The best books that made me gasp as I wrote my book on grief

Dorothy P. Holinger Author Of The Anatomy of Grief: How the Brain, Heart, and Body Can Heal After Loss
By Dorothy P. Holinger

Who am I?

Grief is something I grew up with. I was a toddler when my infant sister died and it devasted my family. They weren’t able to grieve her death properly because the family code was not to talk about our losses. Now, as a psychologist, I treat patients who are bereaved. Many books have been written about grief, but few focus on what happens to the brain, the heart, and the body of the bereaved. I wrote a book about grief because of my research on the human brain as a faculty investigator at Harvard Medical School, my understanding of grief through my clinical work, my personal life, and my review of the grief literature. 

I wrote...

The Anatomy of Grief: How the Brain, Heart, and Body Can Heal After Loss

By Dorothy P. Holinger,

Book cover of The Anatomy of Grief: How the Brain, Heart, and Body Can Heal After Loss

What is my book about?

This original new book by psychologist Dorothy P. Holinger uses humanistic and physiological approaches to describe grief’s impact on the bereaved. Taking examples from literature, music, poetry, paleoarchaeology, personal experience, memoirs, and patient narratives, Holinger describes what happens in the brain, the heart, and the body of the bereaved.  
Readers will learn what grief is like after a loved one dies: how language and clarity of thought become elusive, why life feels empty, why grief surges and ebbs so persistently, and why the bereaved cry. Resting on a scientific foundation, this literary book shows the bereaved how to move through the grieving process and how understanding grief in deeper, more multidimensional ways can help quell this sorrow and allow life to be lived again with joy. 

The books I picked & why

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H Is for Hawk

By Helen MacDonald,

Book cover of H Is for Hawk

Why this book?

In glittering prose, this British author writes how she came apart after her father’s sudden heart attack, and how his death broke her. I was struck by the intensity and darkness of her grief, and how she coped with it. Captivated by falconry since childhood, Macdonald grieves by buying a young goshawk, naming her Mabel, and going through the painful training of Mabel. The bird changes, growing into an adult hawk that returns to Helen after flying free. And so did Macdonald change. She wrote that, as time passed, it worked its careful magic: her grief gave way to love, to loving memories of her father. This gave me the idea for my last chapter where I write that, with time, grief can alchemize into joy and happiness can return.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers

By Max Porter,

Book cover of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers

Why this book?

Difficult to categorize into a specific genre, Max Porter’s novel uses a tragi-comic approach to deal with how the grief of a husband and father of two sons is experienced using the metaphor of a crow. “Crow” is an anthropomorphic figure who represents grief in this short book. He talks to the husband, telling him that he will take him through the vestiges of grief until, as Crow finally states, “You don’t need me anymore.” The book ends with Crow bidding the bereaved husband/father goodbye. This book helped my understanding—along with several essays on the sad, dark, and comical aspects of grief.

You Will Not Have My Hate

By Antoine Leiris,

Book cover of You Will Not Have My Hate

Why this book?

A searing, short memoir translated from French that captures the life-shattering changes that begin for the author as he hears that his wife may be one of the victims of a terrorist attack at a concert she was attending in Paris. Leiris writes how he wants desperately to stay in the present—hoping that his wife is not one of the victimsbut the present swiftly changes to the past as he learns that, despite his hope that it was not so, his wife is one of the victims who was killed. Leiris turns to face life with his toddler son without his beloved wife. 

Cry, Heart, But Never Break

By Glenn Ringtved, Charlotte Pardi (illustrator), Robert Moulthrop (translator)

Book cover of Cry, Heart, But Never Break

Why this book?

A book for children and adults translated from Swedish. A poignant story of four children who try to trick death into not taking their ill grandmother. The children think that Death only takes people at night, and that by refilling his coffee, Death will leave in the morning. By the fourth attempt at a refill, Death puts his hand over the cup. The children go upstairs and see that their grandmother has died, and Death, standing by the window says to them, “Cry, heart, but never break.” 

The book inspired some of the material for chapter five that a heart can break metaphorically, and in rare instances, physically. “Broken Heart Syndrome” can happen when extreme distress is experienced by the bereaved after a loved one dies. Also called “Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy,” this is a medical condition that is rare and usually resolves within a matter of weeks without any long-term damage.

How Animals Grieve

By Barbara J. King,

Book cover of How Animals Grieve

Why this book?

This book describes observational evidence in non-human animals showing grief-related behavior after one of their own dies. There are captivating anecdotal stories. One: after Honey Girl, a sea turtle is killed on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, her mate climbs out of the water, up onto the beach to a huge photo memorial to Honey Girl. King describes how he parked himself in front of the photo, staring at it for hours. King asks, was this grief in a reptile? She describes how the behaviors of animals who lose a mate or companion are noticeably distressed. These behaviors and what looks like a complex range of emotions in non-human animals suggest that they also experience grief. Charles Darwin acknowledged that grief is among the emotions that have a universal expression and cuts across species.

King’s book helped with my research for chapter one, “The Evolutionary Origins of Grief.”

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in grief, Charles Darwin, and France?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Courage to Grieve: The Classic Guide to Creative Living, Recovery, and Growth Through Grief, The Sun Still Rises: Surviving and Thriving After Grief and Loss, and Awakening from Grief: Finding the Way Back to Joy if you like this list.