My mother, bless her quirky no-nonsense heart, has had exactly one response to loss my entire life: “Well, any one of us could get hit by the beer truck anytime,” she’ll say. “That’s just life.” OK true, sure. But not especially helpful, particularly as my mother doesn’t even drink beer, and probably wouldn’t know a beer truck if it did hit her — not that I'd ever want that to happen. But I digress. The point is we all experience losses, large and small, differently, and if you’re anything like me you seek out sympathetic books to read after you’ve lost someone.
I’ve certainly experienced loss in my life, as I’m sure just about everyone has. Pets, grandparents, friends — and in this day and age, that cold, sort of eerie, completely jolting loss that you hear about first on Facebook. And in such times, there have been many beautiful and heartfelt books about loss that have wrapped their pages around me and helped me get through it. Hopefully, if you’re going through a loss of your own right now, some of the books on this list will help you get through it too.
Here are 11 books to read if you’ve lost someone. May they give you light and comfort through your own unique healing process.
1. The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend by Sarah Manguso
Exploring the suicide of her longtime friend Harris, Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians: An Elegy of a Friend begins with the matter-of-fact newspaper coverage of her friend’s death and takes readers through Manguso’s friendship, the ways their relationship evolved after Harris entered, and then fled, a psychiatric hospital, and what Harris’s presence and absence in Manguso’s life meant to all of her life’s other elements. A beautiful and illuminating portrait of an evolving friendship, one life cut short, and another that kept on living.
2. The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp
When Emily Rapp’s 9-month-old son Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, she found herself living a mother’s worst fears come true. Ronan was not expected to live longer than age 3, and developmentally he would remain a 6-month old. And so Rapp and her husband decided to learn to live with their son in the present. The Still Point of the Turning World tells the story of Rapp’s relationship with her young son, and how she herself turned to literature when faced with incomprehensible loss.
3. Geography of the Heart by Fenton Johnson
As memoirist Fenton Johnson watched his lover, Larry Rose, die of AIDS, he first gave into denial. But finally he began telling himself — as Larry always had — how lucky he was to have had his partner in his life for the amount of time that he did. Geography of the Heart is a story about the transformative, healing power of love, and what it means to have the strength to accompany someone you love through the last days of their life.
4. Still Alice by Lisa Genova
This novel tells the story of a Harvard cognitive psychology professor, Alice, as she is diagnosed and struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. As her health declines and the simplest tasks become more and more challenging, Alice is forced to share the reality of her disease with more and more people in her life. Still Alice is an account of one woman’s personal journey to death and the different responses each of her family members had to the impending loss. It’s heartbreaking and beautifully written.
5. Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert
Another book that meets its narrator near the end of their life, Jack Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven is a memoir written in poetry. Awed, curious, and humbled by his own life journey, Gilbert looks at both the mere fact of his existence and all he’s done with that existence, before encountering the knowledge that he’s living out the last years of his life — and that if he’s being honest, he’d rather refuse heaven and keep on living. There are few poets as powerful as Gilbert, and this collection is both mesmerizing and healing.
6. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Joan Didion has experienced some impossible losses in her life — the illness and subsequent death of her daughter and the sudden and shocking death of her husband. The Year of Magical Thinking finds Didion at the moment of her husband’s death, at the bedside of her ill daughter, and in the year following both tragic events. In its pages, Didion explores her preconceived and evolving ideas about life, loss, and death, and what it means to be the family member left behind to pick up the pieces.
7. Hate List by Jennifer Brown
In this YA novel, Valerie Leftman's boyfriend Nick shocks both her and their entire school when he opens fire on their school cafeteria, killing and injuring several students, including shooting Valerie, before killing himself. In the wake of the tragedy Valerie finds herself in an impossible, confusing — and as seen by some, unforgivable — paradox of mourning not only the boyfriend she thought she knew and loved, but mourning her classmates and herself as well. Hate List is about coming to peace with a loss as complicated as it was devastating.
8. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Losing her mother — her best friend — threw memoirist Cheryl Strayed into a complete tailspin of drug use, casual sex, infidelity, and the ultimate dissolution of her young marriage. What she did next made her the woman she is today. Wild tells the story of Strayed’s solo walk along the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey that tested her strength and took her back to the woman both she and her own mother always wanted her to be.
9. The Comeback Season by Jennifer E. Smith
When Ryan Walsh skips school and takes a train to Wrigley Field on the fifth anniversary of her father’s death, she has no idea that her life — and her understanding of loss — is about to change forever. There she meets fellow Cubs fan and student, Nick, who makes Ryan wonder if she’ll ever be able to heal, move on with her life, and learn to endure loss without letting everything around her fall apart. The Comeback Season is a YA novel all about hope in the face of despair, and about one young girl who is so much stronger than she believes herself to be.
10. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
After Jesmyn Ward experienced the early and unnecessary deaths of five young Black men in her life, she began to explore what each of their deaths had in common. The result is Men We Reaped , an account of these short lives, alongside Ward’s own thoughts on racism, poverty, and systemic violence. Her story is an elegy to a community for whom loss has become a statistic for those who don’t live there, and a testament for the friends and family she loved and lost too soon.
11. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
Few people in this world have experienced loss quite as suddenly as Sonali Deraniyagala. After a tsumani destroyed the coast of Sri Lanka, Deraniyagala remained the only survivor of her immediate family — losing her parents, her husband, and her two young sons in the violent waters. Consumed by grief, for a long time she was unable to reflect on the joys of the life she once shared with her loved ones. Wave is the story of Deraniyagala’s journey back through the memories of her life as she grapples with the loss of an entire family she loved so deeply.