By Michelle Adelman
When you don’t have the words to help people who are grieving, books can speak for you. We compiled this literary collection, from sad to sanguine, humorous to handbook, to do the heavy lifting.
1. A Grief Observed, by CS Lewis
Lewis, a self-professed Christian writer, is perhaps best known for writing The Chronicles of Narnia. This slim and honest account, written after his wife’s death in 1960, is a record of a man grappling with faith, meaning, and mourning in the aftermath of tremendous loss. A Grief Observed is considered a classic on the spiritual journey of grief and helps mourners validate their feelings, and even be furious with God, like he was.
2. The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
Acclaimed writer Joan Didion wrote this book after a harrowing year in which her husband died and her daughter was hospitalized for severe illness (and died days before the book’s publication). She reflects on loss with her signature style of reportage and analysis. By recording her “magical thinking” from a distance, her observations build slowly to create a moving portrait of grief. A memorable line: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”
3. The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, edited by Kevin Young
This selection of 150 exquisite poems covers topics related to five different categories (Reckoning, Remembrance, Rituals, Recovery, and Redemption). Rather than feel compelled to follow a linear narrative, Art of Losing allows mourners to digest grief in short bursts and flip through pages in any order. Well-known poets include Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson, and Dylan Thomas, to name just a few.
4. Modern Loss: Candid Conversations About Grief. Beginners Welcome, by Rebecca Soffer and Gabi Birkner
Here’s an anthology of humorous, poignant and literary essays by more than 40 writers on topics for those seeking comfort, community and commiseration. Modern Loss authors Soffer and Birkner also created Modernloss.com after each lost a parent while in their 20s. Witty comics and graphics, like “How to Speak Grief,” (Hint: Deliver a ham, “the Midwestern meat of death” to a griever) bring a fresh and more modern bent on the serious topic of mourning.
5. When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold Kushner
Kushner, a rabbi and parent to a young son with a degenerative disease who died from it, offers guidance for those grappling with how and why certain tragedies befall different people. When Bad Things Happen is good for those looking for straightforward wisdom and higher-level meaning in times of pain. He writes: “People who pray for miracles usually don't get miracles, any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or good boyfriends get them as a result of praying. But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of they have lost, very often find their prayer answered.”
6. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chodron
Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, offers wisdom and consolation from a highly accessible Buddhist perspective. When Things Fall Apart invites grievers to embrace discomfort in order to reach new understanding rather than asking them to forget about difficult times. A memorable line: “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”
7. Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, by David Kessler
Grief expert Kessler extends Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' well-known five stages of grief into a sixth stage: finding meaning. He ushers in new perspective on practically moving forward from a loss. Using a personal and compassionate voice (he lost his own son to addiction at the age of 21), Finding Meaning is an inspiring roadmap for honoring a loved one and moving away from suffering towards meaning.
Devine writes from the perspective of both a therapist and someone who lost a partner tragically and unexpectedly. It's OK offers guidance and comfort for those experiencing loss. She writes against the notion of resolving grief and instead working with it in order to improve the quality of daily life. "Grief," she writes, "is simply love in its most wild and painful form.”
People in mourning tend to receive duplicate gifts—the universe of sympathy gestures isn't that large. It's possible they might have already received a particular book, so consider enclosing a gift receipt. You may like to add a bookmark and a home-baked treat, too, to sweeten the sentiment.
Michelle Adelman is a freelance writer whose novel, Piece of Mind, was published in 2016.