These books and memoirs about losing a loved one helped me to laugh and cry through my grief. I hope they will help you, too.
When my partner died of cancer, a fellow widower brought me a book that helped him through his own acute grief. He offered it in the hopes that it might help me, and it did help. Very much.
It is important to note that every person grieves differently. While these books and memoirs about losing a loved one helped me, they may not help you or your loved one who is experiencing grief.
I am listing these books in the chronological order of how I read them and providing a bit of context into my own grieving process. I hope this will help you choose which book to read and, most importantly, when to read it.
The book that thoughtful widower handed to me was “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, And Finding Joy.” I read the book one month after my partner died while on a plane ride across the Atlantic. I was leaving one life and starting a new one.
In this book (which is only part memoir) Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, shares how she grieved after her husband died suddenly while on a family vacation.
A data person through and through, Sandberg teams up with psychologist and academic Adam Grant to share the stories of people who found joy again after experiencing grief, and to analyze the grief process itself.
The title of the book comes from a moment when Sandberg cried to a friend about wanting comfort from her husband. The friend replied, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.”
“Option B” helped me because, at the time, I needed permission to experience joy again. I also needed the validation that changing my life entirely was my way of finding some meaning in Jeff’s death. Option B gave me that permission and that validation.
The process of grief was my focus for a while. So the next book I picked up was “The Year of Magical Thinking” by award-winning writer Joan Didion who relives the year after her husband’s sudden death. It’s a year in which she is also caring for a seriously ill daughter.
In the book, Didion attempts to make sense of the nonsensical. She is clinical in her examination of the mourning process, and that was fascinating for me as I prodded at poked at my own grief like a tongue explores a chipped tooth.
This book is purposefully irreverent because that is the way that author and comedian Laurie Kilmartin grieved. We all grieve differently, and the irreverence here might be uncomfortable for you.
But of all the memoirs about losing a loved one that I read, this one made me belly laugh when I needed it most.
In fact, as I read “Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed” two months after my partner died, the sound of my own laughter startled me. It had been that long since I had heard it. Also, there is dark humor surrounding death, and Kilmartin is simply brave enough to say it out loud.
She wisely notes, though, that while she can joke about her dead dad…nobody else can.
I read “When Breath Becomes Air” while holed up in a tiny bungalow in northern Thailand. It was a remote place where I could meditate, read, and cry without interruption. It was eight months after Jeff’s death, and, for me, it was the perfect time to pick up this book written by a doctor dying of lung cancer.
A loving husband and brilliant neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi writes with heartbreaking honesty while his pragmatic, scientific brain wrestles with his hopeful heart. He brings us along as he and his wife choose to bring a child into a world that they know he may soon be departing.
This book gave me a look into how my own partner may have felt as he looked around the room in those final days. As he assessed his life, did he consider it a life well lived?
I read this memoir about losing a loved one as I surfaced from my own loss and started to really reflect on my partner and his legacy. And it helped me make a decision about my own family plans – although I opted to take a different route than that of the Kalanithis.
“When Breath Becomes Air” was published posthumously with the moving ending written by the author’s wife and fellow doctor, Lucy Kalanithi.
I was so moved by the perspective of facing death from the person doing the dying that I searched for a similar book.
The reviews of “Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying” read like a sequel of sorts to “When Breath Becomes Air,” and I found it to be another painfully honest account of extracting every bit of joy from a life that is limited by terminal illness.
This perspective is so honest because author Nina Riggs, like doctor Paul Kalanithi, doesn’t have time to sugarcoat her writing. She cannot hide from the truth. She is writing against time and with an urgent desire to explore the depths of herself before she dies.
In a seriously beautiful continuation of the conversation about life and death started by both Paul Kalanithi (“When Breath Becomes Air”) and Nina Riggs, the two memoirs brought their spouses together. For a time Lucy Kalanithi (widow of Paul) and John Duberstein (widower of Nina) were a couple weathering their grief together. Here are Duberstein’s thoughts on finding love after loss.
I wrote a post recently about how to comfort someone who has lost a loved one. In it, I wrote that there is only one single piece of universal advice to give here, and that is to show up for that person.
It may be the memoir “My Glory Was I Had Such Friends” by Amy Silverstein, that first gave me that idea. In “My Glory,” we witness what it means to show up in the most beautiful of ways. In fact, the fact that these friends show up in such a strong way may just be the reason why this book doesn’t cleanly fit into the category of memoirs about losing a loved one. Because this group of friends may just save Silverstein’s life.
The premise of this book is that of a family facing the possibility of death as Silverstein waits for a heart transplant that may never come. But the meat of this book is about friendship.
Silverstein’s friends rally around her, putting their own lives on hold and holding her up with single-minded sheer will.
I read this about a year and a half after my own loss, and it helped me remember some of the support that I received when I needed it most. In doing so, I was forced to revisit memories that I avoided – changing feeding tubes or taking breaks from a hospital vigil for instance – but I was ready to see the beauty in those memories – something that I just couldn’t take in previously.
I’m lucky, like Silverstein, to have glorious friends, and I’m grateful to this book for reminding me of that.
This memoir by Glennon Doyle does not fit cleanly into the category of memoirs about losing a loved one. Rather Untamed is about a woman allowing herself to be truly herself. Doyle writes about how she uncages herself from the expectations of society and of her readers and, in doing so, finds her soulmate.
I read this two years into my grieving process and two years after I left my own conventional life for a nontraditional nomadic life of travel. It spoke to me for many different reasons, but I especially liked how Doyle speaks of grief as a transformation.
I hope these books will help you if you are grieving, or if you are looking to give the gift of a book as a way to comfort your loved one who is experiencing grief.
Independent booksellers are hurting due to the pandemic and to competition from behemoth online stores like Amazon. Please consider supporting local bookstores by using Bookshop, a B-Corp that gives away 75 percent of profits to independent stores, publications, authors, bloggers, and others in the book-loving community.
What books have you read that helped you while grieving? Comment below!