Seven Books That Understand Your Grief

I’m a coward when it comes to funerals. I haven’t attended to a family member in 25 years, even though at least one relative has died every year during that time – from cancer, from gunshot wounds, from global contagion. I had to find other ways to grieve. Today, I often go through grief in a quieter, more private state—and I use literature to help me get there.

It’s not just me: Most people I know have been in grief purgatory for years. The most visible type is for the 6.5 million people who died worldwide during the pandemic. Others lament a difficult breakup, the loss of a home, the recession, or the destruction of the environment. For some, the sense of grief changed when new forms of collective loss came, coupled with the inability to meet in person. But when distance denied people their traditional funeral rites, they found new rituals to guide them, as I did.

One of these can be reading, which offers a way to share, process and understand grief. In fiction and nonfiction, authors explore how grief can be a reckoning, an inconvenience, a period of stagnation, or an incomplete project, through messy dramas or insightful insight into the human condition. Writing alone cannot take away pain, but prose can be part of a person’s inner healing. Below are seven books that provide new perspectives on death and grief—and help us understand this lonely, unique phenomenon as a collective one.


A Grief Observed book cover
HarperOne

Sadness observedby CS Lewis

The opening line in Sadness observed is a remarkable aphorism: “No one ever told me that sadness is as much fear as fear.” This fear is at the heart of Lewis’s book – the fear of not knowing the meaning of life, of consciousness being self-delusion, and of losing the clear memory of one’s love. This is an account of how Lewis lost his wife, Joy Davidman, who died of cancer in 1960. In the text, Lewis speaks not only of his emotional experience of anguish, but also of his physical reaction: He feels “drunk” and “shaken” . Sadness observed his reckoning is revealed and the reminder that “death only reveals the emptiness that was always there.” The prose is littered with gems that visualize grief as a “winding valley” or a process that unfolds as one moves beyond despair. Lewis understood that grief does not live only in the mind, and tragically shows that as the pain fades, so can the memory of the deceased.


Year of Magical Thinking cover
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A year of magical thinking, by Joan Didion

An amazing wound festers all over the body A year of magical thinking, where Didion writes of her husband’s death and its aftermath as mundane and overwhelming. She thinks hard about 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 it. By enumerating the mundane aspects of their lives, he conveys the basis of their love: They are not just lists, but a recognition that, as Didion notes, “grief comes in waves, fits, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes. to destroy the everydayness of life.” She renders her regret, sorrow, and loneliness not only as emotions but as embodied suffering—a “tightening of the throat” or “suffocation.” Didion’s prose, often cold, controlled, and detached, takes a detour here. She joins the group people who exist in the buffer between the living and the dead, and admits that despite her ability to rewrite all the events surrounding his death, her memory of her husband is fading—even after four decades together. All she wants is to have him back. Of all Didion’s This is the most raw of the writings; her speech is no longer under control.

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To be mortalby Atul Gawande

No matter how much medical expertise a doctor has or how many life-saving interventions they perform, some people who enter a hospital will die. The question arises: Must a doctor tell his patient that his condition is fatal, and if so, how does he prepare his accused for an encroaching death? This is the moral dilemma Gawande delves into early on To be mortal. The text is a medical treatise that carefully examines the concerns that preoccupy the dying person. Gawande notes that what people fear is “what happens before death—losing your hearing, your memory, your best friends, your way of life.” His shards of insight illustrate that grief precedes the end and suggest that the mental challenge of dying runs parallel to the fading of the body. This book, in part and as a whole, reveals that more needs to be done outside the hospital to help the emotionally searing and complex work of confronting one’s own mortality—something that is best achieved when empathy is incorporated into medical care. As a doctor, Gawande says that healers can better prepare people for what they will lose, even before their life is gone.


Cover of The Carrying
Milkweed

Transferringby Ada Limón

The more carefully you read wearing the more you realize that grief is omnipresent, even for people and things we never had. In his poem “The Vulture & the Body”, Limón describes his trip to a fertility clinic and his encounter with many dead animals. Limón reflects on the death of these creatures and her inability to conceive: “What if, instead of carrying a child, I should carry grief?” I had six attempts at IVF without pregnancy, and this question aptly characterized my own struggles with infertility. In this collection, Limón transcribes uncertainties through a poetic meter that reads like conversational prose. He finds ways to look past the people he loves, through the wilderness he explores, while seeing the birds, dogs, and flowers he admires disappear over time. Limón is committed to giving her semi-rural home representation. When he shows us the beauty of nature in Kentucky and in the meditation of his family, he expresses his joy, confirms his attitude that there is light and optimism. That’s the beauty of her work: Even as she mourns the child she doesn’t have, she finds inspiration in those around her—it can be a useful distraction for those working in an unstable state of mind.

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Weather cover
Vintage

The weatherby Jenny Offill

The weather has become my favorite apocalyptic comedy. In what at first appears to be a straightforward plot about contemporary life in New York, Lizzie, the head librarian, provides witty commentary on her tepid marriage and average parenting. However, climate change looms in the background, and with it, increasing pressure to gather resources and create a plan. Lizzie and the people around her mourn the safe lives they knew: With New York expected to experience “life-altering temperatures” by 2047, Ofill writes, everyone in the city is nervous and looking for ways to to protect themselves – even in a destructive way. Yet, far from despairing, Offill shows us that impending ecological disaster can be accepted with ease and The weather it combines the mundane aspect of domestic life with an encroaching atmospheric disaster. “But that’s America,” Lizzie muses. “You don’t even make the news if you shoot less than three people. I mean, isn’t that the last right they’re going to take away?” These remarks are a jab 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, at least they can laugh about it.


Cover of Transcendent Kingdom
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Transcendent Kingdomby Yaa Gyasi

The stories we refuse to face can be louder than the ones we share with others. Transcendent Kingdom tells the trauma obliquely and measuredly: Gifty, the protagonist, is a Ghanaian American PhD student. neuroscience student who aims to understand the science of addiction. Based on the narrator’s life as a researcher, the text delves into how this person came to be—her childhood in Alabama as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, the death of her brother, her mother’s depression, her elite education, her emotional coping mechanisms that kept her secret. pain. She replaces the evangelical church that guided her during her childhood with science, a system that helps explain her family’s pathological conditions. Gyasi invites us to pause, creating real tension in describing the slowness of Gifty’s experiments; in a controlled environment, he secures the mice and eventually takes it from them, watching them the whole time. Gifty’s way of being is based on this careful observation and repetition. It’s an act of confirming scientific truth and part of her quest to understand her brother’s overdose. This is her way of healing. It reminds us that we can’t always translate grief for strangers or call it by its name, but we can at least move from a state of complete loss to a place of personal reconciliation.

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Lost & Found cover
Random house

Lost and foundby Kathryn Schulz

In lost and found, Schulz reflects on what losing her father meant to her. It reminds us of the many ways in which we speak of death as a person’s departure from us, rather than a state in which they are: “They are no longer with us”; their death is more about our loss than theirs. After her father’s death, Schulz became “uncharacteristically clumsy and prone to illness and injury”. After consulting a psychotherapist, she was told that her series of illnesses were most likely caused by her unconscious search for ways to induce physical pain. This formulation is repeated Observed sadness— the body expresses grief and the physical self slowly dissolves. So Schulz decides to partially manage her grief by exploring her family history, the traits she inherited, and even a psychoanalytic explanation of the many objects her father lost and agonized over during his lifetime. Schulz does not avoid the fact that some of those affected may never find solace. But as the book’s title suggests, its story is also one of discovery. He falls in love with someone, and this relationship is the entry point for re-encountering pleasure in the world. It’s a simple but powerful message: Love becomes the basis for finding yourself even in times of grief.


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