The best books for honest portrayals of death, grief, and mourning

Why am I passionate about this?

Before I turned twenty-five, I lost my father to illness, my brother to a car accident, and a cousin to murder. Experiencing this string of tragedies so young profoundly changed me. As a writer, I’ve often worried that my naked grief on the page would come across as soft, cloyingly sentimental, and wholly without bite. Over the years, I have looked to examples of books that deal with death, grief, and mourning with a kind of brutal honesty. I sought out writing that conveyed the reality of loss in all its messiness. Reading these beautiful, honest accounts of grief have always made me feel less alone in mine.

I wrote...

The Loved Ones: Essays to Bury the Dead

By Madison Davis,

Book cover of The Loved Ones: Essays to Bury the Dead

What is my book about?

The Loved Ones is a series of autobiographical essays which explore the deaths of four family members across three generations; an inexplicable double murder, a fatal car accident, a long illness, and a conscripted soldier killed in action.

Each of the first three essays explores the death of a loved one in a collage of vignettes, zigzagging through time and topic as a grieving mind tends to do. The final essay revisits each death while focusing on the body; the aftermath, the funerals, and the rituals we use to say goodbye to the body. The Loved Ones is an elegy, a memoir, a burial, and a love letter to the dead.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Nox

Madison Davis Why did I love this book?

In Nox, Anne Carson delves into her complicated relationship with her brother and his death.

She writes, “No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history. So I begin to think about history.” Carson offers us a collage of this history in an accordion book format which unravels page by page.

I have often unfolded the book across the room to interrogate the way she gathered the details of the experience. It feels so intimate to uncoil all the scraps and notes and pictures and pieces. Then, I fold it back together, nestle it into its box, and put her grief story back on my shelf.

Nox expanded what I thought was possible in writing about loss. 

By Anne Carson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Nox as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nox is an epitaph in the form of a book, a facsimile of a handmade book Anne Carson wrote and created after the death of her brother. The poem describes coming to terms with his loss through the lens of her translation of Poem 101 by Catullus "for his brother who died in the Troad." Nox is a work of poetry, but arrives as a fascinating and unique physical object. Carson pasted old letters, family photos, collages and sketches on pages. The poems, typed on a computer, were added to this illustrated "book" creating a visual and reading experience so…

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Book cover of Jane: A Murder

Madison Davis Why did I love this book?

Writing about crime is understandably fraught. Some true crime stories are told with genuine care and attention to impact, while others are definitely…not.

In Jane, Nelson finds a way to grapple with the death of her aunt and the impact it is had on her and her family. It was a guiding light for me when I thought about ways to tell an unwieldy story about murder.

Nelson leans on honesty, compassion, and curiosity to stay safely away from the most common true crime traps, and the result is a wonderful, affecting book. 

By Maggie Nelson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Part elegy, part true crime story, this memoir-in-verse from the author of the award-winning The Argonauts expands the notion of how we tell stories and what form those stories take through the story of a murdered woman and the mystery surrounding her last hours.

Jane tells the spectral story of the life and death of Maggie Nelson’s aunt Jane, who was murdered in 1969 while a first-year law student at the University of Michigan. Though officially unsolved, Jane’s murder was apparently the third in a series of seven brutal rape-murders in the area between 1967 and 1969. Nelson was born…

Book cover of That This

Madison Davis Why did I love this book?

Susan Howe always asks her reader to participate, to really show up.

That This is comprised of three sections. The first is an essay about the death of her husband. I love the way you can witness her grieving mind at work as it seeks connection and meaning. Then, the narrative gives way to sections of the book which become more abstracted.

Her focus, form, and topic shift, but the book is solidly grounded in the introductory essay so that you must navigate these more complex waters through the lens of grieving she has given you. I find That This remarkably comforting in its honesty and patience. 

By Susan Howe, James Welling (photographer),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"What treasures of knowledge we cluster around." That This is a collection in three pieces. "Disappearance Approach," an essay about Howe's husband's sudden death-"land of darkness or darkness itself you shadow mouth"-begins the book with paintings by Poussin, an autopsy, Sarah Edwards and her sister-in-law Hannah, phantoms, and elusive remnants. "Frolic Architecture," the second section-inspired by visits to the vast 18th-century Jonathan Edwards archives at the Beinecke and accompanied by six photograms by James Welling-presents hauntingly lovely, oblique type-collages of Hannah Edwards Wetmore's diary entries that Howe (with scissors, "invisible" Scotch Tape, and a Canon copier) has twisted, flattened, and…

Book cover of I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time

Madison Davis Why did I love this book?

In I, Afterlife, Prevallet writes, “The text that is grieving has no thesis: only speculations.”

This short, sturdy book has been something of a roadmap for me when writing about grief. After her father commits suicide, Prevallet is left with many unanswerable questions, so she presents for her reader the questions, big and small, along with her speculations.

The subtitle, Essay in Mourning Time, points toward what I find so compelling about this work. The book is written from the place of grief—the way it shifts our relationship to time and truth and objects—and in the voice of mourning. 

By Kristin Prevallet,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Poetry. Essays. Much admired by her contemporaries for her experiments in poetic form, Kristin Prevallet now turns those gifts to the most vulnerable moments of her own life, and in doing so, has produced a testament that is both disconsolate and powerful. Meditating on her father's unexplained suicide, Prevallet alternates between the clinical language of the crime report and the lyricism of the elegy. Throughout, she offers a defiant refusal of east consolations or redemptions. Driven by "the need to extend beyond the personal and out the toward the intolerable present," Prevallet brings herself and her readers to the chilling…

Book cover of The American Way of Death Revisited

Madison Davis Why did I love this book?

This book is a classic for a reason. It’s a sobering (and deeply entertaining) look at the industry of death.

With so few universal truths, one would imagine that humanity’s shared capacity to understand our own mortality would be a source of connection. Instead, it feels like the mechanics of death and everything surrounding it, get shoved under the carpet in our desperation to avoid the topic.

As Mitford lifts the veil on the funeral industry, it becomes apparent how important it is to shine a light on the things we’re most afraid of.

By Jessica Mitford,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The American Way of Death Revisited as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Only the scathing wit and searching intelligence of Jessica Mitford could turn an exposé of the American funeral industry into a book that is at once deadly serious and side-splittingly funny. When first published in 1963, this landmark of investigative journalism became a runaway bestseller and resulted in legislation to protect grieving families from the unscrupulous sales practices of those in "the dismal trade."

Just before her death in 1996, Mitford thoroughly revised and updated her classic study. The American Way of Death Revisited confronts new trends, including the success of the profession's lobbyists in Washington, inflated cremation costs, the…

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Book cover of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

Michael Bungay Stanier Author Of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

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Why am I passionate about this?

Coaching is a wonderful technology that can help people be a force for change… and is often wrapped up in mystic and woo-woo and privilege that makes it inaccessible and/or unattractive to too many. I want being more coach-like—by which I mean staying curious a little longer, and rushing to action and advice-giving—to be an everyday way of being with one another. Driven by this, I’ve written the best-selling book on coaching this century (The Coaching Habit) and have created training that’s been used around the world by more than a quarter of a million people. I’m on a mission to unweird coaching.

Michael's book list on unexpectedly useful books about coaching

What is my book about?

The coaching book that's for all of us, not just coaches.

It's the best-selling book on coaching this century, with 15k+ online reviews. Brené Brown calls it "a classic". Dan Pink said it was "essential".

It is practical, funny, and short, and "unweirds" coaching. Whether you're a parent, a teacher, a leader, or even a coach, you can stay curious longer.

By Michael Bungay Stanier,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Coaching Habit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Look for Michael's new book, The Advice Trap, which focuses on taming your Advice Monster so you can stay curious a little longer and change the way you lead forever.

In Michael Bungay Stanier's The Coaching Habit, coaching becomes a regular, informal part of your day so managers and their teams can work less hard and have more impact.

Drawing on years of experience training more than 10,000 busy managers from around the globe in practical, everyday coaching skills, Bungay Stanier reveals how to unlock your peoples' potential. He unpacks seven essential coaching questions to demonstrate how-by saying less and…

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