6 Books to Help Students Understand Grief

For many of our students, the last six months may have been the first time that they have experienced grief. Processing overwhelming statistics of the sick and deceased, watching anxious parents worry about lost jobs or businesses, or in tragic cases, experiencing the passing of a loved one can take a toll on our students. How children learn to express their emotions and recognise others’ is an important predictor of positive relationships as well as academic performance. 

In light of the ongoing pandemic, as educators, we must engage in conversations about what our students are experiencing, and help them make sense of it all. And, books can help make these tough conversations slightly easier! Here are 6 recommendations to begin your journey to help students understand grief.


Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Get the book here.

This book is an English teacher’s dream with a mix of prose, poetry, metaphor, and dialogue! Max has revamped Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers…” by replacing the feeling of hope with grief, and letting the beauty of words talk about difficult scenarios that surround it. Memories, thoughts, and parts of conversations become the book! By the end of the book, the Crow thing with feathers forces the protagonist to put his private griefing thoughts on the pages of the book. His expression of words will let our learners feel and verbalise their thoughts!  

ACTIVITY: Review the book: who are the main characters? Do you know anyone like them? Do you like the way the author uses words? How does it make you feel?

Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

As kids and adults, we are often fascinated and confused by the question ‘What if I die?’ or any after-death fables! The death of a loved one invokes many different emotions that remain unsaid, unexpressed and yet, permanent. How do we prepare our learners to be resilient through such difficult times?

Get the book here.

Ringtved introduces ‘Death’ as a compassionate and personified character in the children’s grandmother. When the children ask Death of why it’s come to take their grandma, Death narrates a story of the relationship between sorrow and delight, grief and joy, and life and death. The colorful illustrations of the book soothe the reader, and nudges them to be able to associate lighter colors with the topic of death. 

ACTIVITY: Create a comic strip and sketch out a conversation between your parent/grandparent talking about death, and what kind of questions arise thinking about the death of a loved one. 

Love is Forever by Casey Rislov and Rachel Balsaits

This story with illustrations is a story of a Little Owl who loves her Grandfather Owl, and how she learns to keep his love alive after his death too. An accident on the road, a pet, a grandparent or someone in a friend’s house, our children go through such stories. They also ask questions. But, how do we talk about it? Do we use the D (death) word? Or, are we as adults in denial? 

Get the book here.

Casey with beautiful depictions by Rachel shows how we can get over grief and remedy that feeling with love and warmth for our lost loved one.  

ACTIVITY: Narrate a story/poem to your sibling sharing your feelings about losing someone and how you dealt with it. 

Hansel & Gretel (adaptation) by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

We all know Hansel and Gretel, the brother-sister duo from Grimm brothers’ Fairy Tales. Gaiman has adapted this classic to talk about grief and dark things. We’ve all grown up listening or reading stories where good won over evil, and we’d be taught the values of that ‘good’ but not the ‘evil’. As humans, we shy away from discussing what’s dark or sad or hurtful! 

Get the book here.

We don’t talk about the power or value of fighting that dark and winning over it. This book does exactly that! The articulation lets the children know that darkness or grief exists, and it’s okay to tell that story. 

ACTIVITY: Comment on how the black color of the illustrations makes you feel, and paint what colors you associate with what emotions/feelings. 

Winter’s Gift by Jane Monroe Donovan

This book, suitable for secondary learners, is a picture book about an elderly man who is grieving the loss of his spouse, and becomes friends with a mare on his first Christmas Eve alone. The illustrations beautifully show how being lonely feels, and how to move forward with the treasured memories of someone special. 

When the first systematic survey of grief happened with 101 respondents, they defined grief as “…a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intensive subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.” Unlike a common cold, we are all only able to define such symptoms for any emotion as an “I don’t know” or “I just feel sad.” As an educator, you can leverage this book’s story to invoke better articulation and therefore, be able to think of its ways of coping. 

HERE are some awesome activities to get the learners thinking, discussing, and reviewing the book and its ideas.

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers

Get the book here.

Sketched out for primary learners, this book talks about the loss of an important person in a kid’s life. With illustrations, the story engages a girl in emotions and specifically grief from the absence of her father. The author attempts to encourage the child to experience and embrace all the positive things in the world while not pushing away the not-so-happy ones. 

ACTIVITY: Make different emotion faces and have your students guess and label how you might be feeling. Create a scrapbook of those illustrative emotion faces, and describe the feeling in writing. 

Stories are the best ‘chapter’ to teach emotions with, and grief is an important one to build resiliency in our students. Let’s not shy away from the dark, and make sure our learners don’t either… 

“There is, of course, another side where we lose our resolve — we drop our guard, or just grow tired and descend into that other, darker, less-lovely world, as we disconnect and retreat deep into ourselves…These revolving feelings of connection and disconnection… are the opposing forces of loss that define our lived experience… Many of us inhabit this uncanny realm of loss — and all of us will find our way there in time.” 

Nick Cave
First posted on Medium: https://medium.com/@vidushis/6-books-recommended-to-help-students-understand-grief-e4fd9f3788b7

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