When it comes to funerals, I’m a coward. I haven’t visited a single family member in 25 years, even though in that time at least one relative has died every year—of cancer, of gunshot wounds, of global contagion. I have had to find other ways to grieve. Today, I often navigate grief in quiet, private ways—and I use literature to help me get there.
It’s not just me: Most people I know have been in the purgatory of grief for years now. The most prominent type is for the 6.5 million people who have died worldwide in the pandemic. Others lament a tax breakup, losing their home, the recession, or the destruction of the environment. For some, the sense of grief changed as new forms of shared loss came along with an inability to gather in person. But when distance denied people traditional funeral rites, they found new rituals that could guide them, as I did.
One of these can be reading, which offers a way to share, process and understand grief. In fiction and nonfiction, through messy plays or insightful insights into the human condition, authors explore how grief can be a settlement, an inconvenience, a period of stagnation, or an unfinished task. Writing alone cannot take away pain, but prose can be part of one’s inner healing. Below are seven books that offer new perspectives on death and grief—and help us understand this lonely, unique phenomenon as a collective one.
Visible sadnessby CS Lewis
The opening line in Visible sadness is a striking quote: “No one ever told me that sadness is like fear. That fear is the basis of Lewis’s book – fear of not knowing the meaning of life, of consciousness being self-delusion, and of losing the clear memory of one’s love. It is an account of how Lewis came to mourn the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, who died of cancer in 1960. In the text, Lewis is not only talking about his emotional experience of anguish, but his physical response: He feels “drunk”. and “holy”. Visible sadness is his reckoning exposed and a reminder that “death only reveals the void that was always there. The prose is full of gems that envision grief as a “winding valley” or a process that unfolds as a person moves beyond despair. Lewis understood that grief does not reside in the mind alone and tragically shows that as the pain fades, so can the memory of the deceased.
The year of magical thinking, by Joan Didion
Excruciating pain runs through The year of magical thinking, in which Didion writes about her husband’s death and its aftermath as both mundane and overwhelming. She reflects sharply on what they did the night before his fatal heart attack, her retreat to the ER, the tyranny of paperwork, what she ate and when she ate. Enumerating the banal side of their lives, she conveys the basis of their love: These are not mere records but recognitions that, as Didion points out, “grief comes in waves, setbacks, sudden fears that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the everydayness of life.” She describes her regret, sadness, and loneliness not just as emotions but as embodied distress—a “tightness in the throat” or “suffocation.” Didion’s prose, often cold, commanding, and indifferent, takes a detour here. She joins a group of people who is in the buffer between the living and the dead, and admits that despite her ability to write down all the events surrounding his death, her memory of her husband is collapsing – even after four decades together. All she wants is to have him again. Of all Didion’s writing, this is her most raw; her narrative is no longer under control.
Being Mortalby Atul Gawande
No matter how much medical expertise a doctor has or how many lifesaving procedures are performed, some people who enter a hospital will die. A question arises: Does a doctor need to tell his patient that his condition is fatal, and if so, how do they prepare their loved ones for their impending death? This is the moral dilemma Gawande drills into at the outset Being Mortal. The text is a medical treatise carefully examining the concerns of a dying person. Gawande points out that what people fear is “what happens other than death – losing your hearing, your memory, your best friends, your way of life.” His insightful fragments show that grief is near the end and suggest that the spiritual challenge of dying is parallel to having a numb body. This book, in part and as a whole, shows that more needs to be done outside the hospital to aid the emotionally intense and complex work of facing mortality—something that is best achieved when compassion is woven into medical care. As a doctor, Gawande argues that healers can do a better job of preparing people for what they will lose long before their lives are gone.
The bearingby Ada Limón
The closer you read the bear, the more you realize that grief is everywhere, even for people and things we never had. In her poem “The vulture and the body”, Limón describes her trip to a fertility clinic and her encounter with many dead animals. Reflecting on the death of these creatures and her inability to conceive, Limón wonders, “What if instead of bearing a child, I should bear sorrow? I have had six IVF attempts without pregnancy, and that question perfectly characterized my struggle with infertility. In this collection, Limón transcribes uncertainty through a poetic scale that reads like conversational prose. She finds ways to look through and past the people she loves, the wilderness she explores, while watching the birds, dogs, and flowers she admires fade away over time. Limón is determined to give her semi-finished home autonomy. As she shows us the beauty of nature in Kentucky and in the meditation of her family, she expresses her joy and affirms her attitude that there is light and optimism to be found. That’s the beauty of her work: Even while grieving for the child she doesn’t have, she finds inspiration in her surroundings—they can be useful distractions for those working through an unstable state of mind.
weatherby Jenny Offill
weather has become my favorite comedy. In what at first appears to be a straightforward plot about modern life in New York City, Lizzie, the library’s main protagonist, makes witty comments about her lukewarm marriage and mediocre upbringing. But climate change looms in the background and with it increased pressure to gather resources and make a plan. Lizzie and the people around her mourn the safe life they once knew: With New York expected to experience “life-changing temperatures in 2047,” Offill writes, everyone in the city is scrambling to figure out ways to protect itself – even in a destructive way. However, far from despairing, Offill shows us that looming ecological catastrophes can be approached with levity and weather combines the mundane aspect of domestic life with invasive atmospheric disasters. “But that’s America,” Lizzie muses. “You don’t even make the news if you shoot less than three.” I mean, isn’t that the last dish they take away? These comments are both a stab at contemporary discontent and also an example of how humor can be a way to deal with dystopia. While most will eventually endure a domestic and earthly collapse, at least they can laugh through it.
Transcendent realmby Yaa Gyasi
The stories we refuse to face can be louder than the ones we share with others. Transcendent realm recounts trauma obliquely and thoughtfully: Gifty, the protagonist, is a Ghanaian American Ph.D. student in neuroscience whose goal is to understand the science of addiction. Based on the narrator’s life as a researcher, the text delves into how this person came to be—her childhood in Alabama as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, the death of her brother, her mother’s depression, her elite education, her emotional response to concealing it. pain She replaces the evangelical church that guided her childhood with science, a system that helps explain her family’s pathology. Gyasi invites us to pause, creating genuine tension while describing the slow pace of Gifty’s experiments; in a controlled environment, she lets mice latch on to Ensure and eventually takes it away from them, watching them all the while. Gifty’s way of being is based on that careful observation and repetition. This is both an act of establishing scientific truth and part of her quest to understand her brother’s overdose. This is her way of healing. She reminds us that we can’t always translate grief to outsiders or name it by name, but we can move from a state of complete loss to at least a place of personal reconciliation.
Lost foundby Kathryn Schulz
In lost found Schulz reflects on what losing her father meant to her. She reminds us of the many ways in which we speak of death as the departure of the person from us, rather than the state in which they are: They are “no longer among us”; their deaths are more about our loss than theirs. After her dad died, Schulz became “abnormally clumsy and prone to illness and injury.” After consulting a psychiatrist, she was told that her illnesses were most likely due to her unconscious self finding ways to create physical pain. This combination resonates Visible sadness-the body expresses loss and the physical self slowly dissolves. So Schulz sets out to manage her grief, in part, by exploring her family history, the traits she inherited, and even a psychoanalytic explanation for the many things her father lost and grieved over the course of his life. Schulz does not shy away from the fact that some of the afflicted may never find solace. But as the book’s title suggests, her story is also one of discovery. She falls for someone, and that relationship is the entry point to meeting pleasure in the world again. It’s a simple but powerful message: Love becomes the basis for finding yourself, even in times of grief.
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