Marjorie’s Favorite Grief Books

Image of grief books owned by DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley

Every once in a while, someone will ask me for a good book to read on grief. I never quite know what to say, because there are so many options. However, I’ve realized that on my blog I mostly discuss books I dislike, rather than those that have been really helpful. So below, in my humble opinion, is my list of the best grief books you can find. No, it is not every book on grief and loss, but it includes the ones that have been important in my life over the past two years. I have arranged them in a way that I think makes most sense.

Best books for caregivers and people who are dying:

Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved – Kate Bowler. I read this book in one sitting. It’s about the author getting stage four cancer in her 30s, but it’s also about how she started thinking about religion and the prosperity gospel (she’s a professor at Duke Divinity School.) She also has a really interesting podcast)

Being Mortal – Atul Gawande. The author is a physician who has written a number of books about the medical field. This one is about end-of-life care and how we might find a better solution than traditional nursing homes. It sounds slow. It isn’t.

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanathi. The author, who died in 2015, chronicles his life as a doctor and a patient in this gripping memoir. When this book came out, my head of school bought it for all the teachers at our school. I had no idea that years later, I’d use the lessons he taught me as I cared for my dying husband.

The Bright Hour – Nina Riggs. Similar to “When Breath Becomes Air,” this book chronicles the author’s cancer diagnosis which ultimately took her life in 2017. Riggs is a writer, so in addition to a gripping story, the prose is beautiful. I also appreciate that she writes about parenting through cancer.

How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness – by Kathleen McCue. The day Shawn was diagnosed with incurable cancer, someone at the hospital handed me this book. It was horrible to read, but really helped me to frame things for my children in a way that was honest and accessible. They have a section entitled “when things get very bad” that I read and hated….until I had to use it.

Best books for the newly grieving:

It’s Okay that You’re Not Okay – Megan Devine. This is a book for those of us who are newly grieving and those who are close to a newly grieving person. Devine is a therapist and a young widow, and because of this she both critiques aspects of traditional therapy and offers up practical solutions about how to ease suffering.

It’s Okay to Laugh, Crying is Cool Too – Nora McInerny. This was one of the first books I read after Shawn died. I then discovered her podcast and subsequently interviewed her last spring. McInerny has other books, including The Hot Young Widows Club and No Happy Endings, both of which are useful as well. But this book really captured my mental state in the beginning. It’s also really funny. (Yes, funny!)

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion. This book, which chronicles Didion’s life in the year after her husband died, seemed to describe my own chaotic mental space in 2018. Also, Didion’s style is beautiful. It’s really short – a good read for someone who just wants to hear that another person is hurting.

General:

Modern Loss – Edited by Rebecca Sofer and Gabrielle Birkner. This is actually a collection of essays on loss, compiled mostly by stories initially printed on their website. I’ve written for them, and worked with both of the editors, who are lovely. It’s a great way to read short stories that you can connect with, whatever your kind of loss.

Unremarried Widow – Artis Henderson. This book is not on any of the major “grief book” lists, but it should be. Henderson was a new Army wife when her husband was killed in Iraq and she became a widow in her 20s. The story itself is compelling, but it is the way she connects her grieving to the landscape, especially of East Texas, that is the best part of the book.

Wave – Sonali Deraniyagala. Named one of the ten best book of the year by the New York Times in 2014, this book is a memoir like none other. In 2004, Deraniyagala was at the beach in Sri Lanka when it was hit by a major tsunami that killed both of her parents, her husband and both of her children. It is unimaginable – and yet, she makes the reader touch and feel her experience of survival. Not for the faint-hearted, but it was a book that really spoke to me.

Best books for young kids: (Claire reminded me recently that all of these books below are “too baby-ish” so I’ll need to work on getting a list that’s better for the tween set)

Ida, Always – Caron Levis. This is a picture book for kids, based on a true story about a polar bear who dies. My kids loved it and we used it to process our grief together. I still cry when I read this book. It’s beautiful and touching in very few words.

When Dinosaurs Die – Laurie Krasney Brown and Marc Brown. A very straightforward book that’s been especially helpful for Tommy. Answers basic questions like, “What does dead mean?” by using simple images and language.

After the Fall – Dan Santat. One of my kids’ favorites. About how Humpty Dumpty felt after her was repaired. Really, it’s about conquering fears and facing hard stuff. It’s a beautiful picture book as well.

The Invisible String – Patrice Karst. A picture book that’s about how a single mom stays connected to her two kids. We’ve used it to talk about how their dad is still connected with them and it’s been helpful when we’ve had a hard time with separation. Also, I love that it stars a single mom!

My two favorite books of 2019:

Once More We Saw Stars – Jayson Greene. I heard this author on Kate Bowler’s podcast (see above) and bought the book on the day it came out. Greene was a writer in NYC when his 2-year-old was killed by falling debris from a building. Greene chronicles his life before and after the accident in gripping detail. It is a difficult read, but as someone who has experienced tragic loss, I recognized so much of what he discussed about his emotional state.

From Scratch – Tembi Locke. My friend Kumar sent me this hardcover book right after it came out and told me it was a “must read!” He was right. The book chronicles Locke’s marriage to an Italian man, her attempts to break through the racial and cultural boundaries between their families (she is African-American and from West Texas, he was from a tiny town in Sicily), her husband’s death from cancer and her subsequent trips to Sicily after his death. I could not put it down. It’s not just about loss, but also about the human capacity for change.

There are others, for sure. I’ve read a lot of them. These are just my favorites, and I think they are my favorites not because they are the best books on grief, but because many of them are also the best books on fully living in this complicated world.

10 Replies to “Marjorie’s Favorite Grief Books”

  1. Marjorie, thank you for this list! Based on your recommendations, I just finished reading excerpts from Megan Devine’s book “It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay” on Amazon. Wow, how timely! Just the other day at my exercise class a “friend” who’s a retired nurse asked me how I was. I know everyone expects a bright and cheery answer now, but I wasn’t up for that and instead I shrugged and said “I’m okay.” Her response was “Just okay!?”, like at this point that wasn’t good enough. I mumbled something about how it was the nature of the beast right now but it left me feeling, again, like a failure at grief. You’re damned if you don’t show tears and emotion early on and damned if you haven’t “snapped out of it” in some arbitrary time frame that only the questioner knows about. Megan addresses all of this perfectly.

    At one point, Megan relates that a friend was dismissive of her because Megan was “still” grieving the loss of her partner after….five weeks! That reminded me of a doctor I worked for about twenty years ago. We had a patient who’d recently become a widow and the doctor was surprised that during her visit she’d started crying. He couldn’t understand why she would do that because, after all, it had been three weeks since her husband’s death.

    Anyway, thanks again for compiling this list. There are so many books out there on this topic but having recommendations from someone who’s lived through it is extremely valuable.

    1. Yes, I love Megan’s book – it is so helpful and it was REALLY helpful in the early days of grief. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Just bought three books 🙂

    1. Yes! Love that you asked me about this very topic this weekend!

  3. Thanks Marjorie. Another great one is C.S Lewis ‘A Grief Observed’- short, honest abs insightful x

    1. Yes – I love that one too!

  4. Hi Marjorie- a few in my own list might be good ones for your elder daughter. My now 11 year old wont have a bar of ‘grief books’ but i think she connected deeply with Catch a Falling Star. Actually I think in this post I mention your blog! Ha! https://childrensbooksdaily.com/two-years-is-such-a-very-short-time/

    1. Oh my goodness – thank you for the mention! And I love your list as well. I love connecting with other people who are also writing about death, grief and life after.

  5. Jose Saramago’s “Death With Interruptions” maybe isn’t his best book, but if you need a novel with some dark humor, it’s worth a read, provided you can get past Saramago’s absolute refusal to punctuate anything.
    Also, from the days when I used to teach mythology, there are plenty of tales dealing with grieving, starting with “Gilgamesh,” but the one that struck a chord with me was, “Savitri and Satyavan,” provided you can get past the archaic dharma of the Hindu wife thing.

    1. Interesting!

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