When our son, James, was diagnosed in utero with a rare chromosomal condition, we struggled to explain this to our two older children. We didn’t know if James would live to be born. If he did, we had no idea how much time our family would have with him. It could have been minutes or days. As it turned out, we had 5 months.

When James died, my husband and I grappled with the question of how to help our living children understand his death. Our family is not religious, so we could not tell them that their brother would be in heaven. What could we tell them? And how? In The absence of religion, how do you explain death to your children?

Below is a list of books that we found helpful in explaining death from a secular perspective:

  1. I Miss You : This colorful, illustrated book takes a multi-cultural look at death. It presents the emotions a child might feel when a loved one dies. These range from sadness and anger to guilt and isolation. It also addresses cultural differences in mourning and funeral rites. Periodically throughout, there are questions that you can ask your child. Examples include whether they’ve known anyone who died and how they are feeling about their loss. Our children return to this book again and again.
  2. Help Me Say Goodbye : Described as an art and activity book to help children deal with feelings of grief, there are multiple exercises to help children acknowledge and work through their grief. Our then five year old daughter, in particular, seemed interested in doing the activities and talking about the feelings associated with them.
  3. Something Happened : This book deals specifically with pregnancy loss such as miscarriage or stillbirth. Simply illustrated, it wrestles with the fact that sometimes, we just don’t know why our babies die. It is another book that our daughters return to again and again even though our son died at five months old.
  4. Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children: This gorgeously illustrated book uses nature as a way to demonstrate that everything dies. In simple terms, the story unfolds to explain the natural progression of life and death.
  5. Tear Soup : This evocative story is a metaphor for the many stages of grief. A woman with an unspecified loss makes “tear soup.” Into this soup, she pours her many emotions. Those around her do not always understand her grief and oftn try to rush her healing process. Persistently, she tends her soup and ultimately finds healing. Our daughters were both riveted by this story. It is a wonderful book for both children AND adults.
  6. The Invisible String : This story is about the ties that bind us. It deals with death but also with how we are always bound to our loved ones, whether we can see them or not.

In the end, there is no easy way to explain death. These books have helped our children to understand the rhythms of life and mortality. For a more comprehensive list of children’s books about death, you can go here.

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