Imagine a huge library that features all the books ever written about animals. You can find guides about caring for pets, photo books of rare animals and wildlife, and tales of animals loved by their humans and grieved for after death. Fiction or otherwise, using verisimilitude or personification, with characters ranging from spiders to horses, and meant for readers young or old, such a collection would be coveted by animal lovers and bookworms alike.
Too bad such a library doesn’t exist! (Yes, we checked.) However, we do have a short list of must-read books where beloved animals pass away as the heart-wrenching stories unfold.
Check out these books if you need a good cry. Potentially cathartic, these books are sure to tug at your heartstrings, a reminder of the fleeting gift called life and of death’s role in making life what it is: special.
Be warned: You will need tissues.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling, 2007)
While tales of Harry Potter and his friends usually revolve around surviving wizarding school and planning the eventual demise of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, they also mention the deaths of several important characters. One such character, albeit neither muggle nor wizard, is Harry’s owl, Hedwig.
To Harry, Hedwig is more than just a pet. Hedwig stays by Harry’s side while he suffers with the Dursleys. Both intelligent and compassionate, she understands Harry’s words and even has her own way of showing affection.
Her demise is rather tragic: She dies of a curse meant for Hagrid, after which Harry has no choice but to destroy their vehicle during a chase scene—even with Hedwig’s lifeless body still in it.
Dog Heaven (Cynthia Rylant, 1995)
Now considered a classic, this tearjerker is a great read for anyone who has ever grieved the death of a canine friend. While it does guarantee lots of tears, readers say it also provides comfort and healing.
This book is full of illustrations of what heaven meant for dogs may look like. No specific dog dies, which makes it all the more special: Your dog that has crossed the rainbow bridge too soon gets to be the star of the story.
Goodbye Mog (Judith Kerr, 2002)
Here’s another picture book, this time of an old, tired cat who, after growing up with a boy she develops a friendship with, is ready to bid him adieu. The last book in a series, it shows readers of all ages how death is part of life without eliciting fear.
Dying at age 32, Mog lives a full life.
A Dog’s Purpose (W. Bruce Cameron, 2010)
While the 2017 movie this book inspired was beset by controversy after a dog was videotaped being dragged into churning waters during the shoot, the book stayed a New York Times bestseller for almost 50 weeks.
This is not your run-of-the-mill, dog-dies-in-the-end story. Even if the canine protagonist, Bailey, dies several times, he is also reincarnated. He experiences different levels of neglect, cruelty, and love for him to realize what the purpose of his life truly is.
I’ll Always Love You (Hans Wilhelm, 1985)
This short book, told simply and illustrated in watercolor, never fails to move readers to tears. It highlights how expressing one’s love everyday is important, especially because life isn’t always as long as one might wish it to be.
Elfie, the dog in the story, lives a wonderful life with her human until the day she doesn’t wake from her slumber. The deep grief that follows is so tangible that readers will feel like the loss is their own.
I Am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954)
This sci-fi horror novel has had several film adaptations, the most recent of which stars Will Smith. While the story has an apocalyptic theme, one of its highlights is the death of the dog that kept the protagonist company.
The stray dog (named Sam in the 2007 movie adaptation) wanders into Robert Neville’s house and becomes a trusty companion. He turns out to have been infected by the same disease that has been turning humans into vampires.
The dog dies in a week, causing Neville to go into depression.
Where The Red Fern Grows (Wilson Rawls, 1961)
Not one, but two beloved pets die tragically in this story.
Old Dan gets disemboweled while trying to save his human from a lion. Little Ann wastes away from heartbreak, yearning for Old Dan after his demise.
Much later, Little Ann dies on top of Old Dan’s grave.
The Day Tiger Rose Said Goodbye(Jane Yolen, 2011)
Life is a requisite of death—such is the message of this story, which highlights the last day a cat named Tiger Rose lived her proverbial ninth life.
Details of her last day reveal Tiger Rose’s full life. She goes around to say goodbye to her friends before she finally jumps into the sky—a vision of her inevitable, peaceful death.
Old Yeller (Fred Gipson, 1956)
Many tout this classic as the saddest yet greatest book of all time. Old Yeller, so-named because of his yellow fur and his human-sounding bark (which resembles a yell), wins over the family that reluctantly takes him in.
Sadly, he is bitten by a rabid wolf after attempting to save his family. They are forced to shoot him down to prevent him from developing rabies.
The Neverending Story (Michael Ende, 1979)
This German novel will take its reader through a fantasy land full of magical creatures. However, what starts out as a great adventure suddenly becomes a nightmare: Artax, the beloved horse of a young warrior called Atreyu, dies because of the Nothing, an entity that threatens the existence of this magical world.
The movie adaptation seems to be more visually horrific: Artax dies because he loses the will to live, sinking ever so slowly into the Swamp of Sadness.
Charlotte’s Web (E. B. White, 1952)
Who thought the death of a spider can be so gut-wrenchingly heartbreaking?
A pig intended for slaughter makes friends with a spider named Charlotte, who then weaves inscriptions on her webs to help save the pig. She succeeds: The publicity earned by Charlotte’s webs convinces his owners to keep the pig alive.
Unfortunately, she dies of exhaustion after laying eggs. The pig feels worse after realizing that the spiders that hatched from Charlotte’s egg sac are leaving him one by one.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s November 2017 issue.