The best books on loss that do more than make us cry: they inspire us, teach us, help us uncover our own quiet strengths

The Books I Picked & Why

The Right Stuff

By Tom Wolfe

Book cover of The Right Stuff

Why this book?

It seems incomprehensible that I didn’t read this book until my test pilot husband died. He’d applied to NASA, just before the plane crash.

This book is popular in the aviation community because Tom Wolfe nailed it—the pilot lingo, the tall tales from the cockpit, the egos, the spot-on descriptions, and mostly, the brilliance and love of adventure. I’ve spent most of my life around pilots (I’m a licensed private pilot) and Wolfe gets it. He is an extremely talented writer who helped bring Chuck Yeager’s ultra-cool bravery into the mainstream. Wolfe traces the successes and horrific failures of the early NASA program, weaving characters together in a way that is more action fiction than true life. This book will change the way you look at airplanes and the people who fly them. 

My late husband was buried with his tattered copy of The Right Stuff.


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Autobiography of a Face

By Lucy Grealy

Book cover of Autobiography of a Face

Why this book?

Perhaps it takes a gifted poet to write about loneliness and pain in a way that is free of self-pity. Lucy Grealy is that poet, and this is the book I recommend in my grief self-help workbook (published in 2014).

Ms. Grealy, diagnosed with cancer at only 9, lost a third of her jaw and eventually underwent 30 torturous surgeries. She endured not only ridicule from classmates, but her own feelings of ugliness and rejection. This memoir is full of wit, insight, and beautifully crafted sentences that spare the reader from much of the frightening details. If ever there was a book that made you dig deeper for your own buried strength, this is it.

Lucy said before her death that she didn’t want to be anyone’s inspiration or role model; she wanted to be recognized as a serious writer. She did both.

I. Love. This. Book.


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Circe

By Madeline Miller

Book cover of Circe

Why this book?

Historical fiction—set in ancient Greece and Rome—is my favorite genre. I usually avoid Greek mythology because I find the Greek Gods to be rather one-dimensional and flat. Until now.

Enter classics expert Madeline Miller. Her book is a triumph. Do you remember the Greek goddess Circe? Odysseus landed on her island and she turned his men into pigs. Ah, you’re thinking, that Circe. Ms. Miller’s Circe is layered, daring and introspective, complicated; a misfit that rises above her tragic misfortunes. Can a fictional character teach us about our own grief and illuminate what it means to love and lose? In the hands of a gifted writer like Ms. Miller, the answer is an emphatic yes.

You will not be able to put this book down.


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Code Talker

By Chester Nez, Judith Schiess Avila

Book cover of Code Talker

Why this book?

Can there be anything more poignant than a story about a hero who doesn’t think he’s a hero? About a man who endured a boarding school full of abuse, lived through the horrors and injuries of WWII, returned to hate and racism, lost family, and yet confronted it all with resilience and forgiveness?

This memoir is from Chester Nez—one of the original Navajo code talkers. It contains wonderful photos and the actual Navajo code. This is an important piece of history as well as a genuinely insightful read and peek into Navajo culture.

The last line of the book, written when Mr. Nez was 86, reads “It’s been a good life—so far.” As an outsider I couldn’t disagree more. His life was tragic and profoundly difficult, but he endured with grace and strength. This simple last line says much about the heroes we should all admire. It has been a privilege to be allowed a glimpse into Mr. Nez’s remarkable life.


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The Nightingale

By Kristin Hannah

Book cover of The Nightingale

Why this book?

This is a sweeping tale about love and loss, and about bravery and survival. It’s a book about women and the critical roles they play; about their suffering and their sacrifice.

The backdrop is WWII in occupied France. The main characters are two sisters, and the point-of-view shifts between them and a third unidentified character. The descriptions are rich, the characters of the sisters are complicated and nuanced, the horrors of the Nazi occupation are haunting, and the prose is powerful. This book is the very definition of a page-turner.

This is a novel, that like so many others about WWII, will keep you up at night pondering the ultimate question: what would I have done? In the end, we will be better people for questioning our own courage.


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