The thing I love about books is that they’re kinda like a built-in conversation. You read a book, then you discuss a book and, pretty soon, you’ve addressed a difficult topic that you were never quite brave enough to confront head on.
When Ellie started getting sick, I researched and read my way through dozens of children’s books that I hoped would help my kids (and me) cope with the grief of losing our sweet girl. This week, we’ve leaned heavy on the best of those books. I thought I’d share for anyone who might be going through something similar.
Here’s our favorites:
1. The Heaven of Animals by Nancy Tillman
Some books are made for the kids that read them and some books are made for the adults who read them to kids. It’s a rare skill, but I think Nancy Tillman accomplishes both. The unbelievably rich and ethereal illustrations always keep my kids’ attention. And, oh… the words… they get me every time. What I like about this book is that it reassures readers that the bonds of love we share with our pets never go away. It focuses on the happiness and peace of the pet that’s passed AND it addresses losing different types of pets – not just dogs. We bought this one and I wrote a special message inside the cover about Ellie. It will stay in our home as a keepsake and something the kids can refer to whenever they feel down.
Favorite line: But the love that you have for your animal friends is always the same — that love never ends. It makes itself known in all kinds of ways. It floats all around them, or settles and stays. And when angels whisper in animal ears, it is your voice that each animal hears.
2. The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr
Todd Parr is the Mr. Rogers of our generation. He manages to take complex ideas and simplify them into something children not only understand, but enjoy. The illustrations in this book are colorful, poignant and simple, making it perfect for younger readers with shorter attention spans. It takes you through the stages of loss and the associated feelings. I love that he reassures you that those feelings – whatever they may be – are normal. I also love that it’s not specific to pet grief. It’s purposefully vague and could easily be used for any kind of loss.
Click here for a link to a really sweet video by the author about the book, with a little sneak peek of its contents.
3. Bone Dog by Eric Rohmann
This is technically a Halloween book, but I think it’s perfect for any kids that love Tim Burton (we have some of those in our house!) or ones that could use an offbeat fictional story to discuss how they’re feeling. It begins with a promise made between a boy and his dog under a full moon. Later, when the boy is harassed by some skeletons on Halloween night, his deceased dog comes back to rescue him. Does that sound gruesome? Because it’s really not… The point is, your pet will always be with you even if they’re not here right now. Of all the books we’ve read, Holland enjoyed this one the most.
Favorite line: Afterwards, Gus and Ella sat together in the moonlight. Gus asked, ‘Will I see you again?’ ‘A promise made under a full moon cannot be broken,’ said Ella. With that she disappeared into the night.
4. Saying Goodbye to Lulu by Corinne Demas
This is a sweet book about a girl and her aging dog. She begins to notice that her dog is struggling with things that were once easy for her to do. When the dog eventually passes, she thinks she’ll never want another pet. But, eventually, she finds room in her heart to love another dog. I like that this book addresses the complicated things that happen before a pet dies and normalizes the aging process. At times, my kids didn’t understand why we couldn’t fix Ellie. They assumed that you could just take her to the doctor and she’d get better, like when they’re sick. More than any other book, this story helped them understand that there are problems that can’t be remedied by the vet.
Favorite line: ‘You’re not Lulu,’ I whisper to him. ‘Still, I’ll love you, too.’ But I think he already knows that.
5. I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
This one was a toughie. The dog’s name was Elfie (um, might as well be Ellie) and she looked like a Golden Retriever. (cue: tears!) The book focuses on a little boy who is losing the pet he was raised with. It explains how, even though you grow up together, dogs grow up faster than humans. It also reiterates the importance of always telling those you love how you feel about them.
Favorite line: The years passed quickly, and while I was growing taller and taller, Elfie was growing rounder and rounder. The older Elfie got, the more she slept, and the less she liked to walk. I was getting worried!
6. Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
This beautiful, colorful book describes what happens to your dog when it goes to heaven. That’s one of those hard questions we got from the kids. But what will Ellie do in heaven? This book gave them plenty of happy scenarios. Dogs run through fields. They swim in lakes. They play with angel children. They eat dog biscuits and sleep on clouds. My favorite part of the book is that the dogs remember their families on earth and still check on them. That thought gives my children (and me) plenty of comfort.
Favorite line: Dogs in Dog Heaven have almost always belonged to somebody on Earth and, of course, the dogs remember this. Heaven is full of memories. So sometimes an angel will walk a dog back to Earth for a little visit and quietly, invisibly, the dog will sniff about his old backyard, will investigate the cat next door, will follow the child to school, will sit on the front porch and wait for the mail. When he is satisfied that all is well, the dog will return to Heaven with the angel. It is where dogs belong, near God who made them.
7. When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers
Oh, Mr. Rogers. He just gets it, doesn’t he?! He explains everything so sweetly – the special role pets fill in our lives, what a vet is and what they can and can’t do, what it feels like to lose a pet, how to handle the emotions we feel and what it’s like to grieve. The book is filled with photographs and, while they’re definitely outdated (see: 1988), they still apply today. Thank you, Mr. Rogers, you tender, tender man.
Favorite line: No matter how sad or angry you feel when your pet dies, one thing you can be sure of is that you won’t always feel that way. When sad things do happen, the best place to be is near someone you love… someone who can understand how you are feeling.
8. Sally Goes to Heaven by: Stephen Huneck
My kids love the Sally books. Sally’s been everywhere – the beach, the vet, the farm. Sally’s even been in a hot air balloon! Sally’s led a good life, and I love that the author of this book allowed Sally to also go to heaven. (Thank you, Stephen Huneck, for sacrificing your character so we could all learn how to deal with loss.) When Sally goes to heaven, she’s happy, but she also cares about her family left behind, and even goes to the trouble of helping her family find another pet to love. This idea sparked a nice conversation about what Ellie would want us to feel and do. Right now it’s hard to imagine, but we know Ellie would want us to love a new dog someday. (And, if you’ve never read a Huneck book, you have to see his folk art woodblock illustrations. They’re SO amazing and totally frame-able!)
Sadly, Stephen Huneck lost his battle with depression in 2010. Before he died, he created The Dog Chapel on top of Dog Mountain in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Click here for a little clip about that special place (which I hope to visit someday):
If you’ve read any of these books or know of any more we should check out, please let me know! We’re still reading, learning, coping with life without our Ellie Belly.