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When someone you love is dying

I cannot imagine having to explain to a child that someone they love is going to die. The questions must seem unending – where are they going? Can I still talk to them? What does ‘dead’ mean? And then there’s the most difficult question of all: why?

Younger children may have problems understanding the finality of death. Older children may find it difficult to express what they’re feeling, or have trouble dealing with the unfairness of the thing. At a time when the adults in their lives may also be struggling with emotional issues and/or be busy with end-of-life paperwork and arrangements, books can lend a hand with answering some of those questions as well as offering comfort.

Parents, carers and educators all have to make a decision as to how they’re going to deal with these questions. There are philosophical and religious considerations which adults may or may not want to introduce to youngsters, each with a set of implications that can confuse as much as comfort.

These books do not subscribe to a particular religious viewpoint*, but they do tend towards a ‘death is not the end’ sentimentality. I am yet to find a children’s book that doesn’t do this, but if you are aware of one, please do let me know in comments. For children dealing with the incipient death of a loved one the notion that the dead will not be forgotten is an important one.

For advice on dealing with death, or any aspect of parenting, you can contact Parentline on 0808 800 2222

Children and young people can speak to Childline on 0800 1111

Badger’s Parting Gifts

Susan Varley; Badger's Parting Gifts

‘Badger was so old that he knew he must die soon’. So begins Susan Varley’s touching story of those left behind. Varley does not shy from the finality of death – she makes it clear that Badger is not returning. Memories endure, though, and within the Wind in the Willows-esque pages of this astonishingly beautiful picture book that message is strong. Every time Mole cuts out paper dolls, Badger will be remembered; every time Fox correctly knots his tie, Badger will be remembered. These every day kindnesses are not Nobel Peace prize-winning actions, but to those who they affect, they are important.

Goodbye Mog

Judith Kerr; Goodbye Mog

This reviewer on Amazon UK sums up many people’s reactions to Mog’s death.

When I first spotted the hardback edition of this book in the shop and registered the title, my heart gave a sickening lurch. When I picked the book up and turned to page one, I almost collapsed in shock and grief. It took several minutes before I was composed enough to take the book to the tills. And I’m a grown man. But one who had loved Mog dearly for 30 years, regarded her as a sweet, funny friend, always there to cheer me up on the blackest of days. How could she be gone?

Ideal for those already familiar with Judith Kerr’s Mog books, Goodbye Mog has brought a tear to the eye of countless youngsters (and adults) who’ve grown up enjoying Mog’s exploits.

Kerr makes Mog’s death almost an active choice for the aging cat: ‘Mog was tired. She was dead tired… Mog thought, “I want to sleep for ever”. And so she did’. There is a new kitty in the house, though, and Mog sticks around to teach the new arrival her kitteny ways. Beautifully illustrated and told with  and gentle humour, Goodbye Mog, like Badger’s Parting Gifts, is a book about the continued affect our loved ones have on us after their death. Mog floats into the sun, but her memory is alive in the new kitten.

Dead! The Story of Death and Dying

Jim Hatfield; Dead! The Story of Death and Dying

This Horrible Histories book may not be the one to reach for when Granny is nearing the end, but it’s ideal to have around to normalize the idea of death as something that comes to us all. Gruesome and irreverent, as is traditional with the Horrible Histories series, this book charts the way we have dealt with the dead throughout history. We learn about the smoke enema (and let me be the first to say ‘eeeeeeew’) performed by Native Americans to ensure the body before them was indeed dead; mummification rituals and other horrible historicals that will delight children, especially those with a love of the macabre, and hopefully make death less taboo.

Grandpa’s Boat

Micheal Catchpool & Sophy Williams (illus.); Grandpa's Boat

The loss of a grandparent is often a child’s first experience of death, and it’s dealt with here beautifully. With clean, bright pastel illustrations and a sweet but not saccharine story, Grandpa’s Boat is a lovely book to read with children when the unthinkable happens.

Grandpa has always loved his boat and when he dies  it lies forgotten by the quay. When the family decide to repair Grandpa’s boat, they find that Grandpa’s memory is alive in his boat, the Periwinkle, and as the Periwinkle sails again the family share their happy memories of Grandpa.

Micheal Rosen’s Sad Book also discusses death, and is well worth a read. However I think it is such an important book that it’ll be getting a post to itself at some point in the next week or so.

*Though of course such texts exist in abundance, and, while I am not Buddhist I do have a soft spot for The Moutains of Tibet by Mordicai Gerstein.

5 responses »

  1. Oh, these made me tear up. Especially the Badger one! Beautiful, though, and important. I was horrified when Mog was put to rest, as she was preexisting in so many other books, so it felt wrong… but that’s kind of Kerr’s point, I think.

    I’m glad these books exist.

  2. I believe the Lemony Snicket books are supposed to hint at dealing with death but they are likely to produce more questions than solve them.

  3. Jeremy Hornik

    I recommend “Lifetimes” by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen. I wrote about it on, and here’s what I wrote:

    A wonderful and important book. In a simple and matter-of-fact way, “Lifetimes” explains death in a way that children can understand. It is not particularly comforting. Its straightforward prose can even be unnerving… but it’s not the book, it’s the topic.

    My daughter Donna was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 20 months. After two years of treatment, we decided to stop. The treatments were too damaging to her, and each one ended in another relapse. She lived on in wonderful shape: went to pre-school for the first time, watched her new baby brother grow, went to dance classes and read many, many books. One of these books was “Lifetimes”. We read this a few times, and then, she started to ask some questions about it. Finally she asked about herself, and we talked about what was happening with her. Because of this book, we could talk about death with her. At the end, she knew she was dying and she was not afraid.

    She was in hospice this whole time. After three months, the tumor limited what she could do and she felt sicker, needing more pain medication. Shortly after that, she spoke her last words. She spent a week in bed between her mother and me, sleeping, and then in the middle of the night, she died. This was a painful week but a peaceful one–because we’d had the chance to talk about death.

    So I can’t recommend this book enough. Hopefully your experience of “Lifetimes” will not be like mine. But we are all going to die, every one of us, and this book can help to understand that without fairy tales or hysteria.


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