4 books on grief you’ll actually love

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Trust me on these.

I know, I know – I joke to my husband that over the past year, this blog morphed into “vaguely poetic reflections on life and death.” (I still scratch my head that anyone else wants to read along, but I’m so grateful you’re here!)

But THIS writing I’ve got for you today is 100% amazing. Knock-your-socks-off good.

I’ve read stacks of death and grief memoirs over the past year. (They helped save my life, to be honest.) Maybe you have a handful like this too, the books that keep getting pushed down the “to read” list, because who wants to ruin a weekend reading something sad, even if it’s supposed to be good?

Well, for once in my life I could read anything. So I read them all.

Now having come up for air – and a deep gulp of fiction to cleanse the palate – I can assure that each of these four books is a life-changing read, no matter where you find yourself these days.

I chose these 4 recommendations very specifically. While there are many books on death and grief that I’d recommend to people suffering in particular situations, these are the 4 that everyone should read.

Because they will show you something beautiful, bright, and true about humanity. Because they will linger with you long after you finish reading. Because they will change you in good ways.

Each is a book I want to press into the hands of people I love and say, “Read this. Please.”

So I give them to you.

Best book about one’s own death: When Breath Becomes Air

If you haven’t yet read this memoir by Paul Kalanithi, run and buy it. Don’t walk.

Just as he was finishing his training as a neurosurgeon at Stanford, Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. His memoir is an incredible work of art, beautifully written and deeply moving. What it means to switch from doctor to patient, to face the prospect of death at age 36, to leave behind a wife and child, and to make sense of life as a scholar and scientist about to leave it – every question he tackles resonates with the human condition.

(It’s tied with the last book on this list for Best Book I’ve Read In Years.)

Best book about the death of a parent: The Art of Losing: Poems on Grief and Healing

I love Kevin Young’s poetry. (His poem “Expecting” perfectly captures the moment of hearing baby’s heartbeat on an ultrasound for the first time.) So when I read that he had compiled a collection of poetry on death and grief following the death of his father, I knew it would be rock-solid.

I found so many new favorites within its pages. The poems are divided into 5 sections: Reckoning, Remembrance, Rituals, Recovery, and Redemption. So the book is perfect for dipping into when you find yourself in different seasons of missing the ones you love. And he includes poems on the loss of parents, spouses, children, siblings, friends, even strangers.

(p.s. the Kindle version is only $1.99! That’s insane.)

Best book about the death of a child: Lament for a Son

Believe me when I say that I did an exhaustive survey of current Christian literature on losing a child. (Also, believe me when I tell you there are a lot of terrible books on the subject.)

This slim volume is a rare gem.

When his 25 year-old son died in a mountain climbing accident, Nicholas Wolterstorff tried to make sense of his loss and grief as a theologian and philosopher. His reflections on death and faith transformed the meaning of the Beatitudes and opened my eyes to see the meaning of the wounds in the risen Christ.

It’s no exaggeration to say this was the one book that gave me true hope and genuine comfort. I’ve read it twice. (Ok, I’ve read all the books on this list twice.)

But Lament for a Son is 90% underlined and exclamation-pointed. It’s that good.

Best book about the death of a spouse: The Light of the World

This book. Where to begin with my love?

I confessed on Instagram that even in all my memoir reading on grief and death, I shied away from books about losing a spouse. After all we’d been through, I could not bear imagining my husband’s death. (Also I hated Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, so she soured me to the subject. Sorry, Joan fans!)

Thank God I got over my hang-up and read this memoir. Scratch that: I poured through it without breathing. I actually sighed when it ended because it was That Good.

Elizabeth Alexander is a poet whose husband died suddenly, leaving her with two teenage sons. Her writing on his death, their marriage, and the life of love and beauty they created together – it’s simply breath-taking.

What I thought would be a book that might raise fear and anxiety for me turned out to be an elegy of light and joy. I treasured every page. I am convinced that I love my husband more for having read it. I don’t know how that is possible, but it’s true.

Turns out the book I thought was about death and grief is actually the best book I’ve ever read on love and marriage.

If you read no other book on this list, you must read this one.

Now it’s your turn! What would you add to this list? (Or what would you take away – feel free to disagree!)

13 thoughts on “4 books on grief you’ll actually love

  1. When breath becomes air is a recent read of my own and you are absolutely right – it is EXCELLENT!!! I immediately recommended it to my family and friends. And per your IG, the last book is one my reading list (with my sister… Because we need support on the topic :). Now I will have to look into the other two because clearly your gold star is one I agree with!

  2. My favorite is “A Severe Mercy” by Sheldon Vanauken, a friend of CS Lewis. I read it every year but the first time I read it it truly changed my life and brought me through the darkest time of my life so far.
    I can’t wait to pick up these titles. Thank you so much for sharing. I pray for you!

    1. Ooo I’ve never heard of it, but you have definitely piqued my interest! Adding it to my list to read – thank you so much!

  3. In trying to talk to children about death and loss, the book “Ida, Always” is incredible. I just added it to Bookshare for people with print disabilities and even though I am a mom who has buried all my children and my first husband, I found great peace and comfort in the pages of this precious children’s picture book.

    1. This looks like such a beautiful book – thank you! It’s hard to find good children’s book on death, too, so I’m grateful for a new suggestion.

  4. You hated The Year of Magical Thinking?!? I’ve actually been wanting to dive back in to that one. What didn’t you like about it? Just curious.

    I think I mentioned this one to you a while ago: “Writing as a Way of Healing” by Louise DeSalvo. Some of it was meh, but as I’ve pondered how to write about grief, this book has been a good one to have on hand.

  5. I second A Severe Mercy as some one else commented above. It is very good. I haven’t read any of the books above, but my sister read When Breath Becomes Air just a couple months before she herself was diagnosed with stage 4 non-hodgkins lymphoma last spring. She raved about the book when she first finished it and it took on a whole other perspective after she herself was diagnosed and was undergoing treatment. Thank you for the nudge, I always enjoy your book recommendations.

  6. I was one day shy of 38 when I was diagnosed with lung cancer (Stage IIIB). We had a one-year-old son. After I underwent an initial round of radiation and chemotherapy, I read When Breath Becomes Air. It’s a powerful book that hits very close to. My cancer has since spread and is now Stage IV. I’m going through another type of treatment that seems to be working (so far!). Our son is two-and-a-half and insanely great. And there is one fantastic blurb from Kalanithi that continues to shade and color my life—both alone and in God:

    “I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”

    And isn’t that all of us?

    I was also really moved by Lament for a Son, and I’ve ordered the other two. Thank you.

  7. I already read your blog before last year, because it’s so different from any other mom blog. Your writing is about praising God for the blessing of being a mother, it’s not just about how messy is a mother’s life or what crafts you can make with kids (I love that kind of blog, too, but this is so much more profound than that).
    I love your posts from last year, too, because they speak openly about what it’s like to loose a child, and how a Christian should deal with it. It’s so very different from what I usually see in my life. Several people in my family have lost children, yet they never talk about it. I wonder if they are suffering but don’t share that, or they prefer to live as if the child had never existed.
    Thank you, Laura, for sharing your battle!

  8. I just listened to your interview on the Fountains of Carrots podcast and it was such a fruitful hour of listening for me! (And definitely put my constant complaints over mothering one toddler in place).

    I also vote for Vanauken’s Severe Mercy! I haven’t read it for years but when I did, it blew me away with it’s beauty, depth, and honesty.

  9. When Breath Becomes Air was incredible. I lay in bed reading it one night and as soon as I got to the last page, I felt a yearning to return to the beginning and start it once again. Have you read his wife’s piece from the NYT? I’ll link it here: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/06/my-marriage-didnt-end-when-i-became-a-widow/
    I’ve also heard “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis is an excellent reflection on the death of a loved one. Although, I haven’t read it myself.

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