How picture books can help pupils experiencing bereavement

Dan Graham

Dan Graham has worked in the children's book and media industries for 19 years and has written over 100 children’s books and apps, most recently under the pen name of Oakley Graham. He was formerly a Primary school governor and pupil mentor, and is the editorial director for the Tide Mill Media group of companies, comprising Top That Publishing, Playcreate Media and Loved By Kids. 

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About 5% of children will have experienced the death of a parent by the time they are 16, while 92% will lose someone important to them. At any one time, around 70% of schools have a bereaved pupil in their care, according to Child Bereavement UK. When the worst happens, teachers provide an invaluable source of support, guidance and care for their pupils. Just being there, ready to listen and support your pupils in times of tragedy is vital. Children find it distressing to see their parents upset and they need teachers, classroom assistants and mentors to be strong and provide reassurance through this difficult period in their lives.

Children often express their feelings during the grieving process very differently to adults, and may have trouble coping with everyday life, such as going to school. Bereavement charities such as Grief Encounter suggest that one of the most positive things you can do to help children cope with loss is to focus on sharing positive memories of their loved ones.

"Rabbityness is a great book for helping children to focus on their best memories of loved ones, and to help them reflect and move forward in a positive way."

Picture storybooks can be a very useful aid for opening up this sort of line of communication with Reception and Year 1 pupils. Focusing on fond memories of the past to cherish in the present, whilst also looking positively at the future impact those memories can have on our lives, I have selected four picture books that have been invaluable to me when helping my own children to cope with bereavement.

The first title that I have chosen is Rabbityness by Jo Empson. Rabbit enjoys doing rabbity things and un-rabbity things too. But, when he disappears one day, his friends are upset, until they discover that rabbit has left them some gifts to help them find their own unrabbity talents too. This gentle story by first-time author and illustrator Empson is a great book for helping children to focus on their best memories of loved ones, and to help them reflect and move forward in a positive way. Death is not overtly mentioned in this book, and while it is clear to an adult that rabbit hasn’t just ‘disappeared’, the short story plants the seed for a gentle exploration of what happens after someone dies, and how we can celebrate their life by what we do in the present and future.

The next title on my list of books is Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. Badger is very old and knows that he will die soon. Although he tried to prepare his friends for this event, they are still grief-stricken when he dies. Gradually his friends come to terms with losing badger by remembering all the things he taught them, and so Badger lives on in his friends' actions and in their fond memories of him. First published in 1984, this is a classic tale about coping with grief that has perfectly withstood the test of time. Death is overtly mentioned in this story, and it is a good book to use with slightly older children (Year 1), who are possibly more able to comprehend the natural cycle of life and death. During the course of their work, The Grief Encounter charity has found that children are quick to adopt a fanciful notion of death, such as being in a long sleep like Sleeping Beauty, as opposed to facing the more permanent reality. This book provides a platform for helping pupils to make the transition from fantasy to reality when the time is right.

"Charming illustrations, and a catchy repeated refrain, make The Paper Dolls a safe bet for starting conversations with a grieving child."

The third book that I have chosen is The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson. Published in 2012, and already a modern children's classic, this book perfectly depicts the circular nature of human life, whilst subtly reflecting on those people who help to make our lives so memorable. Charming illustrations, and a catchy repeated refrain, make this title a safe bet (no one actually dies within the course of the narrative, although a much-loved Grandma is only present in the child protagonist’s memory) for starting conversations with a grieving child and helping them to open up. The softer narrative in this book is especially suitable for younger children in Reception.

The final title is by one of my favourite picture book authors and illustrators, Oliver Jeffers. The Heart and the Bottle follows a little girl on her journey through the grieving process. After the male character with whom she shares cherished experiences dies, the little girl places her heart into a glass bottle and wears it around her neck so as not to be hurt again. As the story progresses, the little girl grows older and has lost her ability to see the joy that life has to offer – all that she can think about is how heavy the bottle around her neck is. Eventually, a curious young child gives the girl the strength to free her heart from the bottle and she is able to enjoy life once more. This is a powerful story about love, loss and hope in the face of bereavement. As with Badger’s Parting Gifts, Jeffers exemplary book conveys the notion that grieving is not a quick process, but that everyone needs to move on in a positive way in the end.

Picture books cannot help a child to come to terms with bereavement as a standalone entity. However, they most certainly can be used as a vehicle to open up lines of communication for grieving children to express their emotions and to reflect on positive memories.

Have you used picture books to help pupils through hard times? Let us know in the comments.

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