The best books on grief

39 authors have picked their favorite books about grief and why they recommend each book.

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H Is for Hawk

By Helen MacDonald,

Book cover of H Is for Hawk

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.


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. 

Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders,

Book cover of Lincoln in the Bardo

This novel famously features a cast of 166 narrators… and not a single one of them has any idea what’s happened to them. Again, it’s a question of self-preservation; they don’t want to know what’s going on, because what’s going on is this: they’re dead. This is not a spoiler. The reader knows the situation from the beginning, and thus the tension in the book is not about our discovery of the truth, but about theirs. This is a powerful and surprisingly uplifting book about trust and acceptance. 


Who am I?

I love stories. No surprise, right? And the longer I’ve written, the more I realize just how many of my stories are about stories – either directly or indirectly. I’m fascinated by the way characters revise their own stories as they’re living them, or after they live them, usually in order to find a degree of peace that the truth simply doesn’t offer. I think the most interesting characters lie, deny, and revise not because they are conniving, not because they’re trying to get the upper hand on someone else, but rather in order to be able to live with themselves. 


I wrote...

The Fall of Lisa Bellow

By Susan Perabo,

Book cover of The Fall of Lisa Bellow

What is my book about?

After witnessing a classmate’s violent abduction, fourteen-year-old Meredith Oliver’s life changes overnight. Faced with a newfound popularity at school, and an already-struggling family attempting to help her through the trauma, Meredith retreats to a world of her own creation, revising the events of the kidnapping and joining the missing Lisa Bellow in a nightmarish fantasy. This is a family drama; the real mystery is not the crime itself, but the complex dynamics of what binds people together.

Attachment

By John Bowlby,

Book cover of Attachment

This book is the foundational book on attachment. John Bowlby is the father of attachment theory and this seminal work was his masterpiece which describes in terms anyone can understand, the importance of attachment to the long-term emotional and mental health of children.


Who am I?

Erica Komisar is a licensed clinical social worker, psychoanalyst, and parent guidance expert who has been in private practice in New York City for over 30 years. A graduate of Georgetown and Columbia Universities and The New York Freudian Society, Ms. Komisar is a psychological consultant bringing parenting and work/life workshops to clinics, schools, corporations, and childcare settings. She is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Daily News. She is a Contributing Editor to The Institute For Family Studies and appears regularly on Fox and Friends and Fox 5 News


I wrote...

Chicken Little the Sky Isn't Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety

By Erica Komisar,

Book cover of Chicken Little the Sky Isn't Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety

What is my book about?

This is a guide for parents who want to raise emotionally healthy and resilient adolescents in a time of great stress where anxiety and mental health disorders are epidemic.

In these times of great stress for our kids, resilience is not a given. The epidemic of mental health disorders in adolescents has made parenting even more challenging, but parents can still have an enormous impact on the health and well-being of their child. This book offers parents the tools they need to navigate this tumultuous time of change and create a continuous deep connection with their child. With covered topics such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, behavioral issues, and addiction, parents will learn how they can recognize mental health disorders as well as obtain compassionate and practical advice on how to address these issues if they occur

Everyday Madness

By Lisa Appignanesi,

Book cover of Everyday Madness: On Grief, Anger, Loss and Love

Lisa’s husband dies as he is being treated for cancer. She writes about the first year after in which grief, madness, confusion, isolation, and fury coincide with Britain’s beginning Brexit madness. Nothing can be made sense of and yet we need words to express what’s happening. And then words provide for consoling and managing.

Who am I?

Memoirs have crept up on me as favorites. I could list many more. Please let me! As a psychoanalyst, I listen to the pains and struggles of individuals trying to become more at ease with themselves. They engage with their demons and try to make sense of how to manage the way their personal history has created their worldview and how to expand it enough to enter a present. Memoirs are another way of addressing such struggles. They have an elegance and a universality that emerges out of their individual stories. We learn about the other and we learn about ourselves.


I wrote...

Bodies

By Susie Orbach,

Book cover of Bodies

What is my book about?

Susie looks at how we get the bodies we have. We think of them as predetermined and unfolding but in reality our bodies reflect the familial, cultural, geographic, raced, gendered, and classed positions we are born into and develop from.

Bodies looks at cultural differences – that the Kaypoo bite where we would kiss for instance; at the importance of touch; at the earliest body to body relationship between infant and carers; at the meaning of clothing, of body shape. The democratisation of beauty and the selling of the western and body as a way to enter modernity produce huge profits for the beauty, fashion, food, and diet industries which Bodies discusses. Bodies looks at all the themes through her clinical work with individuals as a psychoanalyst.

Milo

By Alan Silberberg,

Book cover of Milo: Sticky Notes & Brain Freeze

Because I love how this book combines crazy humour and deep feeling. Because I am friends with the author I know that this book comes from somewhere deeply personal in his life – Silberberg’s mom died when he was a kid. This book needs to be read by anyone coping with the death of a loved one. Like all great books for kids, it’s for adults too!


Who am I?

As far as I can remember, I have been obsessed with death! Maybe it’s because my mom, who died four years ago at the age of 86, was a Holocaust survivor. Anyway, what I’ve noticed is that all kids' stories deal with death. Think, for instance, of how Harry Potter is an orphan. Or how so many characters in fairy tales have a parent who is dead. I think dealing with death – talking about it openly --- helps us live our lives in a more meaningful way. For my own novel, Planet Grief, I did a ton of researcher and befriended an amazing grief counselor named Dawn Cruchet. You can look her up on the web and learn about her too. Dawn taught me that there is no one, correct way to grieve, that grief is a life-changing journey.


I wrote...

Planet Grief

By Monique Polak,

Book cover of Planet Grief

What is my book about?

Planet Grief takes place at a grief camp – a place for kids who are mourning the death of someone they loved. Compared to other kids, the kids at grief camp really are living on another planet. Always-sarcastic Abby would rather be playing soccer, and cagily-quiet Christopher thinks grief camp is a waste of time. But together with the other kids on Planet Grief, they’re about to learn a thing or two – not so much about death, but about life. The novel’s author, Monique Polak, is also a journalist. The novel is based on research about a real-life grief camp in Montreal.

Journey’s End

By Victoria Brewster, Julie Saeger Nierenberg,

Book cover of Journey’s End: Death, Dying, and the End of Life

This book is an anthology of over 50 perspectives on death and dying, grief, and bereavement shared by professionals who work in supporting the dying and bereaved and by those who have lived their own unique experiences of loss. It is a comprehensive cross-section of this topic and one which can be a valuable resource to anyone going through their own such experience or those who are preparing to support others in grief.

Who am I?

Since 2012, when I was fortunate to be a companion to my dying father, I have gained a deep appreciation for the topics of death, dying, grief and bereavement. Being with him during his final moments was a vitally transformative event in my life, and subsequent developments led me to become a writer and curator of content in this field. I am now an end-of-life educator and preparedness facilitator, whose role it is to assist others to prepare for their inevitable, eventual death. Being prepared, by making informed choices and documenting them, can be one of the greatest gifts we give to our loved ones. I coach my End-of-Life Matters clients to do just that.


I wrote...

Daddy, This Is It: Being-with My Dying Dad

By Julie Saeger Nierenberg,

Book cover of Daddy, This Is It: Being-with My Dying Dad

What is my book about?

My father lived an inspiring End of Life, a journey of courage, sorrow, wonder and assurances of Eternal Love. And before he passed, he encouraged me to share the story of his transition with you. With courage and amazing grace, he lovingly prepared our family for his passing. As our time together came to an end, I was grateful to be present.

Although death is an inevitable part of life, how we choose to be-with the dying and the bereaved is up to us. I encourage you to prepare and to embrace the possibility of a lovingly supported transition and, to that end, I include some resources that may help you. Being ready to be-with is a wonderful way to live.

The Smell of Rain on Dust

By Martín Prechtel,

Book cover of The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise

Because my art is impermanent, I write and think about that subject a lot. And IMHO, no one speaks as beautifully and powerfully to the subjects of impermanence, life, loss, and beauty better than Prechtel. Prechtel's book is a well of indigenous wisdom on the living relationship between grief and praise. He says, "When you’re grieving for the thing you got, it's called praise. When you're praising for the thing you lost, it's called grief.” If the Earth is speaking her wisdom, this author is delivering it faithfully and beautifully to us.


Who am I?

I came to discover the healing power of art, nature, and ritual while I was grieving the loss of my father a decade ago. I would go to the park and make impermanent and symmetrical art from found twigs, flowers, pine cones, berries, and leaves as a way to ground, heal my broken heart, and make sense of a chaotic time. Since then, I‘ve made over a thousand nature altars, written a book about it (Morning Altars), and have taught tens of thousands of people around the world to make meaning in their lives through a creative collaboration with the natural world. It still amazes me that something so simple and impermanent can bring such wonder and resilience.


I wrote...

Hello, Goodbye: 75 Rituals for Times of Loss, Celebration, and Change

By Day Schildkret,

Book cover of Hello, Goodbye: 75 Rituals for Times of Loss, Celebration, and Change

What is my book about?

Embrace the power of ritual with simple practices that slow us down to honor and mark the real moments in our lives—from the loss of a parent to the birth of a child, from grieving a pet to celebrating coming out of the closet.

Day Schildkret, artist and author behind the international Morning Altars movement, believes that what we need is ritual. Rituals are the rhythms and traditions that give us a sense of stability in the face of uncertainty by reminding us that there’s always something we can do, say or make that conjures awe, contentment, and gratitude. They give us a way to acknowledge through our actions that, as life changes, we too must change.

Dance Like a Leaf

By AJ Irving, Claudia Navarro (illustrator),

Book cover of Dance Like a Leaf

Lyrically written and vibrantly illustrated, this book shows the special relationship between grandmother and grandchild. Grandma loves autumn, scarves, tea, and dancing like a leaf with the leaves that fall from trees. As autumn progresses, Grandma becomes forgetful and doesn’t seem to enjoy the things she’s always loved. Eventually, Grandma spends her days in bed, and by December, Grandma’s bed is empty. Our narrator mourns, but when autumn returns, she wraps herself in scarves and dances like a leaf in memory of Grandma. 

Based on the author’s own grandmother and her precious memories of their time together, this gentle story offers many talking points around illness, memory loss, and death. The narrator’s decision to celebrate her grandmother’s memory by doing things they loved is beautiful and empowering.


Who am I?

As a teacher-librarian, I’m often asked for books on difficult topics, including death. When I was young, a close family member died and I struggled with grief. I didn’t know how to honor my loved one or how to begin healing from the loss. The books I’m sharing are books I wish I’d had as a child and books that I’m grateful to be able to hand to children and families when needed. If you’re an emotional person like I am, you may want tissues nearby when you read them. I hope they’re as helpful and therapeutic for you as they have been for me!


I wrote...

Bionic Beasts: Saving Animal Lives with Artificial Flippers, Legs, and Beaks

By Jolene Gutiérrez,

Book cover of Bionic Beasts: Saving Animal Lives with Artificial Flippers, Legs, and Beaks

What is my book about?

What happens when a young elephant steps on a buried land mine? Or when a predator injures a sea turtle’s flipper? Thanks to recent advances in technology, we have new ways to design and build prosthetic body parts to help these animals thrive.
Meet an elephant named Mosha, a sea turtle named Lola, a dog named Cassidy, a goose named Vitória, and a pig named Pirate. Each of these animals was struggling, but through a variety of techniques and technologies, humans created devices that enabled the animals to live and move more comfortably. Discover the stories of how veterinarians, doctors, and even students from around the world used 3D printing and other techniques to build bionic body parts for these amazing animals!

Luna's Red Hat

By Emmi Smid,

Book cover of Luna's Red Hat: An Illustrated Storybook to Help Children Cope with Loss and Suicide

Luna’s Red Hat does a fantastic job of explaining suicide to its readers in a way that is blameless and sensitive, delicate but not sugar-coated. It’s a hard topic to talk about, especially with children or people who haven’t ever felt suicidal themselves. You can tell in the way that Luna and her father talk to each other and about Luna’s mother that this was and is a very close and loving family, and that nobody is to blame for Luna’s mother taking her own life. This book has been a big inspiration for me. I hope I am able to write about mental health and other difficult topics with as much grace as Emmi does in this book.


Who am I?

I had depression when I was young, but I didn’t know what that meant or what to do about it. So much of mental health is invisible and nobody knew. I didn’t have the language to explain how I felt, or to ask for help, and I didn’t know how to find out. Any book that could have helped me jump those hurdles would have been incredibly valuable. Children relate to stories, characters, metaphors and pictures more than words. Giving children the tools to explore how they feel in ways they can relate to is really important. I wouldn’t want anyone else to feel as alone as I did. 


I wrote...

The Princess and the Fog: A Story for Children with Depression

By Anthony Lloyd Jones,

Book cover of The Princess and the Fog: A Story for Children with Depression

What is my book about?

The Princess and the Fog is a picture book to help sufferers of depression aged 5-7 cope with their difficult feelings. It uses fairy tale tropes, vibrant illustrations, a sense of humour, and metaphor to create a relatable, enjoyable story that describes the symptoms of childhood depression while also providing hope that things can get better with a little help and support. 

The Princess and the Fog is one of the first children’s books that I’m aware of that deals with childhood depression, rather than to help children understand depression in adults. As somebody who had depression as a child, I made it to help kids like me understand what they are going through and what to do about it.

Die Wise

By Stephen Jenkinson,

Book cover of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul

When I first started studying death and dying, I was shown a lot of educational books on “good deaths” and there was a lot of talk about the “death positive” movement. I trained in a program to become a death doula and Home Funeral Guide so I could serve the dying and dead, and I trained to become a Celebrant so I could help the family through the final disposition. My death education was all about me. It was this book that awakened me to the us, the community, the part where we incorporate and live life alongside death as a community and the okay-ness of not knowing and not controlling absolutely everything—all of the places where we are ruptured as a society. This is a primer for all studies on death and dying.


Who am I?

To care for the dying is not only strenuous physically, emotionally, and spiritually, but it is a challenge in self-care and a constant call to remain non-judgmental. As someone who struggled financially as a single mother for many years, I discovered that compassion and empathy were needed not only for my children but also myself—indeed self-love was at the core of all. Working with the elderly in residential care, in hospice, and with individuals and families I now teach community deathcare with an edge of social activism to help the vulnerable feel safe while living and while dying.


I wrote...

Death Nesting: Ancient & Modern Death Doula Techniques, Mindfulness Practices and Herbal Care

By Anne-Marie Keppel,

Book cover of Death Nesting: Ancient & Modern Death Doula Techniques, Mindfulness Practices and Herbal Care

What is my book about?

Death Nesting incorporates ancient and modern death doula techniques, mindfulness practices, and herbal support to physically, emotionally, and spiritually care for the dying. The focus is on "whole being" caregiving for home deaths but can be implemented into other settings such as acute care to create a more holistic experience. Basic physical care for bedridden individuals, anecdotal vignettes, and glimpses into the world of spirit emphasize the poignancy, yet lightheartedness, of the dying process.

The mindfulness practices, while profound, are also simple and can be done by anyone new to meditation. Throughout the book, references to nature inspire the understanding that death is part of life—a part which we all experience.

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