Guest Blog by Neil Campbell Professional Grief Counsellor, What is Bibliotherapy?

09/09/2021 0 By Guest
Guest Blog by Neil Campbell Professional Grief Counsellor, What is Bibliotherapy?

Neil Campbell

(The Summerhouse, Anambron & The Campbell Grief Institute)

  •  I’m in my 28th year as a professional counsellor, and, for 23 of those years, I’ve specialized in grief counselling. As well as bereaved adults, I work with bereaved children through two of our specialist Grief Counselling services – The Summerhouse (bereaved children & young people generally) and Anambron (grief counselling specifically for bereavement by suicide).
  •  After many years of working with bereaved children and young people, I can say one thing with certainty – bereaved children DO GRIEVE, and they can do so as fully and as intensely as bereaved adults. But, they grieve in ways and timescales that can differ significantly from adults. Their grief is age-related and, as such, they don’t always understand the feelings & emotions they are experiencing – struggling not only to understand them, but also to express them and have adults validate them.
  •  Consequently, one of the best ways we can support bereaved children and young people is to help them find their own “Metaphor for Grief” – help them to find the most appropriate and age-related medium through which each can understand and express his or her grief. These Mediums or “Metaphors” can be found within the approach known as Non-Directive Play Therapy; and these can include, for example:

Memory Jars                  Feelings & Emotions Jars       Memory Boxes

Art & Drawing               Clay & Plasticine                     Sand Trays

Feeling Buttons             Teddy Bear Making                Poetry

Grief Journals                Headstone Exercise                Grief Balloons

Compassion Stones      Scrapbooks                            Photo Albums

Worry Dolls                   Anxiety Angels                       Puppets



For me, there are three strong ground rules with regard to using the above mediums with bereaved children and young people.

  • The first is to have available as many of these mediums as possible for the bereaved child or young person to explore and, then, choose from – for what works for one, may not appeal to another.
  • The second is to ensure that the choice of the medium remains with the bereaved child or young person. We can explain to them how each medium works, we can show them how to engage with it and how it might be of help. But, the choice of medium or activity must remain freely with them; for it has to appeal to them, it has to interest and intrigue them.
  • The third and, perhaps, the most important ground rule is to remember what our role is when the bereaved child or young person is engaging with the medium activity with us. It is one of “Respectful Accompaniment” – NOT leading, instructing or directing! During the activity, we are their “Accompanier” and “Compassionate Companion”.

And this leads into the medium I seem to end up engaging with the most and one I’m incredibly passionate about:


What is Bibliotherapy and How is it Used?

Well, Bibliotherapy is the use of fictional books – with stories that contain, at their heart, the themes of death, dying, loss and grief – in order to help bereaved children and young people start to (a) understand their feelings, emotions and reactions after the death of a close loved one, and (b) to explore how they can express their own grief.

How it’s used will often depend on the age of the child or young person,

  •  For young children, they can read the book on their own, with you in respectful support – ready to explain, comment, agree or react at their request.
  •  You can read the book together, or you can read it to them. Whatever they want!
  •  They may want to talk about the book after they’ve finished reading it, and you can offer to do that with them.
  •  But, sometimes, they might not want to do so – just reading the book on their own may be enough – and that, too, has to be respected.

Some schools and organisations offer support groups for bereaved children, and bibliotherapy can play an important part in the group’s activities. The books can then be used as a group reader (obviously, several copies of each book will be needed).

  •  The facilitator can read the book to the whole group, the children could read the book in pairs or mini-groups, or the children could be allowed to read the book on their own. The offering of time and space to talk about the book later can be made.
  •  For older children and young people, more often than not they will take the book away to read in their own time. You can then offer to discuss the book with them when they’ve finished it and try to answer any questions if they want you to.
  •  Some will and, following their lead, you can then talk about what they felt about the book – while answering any questions with respect and honesty.

What Do You Mean by Non-Directive?

I’ve touched on this earlier, Helen. But, to expand, “Non-Directive” means that the medium or activity, the bereaved child engages with, should be freely chosen by the child from as wide a range of options as possible. The supporting adult can demonstrate and explain each option within the range of mediums and, even, gently recommend, but the choice should still ultimately lie with the bereaved child or young person – and they will choose whatever looks intriguing and appeals to them personally.

If we apply this to Bibliotherapy, it’s about having as wide & as diverse a collection of books (with death, dying, loss, the cycle of life, grief, remembering and reminiscing as their main themes) as possible, and then accompanying the child or young person as they browse through what’s on offer. A reading list here would help both children and parents greatly – with simple story summaries, simple issue classifications and age-related guidance.

With reference to Bibliotherapy, the bereaved child or young person should then be allowed to approach and read the book in their way (as I explained earlier), their pace and their time. They need to be allowed to extract from the story whatever is relevant to his or her feelings, emotions and situations …….. AND their responses need to be allowed to be made without any analysis, questioning or assessment from the supporting adults.    

Do You Feel that Children Should Reach a Certain Age Before Reading or Being Read to About Grief?

Many of the excellent young children’s fictional books on grief appear to cover and embrace the 4–8-year-old range. While a 4-year-old may not understand about the finality of death and its wider impact within the family, they will certainly know a loved one is missing and will be affected by the adults’ reactions to the loss. Reading about a situation similar to theirs, or having that story read to them, can be very helpful.

Moreover, children’s books have such wonderful illustrations to accompany the story, that there is much to be gained by children being able to follow the story visually. With the parent or supporting adult reading the story and the children listening to the words and following the story’s illustrations in front of them – it can be a wonderfully rich, collaborative experience for both.  

What Are the Benefits of Using Bibliotherapy?

When a child or young person reads a fictional book, that wonderful commodity – “Imagination” – is called forth! As they read, they will often identify with the lead characters, sharing in their activities and challenges, their excitement and their fears; experiencing the same highs and lows, and sensing all of the feelings and emotions that those characters are going through, forging a bond with those characters and vicariously sharing their dilemmas and problems.

  • It can help children and young people understand their own feelings and emotions more.
  • It can help them to become more aware and sensitive to others’ feelings and emotions.
  • It can prompt them into reflecting on their own situations and, perhaps, adopting some of the coping strategies they’ve learned from the book.
  • It can help them understand more about the concepts of death and dying, and provide them with more information on those issues.
  • It can help them understand about the different attitudes and views that adults and children will hold.
  • For younger children, it can help them to understand the cycle of life more, and the importance of the two Rs – Remembering and Reminiscing.

Is a Parent Able to Use Bibliotherapy with Their Child or Should They Seek Professional Help?

Absolutely – to the first part of this question! Parents, grandparents, aunts & uncles, teachers, teaching assistants, librarians – they can ALL be Bibliotherapists!

But, I would hope that they would pass the following criteria:

  •  Be passionate about books and reading.
  •  Be passionate about and appreciate children’s fictional books.
  •  Have some understanding about how children approach and read fiction.
  •  Have a reasonable grasp of children’s age-related views on death and dying.
  •  Are prepared to access the latest information on topic-related books.
  •  Are capable of assessing a children’s fictional book for its suitability

With regard to the last criteria point, when a Bibliotherapist is checking a children’s fictional book around Grief for its suitability, they should make sure:

  • It’s a good, easy read.
  •  The story-line is clear, age-related and with distinct settings.
  •  It’s written with good, descriptive language.
  •  It has short chunks of narrative with lots of dialogue.
  •  A small group of lead characters (to avoid confusing the reader).
  •  Clear and honest example of the impact death and dying has had.
  •  That issues around death, dying and grief are handled honestly, but sensitively.
  •  Realistic example of characters’ coping strategies.

Obviously, the above assessment guidelines will have to alter a little when considering fictional books on Grief for teenagers. For example:- perhaps, longer chunks of narrative, avoidance of overly happy family scenarios, more examples of the differences within the family between adults and young people in the aftermath of a loved one’s death, fears for the future, etc.

How Many Books on Grief Should Children Have Available to Read?

My immediate answer to this, Helen, is as many as possible. However, if it’s a family situation, I realise there will be a cost factor. I’ve picked up quite a number of these books (for our library resource) second-hand from Better World Books, Amazon and eBay; and nearly all of them have been in pretty good condition. Three or four good, age-relevant and well-written books with themes of death, dying and grief within the story. If it’s a good book, then children will return to that book again and again.

With regard to schools, grief organisations, support groups, parent groups and professional counselling & support services, I would suggest that they try to purchase as many as possible. The more you have, the better the collection to choose from. Moreover, it would be helpful to gather as wide a range as possible. Some of the books available specifically cover different types of deaths and the loss of different members of the family. The bigger the collection, the more scenarios you are likely to cover.

 For example:

For Younger Children

  •  Patrice Karst’s wonderful “The Invisible Leash” covers the loss of a pet.
  •  Wendie Old’s “Stacy Had a Little Sister” covers the death of a baby sibling.
  •  Louise Moir’s “Rafi’s Red Racing Car” and Emmi Smid’s “Luna’s Red Hat” are designed to help with bereavement by suicide.
  •  Charlotte Moundlie’s “The Scar” is around the death of a young boy’s mother.
  •  While the excellent “Gentle Willow” by Joyce Mills has children’s terminal illness as its central theme.

For Teenagers

  •  Judy Blume’s brilliant “Tiger Eyes” is about a teenage girl in the aftermath of her dad’s violent death.
  •  Lois Lowry’s “A Summer to Die” tells the story of a teenage girl’s turmoil over her sister’s terminal illness and, then, death.
  •  Katherine Paterson’s legendary “Bridge to Terabithia” deals with the death of a best friend.
  •  Clare Furniss’ “The Year of The Rat” tells the story of a teenage girl’s grief in the aftermath of her mother’s death while giving birth to a baby sister.
  •  Sarah Dessen’s  “The Truth About Forever” tells the story of a teenage girl’s grief over the death of her father and the alienation of her mother.

These are just some of the many good story books out there that deal with the grief of children & young people in a host of diverse types of death, grief situations and the different relationships with adults in their lives.

What Will Help Me to Choose the Correct Book?

This is quite difficult, Helen. Sometimes, it might be as simple as keying in the words “children’s fiction on grief” and searching online. Often, this will produce entries for Top Ten, Top Twenty or Top Fifty Lists on the subject, and then it’s a question of wading your way through the entries until one or two catch your eye or interest. The problem is that the entries don’t always come with a good-enough summary or critique.

I’m hoping that, as the interest in Bibliotherapy grows, more organisations and services will start to adopt it as a resource. Hopefully, they can then provide any interested parent or family with a good Bibliotherapy Reading List – with appropriate classifications, critiques, synopses and recommendations.

My own website is currently under construction (my website designer and his family have all recently contracted Covid, so there’s a bit of a delay in the upgrade). But, from the 1st November this year, I will be devoting a page on my website for Bibliotherapy, and it will include a comprehensive Bibliotherapy Reading List that visitors can browse through.

Equally, I’m more than happy for anyone who wants a book recommendation, or some help with choosing the most appropriate and relevant books, to contact me at [email protected] and I shall do my best to help.

Are There Books Available for Different Religions?

This is not a question I can really answer at the moment, simply because I don’t know. It’s an area I’m not familiar with, BUT one I intend to explore and learn over the next year or so. Equally, if anyone had recommendations for such books, I would be delighted to hear from you. I hope there are and, if so, I shall acquire and, hopefully, come back to you, Helen, in the near future for Bibliotherapy Blog Part 2.  

Thank you to Neil Campbell for writing this blog for Memories Box and answering some of the questions that many people ask.

The easiest way to contact Neil is on the email above [email protected]

or you can call him on 07958 739505