The death or absence of a parent is an extremely traumatic experience for a child. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to helping children grieve, cope with, or process their feelings in difficult circumstances. Instead, you simply have to be there for them in any way possible—to listen to their stories, help maintain normalcy, and to be willing to talk to them about what’s happened in a way that makes sense to them.
For some children, their understanding of the difference between the absence of a parent and the loss of one is muddied. They can only feel what they’re feeling—that the parent they loved is no longer around. If you’re in the midst of this experience with a little one, these eleven books may help your child to cope with their feelings. They sensitively handle the topic of death, of divorce, and of loss, and give a child the affirmation they need that it’s okay to grieve, okay to be angry, and okay to be sad. So many children think that they have to forget about their parent to move forward, and are terrified of doing that. These books are subtle enough to help your child learn coping skills without them feeling like they are being forced upon them.
Where Do They Go?, by Julia Alvarez, illustrated by Sabra Field
“When somebody dies, where do they go? / Do they go where the wind goes when it blows? … Do they wink back at me when I wish on a star? Do they whisper, ‘You’re perfect, just as you are’?”
Author Julia Alvarez explores death, life, love, and grief in this lyrical picture book.
Woodcut artist Sabra Field—whose prints Alvarez discovered at the library while on hunt for Goya art books—illustrated the words with stunning visceral images.
Alvarez says she wrote this story after she began “losing many of the people I love. One of the difficult things about coming from a culture where your extended familia is considered your ‘nuclear’ family is that you don’t just lose a set of parents, a couple of aunts and uncles, but dozens upon dozens of tías, tíos, madrinas, padrinos, abuelitas, abuelitos. A whole flank of familia is suddenly gone.”
There’s also a Spanish-language edition of this book, ¿Donde va a parar?
The Goodbye Book, by Todd Parr
When a fish loses its green fish-companion in their fishbowl, “It’s hard to say goodbye to someone.”
Todd Parr, one of our family’s favorite picture book authors, wrote and illustrated this book on grief and loss without mentioning the word “death.” Because this story is told through the voice of a fish, it might be the perfect way for young children to relate to losing someone. Say, a parent who moves across the country during a divorce. Or, a mother who recently died.
In the end, Parr comforts his readers with the reminder that “there will always be someone to love you and hold you tight.”
Always Remember, by Cece Meng, illustrated by Jago
Another comforting, sweet story about an animal who loses its friend, this picture book is also a good choice for young children coping with loss.
Old Turtle was a kind friend and a teacher who helped others. “He made his world a better place. / When he was done, the ocean took him back.” The day he died, he “swam his last swim and took his last breath.”
Like Parr’s book, the word “death” is not found in this story. A gentle story with beautiful illustrations, there’s no mention of religion.
Ida, Always, by Caron Levis, illustrated by Charles Santoso
Another example of illustrating death to young children through animals, Ida, Always tells the story of two polar bears who live in the Central Park Zoo in New York City, and it’s loosely based on a true story.
Gus and Ida spend all their days together, even after Ida gets sick. They snuggle and comfort each other until Ida’s terminal illness takes her life. Santoso’s paintings add so much to this beautiful story of love, grief, and loss, and Levis ends on a hopeful note.
The Memory Box: A Book About Grief, by Joanna Rowland, illustrated by Thea Baker
In The Memory Box, a little girl with blonde hair worries she might forget someone in her life who recently died. (“I’m scared I’ll forget you…”) So she sets out to put together a “memory box” with special relics and memories to remind her of “everywhere we’ve been, everywhere you’ve been, everywhere we wanted to go.”
Joanna Rowland, a kindergarten teacher, shows readers that grief isn’t always linear. You’ll have some good days and some very sad ones. Thea Baker has illustrated this book with mixed-media collages from fabric and textured papers. There’s a guide for parents at the end of the book with information from a Christian perspective on how to help children grieve after losing someone they love, as well as tips on how to create their own memory box.
No Matter What, by Debi Gliori
When children feel anxiety about losing a parent, often their fears focus on their worry that their parent no longer loves them. In this charming book, Gliori’s characters ask and answer these very questions your little one may have and prove that a parent has an endless capacity for love, even after death, and that their child is always loved, no matter what.
I Miss You: A First Look at Death, by Pat Thomas
The title says it all. This sweet book is simple to understand and can lead your children down the path of realizing their grief is normal, no matter how all-consuming it is, and that death is a part of life.
When My Daddy Died, I…: Things I Miss About My Dad, by K.J. Reider, illustrated by Monica Bruenjes
This sweet book was written by a man who lost his best friend, his father, when he was just a young boy. In it, he talks about the memories he will always cherish about the time he had with his father, which is perfect for little ones who are afraid they’ll forget their parent.
My Many Colored Days, by Dr. Seuss
Even after a tragedy has happened, you’ll want to help your child regain some sort of normalcy. This lovely Dr. Seuss book gives them the comfort of knowing that they are allowed to feel a wide range of emotions, no matter what kind of day it is, or how they think they are supposed to feel.
Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You, by Nancy Tillman
A beautiful book full of moving words, this one is perfect for the little one who is worried their parent will leave their memories and their hearts. It reassures a child that a parent’s love is endless, no matter the distance, and that it is always there, even if they don’t notice it in a traditional way.
What’s Heaven?, by Maria Shriver, illustrated by Sandra Speidel
No matter your faith, you’ll find that this book is perfect for answering your children’s questions about death and where our loved ones go. Using real answers from children, it can help your own little ones find peace and understanding in their grief.
What books have your little ones found helpful in times of loss?