Discussing Death with Little Ones (Whose Deaths We Fear So Much)

By Wendy Thomas Russell | December 17, 2012 | 8 comments

Not since 9/11 has a tragedy so deeply affected our nation as the massacre of 20 first-graders and six school administrators in Connecticut on Friday. It seems to me, words were not meant to communicate this level of horror. Our capacity for emotional pain is so much deeper than our capacity to verbalize what has happened. Sometimes silence and tears are our only option.


But when it comes to children, we have a duty to discuss death and dying. It is an important part of parenting, and we mustn’t shy away from it. Yes, it’s hard. Our children might fear our deaths more than anything else, just as we fear their deaths more than anything else. That’s only natural. But there are things our children must hear, and they deserve to hear them from us.

Here’s a bit of advice, should you need or want it.

• Heaven Doesn’t Help Us: Talking to Kids about Death

• 12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids about Death 

As for nonreligious children’s books about death, these are the best I’ve found so far:

When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown. I can’t say enough great things about this book, which is why I dedicated an entire post to it.

The Tenth good Thing about Barneywritten by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Erik Blegvad. This adorable classic is about a boy losing his cat. Such smart writing. “Barney is in the ground, and he’s helping to grow flowers,” the boy’s father says at one point. “You know,” the boys responds, “that’s a pretty nice job for a cat.”

About Dying by Sara Bonnet Stein. I’m crazy about this oldie, which is a book for kids and parents to read together, but also has some great information in smaller print off to the side.

When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers. Did Mr. Rogers ever do anything that wasn’t awesome? No. No, he didn’t. This is no exception.

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia. The main character in this book is a leaf who is coming to terms with the fact that he will fall (die) at some point. It’s quite gentle and calming and would be great introduction to death, particularly for sensitive kids who may be prone to anxiety over the subject.

Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie dePaola. Okay, this one is not about death, but about the reality of growing old and getting sick. It is one of my favorite children’s books of all time — so sweet and poignant, it is guaranteed to make you cry. And it has a happy ending. My daughter loves it as much as I do. (DePaola’s Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs is really nice, too.)


  1. I may end up buying all of these books, but was wondering which would be the most helpful to a terminally ill 5-year-old and her 6-year-old brother. Any suggestion which I should try first?

    • Hi there! I just check out your blog — it’s great. And you are obviously going through what could aptly be described as a parent’s worst nightmare. I am so sorry. I am also inspired and heartened by your courage to talk about what’s going on, and also to allow your daughter to live out the rest of her life as a child. That graduation clip was so precious!! She is a beautiful girl, and she has obviously come so far. I’m really glad you reached out — and hope to make it onto your list of blogs you stalk. :)

      Anyway, I think any of these books would be great for your son, particularly When Dinosaurs Die and About Dying. The Tenth Good Thing about Barney and When a Pet Dies are also just excellent, although they are about pets rather than people.

      As for your daughter, there are definitely a ton of books out there meant to help children cope with their own deaths. The problem is that a ton of them are religious in nature. They’re all about going to heaven, etc. I will look into this, and in the meantime, please let me know if and when you find some good ones. Also, for children who are grieving the loss of a family member, check out the Grief Recovery Institute’s handbook for children. (They also have one for adults, which is very similar and equally insightful, I think.)

      Best of luck, and let’s keep in touch.

    • Also, FYI, the “grieving kit” from Sesame Street is supposed to be great.

  2. Jill says:

    I’m gonna check these out at the library, I’m so curious and need a little insight into letting go myself. As much for me as for our sweet Jack and Max, and all other little ones I come across.

    Thanks Wendy. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks, Jill! I think these books are great for everyone, honestly. I’ve also been learning about John James and Russell Friedman, who run the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oakes. They do great work and wrote a book that might interest you, as well: The Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses including Health, Career, and Faith. If you buy it, I want to borrow it!

  3. Rich Wilson says:

    I may have recommended “Badger’s Parting Gift”. It is very good. It caught me by surprise reading it to my son in the public library.

    Another one not about death specifically, but about letting go is “Mole and the Baby Bird” http://www.amazon.com/Mole-Baby-Bird-Marjorie-Newman/dp/1582347840 It’s one of my favorites.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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