Processing Grief and Death with Picture Books

Processing Grief and Death with Picture Books

Have you found a particular picture book helpful in talking with children and their families about death? Please let us know in the comments.

In the last year several children in my life have experienced death for the first time. Their parents, also grieving themselves, wondered how to explain death and grief in age-appropriate ways. One of the tools to which they turned is to picture books. My top recommendations of books on death and grief published in the last few years are listed below, each with their own gift to offer.

Suggestions for Caregivers & Parents

Integrate these books into your reading rituals and create special moments to read them. Young children repeat what they are processing, and so they may need to read a book with which they connect many times. Also, they may not share what they are feeling or ask questions right away. If they are silent after reading, that’s okay. Give room for quiet. Answer their questions and respond to their feelings when they express them.

The Memory Box: A Book About Grief Joanna Rowland, illustrated by Thea Baker

If I only bought one picture book about death and grief, this would be it. The story is from the perspective of a child whose loved one has just died. Because the loved one is never named, this book can be used to talk about the death of anyone important. The text responds to the question of “Will I forget my loved one?” and introduces words for feeling that children may experience in grief. Christian imagery is a subtle part of the storytelling through the illustrations. A section for caregivers in the back of the book provides encouragement and approaches for talking about grief with children.

Something Very Sad Happened
by Bonnie Zucker
llustrated by Kim Fleming

This book with simple, straightforward language is designed to be read with two and three-year-old children. Since this age group cannot read, the pronouns and name for the person who died are in red, so that the readers can substitute and personalize the text. For example, when an aunt dies the reader could substitute “aunt” for the written “grandma” when reading. The information for caregivers in the back of the book is the most in-depth on this list, accessible, and easily applicable.

Ida, Always Caron Levis & Charles Santoso

The author’s note shares that “Ida, Always is the fictional story inspired by the real pair of polar bears, Gus and Ida, who lived together in New York City’s Central Park Zoo.” This book is especially helpful when sharing with a child that someone they love is going to die. In Gus and Ida’s tender tale from their daily life, through Ida’s sickness and then death, the listener can easily imagine themselves in the story. The zookeeper’s explanation of Ida’s illness and eventual death is in clear language to describe death to children when one of their loved ones has received a terminal diagnosis. How Gus and Ida’s lives change after Ida’s diagnosis is a instructive and touching illustration of how we can interact with our loved ones while they are dying.

Life and I: A Story about Death Elisabeth Helland Larsen
Illustrated by Marine Schneider

This book illustrates that death and life are inseparable and parts of every living being. Death, a character in blue with a flower in their hair, dwells with those in the illustration in a way that is tender, beautiful, and real. Themes of miscarriage, tragedy, and fear are sensitively touched upon. Lyrical text name the feelings, experiences, challenges and questions around death that many of us experience. This book is ideal for anyone five and older.

Where Do They Go Julia Alveer
Illustrated by Sabra Field

Julia Alvarez’s poetic language engages the deep question of death stated in her title, where do people go? Can we sense them still with us? The first three quarters of the book are questions, followed by wondering that invites the reader into where they may notice their deceased ancestors. This book opens the spiritual practice of wonder without needing answers. Although the publisher recommends it for ages three to seven, it can be read by those older too. Also available in Spanish.

Have you found a particular picture book helpful in talking with children and their families about death? Please let us know in the comments.

Anna V. Ostenso Moore is the author of the picture book Today Is a Baptism Day and We Gather at This Table and associate for family ministries at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Minneapolis. Wife, priest, daughter, sister, aunt, godparent, friend, and expectant adoptive mother, she lives in Minneapolis with her husband, David. You can find out more at

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