11 Books On Illness & Death That Put Life Into Perspective

by Kerri Jarema

What do we talk about when we talk about grief and loss, illness and death? For the most part, I think many of us try not to think or talk about grief and loss it at all. We push aside the fears we all have of losing loved ones, or finding ourselves at the receiving end of our own life-altering news, and we push forward. In many ways, it's the only way to live. But for these memoirists, looking illness, death and loss in the face, diving into it, exploring it deeply and unflinchingly, with heart and humor and, yes, fear, was how they came to reconcile their life in the face of ultimate loss. And for those of us left behind to read them, these memoirs offer words of sadness and but also of hope, showing us what life and legacy really means.

If you love memoirs, or books that get to the meat of human existence at its highest highs and lowest lows, the 11 memoirs on illness below will have something for you. Whether from the perspective of the person facing loss, or from a loved one who had to reconcile going on without their friend or family member, these books will make you feel, make you think, and ultimately make you grateful for the time you've been given.

'Dying: A Memoir' by Cory Taylor (August 1, 2017)

Cory Taylor, one of Australia’s celebrated novelists, learned at the age of 60 that she was dying of melanoma-related brain cancer. Her illness was no longer treatable when she learned of it. Written in the space of a few weeks, in a tremendous creative surge, this powerful book is a clear-eyed account of what dying has taught her: she describes the tangle of her feelings, she reflects on her life, and she remembers the lives and deaths of her parents.

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'When Breath Becomes Air' by Paul Kalanithi

At the age of 36, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a new father to a baby girl and a patient, confronting his own mortality.

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'The Year Of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion

Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later, the Dunnes were sitting down to dinner when John suffered a massive and fatal coronary. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LA airport, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Centre to relieve a massive hematoma. This book is Didion's attempt to make sense of those weeks, and then months, of uncertainty and despair. The result is an intensely personal yet universal portrait of a marriage, a family, and a life, in good times and bad.

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'Napkin Notes: Make Lunch Meaningful, Life Will Follow' by Garth Callaghan

Every morning as he packs his daughter Emma’s lunch, Garth Callaghan adds a little surprise: a “napkin note”—a short, tender message to convey his love, encouragement, and pride. Shortly after Emma turned 12, Garth learned he had kidney cancer. Determined to make the time he has left meaningful, he has compiled years’ worth of notes to get his daughter through her high school graduation. In this moving book, a blend of inspiration and memoir, he encourages readers to deepen our relationships with those we love.

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'Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship' by Gail Caldwell

They met over their dogs. Both writers, Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp became best friends, talking about everything from their shared history of a struggle with alcohol, to their relationships with men and colleagues, to their love of books. The friendship helped them define the ordinary moments of life as the ones worth cherishing. Then, several years into this remarkable connection, Knapp was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Here, Caldwell mines the deepest levels of devotion and grief in this moving memoir about treasuring and losing a best friend.

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'Until I Say Goodbye: My Year Of Living With Joy' by Susan Spencer-Wendel

In June 2011, Susan Spencer-Wendel learned she had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an irreversible condition that systematically destroys the nerves that power the muscles. She was 44 years old, with a husband and three children, and she had only one year of health remaining. Susan decided to live that year with joy. She also wrote this book. No longer able to walk or lift her arms, she tapped it out letter by letter using only her right thumb. However, Until I Say Good-Bye is not angry or bitter, but instead filled with optimism, joie de vivre, and sense of humor.

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'The Long Goodbye' by Meghan O'Rourke

What does it mean to mourn today, in a culture that has largely set aside rituals that acknowledge grief? After her mother died of cancer at the age of 55, Meghan O'Rourke found that nothing had prepared her for the intensity of her sorrow. In the first anguished days, she began to create a record of her interior life as a mourner, trying to capture the paradox of grief-its monumental agony and microscopic intimacies-an endeavor that ultimately bloomed into a profound look at how caring for her mother during her illness changed and strengthened their bond.

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'The Mercy Papers' by Robin Romm

In The Mercy Papers, Romm expands the weeks before her mother's death into a story about a daughter in the moments before and after loss. With a striking mix of humor and honesty, Romm ushers us into a world where the mundane and spiritual melt together as Romm reveals the sharp truths that lurk around every corner and captures, with great passion, the awe, fear, and fury of a daughter losing her mother. The result is raw, unsentimental and reverberating with humanity.

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'The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying' by Nina Riggs

Nina Riggs was just 37 years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer—one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, who had been married 16 years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal. As it explores motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir asks readers to contemplate: "What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?"

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'Things I've Learned from Dying: A Book About Life' by David R. Dow

When Dow's father-in-law receives his own death sentence in the form of terminal cancer, and his gentle dog Winona suffers acute liver failure, Dow is forced to reconcile with death in a personal way, both as a son and as a father. Told through the disparate lenses of the legal battles he's spent a career fighting, and the intimate confrontations with death each family faces at home, Things I've Learned from Dying offers a poignant account of how illness and loss can ravage a family while giving readers hope without cliché by giving voice to the anguish we all face.

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'The Iceberg' by Marion Coutts

In 2008, Marion Coutts' husband, the art critic Tom Lubbock, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and told that he had not more than two years to live. The tumor was located in the area of the brain that controls speech and language, and would eventually rob him of the ability to speak. Tom was 53 when he died, leaving Marion and their son Eugene, just two years old, alone. Coutts describes the 18 months leading up to Tom's death. The Iceberg is an unflinching, honest exploration of staring death in the face, finding solace in strange places, finding beauty and even joy in the experience of dying.

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