The best books on inhabiting unthinkable loss

Who am I?

When my father died in 1998, bladder cancer, I was 41 years old and privileged to be his primary caregiver for five weeks. My first major loss and it was as though a mack truck had been driven through my chest. Ten years later, my mother died, after nine years of dementia, which is like losing someone twice. That was a more ravaging grief. Twelve years later, my nephew died, a month away from his 36th birthday. And in 2022, one close friend of mine took his own life and another died of cancer at age 57. Grief is the subject I gravitate toward in the books I read and the essays I write. 

I wrote...

My So-Called Ruined Life

By Melanie Bishop,

Book cover of My So-Called Ruined Life

What is my book about?

Tate McCoy has not spoken to her alcoholic mother in two years when her mom is murdered. If this were not enough to endure at age sixteen, Tate has to face the fact that her father is the prime suspect. Convinced of his innocence, and of her own resilience, she sets out to prove her life is not ruined, by filling the summer of her father’s trial with volunteer work, time with her best friend Kale, the great outdoors, and a crush on her swim instructor. But after discovering a horrible secret, Tate questions everything she thought she knew about her parents.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Tender Land: A Family Love Story

Melanie Bishop Why did I love this book?

It is fair to say that this is my favorite memoir I’ve ever read. I’m shocked it didn’t make bestseller lists when it came out. Finneran is a poet, who through the language, attention to detail, and strategic pacing of key scenes, makes readers see and feel what she wants us to see and feel. This book offered me, as a teacher of college writing, numerous perfect examples of how scenes can be developed to drop readers into a moment, to transport them. Finneran focuses the memoir on how her brother’s suicide affected her whole, big, Catholic family. The Tender Land, a Family Love Story is a portrait of a family who has lost something huge. Devastating content aside, this is a memoir that you will delight in, sentence by sentence, for its language. Highly recommend this remarkable book. 

By Kathleen Finneran,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An extraordinary memoir of a family haunted by tragedy: “I’ve read very few contemporary novels that can rival Finneran’s nonfiction.” —Jonathan Franzen

A superb portrait of family life, this “absorbing and thoughtful” memoir is a love story unlike any other (Library Journal). The Finnerans—Irish Catholic parents with five children in St. Louis—are a seemingly unexceptional family whose lives are upended by a catastrophic event: the suicide of the author’s fifteen-year-old younger brother after being publicly humiliated in junior high school.
A gentle, handsome boy, Sean Finneran was a straight-A student and gifted athlete, especially treasured by every member of his…

Book cover of Wave

Melanie Bishop Why did I love this book?

This book is about the most horrifying loss imaginable: the author loses her parents, her husband, and her two young sons all at once, in the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the day after Christmas, 2004. She and her family were spending the holiday in Sri Lanka when the wave hit and overtook the jeep in which they were attempting to flee. I can’t come up with a better justification for suicide than this—she’s lost everyone; she wonders why she was spared, just to suffer these losses every minute of every hour of every day. The book is both a horror story and a testament to human strength. I assure you, you won’t be able to put it down. 

By Sonali Deraniyagala,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the PEN/Ackerley Prize 2014

The book opens and we are inside the wave: thirty feet high, moving at twenty-five mph, racing two miles inland. And from there into the depths of the author's despair: how to live now that her life has been undone?

Sonali Deraniyagala tells her story - the loss of her two boys, her husband, and her parents - without artifice or sentimentality. In the stark language of unfathomable sorrow, anger, and guilt: she struggles through the first months following the tragedy -- someone always at her side to prevent her from harming herself, her…

Book cover of Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief

Melanie Bishop Why did I love this book?

I learned about Joanne Cacciatore from a close friend of mine, Lori, who unfortunately learned about traumatic grief when her husband died in his early fifties. Joanne (AKA Dr. Jo) started a respite center/care farm for grievers on her land in north central Arizona, where she specializes in grief after loss of a child; Dr. Jo lost a baby herself in 1994. This was another un-put-down-able book. Chapters are typically 4 pages long, each one introducing a different loss scenario, real people she has worked with, real losses, all of them horrifyingly unfair. The stories Dr. Jo tells are potent, searing, and unadorned. It’s the most honest, thorough, and straightforward book I’ve ever read about loss and grief. I will read it again and again.

By Joanne Cacciatore,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

If you love, you will grieve—and nothing is more mysteriously central to becoming fully human. 

A 2017 Indies Finalist from Foreword Reviews.

When a loved one dies, the pain of loss can feel unbearable—especially in the case of a traumatizing death that leaves us shouting, “NO!” with every fiber of our body. The process of grieving can feel wild and nonlinear—and often lasts for much longer than other people, the nonbereaved, tell us it should.

Organized into fifty-two short chapters, Bearing the Unbearable is a companion for life’s most difficult times, revealing how grief can open our hearts to connection,…

Book cover of Men We Reaped: A Memoir

Melanie Bishop Why did I love this book?

Three years ago, a close friend and I formed a two-person book club. We read a memoir per month for one year. Men We Reaped was my favorite. In the space of four years, the author loses five beloved boys/men in her life, including her own brother. Men we reaped. Like a crop that’s been over-harvested, “[t]hese young men died because of who they were and the place they were from, because certain disadvantages breed a certain kind of bad luck.” Ward brings each young man to life so successfully, that readers mourn when each is gone. In writing this memoir, she memorializes them: Roger Eric Daniels III, Demond Cook, Charles Joseph Martin, Ronald Wayne Lizana, Joshua Adam Dedeaux. Speak their names, so they’ll not be forgotten.

By Jesmyn Ward,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Men We Reaped as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

_______________ 'A brutal, moving memoir ... Anyone who emerges from America's black working-class youth with words as fine as Ward's deserves a hearing' - Guardian 'Raw, beautiful and dangerous' - New York Times Book Review 'Lavishly endowed with literary craft and hard-earned wisdom' - Time _______________ The beautiful, haunting memoir from Jesmyn Ward, the first woman to win the National Book Award twice 'And then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped' - Harriet Tubman Jesmyn Ward's acclaimed memoir shines…

Book cover of In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss

Melanie Bishop Why did I love this book?

When Bloom’s husband Brian is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 65, he knows immediately that he wants to die while he still knows who he is. In Love is the story of how his wife helps him to do that, a process that involves months of research, appointments, applications, hurdles, until they are finally accepted to Dignitas in Switzerland. (“Right to Die” states in the U.S. were not an option, because there’s a requirement that a doctor has given you less than six months to live; with Alzheimer’s someone can live another five, ten, fifteen years.) Readers empathize with Bloom as she goes about the excruciating business of helping her beloved find a way out. The beautiful, heartbreaking memoir is about loyalty and devotion, and is also a sort of “how-to” for assisted suicide.

By Amy Bloom,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

New York Times Bestseller

A poignant love letter to Bloom's husband and a passionate outpouring of grief, In Love reaffirms the power and value of human relationships.

In January 2020, Amy Bloom travelled with her husband Brian to Switzerland, where he was helped by Dignitas to end his life while Amy sat with him and held his hand. Brian was terminally ill and for the last year of his life Amy had struggled to find a way to support his wish to take control of his death, to not submerge 'into the darkness of an expiring existence'.

Written with piercing…

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A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

By Janet Hulstrand,

Book cover of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

Janet Hulstrand Author Of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Reader Editor Francophile Minnesotan Once and forever Brooklynite

Janet's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This memoir chronicles the lives of three generations of women with a passion for reading, writing, and travel. The story begins in 1992 in an unfinished attic in Brooklyn as the author reads a notebook written by her grandmother nearly 100 years earlier. This sets her on a 30-year search to find her grandmother’s journals and uncover the hidden interior lives of her mother and grandmother.

Her adventures take her to a variety of locations, from a small town in Iowa to New York, Washington, London, and Paris—and finally to a little village in France, where she is finally able to write the book that will tell her own story, intertwined with the stories of her mother and grandmother.

A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

By Janet Hulstrand,

What is this book about?

This story, about three generations of women with a passion for reading, writing, and travel, begins in 1992, in an unfinished attic in Brooklyn, as a young writer reads journals written by her grandmother as a schoolgirl nearly 100 years earlier. This sets her on a 30-year quest to uncover the hidden lives and unfulfilled dreams of her mother and grandmother. In this coming-of-middle-age memoir, the author comes to realize that the passion for travel and for literature that has fueled her life's journey is a gift that was passed down to her by the very role models she was…

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Interested in African-American men, suicide, and loss?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about African-American men, suicide, and loss.

African-American Men Explore 30 books about African-American men
Suicide Explore 169 books about suicide
Loss Explore 104 books about loss