If my mother and I had a secret language, it was books. My mother had the perfect knack for slipping the perfect book into my hands at the perfect time. Throughout my early Catholic school education, she passed me books to help fill in the feminist gaps in my school’s stories of heroism. When I got my first period, I was entrusted with my own fat copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which I received like a diploma for graduating into womanhood. When my working class neighborhood well-meaning-ly treated my dream of “being a writer” as if I was telling them I wanted to be the tooth fairy when I grew up, mom scoured library book sales for writers’ biographies, writing guides and how-to books on making it as an artist with a limited means.
As we both grew older, it became an affectionate game between us: gifting or lending each other books to help with our lives’ latest hurtles, or ones that reminded each other of the spark we loved so much about each other. The books my mother gave me were lenses through which I looked at the world: a way to remember who I was in her eyes, and a guidebook to help me get where I wanted to go.
When my mother unexpectedly passed away in May 2015, I clearly remember wishing she could come back to life just for five minutes, so I could ask her what books to read to get me through this grief.
Luckily, the community of writers I am grateful to consider as family swooped in, and sent me a lifeboat of books to comfort me during that first hard year. Here are some of those books which helped me the most:
'The Year of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion
When Joan Didion’s storied marriage to fellow writer John Dunne ended with his unexpected death in 2003, her response was a book that was as diligently vulnerable as it was searingly honest. Didion walks us through the shattered months that followed his death, where she was forced to live a life she never imagined. So much of her experience with trying to rejoin a suddenly much different world resonated with me so deeply. “I wanted to get the tears out of the way so I could act sensibly,” she wrote, echoing every grieving person’s early desire to get back to feeling normal, before you realize how you are feeling is your new normal. And even though I had lost my mom and Didion her husband, there is a common ground to be found – that feeling of losing the person who honestly just got you. “I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right,” she wrote simply, “but we were each the person the other trusted.” It’s a heartbreaking book which you can’t help but see yourself in.
'Dear Darkness' by Kevin Young
As a confirmed Kevin Young stan, I already had this stunning collection of poetry in my home library when my mom passed, and found myself revisiting it often. Young’s gentle, vulnerable examinations of the grief he felt after his beloved father’s passing takes so many shapes, and unearths so many small moments familiar to the newly grieving. In one of my favorite pieces, “Ode to Sweet Potato Pie,” Young outlines with delicious pleasure a long list of irresistible foods:
“Anything with nuts. / Or raisins. Goobers. / Even my Aunt Dixie’s / apple pie recipe / or the sweet potato pie / my mother makes sing. / Even heaven. Even Boston / cream pie, Key Lime, / Baked Alaska, dense / flourless torte covered in raspberries / like a Bronx cheer” an excerpt of the poem reads, making your mouth water as your body remembers the earthly pleasures still alive in the world. But in the last stanzas, Young grounds it all back to reality, to his new normal, by noting, “all this, & more, I would give up / to have you here, pumpkin- / colored father, cooking / for me—your hungry oven / humming—just one more minute.”
'Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss' by Hope Edelman
When a woman loses a mother, it is its own experience. Edelman’s landmark book, Motherless Daughters, is an exploration of what it means to lose your mother, at every stage of development, through testimonies of the women who survived these losses. For me, it was a humbling book, illuminating to me how lucky I was to have my mother live as long as she did (after reading testimonies of women who were so young when their mothers passed, they could barely trust their own memories of her), and grounding to me about the universality of grief. There was a common thread among all these women, and in myself as well, I realized. In the same ways I rooted for the women grieving in this book, I found myself opening up to those who were supporting me.
'The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing' edited by Kevin Young
At the other end of this spectrum is Kevin Young’s incredible anthology, The Art of Losing. Young was inspired to create this anthology in the wake of his father’s passing. While Young had no problem finding ample love poem anthologies when he wanted select poems for his wedding, he was surprised to find no equivalent anthology to help him with his father’s funeral. This thoughtful, diverse collection explores all facets of grief: losing parents, spouses, children, friends (close and distant), teachers, and more. But more than that, it truly covers a full spectrum of grieving emotions: sadness, of course, but also anger, confusion, frustration, longing and rage. One of the first things I did in the days after my mother’s passing was to order copies of this book to be sent to every member of my immediate family, and it is the first book I send to friends who are experiencing loss themselves.
'Vintage Sadness' by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
The wildly talented and prolific Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib burst into mainstream consciousness with the publication of his popular essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which brilliantly mashes together personal observations of his own life and world with Abdurraqib’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of and bottomless affection for a wide variety of music. As much as I adored that book, which also comes highly recommended for its own exploration of grief, I have to admit the book I took to bed with me the most was his poetry collection Vintage Sadness. The poems in this collection glitter with weight and beauty, even when tackling the hardest of subjects. Abdurraqib is alive, and young, and trying to make it as a writer, while pushing through the numerous levels of grief he is forced to endure, including the loss of his own mother as a teenager. It is those poems I would read and re-read like bible verses. And whenever I am feeling numb, I find myself brought gratefully to my knees by the untitled poem, which opens the book, which begins:
"hi. you do not have to be angry anymore. I did not create any world other than / your own. you can go outside again. home is wherever the grief washes off your / hands with the most ease. loving nothing that can’t fit in your smallest pockets, / and I will always be with you. I am spread out in your shadow. even now, son. / don’t forget how much of me there was before I was nothing."
While I have always been a book lover, books took on a special meaning in the months after my mom’s death. They are the perfect companions for grief: offering so much, and asking absolutely nothing in return. Books on grief weren’t the only books I read that year, but when I look back, those were the books than meant the most. They became the new mirror I could see myself in, and the guidebooks leading me to where I wanted to go next.