When it comes to funerals, I’m a coward. I haven’t attended one for a family member in 25 years, even though in that time, at least one relative has died annually—from cancer, from gun wounds, from a global contagion. I have had to find other ways of mourning. Today, I frequently navigate bereavement in a quieter, private state—and I use literature to help me get there.
It’s not just me: Most people I know have been in the purgatory of grief for years now. The most apparent type is for the 6.5 million people who have died across the world during the pandemic. Others are lamenting a taxing breakup, losing their home, a recession, or the destruction of the environment. For some, the feeling of mourning changed as new forms of collective loss came coupled with an inability to gather in person. But when distance denied people their traditional funeral rites, they found new rituals that could guide them, like I did.
One of these can be reading, which offers a way to share, process, and understand sorrow. In fiction and nonfiction, through messy dramas or astute insight about the human condition, authors examine how grief can be a reckoning, a nuisance, a period of stasis, or an incomplete project. Writing alone can’t take away the pain, but prose can be part of one’s internal healing. Below are seven books that provide new perspectives on death and grieving—and help us understand this lonely, singular phenomenon as a collective one.
A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis
The opening line in A Grief Observed is a striking aphorism: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” That fear is the basis of Lewis’s book—fear of not knowing the meaning of life, of consciousness being self-deception, and of losing a clear memory of his love. This is an account of how Lewis came to bereave the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, who died of cancer in 1960. In the text, Lewis is talking not merely about his emotional experience of anguish but about his bodily response: He’s feeling “drunk” and “concussed.” A Grief Observed is his reckoning unveiled, and a reminder that “death only reveals the vacuity that was always there.” The prose is littered with gems that visualize mourning as a “winding valley,” or a process that evolves as a person moves beyond despair. Lewis understood that grief does not live in the mind alone, and tragically shows that as the pain wanes, so can the memory of the deceased.
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
A prodigious hurt festers throughout The Year of Magical Thinking, where Didion writes about her husband’s death and its aftermath as both mundane and overwhelming. She reflects sharply on what they did the night before his fatal heart attack, her retreat to the emergency room, the tyranny of paperwork, what she ate and when she ate. By listing the banal aspects of their life, she conveys the basis of their love: These are not merely inventories but a recognition that, as Didion notes, “grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” She depicts her regret, sadness, and loneliness not solely as emotions but as embodied distress—a “tightness in the throat” or “choking.” Didion’s prose, frequently cool, controlled, and detached, takes a detour here. She joins a group of people existing in a buffer between the living and the dead, and admits that despite her ability to transcribe all the events around his death, her memory of her husband falters—even after their four decades together. All she wants is to have him back. Of all of Didion’s writing, this is her at her rawest; her narration is no longer under control.
Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande
No matter how much medical expertise a doctor has or how many lifesaving interventions are made, some people who enter a hospital will die. A question arises: Does a physician have to tell their patient their condition is fatal, and if so, how do they prepare their charge for their encroaching death? This is the moral dilemma that Gawande drills into at the beginning of Being Mortal. The text is a medical treatise that carefully examines the concerns that preoccupy a dying person. Gawande notes that the thing people fear is “what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.” His shards of insight illustrate that grief predates an end, and suggests that the mental challenge of dying runs parallel to having a fading body. This book, in part and in whole, reveals that more needs to be done outside the hospital to assist the emotionally searing and complex work of facing one’s mortality—something best accomplished when empathy is woven into medical care. As a physician, Gawande makes a case that healers can do a better job of preparing people for what they will lose well before their lives are gone.
The Carrying, by Ada Limón
The more closely you read The Carrying, the more you realize that grief is ubiquitous, even for people and things we never had. In her poem “The Vulture & the Body,” Limón describes her journey to a fertility clinic and her encounter with multiple dead animals. Reflecting on these creatures’ death and her inability to conceive, Limón ponders, “What if, instead of carrying a child, I am supposed to carry grief?” I have had six IVF attempts without a pregnancy, and that question aptly characterized my own struggles with infertility. In this collection, Limón transcribes uncertainties through a poetic meter that reads like conversational prose. She finds ways of looking through and past the people she loves, the wilderness she explores, while seeing how the birds, dogs, and flowers she admires disappear over time. Limón is committed to giving agency to her semirural home. When she shows us nature’s beauty in Kentucky and in the meditation of her family, she is signaling her joy, affirming her stance that there is light and optimism to be found. That is the beauty of her work: Even while she is grieving the child she doesn’t have, she finds inspiration in her surroundings—they can be a useful distraction for those working through a volatile state of mind.
Weather, by Jenny Offill
Weather has become my favorite apocalyptic comedy. In what first appears to be a straightforward plot about contemporary life in New York City, Lizzie, the librarian protagonist, provides witty commentary about her lukewarm marriage and mediocre parenting. But climate change looms in the background, and, with it, the increasing pressure to gather resources and make a plan. Lizzie and the people around her are grieving the secure lives they knew: Given that New York is expected to experience “life-altering temperatures by 2047,” Offill writes, everyone in the city is on edge, figuring out ways to protect themselves—even in a destructive manner. Still, far from hinging on despair, Offill shows us that the impending ecological disaster can be taken up with lightness, and Weather combines the mundane aspect of domestic life with encroaching atmospheric catastrophe. “But it’s America,” Lizzie ponders. “You don’t even get on the news if you shoot less than three people. I mean, isn’t that the last right they’ll take away?” These remarks are both a stab at contemporary discontent and also an example of how humor can be a coping mechanism for dystopia. Although most people will eventually endure domestic and earthly collapse, they can at least laugh through it.
Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi
The stories we refuse to confront can be louder than the ones we share with others. Transcendent Kingdom narrates trauma in an oblique and measured way: Gifty, the protagonist, is a Ghanaian American Ph.D. student in neuroscience whose goal is to understand the science of addiction. Grounded in the narrator’s life as a researcher, the text delves into how this person came to be—her childhood in Alabama as a daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, her brother’s death, her mother’s depression, her elite education, her emotional coping mechanisms to conceal her pain. She replaces the evangelical Church, which guided her during her childhood, with science, a system that helps explain her family’s pathologies. Gyasi invites us to pause, creating genuine tension while describing the slowness of Gifty’s experiments; in a controlled setting, she gets mice hooked on Ensure and eventually takes it away from them, monitoring them all the while. Gifty’s way of being is predicated on that careful observation and repetition. It’s both an act of affirming scientific truth and part of her quest to understand her brother’s overdose. This is her way of healing. She reminds us that we cannot always translate mourning for outsiders or call it by its name, but we can transcend from a state of utter loss to, at least, a place of personal reconciliation.
Lost & Found, by Kathryn Schulz
In Lost & Found, Schulz dwells on what it meant to her to lose her father. She reminds us of the many ways we talk about death as a departure of the person from us, rather than the state they are in: They are “no longer with us”; their death is more about our loss than theirs. Following her dad’s passing, Schulz became “uncharacteristically clumsy and prone to ailment and injury.” After consulting with a psychotherapist, she was told that her series of maladies were most likely because of her unconscious self finding ways to generate bodily pain. This formulation echoes A Grief Observed—the body expresses bereavement, and the physical self slowly dissolves. So Schulz sets out to manage her grief, in part, by exploring her family history, the traits she inherited, and even the psychoanalytic explanation for the many objects that her father lost and anguished over during his life. Schulz doesn’t shy away from the fact that some of the afflicted may never find solace. But as the book’s title implies, her story is also one of discovery. She falls for someone, and that relationship is an entry point for encountering pleasure in the world again. It’s a simple but powerful message: Love becomes the basis for finding oneself, even in a period of grief.
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