My dad died. He had been sick with a rare blood disorder for a long time, and it had prevented him from traveling to see the boys much. As a result, my three year old has only a vague idea of “grandpa” – but he does know who he is. I really struggled with how to explain grandpa’s death, because both grandpa and death are concepts that he is not very familiar with.
Add to this the fact that we are not Christians. It feels very false for me to tell my son, “Grandpa is in a better place – he is in heaven.” Because that is not what I believe. Children see through you when you lie, even in the service of protecting them.
I looked at a lot of children’s books about death, and many were not suitable for preschoolers. Some were lovely, but too advanced, such as The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, and Tear Soup. (NOTE: Now that my son is four, we have read The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, and it was age appropriate. It would be a good choice for four year-olds and some more mature three year-olds.)
Some were just not appropriate – one talked explicitly about what happens to you body when you die – my kid would freak out if I read him that.
Here are my
five seven favorite books for explaining death to preschoolers. Most are suitable if you are Christian as well (except maybe The Mountains of Tibet, which is very Buddhist). I chose them for our family for their secular content. I included some of the text from each book, because I feel like that will help you better understand the tone of the book.
I already loved Margaret Wise Brown. She has so many great books other than Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. This book made me love her even more. The story and the illustrations are beautifully simple. A group of children finds a dead bird. They are sad that it can no longer fly with the other birds. They take it to the woods and bury it. They visit the dead bird everyday, until they forget. It is a beautiful, basic a story that my three year old understood immediately. Sadly, this book is out of print – but I found it through inter-library loan. If used copies didn’t cost so much, I would certainly purchase it.
“Then they cried because their singing was so beautiful and the ferns smelled so sweetly and the bird was dead.
They put dirt over the bird as they sand, and then they put more ferns and flowers and a gray stone on top of the dirt.”
This book was written by a mom who struggled to explain the loss of her ex-husband to her young son. The text is simple, and tries to answer the questions that preschoolers have – where are you? Why can’t I see you? Why can’t I hear you?
“Where are you, now that you are gone? We took your body to a special place to say goodbye. But you were not there. I was Sad.”
The book ends by explaining how we can remember our loved one, and so they are in our heart -inside of us.
This book doesn’t deal with death directly, but talks about the connection we always will have to those we love. The “invisible string” is an easy concept for a preschooler to understand.
“You don’t need to see the Invisible String. 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 deep inside your heart and know that you are always connected to the ones you love.”
FYI – there is one mention of heaven in this book: “Can my String reach all the way to Uncle Brian in Heaven?”
As a Buddhist, this book resonated with me. It is a story about reincarnation, and it presents death in a very understated way. A boy is born in the mountains of Tibet. He grows up, has a family.
“He lived to be very old, and he never left his valley.
Then he died.
He found himself in a place that was both very dark and very bright. He heard a voice speaking to him. The voice said:
‘You now have a choice. You may become part of the endless universe some call heaven, or you may live another life.’
The rest of the story details all the choices the man makes (What planet? What continent? What creature? What ethnicity?) to be reincarnated as a little girl in the same village he had come from.
This one was a bit beyond my three year old. It is prose, and has many vague concepts (“I won’t know where I’m going and I won’t know where I’ve been as I tumble through the always and look back toward the when.”)
The illustrations are not particularly eye catching for a three year old, either – lots of stars and clouds.
The thing that I really like about the book (aside from finding it very comforting myself) is that it talks about the concept of a “next place” which I find to be good terminology to describe how a person is no longer here with us, where we are. And some of the text is more concrete:
“I will not be a boy or girl,
A woman or a man.
I’ll simply be just, simply, me.
No worse or better than.
My skin will not be dark or light
I won’t be fat or tall.
The body I once lived in won’t be part of me at all.”
Update: I found two more books that I think are appropriate for a 3 or four year-old.
“My cat Barney died this Friday. I was very sad. My mother said we could have a funeral for him, and I should think of ten good things about Barney so I could tell them…”
A boy’s cat dies, and his mom asks him to come up with ten good things to say when they bury him. He can only think of nine. As he and his dad are planting flowers and discussing how Barney’s body will help the flowers to grow, he finds the tenth good thing.
A grandad and grandson spend much time walking in the forest, with the grandad instilling a sense of wonder and respect for nature, “The tall grass prays as it waves its arms beneath the sky, and flowers pray as they breathe their sweetness into the air.”
“Each living thing gives its life to the beauty of all life, and that gift is its prayer,”
When grandad dies, the grandson is distraught. Eventually he returns to nature and remembers the lessons that grandad taught him about the interconnectedness of all living beings.