Death of a Pet - This is often the first death a child faces, and can be a great learning experience. If a parent handles this type of loss with compassion and honesty, a child is likely to learn grief coping skills that will last a lifetime. Please don't tell your children that Fido went to live on a farm in the country or try to replace Fluffy the hamster with a similar looking one from the pet store. Use this opportunity to teach your child about death and you'll be glad you did when a human loved one dies.
I'll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm. Such a sweet book about loving a dog and watching him grow old and eventually die.
Jim's Dog, Muffins by Miriam Cohan. This would be a great book for a teacher to share with a class. It shows how kids can help a friend who has lost a loved one (pet or human).
Tough Boris by Mem Fox. This is one of my favorite grief books of all time. It's so simple - the tough pirate's parrot dies and the pirate cries. This book teaches about appropriate grief feelings, so it would be especially great for kids working through the grief task of feeling the feelings associated with the loss.
Understanding Death - As I discussed in my previous post on this topic, death is a hard concept for young children to grasp. Understanding that death is a permanent ending of body functioning is difficult for preschool children. Explaining this in a variety of ways may be necessary for a child to really understand what has happened to their loved one. Also, the rituals and cultural practices surrounding death can be confusing and scary. Remember your first experience of viewing a dead body? Who can forget seeing their loved one looking like a wax figure, stiff as a board? Helping your child know what to expect at a wake, funeral, etc. and understand these rituals as an important way of saying goodbye is important in their lifelong journey of dealing with death.
Lifetimes: A Beautiful Way of Explaining Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen and Waterbugs and Dragonflies: Explaining Death to Young Children by Doris Stickney.
Both of these books have a unique way of explaining death to children without talking about humans dying. These type of books aren't my favorite, as I believe very young children respond best to straight forward facts rather than metaphor, but these are worth considering.
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia. This is one of my all-time favorites. It is the beautiful story of the lifetime of a leaf named Freddie. It has been adapted into a video that is often used in grief counseling. It is a beautiful story that may leave you in tears. I'm not sure how much small children can really connect with it, but it definitely belongs on your family bookshelf.
Feel the Feelings - This is the second grief task after accepting the loss as reality, and a really important task for children. Don't neglect that children experience the same range of emotions that adults do, even if they are expressed differently. Tough Boris (above) is an excellent and simple book to begin a discussion about feelings with very young children.
Great for Teachers - As a school psychologist, I have found two books to be especially helpful to share with children following the death of a loved one.
I Miss You by Pat Thomas. This is a great overview of death, feelings, and rituals. I read this when children have experienced all types of death and it can generate conversation to encourage movement through each grief task. There are a couple of pages that try to explain where souls go when they die that is a little odd. I would suggest that parents use those pages to explain to children their own beliefs about heaven.
I Remember Miss Perry by Pat Brisson. The perfect book to share with a class whose teacher has died. It provides for normalization of all the feelings that children experience when a teacher dies.
Living and Loving - How do you stay connected to someone you love who has died? The Invisible String by Patrice Karst is absolutely the cutest, best book to explain that we can stay connected to our loved ones even when they are in heaven. I've read this with children in second grade that were able to grasp the concept, and it is very helpful to start a discussion. (As a side note, I also highly recommend this book for children with separation anxiety).
With these books, friends, you will definitely be prepared to talk to your children about death. It can be very uncomfortable and scary to discuss death with children, but sometimes a good book can help get you started!