Books on Grief
Reading Recommendations

Seven Books on Grief and Loss

Here are seven books on grief and loss I recommend:

  1. Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett.
    The author lost her American father in 2008 and long felt “hopeless about ever managing the voyage from grief to any semblance of ‘normalcy’ or ‘healing.’” After she traveled to Japan in 2013, where her mother was born, she wrote this excellent book about her literal and emotional journey. She arrived only two years after the devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami that damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Japan still mourned its thousands of dead and Mockett tagged along. In her search for consolation and meaning, she connected with family priests, Zen priests, and a multitude of bereaved. She traveled to Mount Doom, where the dead cross into the underworld, spoke to a blind medium, buried her grandparents’ bones, listened to real life ghost stories, and sent her lantern afloat on a river among hundreds of other lights. One lesson learned was that her personal grief was but a small part in the communal grief of our species—she was not alone. A second, and in my opinion more radical lesson, was that the Japanese encouraged the living to continue their bond with the dead.
  2. Heartwood: The Art of Living with the End in Mind by Barbara Becker. The author speaks from both personal and professional experience when she writes, “Sometimes, as the great masters have taught, we have to die before we die if we want to truly live.”
  3. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The great author walks a path between her known life and insanity, imagining messages in order to survive, and keeping the hope alive that death is reversible.
  4. Levels of Life by Julian Barnes. One of my favorite British novelists on life after losing his wife: “This is what those who haven’t crossed the tropic of grief often fail to understand: the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive, but doesn’t mean that they do not exist.”
  5. La Chambre Claire / Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes. The book’s subtitle could also have been: Reflections on mourning and coping with your own mortality. Barthes makes a lyrical case for how photography renders loss visible and how the spectator is in direct relationship with the subject through touching details. It’s an ode to photography and an eulogy for his mother, although some speculate it was an eulogy for himself: Barthes died unexpectedly soon after the publication of La Chambre Claire.
  6. Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain. “We’re taught from a very young age to scorn our own tears (‘Crybaby!’), then to censure our sorrow for the rest of our lives.” But without an outlet for our grief, we risk shutting down emotionally, going dead inside, or numbing our pain with whatever we can find. Where is our collective experience as a consolation for our loss? Once the sense of community after a funeral fades, we can feel abandoned, if not cosmically alone.
  7. Last but certainly not least: All poems by Emily Dickinson, for whom the border between life and death was porous enough to cross at will.

More nonfiction recommendations? Read my words on: