A Last Goodbye: A Kid's Book About Animals, Dying, and Death

An interview with Elin Kelsey about her book on animals, grief, and mourning.

Posted Mar 31, 2020

"How do we say goodbye to a loved one after they die? This book broaches a difficult topic in a heartfelt way by exploring the beauty in how animals mourn. From elephants to whales, parrots to bonobos, and lemurs to humans, we all have rituals to commemorate our loved ones and to lift each other up in difficult times.

"My wish is that A Last Goodbye supports meaningful conversations about death and about what it means to care for one another during this precious transition." —Elin Kelsey 

I recently read and endorsed a wonderful children's book by award-winning author, Dr. Elin Kelsey, called A Last Goodbye. It's beautifully illustrated by Soyeon Kim, and its messages are powerful and important. My endorsement reads, "A Last Goodbye celebrates the beautiful ways other animals care for one another at the end of life. It mindfully opens up avenues for children to talk about death through the exploration of animal emotions and relationships."

I reached out to Dr. Kelsey, and I'm thrilled she agreed to answer a few questions about her landmark book. Here's what she had to say. 

Why did you write A Last Goodbye, and why is it important for children to know how other animals care for one another at the end of life?

When a child faces the loss of someone they love, it's so difficult as a parent or educator to know what to say. Making death a part of everyday conversations is healthy for kids of all ages. Younger ones, especially, benefit because the idea of a life ending can be confusing and because they may not yet have the words to fully express their feelings.

Owlkids Books
Source: Owlkids Books

Many of my closest friends work as palliative care nurses and chaplains. They help people through the final days of their lives, and they often tell me stories that demonstrate how much it means to a person who is very ill or dying to be supported by people they love. Tender touches, a quiet song, a cool cloth, kisses—there are so many ways we bring comfort to one another. 

Perhaps that is why when I started to notice an increasing number of scientific articles describing how other species respond to death, I thought it would be wonderful to write A Last Goodbye. I wanted children to know that a number of other animals care for one another at the end of life.

I wanted to open up conversations about emotions, compassion, and empathy, and how these tender qualities are shared not only between our own families and friends but across other species of highly intelligent, social animals. I wanted to write a book about death that spoke to the experiences of people, or a chimpanzee, or an elephant, or any of the other species found within these pages. I wanted to reassure children that no matter how devastating the loss, death is a natural part of all life on Earth.

All of the examples in this book are real. They are based on interviews with scientists and articles within scientific journals and other publications. They reflect poignant situations, such as the case in the summer of 2018, when a 20-year-old killer whale (Orcinus orca) scientists had named J35 gave birth to a baby daughter off the coast of British Columbia in Canada.

Sadly, the baby died soon after she was born. Her mother refused to let go of her. J35 carried her baby for 17 days, balancing her on her head to keep the calf afloat and diving deep underwater to bring her back to the surface whenever she slipped off. J35 carried her baby through the water for more than 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles). (See "Make No Mistake, Orca Mom J-35 and Pod Mates Are Grieving.")

People all over the world were moved by this whale's profound response to loss. I find it additionally touching to know that this young mother whale was not alone. Other whales in her pod were with her, calling back and forth to her. Cases like this one, along with the discovery that whales, dolphins, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, elephants, and other intelligent, big-brained animals, have special spindle-shaped brain cells that in humans are thought to provide the wiring for empathy and social intelligence further suggest that these animals have sophisticated reactions to death.  

My wish is that A Last Goodbye supports meaningful conversations about death and about what it means to care for one another during this precious transition. Parents, teachers, librarians, family, and friends all play a vital role in helping children develop the relationships and resilience they need to deal with life's most difficult times. I envision A Last Goodbye as contributing to this vital movement and supporting social-emotional learning. Soyeon's glorious illustrations subtly convey a shift from darkness to light as the story unfolds. I hope people of all ages find wonder and comfort within its pages.

How does it relate to your background and general areas of interest?

All of my work, as an academic and as a writer, focuses on hope and the relationships that exist between ourselves and other species. I am fascinated with the remarkable capacities for resilience, culture, emotions, and innovation we share with the greater than human world, and I draw on first-person interviews with scientists to source cutting-edge examples that highlight these commonalities.

I love creating picture books that invite children to recognize these connections. You Are Stardust explores the wondrous ways we simply are nature. Wild Ideas shows the creative approaches and tools other animals use to solve problems. In You Are Never Alone, I wanted to reassure kids that no matter what is happening in their lives, we are always surrounded and supported by nature. Whether it's the gravity holding us tight, or the whales whose "poop" fertilizes the plankton that feed the fish we eat, nature touches every aspect of how we live. 

I collaborate with academics, teachers, university students, and kids in many parts of the world on projects that focus not only on the urgent and important environmental issues we face but also on amplifying solutions, like the global rise of bans and taxes on single-use plastics or the rapid spread of plant-based eating or the fast-moving establishment of ecosystem-scaled marine protected areas, which are having important positive outcomes. In 2014, for example, I co-created a social media campaign, #OceanOptimism with Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution and Heather Koldewey of the Zoological Society of London, to crowdsource and share real-world examples of ocean conservation solutions and successes. #OceanOptimism has reached more than 100 million shares. 

What are some of your current projects?

I have a new book for adults coming out in October 2020 with Greystone Books. It's called Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis and delivers an evidence-based argument for hope to a world living through a planetary crisis.

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