We all struggle with feelings of grief at different points in our lives, and that grief looks different for everybody. Some of us explore our grief outwardly: wearing our feelings on our sleeves and turning to friends and family for support. Others are more private in our grief: turning inward and distancing ourselves for a short time or longer. Still more embark upon a detour: hitting the road, giving into dramatic impulses, and finding an entirely new way of existing in the world. There are any number of ways to experience and cope with grief — but for book-lovers, there’s no question that books about grief are an essential part of the path to healing.
But while these books can offer advice, tips, and skills for managing grief in healthy and productive ways, they offer something much more soothing to a grieving spirit as well: empathy. There’s just something about hearing “I’ve been there”, or “me too”, or “you’re not alone” from someone who has walked the path of grief (sometimes — like in the memoir we all love, Wild — literally) and found themselves even stronger on the other side.
Here are 11 books to consider reading if you’re struggling with grief — and may they help you on your own journey.
'Poor Your Soul' by Mira Ptacin
A memoir that tackles the grief of losing a child from two angles: that of memoirist Mira Ptacin and that of her mother, Poor Your Soul explores the strength and heartbreak of motherhood, and the grief experienced by anyone who has lost someone they loved more than themselves. It tells the story of Ptacin, who became pregnant at 28 years old with a child who would not be able to survive outside the womb, and was faced with three impossible choices about how she could lose the baby. Running parallel to this loss is that of Ptacin's mother, whose son — Ptacin’s brother — was killed by a drunk driver. This one is heartbreaking and written with great love.
'The Year of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion
The loss of a life partner can be one of the most devastating experiences one goes through in a lifetime — perhaps second only to the loss of a child. Joan Didion — journalist, essayist, and memoirist — experienced both of these near-unimaginable losses in a short period of time. In The Year of Magical Thinking, a title that has become one of the go-to reads for anyone experiencing such loss and grief, Didion meets readers at the moment of her husband’s death, moving to the bedside of her ill daughter, and then taking readers through the year following both tragic events. True to the journalist in her, Didion explores her preconceived and evolving ideas about life, loss, and death, alongside the details of her personal story.
'H is for Hawk' by Helen Macdonald
Sometimes, when we’re grieving, we need to turn to a distraction — and some distractions are more unique than others. Overcome with grief over the loss of her father, writer Helen Macdonald decided to train one of the most difficult and rebellious hawks alive: the goshawk, which boasts a wingspan of nearly two feet. Already an experienced falconer, Macdonald adopted a goshawk named Mabel — a beautiful, ornery, wild creature who helped Macdonald cope with her grief and changed her life. Read all about it in her memoir, H is for Hawk.
'Men We Reaped' by Jesmyn Ward
Writer Jesmyn Ward has known a lot of loss in her life: in particular, the early and unnecessary deaths of five young men — the kind of deaths being highlighted with increasing frequency on the national news. In the wake of these losses, Ward began to explore what each of their deaths had in common, and what it means to live in a community that is plagued by regular, systemic, and devastating loss and grief. Men We Reaped is an account of these short lives, woven into Ward’s thoughts on racism, poverty, and systemic violence.
'Refusing Heaven' by Jack Gilbert
This memoir, written in poetry, is about mourning the impending loss of one’s own life, while still celebrating the life that has been. Refusing Heaven, written towards the end of poet Jack Gilbert’s life, celebrates the desire to live, the force of moving forward, the poet’s inherent curiosity in all things, and his humility regarding his own life and experiences. In the collection, Gilbert looks at both the 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 — admitting that he’d rather refuse heaven and in favor of continuing to live.
'The Rules of Inheritance' by Claire Bidwell-Smith
Claire Bidwell-Smith was just 14-years-old when both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer — and just 11 years later, they had both passed away. The Rules of Inheritance tells the story of the grief that followed: the wanderlust and the partying, the strength and the endurance, and ultimately the great love left behind, even after someone — or everyone — is gone.
'The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend' by Sarah Manguso
Anyone who has lost a close friend knows the staggering feeling of experiencing the surprising death of someone your own age. It is this loss that memoirist Sarah Manguso explores in her book The Guardians: An Elegy of a Friend. Navigating the death of Manguso's longtime friend Harris, The Guardians begins with the newspaper coverage of her friend’s death and takes readers through Manguso’s friendship, the ways their relationship evolved through Harris's time in and out of a psychiatric hospital, and what Harris’s presence and absence in Manguso’s life meant to the writer.
'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed is recognized as one of the greatest advice-givers of our time, and the personal wisdom that supports her advice was hard won. After losing her mother to cancer, Strayed was overcome by grief, turning to drug use, casual sex, infidelity, and divorce. Then — as fans of Strayed know — she turned to the trail instead. Wild is the account of Strayed’s solo walk across the Pacific Crest Trail, which tested her strength and helped her manage her grief; and it will definitely inspire you to find productive ways to manage yours.
'The Glass Eye' by Jeannie Vanasco
Before her father died, when she was only 18 years old, Jeannie Vanasco promised him she would write a book. The Glass Eye, published this year, is that decades-in-the-making memoir that tells the story of Vanasco’s adoration of her father and her devastation following his death: one that left her struggling with mental illness and obsessive mania. Multilayered and relatable, The Glass Eye is not only just a tribute to Vanasco’s father, it’s also the author’s journey of losing and writing her way back to herself.
'The Long Goodbye' by Meghan O’Rourke
Meghan O’Rourke’s mother died of cancer on Christmas Day, when the writer was 32-years-old. In The Long Goodbye, O’Rourke explores her surprise at the depth of her grief and the ways that her mother’s long illness and death — as well as O’Rourke’s separation from her husband around the same time — changed her life, tested her resilience, and ultimately led her to a place of strength and memories of joy.
'Geography of the Heart' by Fenton Johnson
Another title that explores the grief that follows the loss of a life partner, Fenton Johnson’s Geography of the Heart is a heartbreaking testament to a life-defining love. When Johnson’s partner and lover, Larry Rose, died of AIDS, Johnson went through the many stages of grief: especially denial, anger, sadness. But finally he began to recognize how lucky he was to have had his partner in his life for the amount of time that he did, allowing his grief to give way to the transformative, healing power of love, and recognizing the love that remains after loss.