I know that the subject of death with young children is a contraversial issue; but it is also a great opportunity for an open discussion and lesson to help them gain a little understanding of death. Knowing in advance about how to address the issue will help you to provide children comfort in the event of the loss of a pet, friend or family member.
I attended a conference many years ago titled “Don’t Flush the Goldfish down the Toilet.”
It was a real eye opener for me and I hope that you can also take away something from what I learned.
The workshop presenter explained how most parents and teachers who have fish as pets for their children or students flush the fish down the toilet when they die. However, she explained that this is a really great opportunity to teach children about death, to embrace it and to show respect to the goldfish by providing it a proper burial. It is important to let the child say goodbye in his or her own way. Saying goodbye to a pet, friend or family member might involve having the child write a letter, poem or song, and, of course, saying a prayer. If the child is too young to write, he can dictate to you so that you can write it.
The following selection of ten children’s picture books all have as their basic subject the death of a pet. These books have the potential to provide comfort to 3-12-year-old children and their families. Through sensitive texts and complementary illustrations, the authors and illustrators of these children’s picture books pay homage to the enduring love between a pet and a child and a pet and a family. Sharing a children's picture book about the death of a pet can provide an opportunity for children to express their feelings.
1. Goodbye Mousie
This is an excellent picture book for 3-5-year-olds. First with denial, then a mixture of anger and sadness, a little boy reacts to the death of his pet. With sensitivity and love, his parents help him prepare to bury Mousie. He finds comfort in painting the box Mousie is to be buried in and also in filling the box with things the mouse would enjoy. This reassuring story by Robie H. Harris is beautifully illustrated with muted watercolor and black pencil artwork by Jan Omerod. (Aladdin, 2004. ISBN: 9780689871344)
2. The Tenth Good Thing about Barney
This children’s picture book by Judith Viorst is a classic. A boy grieves about the death of his cat, Barney. His mother suggests he think of ten good things to remember about Barney. His friend Annie thinks Barney is in heaven, but the boy and his father aren’t sure. Remembering Barney as brave, smart, funny, and more is a comfort, but the boy can’t think of the tenth thing. Then he realizes that “Barney’s in the ground and he’s helping grow flowers.” (Atheneum, 1971. ISBN: 0689206887)
3. Jasper’s Day
“Jasper's Day,” by Marjorie Blain Parker, is a poignant, yet wonderfully comforting, picture book about a beloved dying dog's special day before he is "euthanized" by the vet. Having been through the experience several times, the book really moved me. Janet Wilson’s chalk pastels beautifully illustrate a little boy's love for his dog and the whole family's sadness as they say goodbye by giving Jasper a last day filled with his favorite activities. (Kids Can Press, 2002. ISBN: 9781550749571)
4. Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children
This is an excellent book to use to introduce death as part of the cycle of life in nature. It starts, "There is a beginning and ending for everything that is alive. In between is living." The artwork for that text is a full-page painting of a bird's nest with two eggs nestled in it. The text and illustrations include animals, flowers, plants, and people. This picture book is perfect for introducing young children to the concept of death without scaring them. (Bantam, 1983. ISBN: 9780553344028)
This children’s picture book for 6-12-year-olds provides a realistic look at the different ways siblings may react to the impending death of a beloved pet. Toby has always been Sara’s dog. Now, at 14, Sara’s age, Toby is nearing death. Sara’s response is anger and rejection of Toby. Her younger brothers, furious at her response, lavish attention on Toby. The boys remain angry at Sara until something happens to convince them Sara still loves Toby. (Ticknor & Fields, 1994. ISBN: 9780395670248)
6. Saying Goodbye to Lulu
When a little girl’s dog slows down because of old age, she is very sad and says, “I don’t want another dog. I want Lulu back the way she used to be.” When Lulu dies, the girl is grief stricken. All winter she misses Lulu and grieves for her dog. In the spring, the family plants a cherry tree near Lulu’s grave. As the months pass, the little girl becomes ready to accept and love a new pet, a puppy, while still remembering Lulu with affection. (Little, Brown and Company, 2004. ISBN: 9780316702782)
7. Murphy and Kate
This story of a girl, her dog, and their 14 years together is a good one for 7-12-year-olds. Murphy joined her family when Kate was a baby and immediately became her lifelong playmate. As the two grow older, Kate has less time for Murphy, but her love for the dog remains strong. Deeply saddened at Murphy’s death, Kate is comforted by her memories and knows that she will never forget Murphy. Oil paintings by Mark Graham enhance the text by Ellen Howard. (Simon & Schuster, 1995. ISBN: 0671797751)
8. Dog Heaven
This affectionate and joyous look at what heaven must be like for dogs can be a great comfort for both children and adults who believe in a heaven where dogs go. When our dog died, I bought this children's picture book by Cynthia Rylant for my husband, and it helped to ease his grief. With text and full page acrylic paintings, Rylant shows a heaven filled with dogs’ favorite things. (Scholastic, 1995. ISBN: 9780590417013)
9. Jim’s Dog Muffins
When his dog dies after being hit by a truck, Jim is distraught. His classmates write a letter of sympathy to Jim. When he returns to school, Jim doesn’t want to participate in any of the activities. He responds angrily when a classmate tells him, “It doesn’t do any good to be sad.” His teacher wisely tells the class that Jim may need to spend some time feeling sad. By the end of the day, his friends’ sympathy has Jim feeling better. (Greenwillow,1984. ISBN: 0440411246)
10. Cat Heaven
Like the book “Dog Heaven,” this children's picture book was written and illustrated by Cynthia Rylant. However, heaven for cats is quite different from heaven for dogs. Cat heaven is custom designed for cats, with all of their favorite things and activities. Rylant’s full-page acrylic paintings provide a joyous and childlike view of cat heaven. (Blue Sky Press, 1997. ISBN: 9780590100540)
So, don’t flush the goldfish down the toilet. Instead, use that moment as an opportunity to talk with your students or your child about death. With your comforting support, the child will begin to know and accept that it is all right to feel this kind of sadness and how to express those feelings.
If you plan a lesson on death, always inform the families in advance that you will be teaching this lesson and how you will be addressing it. The family may be able to provide you with important information about the child’s personal experience to which you may need to be sensitive. The families may also ask you questions so that they can be prepared should their child want to discuss the subject further. The lessons that bring home and school together for the child are the very best kind, especially on a topic like this one.
Peace and Joy,