Grief is a hard thing to talk about.
Something about it feels so personal that it almost feels impolite to bring up in the presence of others. Grief is also, for many of us, just a very uncomfortable topic. While we will all eventually experience some form of loss in our lives, it’s often easier to avoid the topic completely, until we reach a point where it can no longer be ignored.
Talking about grief also feels easy to screw up. It feels all too likely that we will unintentionally say the wrong thing, and leave things worse off than when we started.
And when it comes to the grief of children, we find ourselves even more at a loss for words.
What do you say to a child who has experienced a great loss so early in life? What words could possibly improve their outlook at this precarious time? How do you even begin to approach the topic of loss, when words can feel so small and meaningless?
Talking About Grief
When we try to console someone who’s grieving, many of us get stuck on what to say (and what not to say). In reality, when it comes to grief, a connection is the most important thing that you can offer someone. For both kids and adults, having someone there to listen and share in their pain, without judgment or distraction, can be an incredibly beneficial support.
Stories can also be helpful to kids who are dealing with grief. Hearing the stories of others who have gone through similar experiences does a lot for the mental health of a grieving child. It can be cathartic, it can be validating, and it can help reduce the stigma that keeps kids from talking openly and honestly about their experiences (Rennick-Egglestone et al., 2019).
Due to the pandemic, many children have lost parents, grandparents, extended family, or even siblings to COVID and other related illnesses. The odds that each of us will know a child who has experienced loss have greatly increased. According to the Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model (CBEM), 1 in 13 children will experience the loss of a parent or sibling before the age of 18. The New York Life Foundation, which partnered with Judi’s House to create the CBEM, also provided this troubling statistic from a bereavement survey that they conducted in 2017:
“Those who lost a parent growing up said it took 6+ years before they could move forward, yet 57 percent reported that support from family and friends waned within the first 3 months following the loss.”
Their survey also found that almost 7 out of 10 teachers had “at least one student in their class(es) who had lost a parent, guardian, sibling or close friend in the past year.”
With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see how imperative it is for us to be prepared to deal with grief in children. It’s not an easy task, or a quick one, but it is far too important to ignore.
How to Use Books to Support Grief
When it comes to grief, everyone is different. Some kids and teens may want to talk about grief directly, while others will shy away or even shut down at the mere thought of the word. In both cases, being able to indirectly approach grief through stories can be a great tool.
When offering books to kids on grief, here are a few tips:
Give them time and space. Some kids will want to talk about grief right away, while others will need some time alone to process their feelings before they’re ready to pick up a book on the topic. Let them know that you’re ready to share book ideas whenever they feel ready for it, and more importantly, let them know that your availability has no expiration date.
Offer kids choices at different levels and in different formats. After losing a friend to a traumatic death, there was a long period of time where I couldn’t read anything longer than a picture book. And that’s okay! There are some incredible picture books on grief that are worth reading at any age. Teen readers may also appreciate the option of reading graphic novels or middle grade books.
Provide a few titles for them to choose from, if appropriate. This tip requires a bit of observation and communication. If a child is experiencing decision paralysis - where the thought of making any choice, no matter how small, completely overwhelms them - then it would definitely be better to offer them a single book. But if they are open to considering some options, try offering them a handful of different books. You could offer different formats of books, or different genres, for example. Don't be afraid to keep trying - it may take a few attempts before they find a story that speaks to them.
Children's Books About Grief
To coincide with Children’s Grief Awareness Day, here are some of my favorite books for kids and teens that can be helpful when dealing with grief. This is a relatively short list, and there are (thankfully) many more books out there about grief, but these are some that personally spoke to me as I've dealt with my own grief.
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld
Michael Rosen's Sad Book by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake
One Wave at a Time by Holly Thompson, illustrated by Ashley Crowley
Always Remember by Cece Meng, illustrated by Jago
The Heart and The Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
Grandad's Island by Benji Davies
King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca
The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole by Michelle Cuevas
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
Things You Can’t Say by Jenn Bishop
After Zero by Christina Collins
The Line Tender by Kate Allen
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter / Yo No Soy Tu Perfecta Hija Mexicana by Erika Sánchez
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds
Early Departures by Justin A. Reynolds
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir by Tyler Feder
You can find even more books about grief by visiting our database here at A Novel Mind. We also have a resources page dedicated to grief that has recently been updated with new links, including Megan Devine’s animated video on “How to help a grieving friend” and Good Grief’s “10 Tips for Supporting Grieving Kids.” I also encourage you to visit the Children’s Grief Awareness Day website, where you can find some great resources and also learn more about observing this important annual event.
Adriana L. White is an autistic school librarian, a former special education teacher, and a key member of our team at A Novel Mind. She holds a Master’s degree in Education as well as an MLIS. For more of Adriana's writing on autism, neurodiversity, and education, visit her at adrianalwhite.com