Five Ways to Use Books to Help Children Navigate Grief and Loss
January 22, 2024
At United Through Reading, we understand the profound power of stories. They transport us to different worlds and offer unique windows into the human experience. But perhaps their most transformative role lies in helping us grapple with difficult emotions, especially for young hearts facing the complexities of grief and loss.
The death of a loved one, the end of a cherished relationship, or even the loss of a pet can leave children feeling adrift. Sadness, anger, guilt, and fear often intertwine, making it hard to articulate their inner turmoil. In a 2023 paper titled, Healing with Storybooks: Using Bibliotherapy to Help Children Cope with Death, Dr. Prahbhjot Malhi states,
“The key to effective therapeutic reading involves selecting developmentally appropriate books with portrayed characters, situations, and emotional experiences with whom the child can identify.”
In these situations, books can serve not as distractions but as trusted companions and gentle guides. We partnered with fellow military and veteran family service providers, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), to build our book list to help families choose the right title to support young grieving hearts following a loss.
Here are five ways to use reading as a processing tool using some of our newly added books focused on grief and loss.
Children’s books acknowledge the legitimacy of their diverse emotions through relatable characters and heartfelt narratives. Aaron Becker’s wordless picture book, A Stone for Sascha, portrays the journey of grief through a young boy’s experiences in nature. While emotions aren’t explicitly named, the illustrations allow for open interpretation and validation of a range of feelings.
The picture book Always Remember by Cece Meng uses the metaphor of a dandelion seed floating away to depict the enduring connection between a child and their deceased loved one, validating feelings of longing and love. They see characters mirroring their own feelings of sadness, anger, or confusion, normalizing what can feel like an isolating experience.
Loss can be messy and unpredictable. Books provide a safe space to explore these complexities without judgment. When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Brown is a gentle book that addresses the concept of death in a natural and scientific way, helping children understand the complexities of mortality and different cultures’ views on death.
Finding Words for the Unspoken
Sometimes, grief renders us speechless. Books offer words for the inexpressible, giving voice to the emotions children may struggle to articulate. In Lifetimes by Bryan Mellonie, illustrations and poetic prose weave a tapestry of life and death, reminding children that love transcends physical presence. This can be especially helpful for younger children who may lack the vocabulary to express their grief.
Opening Doors to Communication
Books act as conversation starters, prompting dialogue between children and caregivers. As you read together, pause to discuss the characters’ feelings, ask open-ended questions, and create a safe space for children to share their thoughts and emotions. I Miss You by Pat Thomas helps initiate conversations about death and dying, using accessible language and gentle humor to encourage open communication.
Building Resilience and Growth in Perspective
Grief, though challenging, can also be a catalyst for growth. Stories like Edna by Susan Paradis explore the loss of a dog from a child’s perspective, showcasing how children build resilience through adjusting to change and finding new ways to connect and grieve. By witnessing characters emerge stronger from their losses, children gain a sense of hope and resilience, understanding that even amidst sadness, there is a potential for joy and healing.
The loss of a military loved one can weave together emotions of grief for the hero who died and pride for their service to the nation. Based on a real horse that serves in the U.S. Army Caisson Platoon in Arlington National Cemetery, Klinger by Betsy Beard is an endearing story that offers comfort and shares the fulfillment found in honoring America’s fallen heroes.
Remember, choosing the right book is crucial. Consider the child’s age, the nature of the loss, and their individual needs. Look for stories that offer gentle hope, validate their emotions, and encourage open communication. Above all, let the book be a bridge, a shared experience that fosters connection and understanding during a difficult time.
At United Through Reading, we believe in the transformative power of stories, especially for military families facing deployment and separation. Our program allows deployed parents to record video storytimes, connecting with their children through the magic of books, even when miles apart. So, the next time a child grapples with grief, offer them a book as a source of solace in the face of loss. For within the pages of a story lies the potential to heal, connect, and find the strength to navigate even the darkest chapters of life.
Click here to see our full list of grief and loss-related titles. You can request a free copy through our App to start reading today.
TAPS is the national nonprofit organization providing compassionate care and comprehensive resources for all those grieving the death of a military or veteran loved one. Since 1994, TAPS has offered support to all those grieving the death of a military or veteran loved one through peer-based emotional support, connections with grief and trauma resources, grief seminars and retreats for adults, Good Grief Camps for children, casework assistance, connections to community-based care, online and in-person support groups, and the 24/7 National Military Survivor Helpline, all at no cost to surviving families. To learn more, visit taps.org or call 202-588-TAPS (8277).