific to the pandemic and while they CAN be about death, are not at all necessarily about that, and truly could just be about missing people or facing hard things.
Rain Before Rainbows is a GORGEOUS book, with simple text
The beautiful and clear message of this book is truly in the title. Its the rain before the storm clears, the hardship before the beauty. This stunning and poetic book truly reinforces in both words and image that sometimes the effort is truly worth the hardship. Resilience is something we all need to build right now – through these difficult times – and I felt like this book was a gentle and beautiful way to help keep us going right now.
On that same note, there is many people we are missing right now. The invisible string was recommended to me to talk about death but I truly think is more appropriate for missing someone and the grief of separation anxiety: The Invisible String.
This classic tells of the string of love that connects us all, anywhere, anytime. Even under the sea, and even up in heaven. As our family doesn’t really believe in or focus on the concept of heaven exactly, that’s not the part of the story we connected with. But it is a wonderful way to explain how the love of grandparents and school friends is always with us even when we are forced to be apart by distance, or in the current situation…. a pandemic. This is an enduring classic for a reason, and Joanne Lew-Vriehoff’s illustration update to this one breathes new and important life into this book.
To reiterate: I personally would not purchase this book to explain death though – even though many do. There is no explaination of death in this book to speak of.
Finally, a new book created in the pandemic that to me can be used for ANY situation where we can’t be together in person, to help calm anxieties and give ideas for connection when connection feels difficult.
Even prior to the pandemic we have had to be away from family for long stretches of time for various reasons, and my small human has grieved and missed those people very very much. It’s been the constant topic of conversation and sometimes just having a book that brings comfort and validates the feelings is useful. This is a sweet and simple book for even the youngest readers. It also is great for thinking of ways to show affection even when you are apart.
Ultimately, I am going to have to update this post, especially this last section as I know there is going to be some wonderful books coming out in 2021 to meet this new need.
My biggest takeaway from my months of gathering and thinking on this though is don’t wait. Stop waiting. The longer you wait the harder it is to normalize. Ask your kids questions and get the conversation going. Build their confidence in asking you questions in a safe environment and understanding without question that you will answer any and all questions – no matter how strange, morbid, or depressing they may be.
Kids will surprise you with their wisdom and resilience. We need to lean into them so that they can lean back into us. We are stronger together and the more tools you give them now – maybe even before they need them – the better they can fair the ocean in any storm.
What is your favourite book about grief? Have you talked to your kids about life and death? Let me know