Some people associate good books with the best of times: a lounge chair on a beach, cocktail in hand. Or perhaps a cozy, rainy Sunday, with a cat curled at your feet. But for those of us who are grieving, books can help us get through loss. They are not an indulgence reserved for the good days, but rather a healthy way to muddle through the bad ones.
It turns out there’s a name for reading as a tool to survive during times of grief and loss: bibliotherapy. At the School of Life in London, you can have an actual bibliotherapist write you a book prescription for whatever ails you. I was fourteen when my mother died, and at first I had no idea how to cope. But soon I stumbled upon my own secret prescription, one I’ve returned to during the innumerable times I’ve struggled since: books. Reading novels became my favorite escape, a way to make sense of my loss, and maybe most importantly, a way to feel less alone.
In my debut young adult novel, Tell Me Three Things , out on April 5, my main character, Jessie, who not at all coincidentally is also dealing with the death of her mother, turns to good old Harry Potter to cope. In my previous books (also again not coincidentally), both loss and bibliotherapy feature prominently, and in a weird, wonderful meta twist, I now often get emails from readers telling me how my books have helped them get through a loss.
Since most of us won’t get the opportunity to visit the School of Life anytime soon, we should all take the time to write ourselves a book prescription, no medical degree required. Here are 8 unexpected ways you can use reading to help you through grief and loss:
1. They’re The Ultimate Escape
Books can be a portal into a different world, one that engages all of your senses, and gets you out of your own head, just when you need it the most. When reading Harry Potter, for example, you can forget all about your own sad, boring Muggle life, and imagine for a moment that you too are a wizard, that you get to live at Hogwart’s, that afternoons are spent either fighting He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or playing Quidditch on your Nimbus 2000. And the best part? There are seven books to escape into, for a total of 4,224 pages of pure reading pleasure.
Or if magic is not your thing, how about a little romance? No matter how many times you’ve read Pride and Prejudice , it’s a truth universally acknowledged that (spoiler alert) when Lizzie declares her love for Mr. Darcy at the end of the book you can’t help but smile. Need something even further from your own reality? How about M.T. Anderson’s creepy satirical Feed , which starts with this brilliant first line: "We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”
2. They Make You Feel Less Alone
You’d think that while in the throes of grief, the last thing you’d want to do is read about someone else’s loss. But sometimes, reading grief memoirs and seeing that you’re not alone with your feelings can actually help. Being reminded that other people have tread this same path and survived to write about it, that other people have emerged even stronger, can make your own problems feel lighter. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking , which chronicles the year her husband suddenly died from a heart attack at the same time her daughter was lying in a coma, is at times a blistering, painful, honest look at grief, but it’s also a work of beauty and love. There’s something surprisingly soothing about a brilliant mind grappling with and trying to make sense of that which doesn’t make sense, of making art out of devastation.
3. They Can Help You Find New Coping Strategies
After I lost my mother, I remember stumbling upon Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman at a small bookstore in my hometown, and smuggling it home in a paper bag so my dad didn’t see it. For some reason, it felt like contraband or an admission that I wasn’t coping as well as I had hoped. That book soon became my lifeline, as it was filled with stories of girls just like me who had dealt with everything I was dealing with. Of course, there is no one way to grieve, but sometimes seeing how other people have coped can give you new strategies to adopt in your own life.
4. They Make You Laugh
While we are talking prescriptions, as the old adage says: laughter is the best medicine. Don’t feel like suffering through grief memoirs or self-help books for advice, but want to remember what it feels like to laugh again? Check out the plethora of wonderful comedienne memoirs out there. I challenge you to read Tina Fey’s Bossypants without guffawing at least once. Or Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, Caitlin Moran’s How to Be A Woman or Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy. And this is just in the non-fiction section. Want a funny novel? Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary still holds up all these years later.
5. Reading Can Help With Insomnia
A common complaint of those grieving is insomnia. Novels can help in two ways. Reading for pleasure before bed (not on a screen) can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep by as much as half. If your problem is waking up in the middle of the night, getting up and reading in a different room can actually help you go back to sleep. Revisiting the classics can be perfect for this purpose. I highly recommend keeping War and Peace or Anna Karenina on your nightstand, neither of which I’ve ever been able to finish. You look brainy, and they’re right nearby when you need them.
6. Distraction, Distraction, Distraction
I have a good friend who, while mourning a miscarriage, binged on every Agatha Christie mystery she could get her hands on. To put this in perspective, Christie wrote 66 detective novels in her lifetime. For my friend, the cozy British mystery genre provided the perfect level of distraction without being disturbing. Need something less sanitized and more high octane? Try The Hunger Games series. You’ll be so absorbed in teenagers fighting to the death for their district, you’ll forget your all about your own problems.
7. A Good Book Can Fast Forward Time
They say time heals all wounds, but the problem when you are grieving is that time seems not to move at all. Getting lost in a book is one healthy way to make the clock move forward faster.
8. Reading Is The Only Healthy Vice
Let’s be honest, when you are grieving, it’s hard not to turn to drugs, alcohol, or food as a way to escape or to numb the pain. But unlike those other vices, reading binges are actually healthy! Beyond just making you a smarter person, science says that reading literary fiction can actually make you more empathetic. So put down the bottle, and pick up a book. And I promise you this: a doctor is never going to tell you that you need to take it easy on the reading.
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