The best books for when you’re grieving and need more than platitudes

Who am I?

When I sold the manuscript that became The Way Back from Broken, my editor asked why I wrote it. I said, “I wrote a book about the two things I’m an expert in: grief and canoeing.” It took me ten years to find my own way back from being broken after the death of my daughter. Along that difficult and heartbreaking trail, I came to loathe people who said things like “Time heals all wounds” or “It was meant to be.” I craved those brave few who spoke and wrote with deep authenticity about how grief and loss force us to reconsider everything we’ve ever known about the world. 


I wrote...

The Way Back from Broken

By Amber J. Keyser,

Book cover of The Way Back from Broken

What is my book about?

Rakmen’s baby sister died in his arms, his parents are on the verge of divorce, and he’s flunking out of high school. The only place he fits is at Promise House, otherwise known as support group central. Not that he wants to be there. Talking doesn’t bring back the dead. When he’s shipped off to the Canadian wilderness with ten-year-old Jacey, another member of the support group, and her mom, his summer goes from bad to worse. He can’t imagine how eight weeks of canoeing and camping could be anything but awful. Yet the vast and unforgiving backcountry just might give Rakmen a chance to find the way back from broken... if he’s brave enough to grab it. 

The books I picked & why

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The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness

By Gary Ferguson,

Book cover of The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness

Why this book?

This memoir spoke to my heart. When Gary Ferguson’s wife dies in a canoeing accident in northern Ontario, he turns to the wilderness they both loved for comfort. As he journeys to the remote places where he and his wife had shared many adventures, he leans into the natural world to learn from its cycles how to move through the landscape of loss. There are many paths through grief, but like Ferguson, I turned to the wilderness to find my way again.


Getting Near to Baby

By Audrey Couloumbis,

Book cover of Getting Near to Baby

Why this book?

This award-winning, middle grade novel begins with Willa Jo and her little sister refusing to come down off their Aunt Patty’s roof. Drawn to get as close to the sky as possible, they stay up, wrestling with the recent death of their sibling. I read this book shortly after my baby died, and it gets everything right about the confusion, the magical thinking, the incomprehensible behavior of those who don’t know grief, and especially, the inability to understand a world that has, in an instant, been so dramatically altered. 


Song for Sarah: A Mother's Journey Through Grief and Beyond

By Paula D'Arcy,

Book cover of Song for Sarah: A Mother's Journey Through Grief and Beyond

Why this book?

After my daughter died, I wrote her hundreds and hundreds of letters. Sometimes it felt like she was the only one who could understand me. Other times, as I struggled to put one foot in front of the other, living up to what my dead daughter might have wanted for me was what kept me going. I was still deep in my grief when I first read Song for Sarah, a memoir composed of D’Arcy’s letters to her own lost child. A dear friend asked me how I could possibly read about another mother’s grief when I was so lost in my own. The answer, simply, was that D’Arcy made me feel seen. 


Orbiting Jupiter

By Gary D. Schmidt,

Book cover of Orbiting Jupiter

Why this book?

This young adult novel is a love song from a teenage father to the child he’s never met. He yearns toward her. He wrestles with the consequences of his past decisions. He wants a future that he can never have. I can’t tell you how much I saw myself, a middle-aged mom, in delinquent protagonist Jack. This book is real and visceral and doesn’t pull any punches, but the most important thing it does is remind us that the twin of grief is love. 


The Year of Magical Thinking

By Joan Didion,

Book cover of The Year of Magical Thinking

Why this book?

In the space of a few weeks, Didion suffered the near-fatal, catastrophic illness of her only child and the sudden death of her husband of forty years. In this memoir, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005, Didion reveals the mind-shattering effects of sudden grief. She never shies away from the ugly truths of loss. Instead, she writes her way into and through her pain. This is exactly what I did, and knowing that Didion had done it too, made all the difference.


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