My sons will ask a wide variety of questions in a day. Some make me laugh, others make me cringe. My two-year-old packs as many questions in a minute as he can. The questions my five-year-old raises usually require a Google search to answer them.
On a recent, typical day, the questions varied from: “Why doesn’t the dog have hands? Mommy, how long do you think I’ll live? What are we doing tomorrow? Can we watch Paw Patrol? Where is heaven? Can we talk without a tongue? Can I have a snack? Do you wish Daddy would have lived longer?”
Their questions have no limits. Going potty, driving in the car, eating a meal, or reading before bed are the most popular times they pose questions on death. They have intermingled with everyday, normal questions about what we are doing for the day.
Their dad died of colon cancer when my oldest son was three years old and his little brother was a six-month-old baby. My youngest will be celebrating his third birthday soon. His mind is curious about this person we call Daddy that he only sees in pictures. His questions at this age revolve around why he died and where he is now.
Questions about cancer, death, and heaven will always be present in our home. They are normal conversations we have every day. Books are the most useful tools I have for these questions. They help me with the tough questions I don’t always understand myself or have a concrete answer to.
There are many well-written children’s books on death and grief. It isn’t a “one size fits all” for which stories your child may gravitate to. The list below is our favorite books, and those I have recommended to other mamas having this tough conversation. I’ve also included honorable mentions from our bookshelves; some they will grow into and others I choose to read because of the message.
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children was the first book given to us by his preschool. When my husband’s health started to decline rapidly, my son wanted to read it over and over in the days before and after his daddy’s death. It does a wonderful, gentle job of explaining how everything has a lifetime. It is still a popular choice at bedtime and we reference it often.
The Goodbye Book is another popular choice. It addresses questions and feelings a fish had when he said goodbye to someone who died. My five-year-old likes it because “It talks about missing someone like I miss my dad.” It has colorful illustrations and keeps the feelings simple for a toddler and preschooler to understand.
Goodbye Forever (recommended K-2) and Saying Goodbye (recommended K-4) were given to us by our oncology social worker. Both books are suitable for toddlers as well. The book can be personalized for the child and the person they are grieving by writing in memories and coloring pictures.
Goodbye Forever does a good job echoing how everyone has a lifetime, explaining what they will see at a funeral, and feelings children might have when someone dies. It is simple, honest, and asks short questions on the bottom of every page to start a conversation.
Often I will read a few sentences from Saying Goodbye on each page and tailor it to what they need on the day we read it. This book touches a little more on the child’s emotions, asking questions throughout the book and has a few worksheet pages aimed for older children at the end.
The Invisible String has a wonderful message, and I reference it often from this book: “People who love each other are always connected by a very special string made of love . . . Even though you can’t see it with your eyes, you can feel it with your heart and know that you are always connected to everyone you love . . . no one is ever alone.”
Not only does this narrative comfort my sons, but it also comforts my heart. My oldest gets really excited when he names off family and friends who are connected to him by his invisible string. The string can reach anywhere to anyone. Love does not stop because someone dies. An important message for a child who has lost someone.
Death and missing someone is a part of everyone’s life at some point. All children have questions about death. It can be overwhelming, especially when we are grieving too. I hope this list can help offer some guidance on this tough conversation.