The best memoirs about maternal grief and universal love

Who am I?

I am a member of an unfortunate tribe, the tribe of grieving mothers who write. Upon learning that my newborn son was profoundly brain-damaged, I kept a diary. Writing those pages helped me make sense of his prognosis and figure out how to care for him before he died. Later, my diary helped me write my memoir Holding Silvan: A Brief Life which went on to be named a “Best Book” of the year by both Library Journal and the Boston Globe. Today, I write and work with other writers trying to craft their own stories of loss. Each experience of grief is unique. The five memoirs I’m recommending give voice to a variety of maternal losses — from stillbirth to murder. While each of these memoirs is powerful in its own way, the love in them is universal.

I wrote...

Holding Silvan: A Brief Life

By Monica Wesolowska,

Book cover of Holding Silvan: A Brief Life

What is my book about?

In the opening of Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, Monica Wesolowska gives birth to her first child, a healthy-seeming boy who is taken from her arms for “observation” when he won’t stop crying. Within days, Monica and her husband have been given the grimmest of prognoses for Silvan. They must make a choice about his life.

The story that follows is not of typical maternal heroism. There is no medical miracle here. Instead, we find the strangest of hopes, the hope for as good a death as possible. In clear and unflinching prose, this startling memoir bears witness not only to the joy and pain of a son’s brief life but it raises crucial end-of-life questions for us all.

The books I picked & why

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An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

By Elizabeth McCracken,

Book cover of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

Why this book?

From the start, we know this book will be about a stillborn baby. From the start, we also hear about a second living baby. Weaving multiple storylines together, Elizabeth McCracken structures her narrative so perfectly that I read it with bated breath. Mixing life and death, wisdom and humor, she moves from a seagull stealing a sandwich on a beach in Florida to a storybook castle in the cow-studded French countryside. Full of honest observations about the pain and joy of life, this is a wonderfully cathartic read.


By Sonali Deraniyagala,

Book cover of Wave

Why this book?

When a disastrous tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her mother, her father, her husband, and her two young sons. Written at the advice of a therapist, Wave could have been an unbearable book. Instead, Deraniyagala’s prose is breathtaking as she relates the horror of being sucked into the wave and the aftermath of finding herself alone. She does not claim she will ever recover from this loss, but with her words, she breathes life into her lost family, and I feel privileged to have known them.

The Disappearance

By Geneviève Jurgensen, Adriana Hunter (translator),

Book cover of The Disappearance

Why this book?

Upon receiving the news that her two young daughters had been killed by a drunk driver, Genevieve Jurgensen didn’t think she could go on, let alone ever write about her loss. Fortunately for us, she eventually found a way to tell this story. Through letters to a friend, she draws us in, circling the pain of that terrible day, musing about the mysterious ways in which loss can coexist with a happy, ongoing life. With its raw and intimate feel, the book is a profoundly moving testimony to the complicated process of healing.


By Isabel Allende,

Book cover of Paula: A Memoir

Why this book?

Written to her adult daughter who lies in a coma, Isabel Allende begins, “Listen Paula, I am going to tell you a story so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost.” With that, Allende goes on to tell the great “legend” of their family in Chile, including impetuous, magical women one of whom sprouts wings. Moving back and forth between luscious storytelling and the tension of the hospital, Allende keeps her daughter company while awaiting the outcome of her illness. In this skillful way, Allende finds a place for Paula in a legend larger than life.

Rest in Power

By Sybrina Fulton, Tracy Martin,

Book cover of Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin

Why this book?

Before their son died, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin never imagined speaking publicly or starting a movement. It was only after Trayvon, a seventeen-year-old Black boy walking home from the store, was shot and killed by a white man who claimed he felt threatened, that they realized they would have to fight for justice. No parent should know the loss of a child like this, but as the subtitle puts it, this is a “parents’ story of love, injustice, and the birth of a movement” and we have Fulton and Martin to thank for turning their grief into a call to action for us all.

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