Death of a loved one

It can be extremely difficult to explain death to a young person, especially when grieving yourself. For parents wanting to answer the ‘facts’ about what has happened Goodbye Grandma and Life is Like the Wind are particularly useful. All of the titles below, however, will help families explore the challenging emotions death can provoke. Parents may also wish to look through the titles reviewed on our Emotions page.

Arno and his Horse

Jane Godwin (author) and Felicita Sala (illustrator)
Scribble: 2021
ISBN: 9781925849486
Age: 4+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Arno has lost the wooden horse his grandfather made for him. With his friends, Arno searches the countryside, but he still can’t find the horse.

The story begins like a mystery with Arno and his friends searching far and wide for the missing toy. The setting for their search is the Australian countryside, rendered dramatically with dark orange scrub and twisting gums. The artwork and rhythmic rhyming text work together to make this first part of the story feel adventurous and fun.

The mood does shift but only a little as the connection between the toy horse and Arno’s grandfather is revealed. The text deals lightly with the loss Arno has experienced; the grandfather’s illness is mentioned explicitly, but his death is only implied. The story does not dwell on this loss but rather turns to the profound connection between the boy and his grandfather that enables Arno to locate the wooden horse.

Arno and his Horse explores the role objects play in evoking memories and connecting people gently and powerfully. The artwork, which renders the Australian landscape so effectively, is full of contrasts between cool greens and deep oranges, curves and straight lines; it provides wonderful opportunities to explore the spectrum of feelings surrounding loss that includes those positive emotions such as love and attachment.

Badger’s Parting Gifts

Susan Varley
Andersen Press, 2013 (Originally Published 1984)
ISBN: 9781849395144
Age: 4+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Badger is old and knows he will soon die. He is not afraid of dying but is worried about how his friends will feel when he is gone. Badger warns them his death is approaching—that he will soon be ‘going down the Long Tunnel’ and that he hopes they will not be ‘too sad’. Badger soon dies and his friends, especially Mole are very sad. The snows of winter begin and during the cold months the animals wonder what they will do now that Badger is gone. As Spring arrives they visit each other and talk about Badger; they talk about the ways in which he helped them learn to skate or bake gingerbreads. When the snow has melted Mole thanks Badger for his particular ‘parting gift’.

Badger’s Parting Gifts is a classic story to soothe any sorrowful heart—young or old. It has a subtle spirituality that is non-religious—Badger’s death is portrayed as leaving the body behind and not something to fear, moreover there are subtle indications in the text that Badger’s presence is still around somewhere even if his body is not. Badger is described as old and living in an old body that does not work very well, so death is a release. This makes Badger’s Parting Gifts a highly appropriate story to discuss the death of older people and animals. Nevertheless, the memory of Badger and his kind nature is the key topic and may be highly relevant when discussing the death of younger relatives and friends. 

Goodbye Grandma: helping young children cope with bereavement

Melanie Walsh
Walker Books: 2014
ISBN: 9781406359954
Age: 4+

Reviewed by Viv Young

A child’s grandma has died. Mum has broken the news and now answers the child’s questions (e.g. ‘What does dead mean?’ ‘Why do people have to die?’ ‘Are you and dad going to die?’, ‘Where do people go when they die?’ and so on). The answers are factual (e.g. death is ‘when someone doesn’t wake up, breathe, think or eat any more’). They are also agnostic (e.g. ‘no one really knows [where people go when they die])’ with several basic beliefs, such as reincarnation and heaven mooted.  The question and answer format turns from death to remembrance as the child asks about saying goodbye to grandma and is given information about the funeral. The concluding section recognises the child’s sadness and encourages the child to anticipate times of sadness and times of happy remembering. 

Melanie Walsh has a wonderful capacity to reflect the sometimes stark nature of a child’s questioning on difficult topics and their natural self-interest in a compassionate and understanding way.  The ‘answers’ Walsh provides are straightforward and no-nonsense—the kind of clear responses we’d all like to provide in the moment. The skilful text is also accompanied by simple but sophisticated drawings which communicate complex and sometimes challenging concepts effectively.  Goodbye Grandma is one of the more comprehensive books about death for young children as it treats death itself, the afterlife, and the practical concerns of children about how their world will be impacted by a particular bereavement. Although the characters are concerned with the death of a grandparent, the question-answer format means this book may be easy to adapt to other situations as the focus turns very quickly from the particular death of grandma to the broad concerns of the child about death.  

Life is like the wind

Shona Innes and Irisz Agócs
Five Mile Press, 2014 (new 2019 edition released by Hardie Grant Egmont)
ISBN: 9781760504908
Age: 3+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Life—conceived as an abstract force rather than an individual’s particular period of existence—is compared to the wind. Life like the wind cannot be seen and when it departs we don’t know exactly where it goes. Various ideas about where life goes are, however, discussed, such as heaven and reincarnation. The range of feelings experienced when life departs is also explored and there is a note to parents with guidance for reading the book with children.

The open-ended presentation of ideas and feelings make Life is like the Wind a suitable title for lots of different families dealing with grief. The language is appropriate for very young children as is the focus on life, given the difficulty of explaining death. The pictures include several recurring animal characters—birds, bear, ducks, tortoise. There is a great effort through the images to support comprehension of the difficult subject matter covered in the text such as, for example, lifelessness which is conveyed through images of animals lying down with their eyes closed and sad friends looking on. Life is like the Wind provides a sensitive first look at death for young children.

Note: online purchases can be made via the author’s website

My Big Dumb Invisible Dragon

Angie Lucas (author) and Birgitta Sif (illustrator)
Sounds True: Colorado: 2019
ISBN: 9781683642435
AGE: 4+

Reviewed by Viv Young

When a young boy loses his mother, an unwelcome guest arrives — a big dump invisible dragon. The boy tries everything to make the dragon leave but he just won’t go away.

My Big Dumb Invisible Dragon takes an empathic and honest look at grief and loss, touching on its oppressive nature, the kinds of emotions it entails – anger, sadness, loneliness, withdrawal – and the very gradual way grief eases over time.

My Big Dumb Invisible Dragon does not provide a practical explanation of death or a guide to funerals. In fact the mother’s death is only implied in references to her absence. Nonetheless, this gentle story and the highly realistic observations that lie behind its treatment of death may well provide comfort and a means to explore emotion.

The gentle whimsical artworks are a perfect match for the fantastic elements in the story that may make the discussion of death more accessible to children.  The idea that grief is like a huge mythical beast will resonate with many readers, young and old.

Old Pig

Margaret Wild (author) Ron Brooks (illustrator)
Puffin: 1995 (new 2017 edition released by Allen & Unwin)
ISBN: 9781760293895
Age: 3+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Old pig and Granddaughter have lived together for a long time, sharing everything, including the chores. But Old Pig is growing tired. She begins to ‘prepare’ for death by returning her library books, paying her bills, and withdrawing all her money from the bank to give to Granddaughter. Granddaughter is very upset, but Old Pig tells her ‘no tears’ and Granddaughter agrees reluctantly. Together, they spend the day taking a slow walk and ‘feasting’ on the beauty of the natural world. When they return home, Granddaughter asks Old Pig if she may hold her tight, just like Old Pig held Granddaughter when she was little. Old Pig agrees, and granddaughter holds her tight “for the last time”.

Old Pig looks sensitively at both life and death. The latter is presented obliquely—death itself is never mentioned, though the text hints at Old Pig’s immanent passing and the final illustrations show Granddaughter alone. There is, therefore, room in this classic tale for young children to discover what they are ready to discover and ask questions accordingly. A range of emotions are presented in the book, sadness but also joy and love; sadness is directly referred to by the Granddaughter character. The illustrations are full of colour and light and the buzz of life. As such they draw attention to the emotions Old Pig and Granddaughter are experiencing, and also to the vibrancy of life that Old Pig is so intent on experiencing for the last time.

Old Pig was recently re-released for its 20th anniversary so copies are widely available.

Remembering Crystal

Sebastian Loth
Simon and Schuster: English Translation 2010 (original language Swedish). ISBN: 9780735823006
Age: 3+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Zelda, a young goose, befriends Crystal, an old tortoise. They share many interests and happy times together but then one day Zelda cannot find Crystal. The other geese explain that Crystal has died but Zelda will not accept this explanation and goes in search of her friend. Zelda does not find Crystal but she does remember all the wonderful times they had together. Zelda ‘feels lonely and sad’, she knows Crystal is ‘gone’, but also knows that Crystal will always be with her.

This thoughtful book deals with death and the challenge of grief when one doesn’t entirely understand or can’t accept loss. The choice of characters is apt for the age group; the simple drawings focus in on the two central characters with minimal background, providing opportunities to talk about the expressive gestures reflecting Zelda’s feelings. The images also lighten the serious subject matter with some warm and gentle humour. The language is clear and talks openly of death and Zelda’s feelings about it. At the same time the story dwells most on the happiness and lasting comfort happy memories provide.

The Goodbye book

Todd Parr
Hatchett Book Group Inc: 2015
ISBN: 978 0 316 404976
Age: 3+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Two fish are pictured in a fish bowl and then only one and a single tear falls from its eye. At this point the narrator begins by acknowledging, ‘it’s hard to say goodbye to someone’. Quickly, the focus shifts to the range of emotions felt when having to say goodbye (e.g. sad, mad), the range of responses to loss (e.g. you might not feel like eating or sleeping) and finally the observation that ‘eventually you’ll start to feel better’. This last section focuses on memory and more specifically remembering good times. The book concludes with a reassuring message, stating that the reader is not alone in their loss—that there is always someone who will love ‘you’—and that sadness is something we all feel.

This book about loss treats feelings rather than explaining death or belief systems. Indeed, it does not mention death or the afterlife but there is a subtle finality about the situation portrayed. The text is open-ended and not prescriptive about grief, allowing readers to discuss which feelings and responses relate to them. Similar to Todd Parr’s other titles, the book’s final statements are reminiscent of formulas used in personal letters or emails (i.e. ‘…Love, Todd’ it concludes). For some young readers this may signal the author’s presence in a caring way that scaffolds the tone of understanding.

The artwork for The Goodbye Book concentrates on the fish character who has lost its companion—the identity of this companion is not explained making the story suitable for all kinds of scenarios affecting children, such as the death of pets, close relatives, or even friends. The simple illustrations, which use block colour and uncluttered subjects to great effect, provoke discussion in other ways—most notably they introduce some gentle humour as the text moves towards talking positively about feeling better and remembering.

The rough patch

Brian Lies
Harper Collins: 2018
ISBN: 9780062671271
Age: 4+

Reviewed Viv Young

Evan (a fox) and his pet dog enjoy music, adventures, and working in their prize-winning garden. When Evan’s dog dies, he allows their much-loved garden to be overrun by weeds until something grows that helps him come to terms with his grief.

The Rough Patch is a Caldecott Honor book and deeply moving. The term of intense grief that the story focuses on follows the seasons and with great sensitivity alludes to the time it can take to process loss. Through Evan’s different responses to the garden Brian Lies explores various emotions associated with grief such as anger, sadness and acceptance. Ultimately, the book is full of hope and gently reminds the reader that there will come a time when the grief is not so acute. 

Evan is portrayed as a fox and an old-fashioned farmer; the illustrations have an old world, country charm that includes illusions to the food and entertainment of country life. The colours range from rich, warm earthy tones to dirty greys and greens, mirroring the many emotions explored in the book. The decision to portray Evan as a fox—in some cultures associated with ferocity—heightens both Evan’s tenderness towards his dog and also the intensity of his grief. The fierce fox brought low by the death of his pet may help children perceive the difficulty of loss for all people—big, small, tough or sensitive.

The Rough Patch does not talk down to young children; it treats grief as a serious and time-consuming emotion. Many children experiencing loss will no doubt appreciate the honesty with which the subject is tackled.  

The Very Best of Friends

Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas
Margaret Hamilton Books: 1990 (reprinted Scholastic 2004)
ISBN: 9781865048000
Age: 4+

Reviewed by Viv Young

Please note that this classic picture book is out of print but readily available in Australian public libraries.

An older woman and man, Jessie and James, live on a farm with an assortment of animals and James’s cat, William. When James dies suddenly, Jessie recoils from the affection that has begun to blossom between herself and the cat. As a result, William the cat goes wild and it is only after some time that Jessie can coax William back into her life.

The Very Best of Friends is an award-winning book, originally written in the late 1980s and reprinted many times since. Margaret Wild’s timeless story about love and grief is perceptive and poignant. It is no guide to death or even grief, but it may help some parent-child teams explore the depth of sadness one feels at the loss of a loved one and look to a future in which the pain of loss is not so bitter. Julie Vivas’ illustrations convey a great sense of love and connection—from the body language and the expressions of the human and animal characters to the deep soft rainbow colours that adorn every page.

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