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.

The books I picked & why

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The Tender Land: A Family Love Story

By Kathleen Finneran,

Book cover of The Tender Land: A Family Love Story

Why 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. 

The Tender Land: A Family Love Story

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.


Wave

By Sonali Deraniyagala,

Book cover of Wave

Why 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. 

Wave

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…


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

By Joanne Cacciatore,

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

Why 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.

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

By Joanne Cacciatore,

Why should I read it?

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


Men We Reaped: A Memoir

By Jesmyn Ward,

Book cover of Men We Reaped: A Memoir

Why 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.

Men We Reaped: A Memoir

By Jesmyn Ward,

Why should I read it?

4 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…

In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss

By Amy Bloom,

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

Why 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.

In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss

By Amy Bloom,

Why should I read it?

1 author 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…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in African-American men, suicide, and Alzheimer's disease?

6,000+ 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 Alzheimer's disease.

African-American Men Explore 19 books about African-American men
Suicide Explore 91 books about suicide
Alzheimer's Disease Explore 45 books about Alzheimer's disease

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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