It’s almost Christmas, so many of you are probably wondering: “what gift can I buy that will devastate my loved ones to the point of tears while simultaneously affirming their basic humanity?” Right?
Well, look no further: I’m building a little bibliography / reading list on grief, loss, mortality, terminal illness, and the like. It’s partly as a resource, partly an aspirational reading list for me. I will include brief descriptions and links to the books at points of purchase.
I’d welcome any suggestions that I’ve not included (there must be dozens?) so please list your own faves in the comments. I’m defining the category broadly to include everything from memoir and self-help to graphic novels and YA fiction, but the main current is that it should in some way deal with human approaches to mortality, end of life, grief, loss, or specific issues that intersect (palliative care, recovery, parenting, etc.).
I will update the list as I’m able. I haven’t read nearly all of these books and probably never will, but here’s what I’ve got so far in alphabetical order by author:
The Hour of Our Death, Philipe Aries (L’Homme Devant la Mort): classic cultural history of death by one of France’s most accomplished 20th century historians.
Mourning Diary, Roland Barthes (Journal de Deuil): famous French literary critic kept a journal after his mother died in 1977.
The Missing Stage of Grief: Anxiety, Claire Bidwell-Smith: a self-help volume I found accessible, helpful, and cleverly arrayed.
Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler: a memoir about being diagnosed with cancer at a young age by scholar of religion (specifically the prosperity gospel, which teaches that good things come to those who pray).
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast: graphic memoir by hilarious cartoonist Roz Chast about her mom dying.
The Iceberg, Marion Coutts: artist Marion Coutts’ memoir about her husband dying.
It’s OK that you’re not OK, Megan Devine: book about grief by a psychotherapist who’s also a widow.
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion: Classic volume about grief by writer Joan Didion, about mourning her husband’s death while her daughter was in a coma.
From Here to Eternity, Caitlin Doughty: a book by a progressive undertaker and “good death” advocate Caitlin Doughty.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer: Novel about a young boy with social difficulties trying to find explanations and meaning after his father’s death on 9/11.
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande: Now classic book by surgeon Gawande on listening to patient needs during treatment for terminal illness.
Looking for Alaska, John Green (YA): YA novel about an infatuated teenager dealing with the loss of someone close.
The Best Day the Worst Day, Donald Hall: Poet D. Hall’s memoir about losing his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, who died quickly after her diagnosis with cancer.
At Peace: Choosing a Good Death After a Long Life, By Dr. Samuel Harrington: This book is admittedly by the father of Nina’s best friend since sophomore year of high school, but that’s not why it’s on the list, I swear. Dr. Harrington’s work is a very practical guide for those facing end of life decisions in old age – sort of the opposite of what Nina and I were up against? It’s the “traditional” arc of life that he’s approaching, but with a strident attempt to subvert the dominant medical paradigm for over-treatment.
Mortality, Christopher Hitchens: Caustic Brit’s account of his terminal cancer.
When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi: Neurosurgeon gets terminal lung cancer not long before completing his residency, decides with his spouse to have a baby anyhow, contemplates what makes life meaningful when we know we’re going to die young. He didn’t finish the book before dying, or get to witness it become an international best-seller, but he did get to meet his daughter, who was 8 months old when he died. His wife helped usher the book through publication and wrote a beautiful, moving epilogue (but sadly she developed extremely poor taste in men as a widow).
On Death and Dying, E. Kubler-Ross: Seminal work by mid-20th Century scholar who created the famous “five stages” of accepting mortality and helped usher in a more proactive, modern approach to death and dying.
A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis: Sure, he’s kind of a saccharine writer, and a bit of a religious zealot, but Lewis’ memoir about losing his wife is a classic of the genre before there really was a genre.
The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde: Lorde’s book came out before it was cool, or even vaguely common, for people to make their struggles with “the C word” public. It helped open up the space that books like When Breath Becomes Air and The Bright Hour currently occupy. Plus it was written by a black, queer, intersectional feminist writer when those terms weren’t commonly thrown around, let alone accepted.
H is for Hawk, Helen McDonald: Unusual memoir about grieving a parent that involves graphic depictions of falconry.
It’s OK to Laugh, Crying is Cool Too, Nora McInerny: Memoir by Hot Young Widows Club founder and podcaster (Terrible, Thanks for Asking) Nora McInerny about losing her husband, her father, and suffering a miscarriage all in the same year.
To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die (Essays, Vol. I), Michel de Montaigne: If you only read one thing about mortality, let me suggest this essay. Read the rest of the Essays too, but don’t miss Vol. 1 No. XIX.
A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness (YA): A novel about a young boy coping with his mother’s terminal illness. Written after the an idea by the author’s friend, who died before she could write it. Also a terrific movie.
How We Die, Sherwin Nuland: Another classic of the field, written by a physician at a time when doctors didn’t admit defeat (i.e. death of patients), let alone discuss it openly.
The Long Goodbye: a memoir, Meghan O’Rourke: A poet’s memoir about the death of her mother from cancer.
Her: A Memoir, Christina Paravani: A memoir about the author’s twin sister, who was a writer, lived hard, and died young.
Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson (YA): classic YA book about friendship and loss.
How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan: A book about mind altering substances – specifically LSD and psilocybin — and their potential for helping people deal with an array of issues, including end of life care.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter: Novel about a father and two young boys after the sudden loss of their spouse/mother. Includes a talking crow. Always a plus.
The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily Rapp: A gorgeous, heartbreaking memoir about the loss of a child to Tay-Sachs.
The Bright Hour, Nina Riggs: Very good book. You should probably buy three or four copies as gifts, at least. Seriously, Nina’s book stands as a remarkably organic testament to her life: filled with beauty and love of family, trembling with the fragility of her existence, and ultimately too short.
The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe: Memoir about the author’s experience reading books with his mother during her terminal illness.
Modern Loss, by Rebecca Sofer and Gabrielle Birkner: Collection of essays about grief and loss edited by the founders of the Modern Loss site, which publishes contemporary short pieces on grief, loss, and this whole subject area.
Dying: A Memoir, Cory Taylor: Australian author’s memoir of her experience with terminal cancer.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy: Classic novella about what it means to accept mortality. Nina’s brother Charlie read this aloud to Jan when she was dying, and both Nina and Charlie read it themselves aroudn the same time.
About Alice, Calvin Trillin: New Yorker writer’s memoir about his wife’s death, in which he tries to reclaim her from his own humorous writing about his family.
The Art of Losing, Kevin Young, ed.: Amazing collection of poems dealing with death, loss, grief, etc. It’s not inclusive enough (what single volume could be?), but it’s one writer’s really good collection (though he loses some points for including his own work).
What’s your favorite book on grief, loss, death, mortality, end of life, etc.?
6 thoughts on “A List of Good Books about Death, Grief, Loss, and Related Issues”
Strangely enough, most of my favorites are on your list–but your list has quite a few very promising titles I have not read! (She says, busily jotting notes…) For quite young children, I’d add _When the Wind Stops_ by Charlotte Zolotow.
I wrote a list a couple of years ago, well actually more than 3 years ago. It’s at
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Great list, Elise! And of course I should have added Angel in My Pocket. Duh!
This is a great list! So many already here that I would have recommended. Extremely helpful as a resource.
I would consider adding, in the sibling loss category: The Empty Room by Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, Invisible Sisters by Jessica Handler, History of a Suicide by Jill Biolosky, The Guinness Book of Me by Stephen Church, The Blessing by Gregory Orr, and/or (you can tell this is my personal jam) Barefoot to Avalon by David Payne. Oh, and in a different category (adult child loss), Kayak Morning and Making Toast, both by Roger Rosenblatt.
Sorry if you’re you’re sorry you asked! 😬
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This is great! Thanks for all the suggestions, I don’t know any of these.
In the kids/YA category–I’m trying to remember the title of a book I read some years ago now; it’s a fantasy/magic novel in which the protagonist, a young girl, battles the cancer in her mother’s brain. Instead of beating it, she finds that there are some things her powers are not meant to do. Her mother gives her permission to stop the fight. At least, that’s approximately how I remember it.
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Having lived through my own spousal loss and grieving and counciled many through their grief journeys, I feel Joan Didions Year of Magical Thinking cuts closest to the bone. It makes one realize they are not going crazy after all but instead are having a most intimate and yet universal experience.