The best novels about families struggling to cope after sudden death

The Books I Picked & Why

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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