This is Part I of a series on childhood grief. Part II, on talking to children about death and dying, may be found here.
This Thursday, November 21st is Children’s Grief Awareness Day. Childhood grief can run deep, but because children can move from tears to laughs and smiles in a matter of moments, it’s easy for adults to believe that they’re too small to understand or assume that they’re naturally resilient. It’s also incredibly difficult to support a child’s grief when their grown-up is struggling with their own. Childhood grief is real, and not all that uncommon —one in five children will experience the death of someone close to them by the time they are 18.
I was a child when my dad died (well, at 20 I wasn’t technically a child — but I certainly felt like one). My nephew was nearly 22 months old when his mom, my sister, died unexpectedly in 2017.
My daughter has two deceased grandparents that she will never meet, and an aunt who was gone before her first birthday. It is important to me that my daughter and nephew grow up knowing the people in our family who left us too soon.
In the days after my sister’s death, I began thinking about what we could do for my nephew — how could we support him moving forward? How could we help him know my sister, even though he was so young when she died?
The book provides glimpses into the life he had with her, a life that he no longer remembers.
Why Remembrance Books?
There are some in grief who immediately throw themselves into pictures and memories. There are others who keep pictures at bay, or only look on special occasions. Then there is everything else in between. There’s no right way, but regardless of how an adult chooses to engage with memories of the deceased, a child should have access to pictures and stories and should not be dependent on the grown-ups around them. I think this is especially important in the early days after a loss.
I wanted my nephew to be able to look at pictures of his mom whenever he wanted the comfort of her image and to be able to use the photos to maintain or build memories based on our stories about her. I searched for ways to give him pictures of my sister that were presented in a child-friendly format, especially since most of our more current photos of her were on our phones. I found Pinhole Press’ Board Books which are colorful, sturdy, toddler-friendly and have the ability to totally customize the text.
Sam’s book contains photos of him doing ordinary things with his mom — walking in the stroller, going to the library, reading stories and celebrating holidays. The book provides glimpses into the life he had with her, a life that he no longer remembers.
We use his book to remind him that he does have a mom who loved him very much. He can see how she cared for him and the mundane and special things they did together. I dedicated some pages to show my sister as a little girl, so Sam can see her, and recognize her, in all of her life stages.
My husband and I both lost parents before our daughter was born. We want Corinne to grow up hearing stories about her Grandma and her Papa — and these books will provide her with a glimpse of her family story and help her understand the types of people that her grandparents were.
The books provide an avenue to make this type of sharing a part of our everyday routine.
With this in mind, I recently took on the project of making three photo books for Corinne. Each one dedicated to one of our beloved family members. This was an emotionally difficult project, but now that it is complete, I am so thankful that we have these images in our hands and are more regularly talking to her about her aunt and grandparents.
To honor her Aunt Alison, I used the Big Photo Book of Names and Faces. This book features large, beautiful pages on thick cardstock. It is sturdy with an interior spiral binding. I included all of the little anecdotes of my sister that few people would know about her. How she flashed a big smile and declared that she should audition for a toothpaste commercial the afternoon her braces were taken off, and how she once got lost in the woods for hours while hiking with a friend near our house.
I used the Custom Board Book to make the books about her grandparents. The pages are protected with a glossy finish, and the books are the right size for toddlers to manipulate and carry around independently. These grandparent books also provided a way to introduce Corinne to her family history — to see pictures of the little river in upstate New York where my father grew up, and hear stories of her grandma as a child on the Jersey Shore, a place she vacationed every summer.
I wrote about my mother-in-law’s love of gardening, and my father’s passion for driving (too) fast.
Book Making Tips
- Whether your loss is recent or long ago, making these books can be painful. Give yourself the emotional space you need, and feel free to do it in multiple sessions (the books can be saved so you do not need to start all over).
- When I started to make my sister’s book, just a few weeks after she died, I couldn’t bear to talk about her in the past tense. This can be worked around by using the present to describe what’s happening in the pictures.
- If the loss is recent, try to make the book as soon as you can. This will be hard. I started my sister’s book weeks after she died, but I didn’t order it until later in the fall. I wish I could have finished it within a few weeks of her death, especially because Sam was so young when she died. By the time he got the book, he had lost many of the memories he had of his mom.
- Be open to reading the book with your child whenever they ask. We keep the book within Sam’s reach, and in the first year after my sister’s death, I would read it to him often. He can also look through the book himself whenever he chooses.
- Include pictures of the child with the deceased person whenever possible.
- Provide context if necessary. Explain how the person is connected to the child and how other family members are connected to each other. I did this for each of the books I made for my daughter.
- All of the pages in the book you choose will be formatted for a specific photo orientation (square, portrait or landscape). If you want to use a specific picture, but are finding that the dimensions don’t match the book template, you can add a border so that the image appears in its entirety (I used the free program LunaPic). You can see the border I added to make this landscape photo fit on a portrait page in the picture above.
- Photo books like these could also be helpful for children going through other types of common life transitions. They would be a special keepsake for a child who lost a pet, or for children who live far from family (to help them remember the cousins/aunts/uncles/grandparents that they don’t see very often). I can also imagine children looking through books once they’ve transitioned to a new school or moved to a new neighborhood. If a family is going through a divorce or separation, pictures of each family member may comfort a child as they adjust to a new living arrangement.
Some Questions to Consider
Do I write our loved one’s life story? What information should I include?
First, remember that this book is for young children and is not very long. I used the pictures I had on hand to help me highlight particular facts. The grandparent books have a generally linear arc. I wanted to give my daughter context for her grandparents’ lives — where they were from, photos of their parents and siblings, and anecdotes about what they were like when they were young. My sister’s book doesn’ follow a linear path. But I included lots of memories of her from throughout her life to paint a picture of the person she was.
Should I include the person’s birth/death date?
I chose to include these on the title pages. The days of my sister and father’s deaths and births are important to me, and they are days I want to recognize in some capacity every year. I want my daughter to be familiar with these days too. Of course, this is a personal choice. My husband preferred not to include these dates in my mother-in-law’s book.
Should I include photos of the person when they are sick? Should I include information about their death?
That depends. It felt important to me that we didn’t hide images of my mother-in-law, father or sister’s illnesses. My mother-in-law planned a whirlwind trip to Disney World exactly two months before she died. I wanted our daughter to see her grandma’s resilience and energy, even when she was sick. Though my sister had cancer, the disease did not cause her death, and I chose not to talk about how she died in the book. My father and mother-in-law’s illnesses were a larger part of their story, and perhaps that is why I chose to write a bit about them. Of course, this is a complicated question if your loved one died as a result of violence, mental health, or a tragic accident. It is important to do what you are comfortable with and to remember that there is no right choice.
What if reading the book/looking at pictures makes me cry?
This is okay. I would often cry when I read to Sam, especially in the early months after Alison’s death. When it would happen, I would tell Sam that I was crying because I was sad and I missed his mommy. It is completely acceptable (and appropriate!) for children to see you upset about a death. The only caveat is if you are hysterical, it is best to express that level of grief in private so that the child isn’t frightened.
Types of Books — Which Book to Choose?
Board Books — Kids (0–4): You can use the template from the Custom Board Book of Names and Faces or My Little Story Board Book. The difference is that the Custom Board Book includes colored pages for text whereas the My Little Story Board book offers white pages. You can fit approximately 30 words per page, a cover page, and up to 20 pages for photos and text.
Big Photo Book of Names and Faces (4+): This book is wonderful to make a story a little more special. It has a cloth cover (they give you six color options for customization) and feels much more like a keepsake. You can fit approximately 50 words per page, a cover page, and up to 24 pages for photos and text. Unlike the Board Book template, the text in this book does not automatically wrap. You will have to do a little more editing to make sure that the sentences are spaced well on the page.
I am glad that we made this version for my three-year-old, but it will be a number of years before I trust her to handle it herself.
Kids Memory Book (4–8): This book works well with kids who are early writers or writing independently and love to illustrate. Art has long been recommended as an activity to help children process their grief. In this book, children can add a background to a picture, decorate the page, or just draw whatever they are feeling.
The Kids Memory Book includes 30 pages of text with picture prompts. You may customize the sentence starters, write in full sentences, or leave the text area completely blank and allow the child to write captions for the book. Each page also has a space to write the name/date.
If you have multiple children they can each sign their names to their drawings.
Keep in mind that in this book you may not adjust the number of pages, so be sure that you have enough pictures. If you do not, you could always add photos of your person’s face, and have the child draw in the rest of the scene. This book is large, and it can be difficult to turn the pages because of the page size with the spiral binding. I would recommend that younger children have adult support when they’re working on their books.
Creating a remembrance book is not easy, but it can be a beautiful and meaningful way for children and families to stay connected to loved ones who are no longer here.
*If you are thinking of purchasing a book in the near future, you may want to wait a couple of week for Pinhole Press’ holiday sale*
Part II of our series on supporting grieving children can be found here.
A version of this post originally appeared on Here For You.
This post contains affiliate links. Here For You will earn a commission on sales that originate from this post. That you for considering purchases that support Here For You and the work we do. When I started this project I found that Pinhole Press is, truly, the best company to make kid-friendly books that are totally customizable.