The best novels about families struggling to cope after sudden death

Who am I?

All my work--as a novelist and a licensed clinical therapist--deals with what happens in families, which sometimes includes overwhelming grief. But now, it hasn’t been long since I lost my own son. In these novels, I recognize a piece of myself as I, like any survivor, have struggled to cope. Like few other events in our lives, death has the possibility of completely derailing us with its brutality, and often surviving family cast about blindly, searching for sense, for meaning. Sometimes we can’t find any; sometimes we do, and sometimes we create it ourselves. These novels put different approaches into story, and that, too, is a way to search out direction--and hope.


I wrote...

The Testament of Harold's Wife

By Lynne Hugo,

Book cover of The Testament of Harold's Wife

What is my book about?

After Louisa's grandson, Cody, was killed walking home from football practice, and her husband, Harold, unable to cope, died six months later, Louisa was in a fog of mourning, barely aware of her rage at the unpunished drunk driver who took Cody’s life. Now she sees two choices: either fade away on her Indiana family farm, where her companions are four aging chickens and an argumentative cat, or take up Harold’s failed quest for revenge and concoct a plan. Louisa, a retired schoolteacher who’s smart, sassy, and irreverent as ever, isn’t the fading away type.

But even the most perfect plan can go awry. The wild creatures on Louisa’s land are being killed. Is the mystery of human connection at work? When human law fails, is there any justice?

The books I picked & why

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The Guncle

By Steven Rowley,

Book cover of The Guncle

Why this book?

“Guncle” is what the Patrick’s six-year-old nephew and eight-year-old niece call Patrick, their gay uncle. He’d long dearly loved and been best friends with Sara, and admits he had a hard time with it (which she never understood) when she married his brother. And now she’s died of an aggressive cancer and his brother decides to spend a summer in drug rehab so that he’ll be able to do the job his kids deserve as a single parent. He needs Guncle Patrick to keep the kids for the summer, which hadn’t exactly been part of a fading gay actor’s plans. Now he has to hide out in his Palm Springs lush home with the terrible grief of two children and his own to manage.

I love the brilliant mix of sorrow, insight, humor, and beautiful writing in this novel. It’s a hopeful view of the reward for patience with the process of grieving and the resilience of the human spirit.

The Guncle

By Steven Rowley,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Guncle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

National Bestseller • Wall Street Journal Bestseller • USA Today Bestseller
An NPR Book of the Year
Semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor
Finalist for the 2021 Goodreads Choice Awards

From the bestselling author of Lily and the Octopus and The Editor comes a warm and deeply funny novel about a once-famous gay sitcom star whose unexpected family tragedy leaves him with his niece and nephew for the summer.

Patrick, or Gay Uncle Patrick (GUP, for short), has always loved his niece, Maisie, and nephew, Grant. That is, he loves spending time with them when they come out…


Ordinary People

By Judith Guest,

Book cover of Ordinary People

Why this book?

This book is older (1976) but still very relevant in its brutal realism as it depicts the various ways three family members grieve differently, failing to connect and comfort one another. When the older teenage son, Buck, dies in a boating accident, his younger brother, Conrad, who’s always felt himself in his brother’s shadow, blames himself, and attempts suicide six months later. His depression is treated, but lingers. I recognize the self-reproach, the sense of being somehow at fault. Maybe parents are especially vulnerable to this, because our first job is to keep our children alive, and maybe that sense of responsibility never leaves us even in situations in which we had no control. 

What the author does brilliantly in Ordinary People is show us something all too common: a family falling apart following a death. The mother, Beth, withdraws emotionally, obsessed with managing her home to perfection—something she can control–while her surviving son continues to struggle with his depression, trying to hide it while building a relationship with a new psychiatrist and new girlfriend. Meanwhile, the parents’ marriage suffers, and so does the relationship between father, Cal, and Conrad. Family dynamics change after a child’s death; weaknesses are amplified, and it’s a time when many marriages fail. The hope in this novel lies in how the father and remaining son work on rebuilding their relationship. We need to both deal with the real dangers in death’s aftermath and focus on what we can strengthen, too.

Ordinary People

By Judith Guest,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Ordinary People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the great bestseller of our time: the novel that inspired Robert Redford's Oscar-winning film starring Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore

In Ordinary People, Judith Guest's remarkable first novel, the Jarrets are a typical American family. Calvin is a determined, successful provider and Beth an organized, efficient wife. They had two sons, Conrad and Buck, but now they have one. In this memorable, moving novel, Judith Guest takes the reader into their lives to share their misunderstandings, pain, and ultimate healing. Ordinary People is an extraordinary novel about an "ordinary" family divided by pain, yet bound by their…


LaRose: A Novel

By Louise Erdrich,

Book cover of LaRose: A Novel

Why this book?

In her fifteenth novel, Erdrich, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, attempts to answer the question, “Can a person do the worst possible thing and still be loved?” by showing readers how native American parents living on a reservation cope when the father, Landreaux, accidentally kills his best friend’s five-year-old son in a hunting accident. Landreaux is distraught, wracked with horror, guilt, and grief. After consultation and attending a sweat, guided by an old native custom, he gives La Rose, his and his wife’s youngest child–whose best friend was the deceased–to the bereaved parents and siblings in a version of justice. It’s a twist on an eye for an eye, intended to equalize the suffering and prevent the escalation and further death that can occur when acts of grief-fueled revenge begin. Now both families are suffering unbearable loss, and so is LaRose, a five-year-old boy.

I don’t know if there’s any meaningful compensation for the death of a child brought about by someone else. What if it’s a genuine accident? Is real forgiveness possible then? I recommend this book for the look into how grief can wreck the family of even an accidental perpetrator, as well as that of the victim. It’s also a glimpse into how a non-dominant culture coped with this issue. Better? Worse? Louise Erdrich shows us how a native American culture might have made it work.

LaRose: A Novel

By Louise Erdrich,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked LaRose as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Late summer in North Dakota, 1999: Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence but only when he staggers closer does he realise he has killed his neighbour's son.

Dusty Ravich, the deceased boy, was best friends with Landreaux's five-year-old son, LaRose. The two families have been close for years and their children played together despite going to different schools. Landreaux is horrified at what he's done; fighting off his longstanding alcoholism, he ensconces himself in a sweat lodge and prays for guidance. And there he discovers an old…


Reservation Road

By John Burnham Schwartz,

Book cover of Reservation Road

Why this book?

One of the common reactions to the death of a loved family member–especially any death we perceive to be unnecessary or unnatural–is extreme anger. We have to blame someone, and yes, there’s plenty of reproach and self-recrimination in John Burnham Schwartz’s novel, Reservation Road. But there’s a clear culprit–a hit and run driver–and it seems the police are hardly bothering to investigate, and in a case like that, anyone would have a target for their helpless rage. We see Ethan, a father who witnessed his ten-year-old son killed, become obsessed with tracking down the perpetrator himself to accomplish some justice. I understand that kind of anger and frustration, and I know many others do, too. I think it’s useful to both accept that it’s normal, but to look at how destructive it can become to carry it, and to consider how to let it go. 

Reservation Road is also another novel in which we see extreme remorse. Dwight, the guilty party–who didn’t stop to help, didn’t turn himself in, either. We see how his life deteriorates, how he comes close to going to the police when his life intersects with Ethan’s, watch him deal with Lucas, his own ten-year-old boy who, ironically, had been a classmate of Josh, the victim. We see their siblings–although in this novel more peripherally–and Grace, the victim’s mother, struggling. The ending is at once satisfying and heartbreaking.

Reservation Road

By John Burnham Schwartz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Reservation Road as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A tragic accident sets in motion a cycle of violence and retribution in John Burnham Schwartz's riveting novel "Reservation Road". Two haunted men and their families are engulfed by the emotions surrounding the unexpected and horrendous death of ten-year-old Josh in a hit and run accident. Ethan, a respected professor of literature at a small New England college and father of Josh, is wracked by an obsession with revenge that threatens to tear his family apart. Dwight, a man at once fleeing his crime and hoping to get caught, wrestles with the overwhelming guilt and his sense of obligation to…


Dear Edward

By Ann Napolitano,

Book cover of Dear Edward

Why this book?

Eddie is twelve when he sets out with his mother, father, and fifteen-year-old brother, to whom he is especially close, on a cross-country flight from Newark to Los Angeles. We know from the beginning what’s ahead: their plane crashes in Colorado due to copilot error, and everyone on board is killed. Except Eddie. Ann Napolitano handles the story beautifully with a dual timeline shifting from the later-relevant stories of a few of the 191 passengers as the plane proceeds toward doom, and what happens after the crash when, in a shattering moment of unfathomable trauma, Eddie loses his family and the entire life he knows. He becomes the “Miracle Boy” with which the media is obsessed. His only aunt and uncle, whose marriage is struggling, take him in to live with them. He knows them, but they’ve not been close. He withdraws emotionally, enters a kind of fugue state, and stops eating. 

Slowly, a psychiatrist, a school principal, Shaye, a twelve-year-old girl next door, and letters from the family members of crash victims begin to give him a sense of direction. He begins to build a life as his teens advance, and the reader watches some of the almost invisible steps. What I love about this novel is how the author answers the question: if the very worst thing possible happens in life, if I lose even everything I love, is there any way to go on? In this powerful novel, Napolitano says it takes time, support, and enormous patience, but yes. Don’t give up.

Dear Edward

By Ann Napolitano,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Dear Edward as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A transcendent coming-of-age story about the ways a broken heart learns to love again.

One summer morning, a flight takes off from New York to Los Angeles: there are 192 people aboard. When the plane suddenly crashes, twelve-year-old Edward Adler is the sole survivor.

In the aftermath, Edward struggles to make sense of his grief, sudden fame and find his place in a world without his family. But then Edward and his neighbour Shay make a startling discovery; hidden in his uncle's garage are letters from the relatives of other passengers - all addressed him.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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