This Thursday, November 15th, marks Children’s Grief Awareness Day. 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 a toddler when his mom, my sister, died unexpectedly last summer. My daughter has two deceased grandparents that she will never meet, and an aunt who was gone by the time she was 10 months old. It is important to me to know how to support children who are grieving or who will never know the people who I am grieving. I want my daughter and nephew to 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?
My sister, Alison, with her son and my daughter.
Why Remembrance Books?
There are some, in grief, who immediately throw themselves into pictures and memories. I am not that type of person. It has been 15 months since my sister died, but I still choose not to look at pictures of her. The heartache is too much. It will not always be this way, but this is how I feel now. Despite where I am in my own process, I wanted my nephew to be able to access 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 my nephew pictures of my sister that were presented in a child-friendly format. I came across Pinhole Press’ Board Books - colorful, sturdy, totally toddler-friendly, and with options for personalization. This turned out to be a great solution.
Sam’s book contains photos of him doing ordinary things with his mom - walking in the stroller, going to the library, reading books together and celebrating holidays. The book shares glimpses into the life he had with her, a life that he no longer remembers. We use the book to remind him that he does have a mom who loved him very much. Within the book, I chose to include pictures of my sister as a little girl, so he can see her, and recognize her, in all of her life stages.
Since giving Sam that book, I realized that I wanted my daughter, Corinne, to be able to access the people she is missing in her life. Corinne spent lots of time with my sister, but she was just an infant when her aunt died. I wanted to create a book for her about her Aunt Alison, and to also include pictures of them together so that she could see how her Aunt was a part of her life, and there would be visuals when I told her about how much her my sister loved her.
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 the types of people that her grandparents were. There is also the added benefit of providing an opportunity for my husband and I teach our daughter about our parents. The books provide an avenue to make this type of sharing a part of our 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 photo book features big, 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 wished to try out for a toothpaste commercial after her braces were taken off, and how she once got lost in the woods for hours while hiking with a friend.
For the grandparent books, I used the Custom Board Book. 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 - the little river in upstate New York where my father grew up, and pictures of her grandma as a child on the Jersey Shore. 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 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.
An example of using the present tense in the ‘My Mommy’ book I made for my nephew. When I started this book, the loss was too fresh to speak about her in the past tense, so I didn’t. The books are easy to personalize. You can change the text color, page color or page order.
- 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 in August, but I didn’t order it until later in the fall. I wish I could have gotten it into my nephew’s hands within a few weeks of her death, especially because he was so young when she died.
- 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. I would usually cry while reading, especially in the early months after my sister’s death. It is okay to be sad while reading the book to your child. I would tell him that I was crying because I was sad and I missed his mommy. It is 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.
- 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.
- The book you choose will be formatted for certain photo orientations (whether it be 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 could be given to kids who have lost a pet, or for kids who live far from family. I can 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 their 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, information 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 included them so my daughter could 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 include them in the books. 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 what you think the child can handle.
Types of Books
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 a white backdrop. 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 two-year-old, but it will be a number of years before I trust her to handle it herself.
This book works 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.
You may not adjust the number of pages in the book, 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 readers have adult support when they’re working on their books.
My friend's son working on his Kids Memory Book in honor of his grandmother.
Creating a remembrance book is not easy, but it is a beautiful way for children and families to stay connected to their memories.
Part II of our series on supporting grieving children can be found here.
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