A LAST GOODBYE
Written by Elin Kelsey
Illustrated by Soyeon Kim
(Owlkids Books; $ 18.95, Ages 4+)
★Starred Review – Kirkus
Today I’m reviewing A Last Goodbye. This moving picture book is recommended for PreK-3, but could be appreciated by all ages.
Humans have long believed that they are the only species to care for the ill and dying and grieve the loss of a loved one. But are we?
Nearly two years ago, Tahlequah, a female Orca, was spotted pushing the body of her newborn calf off the waters off Puget Sound. Although the calf only survived for a few hours, the mother had bonded with her daughter. For 17 days, people around the world watched and grieved with Tahlequah as she kept her daughter’s body close to her. After traveling for nearly 1000 miles, she finally released it into the ocean. Responding to questions about the mother Orca’s actions, researchers noted “ … it’s common for marine mammals to show signs of grief.”
As I write this review the number of deaths in the United States from the covid-19 has exceeded 125,000 and will climb higher still. Tragically, there are many children who have faced or will face the loss of someone they love due to this deadly virus. How can we help children cope with their fears and their grief over illness, death, and loss? The calm and soothing narrative of A Last Goodbye will give children a safe space and the opportunity to discuss their anxieties by exploring how animals tend to the dying and say goodbye to those who have passed away.
Using an intimate, first person narrator, the author guides children through the difficult process of death and grief, by looking at how animals comfort the dying, care for the remains, and grieve for their loss. The evenly paced and lyrical narrative allows for many moments to pause, reflect, and encourage questions and discussion in this recommended read for families.
As children move through the book, they see the care different animals give to comfort the dying.
An elephant reassures a dying member of its herd:
“I will wrap my trunk around you
and support you with my tusks.”
As a family of chimpanzees minister to their failing member, they:
“… will tuck soft bedding behind your back
and carefully tend to your hair.”
Kim’s stunning and delicate dioramas convey the concern and the grief of the family for the dying, whose fragility is shown in a slumped or sleeping body, outlined in a soft, glowing line.
And what happens when a loved one dies? How do we respond? Kelsey shows that animals, like their human counterparts, have many ways of expressing their grief:
“And when you die
I will gently stroke your body …”
“I will cry out in sorrow … or watch in quiet sadness.”
After death, Kelsey shows children those tender actions we take to honor the dead by observing what animals do: some will gather around the body, others might cover it with leaves. Some return later to
“… visit the place where your body rests.”
Kim’s diorama is dotted with stars ascending from the bodies of the deceased to the night sky (the book’s end pages also depict a constellation-like map of a variety of animals with their scientific and common names).
Kelsey helps children understand what happens to the body as it sinks into the earth or sea. While death is final, the body nourishes the earth and provides for future generations. She asks the children to wonder:
“Will tiny roots take hold
and tall trees grow
in the rich soil you nourish?
Kim’s dioramas depicting how the bodies disintegrate into new life are particularly breathtaking and turn something painful and frightening into a beautiful and life affirming event. Throughout the book, Kim’s illustrations enhance the narrative’s comforting and soothing tone,
Finally, the author addresses the grief and sense of loss that will always be there:
“I will miss you forever.”
Yet, she reminds children that the pain of grief is not forever, and that there will be happiness and pride in remembering:
“ … one day soon,
I will think of you and feel joy.”
“You, me, all of us.
Every species on Earth.
Our lives plant a long line of love …”
Kelsey and Kim have partnered before with OwlKids Books on You Are Stardust, Wild Ideas, and You are Never Alone. All have received starred reviews from Kirkus. A Last Goodbye is their fourth book together.
Bekoff, Marc. A Last Goodbye: a Kid’s book about Animals, Dying, and Death.” Psychology Today, March 31, 2020.
Pierce, Jessica. “Do Animals Experience Grief?” Smithsonian Magazine, Aug 24, 2018.
You can find many lists of children’s books about death on the internet. Here’s a few:
Children’s Books about Death, Loss and Grieving (New York Public Library),
I would also add City Dog and Country Frog by Mo Willems, illustrated by Jon Muth, a simple yet moving story of friendship, loss, and new beginnings.
•Review by Dornel Cerro