The best books about terminal illness

17 authors have picked their favorite books about terminal illnesses and why they recommend each book.

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The Schopenhauer Cure

By Irvin D. Yalom,

Book cover of The Schopenhauer Cure

Dr. Irvin Yalom is a writer and clinical practitioner who is beloved by many in the field of mental health and therapy. I, like many, admire the way in which he tackles the most difficult human dilemmas through intimate stories highlighting the universality of many of these topics. It was difficult for me to pick which of Dr. Yalom’s books to recommend, as I have thoroughly enjoyed each one I’ve read. However, The Schopenhauer Cure is particularly about confronting mortality—the realization of the ephemerality of life and the limitations and acceptance of what we can achieve. Through Dr. Yalom’s adroit depictions of Philip Slate and Julius Hertzfeld, we see the blurred edges of philosophy and psychology, where some of our most basic questions may best be addressed by the melding of the two.

The Schopenhauer Cure

By Irvin D. Yalom,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Schopenhauer Cure as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the internationally bestselling author of Love's Executioner and When Nietzsche Wept, comes a novel of group therapy with a cast of memorably wounded characters struggling to heal pain and change lives

Suddenly confronted with his own mortality after a routine checkup, eminent psychotherapist Julius Hertzfeld is forced to reexamine his life and work -- and seeks out Philip Slate, a sex addict whom he failed to help some twenty years earlier. Yet Philip claims to be cured -- miraculously transformed by the pessimistic teachings of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer -- and is, himself, a philosophical counselor in training.

Philip's…


Who am I?

I have always been interested in people—specifically exploring what makes us human from different angles and often different disciplines. Overtime, this has taken the shape of writing novels, studying biological anthropology, psychology, and medicine, and sometimes even just people watching. My novels have explored topics such as nonsuicidal self-injury, the pains of growing up, and growing up multicultural. I am currently pursuing a PhD in Psychology.


I wrote...

The Seventh Miss Hatfield

By Anna Caltabiano,

Book cover of The Seventh Miss Hatfield

What is my book about?

11-year-old Cynthia knows she shouldn't talk to strangers. So when her mysterious neighbor Miss Hatfield asked her in for a chat, Cynthia wasn't entirely sure why she said yes. It was a decision that was to change everything. Miss Hatfield is immortal. Thanks to a drop of water from the Fountain of Youth, Cynthia is as well. Cynthia is beginning to suddenly grow up and take on the aspects of her neighbor. She's becoming the next Miss Hatfield. Cynthia must travel back in time to turn-of-the-century New York and steal a painting, a picture that might provide a clue to the whereabouts of the source of immortality. The Seventh Miss Hatfield is a story of the sudden loss of one’s childhood and the painful creation of a new adult identity.

On Death & Dying

By Elisabeth Kübler-Ross,

Book cover of On Death & Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy & Their Own Families

This was published many years ago and profoundly affected how we understand the dying and introduced the five emotional stages of grief. This book helped me understand and support my patients. The five emotional stages occur in other losses in life, not just death. When my life suddenly changed, I mourned the loss of my old life and went through the five stages of grief. Recognizing didn’t prevent the pain, but Kubler-Ross helped me humbly accept my turmoil.

On Death & Dying

By Elisabeth Kübler-Ross,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked On Death & Dying as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The five stages of grief, first formulated in this hugely influential work forty years ago, are now part of our common understanding of bereavement. The five stages were first identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her work with dying patients at the University of Chicago and were considered phases that all or most people went through, when faced with the prospect of their own death. They are now often accepted as a response to any major life change.

However, in spite of these terms being in general use, the subject of death is still surrounded…


Who am I?

The five recommended nonfiction books on my list profoundly affected my life in my time of need. I struggled when a minor accident led to a brainstem stroke and being locked in at 45. How would I find happiness now? How can I go on? These five books gave me the strength to work hard, accept what couldn’t be improved, and be grateful for each day of good health. I hope the recommended books will help you prepare for the day your life will change...and it will.


I wrote...

Locked In Locked Out: Surviving a Brainstem Stroke

By Shawn Jennings,

Book cover of Locked In Locked Out: Surviving a Brainstem Stroke

What is my book about?

After Dr. Shawn Jennings, a busy family physician suffered a brainstem stroke on May 13, 1999, he woke from a coma locked inside his body, aware and alert but unable to communicate or move. Once he regained limited movement in his left arm, he began typing his story, using one hand and much patience. 

With unexpected humour and tender honesty, Shawn shares his experiences in his struggle for recovery and acceptance of his life after the stroke. He affirms that life is still worth it even without achieving a full recovery.

Extreme Measures

By Jessica Nutik Zitter,

Book cover of Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life

The author, Dr. Zitter, is described as an expert on the medical experience of death and dying. Her specialties of pulmonary/critical care and palliative care brought to life the spectrum between a comfortable, natural death versus a "keep alive at all costs" mentality. This book was thoughtful and presented many sides of difficult dying experiences. I found it incredibly valuable to understand typical trajectories that might occur at the end of life from illness, organ failure, frailty, or dementia. It helped me gain clarity on my own wishes, and I encourage others to read the book and then discuss it with loved ones. Rather than it being a depressing subject matter, it has the potential to be a gift if the reader can move into a place of communicating and documenting wishes for end-of-life.

Extreme Measures

By Jessica Nutik Zitter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Extreme Measures as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For readers of Being Mortal and Modern Death, an ICU and Palliative Care specialist offers a framework for a better way to exit life that will change our medical culture at the deepest level


In medical school, no one teaches you how to let a patient die.

Jessica Zitter became a doctor because she wanted to be a hero. She elected to specialize in critical care—to become an ICU physician—and imagined herself swooping in to rescue patients from the brink of death. But then during her first code she found herself cracking the ribs of a patient so old and…

Who am I?

I am an advocate for end-of-life planning. When my dad entered his eighties, and while still raising my own children, I found myself unprepared for my father’s steady health decline. Suddenly, I was thrust into the role of overseeing his care and making hard decisions. Our difficulties were exacerbated by a western medical system that fell short to prepare us for the end of his life. After my dad’s death, I began researching end-of-life issues to educate myself and plan for my own senior years. I have a goal to support others who face losing a parent and to facilitate healing for those who have already lost one. I also strive to inform and inspire the next generation to learn and plan early to guide themselves and their families to minimize avoidable problems and enhance quality elder years.



I wrote...

A Chance to Say Goodbye: Reflections on Losing a Parent

By Lisa J. Shultz,

Book cover of A Chance to Say Goodbye: Reflections on Losing a Parent

What is my book about?

After my father's death in 2015, I began researching and compiling information aimed at educating and supporting others who may not be equipped for the challenges and decisions that arise when those we love begin to lose their health and mental clarity. I published this book of reflections on losing my dad, age 89, in 2017. I embraced the challenging and often avoided topic of facing the end-of-life stage of a loved one. I recounted my dad's storied life, including its difficult ending. Wrought with what I felt was unnecessary suffering for all involved at the end, I strive to help others find a more peaceful final chapter of life. The book also inspires conversation and preparation to potentially ease difficult situations for ourselves and those we leave behind. An extensive resource list and self/group study questions are included at the end of the book.

Intimate Death

By Marie De Hennezel, Carol Brown Janeway (translator),

Book cover of Intimate Death: How the Dying Teach Us How to Live

Intimate Death stands out through its spare and poetic language, its astute observation of the experiences of illness and dying, and matters of human dignity. Marie de Hennezel is a French psychologist. With great compassion and sensitivity, she shares her conversations with patients. She tells of life's unfinished business and how she learned to attend to it. Her writing is beautiful and transformative. It will touch your heart and change how you will view death.

Another book I would like to mention is Henri Nouwen’s Our Greatest Gifts: A Meditation on Dying and Caring. Nouwen is a Catholic priest and spiritual writer. Like de Hennezel, he touches the reader through his poetic and direct style.

Intimate Death

By Marie De Hennezel, Carol Brown Janeway (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Intimate Death as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Marie de Hennezel is a psychologist who works as part of a team of doctors and nurses in a hospital for the terminally ill in Paris. The men and women who come there do not always know that they are dying. It is Marie de Hennezel's aim to bring them - and their loved ones - to this knowledge, and then to encourage them to live each day that remains as fully and serenely as possible. This work seeks to show how precious the final days of a person's life can be, and how deeply moving it is to share…

Who am I?

I have accompanied dying people for more than twenty-five years—as a counsellor, volunteer chaplain, and companion. I feel passionate about changing the perception of dying and death, the way we care for people during their most vulnerable moments, and how we support families through this painful time. Since my twenties I have been immersed in Buddhist practise which inspires and informs my life and work. Together with other clinicians and mindfulness practitioners, we created one of the first contemplative-based training in end-of-life care for caregivers called “Authentic Presence”. Daring to be present might be the hardest thing you may have done in your life, and, you may come to discover, one of the most intimate, beautiful, and rewarding.


I wrote...

Present Through the End: A Caring Companion's Guide for Accompanying the Dying

By Kirsten DeLeo,

Book cover of Present Through the End: A Caring Companion's Guide for Accompanying the Dying

What is my book about?

This award-winning small guide offers support for everyone accompanying someone at the end of life. Kirsten DeLeo shares down-to-earth advice to help you be there fully - from the moment you first learn that someone is dying through the time of death and beyond. She offers insight and encouragement when you are unsure what to do or say and shows you how to be present even though you may feel utterly helpless, and love when loss is just around the corner. You will find simple practices to help you handle your emotions, deal with difficult relationships, talk about what matters, practice self-care, and work through challenging situations with presence and kindness.

“A must-read.” Christina M. Puchalski, MD, George Washington University’s Institute for Spirituality and Health

Turtle Boy

By M. Evan Wolkenstein,

Book cover of Turtle Boy

This book is one of my favorite middle-grade novels. At first glance, it may not look like it’s about an environmentalist. Indeed, it is about many things. A boy with a medical condition that affects his chin and jaw. Bullying, grief, anxiety, drumming (!), bar mitzvah prep, coming out of one’s shell. And Will is not exactly modeling good conservation practices by taking turtles from the nearby marsh, caring for them in his bedroom, or gifting a Blanding’s turtle to a boy he visits in the hospital. But Will’s learning process about these turtles and their threatened habitat is a major part of this riveting novel. Will’s identification with turtles is deep, symbolic, incredibly moving. Treat yourself to the audio version, narrated in a lively way by this multi-talented author.

Turtle Boy

By M. Evan Wolkenstein,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Turtle Boy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a powerful story of hope and friendship, perfect for fans of Wonder and The Goldfish Boy. Exploring self-image, family and grief, this book will make you laugh and cry.

Meet Will Levine.
Here are three things Will loves: turtles, the nature reserve behind school, being left alone.
And one thing Will really hates: his nickname.

Kids at school call Will Turtle Boy because of his funny-looking chin. But when Will meets RJ, he learns not everyone is his enemy. RJ has a bucket list of adventures which extends way beyond his hospital room, and he needs help ticking…

Who am I?

I live in a town near a wildlife refuge. I frequently encounter wildlife, including turtles, in my neighborhood. Trouble at Turtle Pond was inspired by volunteer work my son and I did with a local conservation group, fostering endangered Blanding’s turtles. Although my previous books were mysteries set in other countries, I have become interested in the mysteries we can find in our own back yards and in other community spaces we share with nature. I love eco-fiction about kids who love animals, who are “nature detectives,” who have strong opinions, and who are working for the environment, recognizing that every small step makes a difference.


I wrote...

Trouble at Turtle Pond

By Diana Renn,

Book cover of Trouble at Turtle Pond

What is my book about?

Eleven-year-old Miles has moved to a neighborhood near a wildlife refuge, where nesting turtles are on the move. His neighbor, Pia, convinces him to join the Backyard Rangers, who are working to protect them. Miles and Pia discover clues to crimes against endangered Blanding’s turtles. Worse, a pair of foster turtle hatchlings in Pia’s care go missing at a town event. Suspecting poachers, the Backyard Rangers investigate suspects in town. But when Miles becomes a suspect himself, he has to convince his new friends he’s not who they think he is and stop the turtle crimes before more turtles – and people – get hurt.

Trouble at Turtle Pond is a friendship-centered eco-mystery about community science, activist kids, and the power of paying attention.

Gratitude

By Oliver Sacks,

Book cover of Gratitude

Oliver Sacks is a famous psychologist who started to become more and more spiritual with age with the ability to combine his scientific approach to his wisdom. When he found out that he only had a few months to live he decided to spend his last time focusing on the good side of his life and the gift he received instead of focusing on sadness and desperation.

This book is the result of that period and is a fantastic journey through the benefits of gratitude and of being grateful.

Gratitude

By Oliver Sacks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gratitude as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Oliver Sacks died in August 2015 at his home in Greenwich Village, surrounded by his close friends and family. He was 82. He spent his final days doing what he loved: playing the piano, swimming, enjoying smoked salmon - and writing . . .

As Dr Sacks looked back over his long, adventurous life his final thoughts were of gratitude. In a series of remarkable, beautifully written and uplifting meditations, in Gratitude Dr Sacks reflects on and gives thanks for a life well lived, and expresses his thoughts on growing old, facing terminal cancer and reaching the end.

I cannot…


Who am I?

My journey of being an author has been a magical ride. I wrote my first book at 47 when nobody gave me credit about becoming a real author and later I left my good job to fulfill this dream and changed my life completely with a bit of thoughtlessness behavior, I must admit now if I look back. But it has been worthwhile. I wrote books on gratitude, forgiveness and love but my most famous book is The Power and Magic of Gratitude that became a bestseller in Italy. Since then I have been known for spreading the powerful message of Gratitude with countless meeting, conferences and events.


I wrote...

The Power and Magic of Gratitude: Expand the vibration of your life and put wings to your journey

By Ivan Nossa,

Book cover of The Power and Magic of Gratitude: Expand the vibration of your life and put wings to your journey

What is my book about?

This book has been a bestseller in Italy where thousands of people have loved its simple but strong message and have learned to walk in life with this precious friend called gratitude. Ivan, once an entrepreneur, now dedicates his time to spread messages of gratitude, forgiveness, and love. He learned about gratitude when he was very little thanks to a genius idea his adoptive mother had. Back then he learned how to transform suffering into life gifts and see the magic in everyday life.

The author takes you through a fantastic journey, with a few obstacles but many gifts. Thanks to this book you will discover a miraculous higher energy vibration, the vibration of gratitude. If you let gratitude into your life you will soon witness how powerful it is. You will open your eyes to see the gifts in your daily life and your heart will open to receive them happily. Gratitude can transform your life forever, give it a chance.

When My Time Comes

By Diane Rehm,

Book cover of When My Time Comes: Conversations about Whether Those Who Are Dying Should Have the Right to Determine When Life Should End

Diane is the curious and savvy public radio journalist who educated even as she entertained so many Americans, presenting conversations on every aspect of life in arts, science, and politics. I came to know Diane when I appeared on her show and was transfixed by watching her expertly navigate advanced broadcast technology even as she sized up her guests, crafted questions from her own astute observations, and coaxed her guests to reveal things they perhaps did not intend. In this book, she shares her most personal side as she considers options at the end of a life well-lived. Her wisdom is gleaned from personal history plus thousands of interviews, and she generously shares it with us. 

When My Time Comes

By Diane Rehm,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked When My Time Comes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The renowned radio host and one of the most trusted voices in the nation candidly and compassionately addresses the hotly contested right-to-die movement, of which she is one of our most inspiring champions. The basis for the acclaimed PBS series.

Through interviews with terminally ill patients and their relatives, as well as physicians, ethicists, religious leaders, and representatives of both those who support and vigorously oppose this urgent movement, Rehm gives voice to a broad range of people personally linked to the realities of medical aid in dying. With characteristic evenhandedness, she provides the full context for this highly divisive…

Who am I?

I first started tending patients at age 15, as a candy striper at St. Joseph Hospital. That was a long time ago, and since then I’ve learned much at patients’ bedsides, in Congress, statehouses and courtrooms. Through sequential careers in nursing, medicine, law, and advocacy, I learned that end-of-life experiences have the most to teach us about being truly present to our lives, about learning to love well and growing in wisdom. Personal autonomy, individual empowerment, and guided planning are all key to moving past our fear of death. In the end, as Seneca observed, “The art of living well and dying well are one.”


I wrote...

Book cover of Finish Strong: Putting Your Priorities First at Life's End

What is my book about?

It’s hard to talk about death in America. But even though the topic has been taboo, life’s end is an eventual reality for us all. So why not shape it to your values? Written with candor and clarity by a nurse, physician assistant, and attorney who became a leading advocate for end-of-life options, this book will guide you through: finding a partner-doctor to honor your values and beliefs; identifying and documenting what matters most; having meaningful conversations with doctors and family about expectations and wishes; staying off the “overtreatment conveyor belt”; understanding “slow medicine”; navigating home hospice; using recommended free resources and tools to take charge.

Finish Strong is for those of us who want an end-of-life experience to match the life we’ve enjoyed.

The Calling

By Inger Ash Wolfe,

Book cover of The Calling

The Calling is certainly bloody but not in the vein of over-the-top whodunits. The killings aren’t sensationalized. An apparent mercy killer talks himself into dying people’s homes and then murders them to get their blood for a sacrifice that brings his brother back to life. Spooky and compelling. Although the killer is a messianic zealot, he’s believable, which is a tribute to the author’s talent (NB: Inger Ash Wolfe is the crime fiction pen-name of Michael Redhill.) The Calling is the first novel in a fine series featuring DI Hazel Micallef.

The Calling

By Inger Ash Wolfe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Calling as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There were thirteen crime-scene pictures. Dead faces set in grimaces and shouts. Faces howling, whistling, moaning, crying, hissing. Hazel pinned them to the wall and stood back. It was a silent opera of ghosts.

Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef has lived all her days in the small town of Port Dundas and is now making her way toward retirement with something less than grace. Hobbled by a bad back and a dependence on painkillers, and feeling blindsided by divorce after nearly four decades of marriage, sixty-one-year-old Hazel has only the constructive criticism of her old goat of a mother and her…

Who am I?

I write North Noir, detective fiction set in the Northeastern USA and Canada. I like mystery/detective stories told with descriptive flair, with clever twists and unforgettable protagonists. Why would you want to read my recommendations? I’ve read hundreds of mystery/detective novels, in all subgenres, from cozy to noir. I’ve been a book review editor, for all types of books. I don’t go for bent cops or over-the-top bloodbaths. If you like character-driven mystery/detective novels, try these five.


I wrote...

Bay of Blood

By A.M. Potter,

Book cover of Bay of Blood

What is my book about?

“Quintessential Canadian mystery” | “Vivid page-turner” ~ Kudos for Bay of Blood

World-renowned painter Thom Tyler is murdered in Georgian Bay, Canada. The consensus is that Tyler had no enemies. Why would anyone murder him? Detective Sergeant Eva Naslund goes to work with a homicide team from OPP Central. They find no useful blood, print, or DNA evidence. They turn to financial forensics and criminal psychology. Tyler’s paintings are worth millions, yet he’s deeply in debt to banks and his art agent. Just as the investigation opens a new lead, courtesy of Tyler’s friend, J.J. MacKenzie, MacKenzie is murdered. The team is back to ground zero—with two murders to solve.

Final Gifts

By Maggie Callanan, Patricia Kelley,

Book cover of Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying

Nurses who tend to the dying will tell you that end-of-life dreams and visions are part of the natural dying experience. The authors are hospice nurses who witnessed the over-and-over repeating patterns of a process that now has a name: Nearing Death Awareness. Our culture doesn’t like to talk about dying, and end-of-life behavior is an unknown. The authors show that NDA can be comforting: The lucid dad who says, “My mother’s here!” But NDA behavior can sometimes be alarming, too – I discovered this to be true when my own mom was dying – and the great thing about this book is that it’s a practical handbook for all of us who don’t know what to expect when death comes. Final Gifts illuminates, educates, and ultimately comforts. 

Final Gifts

By Maggie Callanan, Patricia Kelley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Final Gifts as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this moving and compassionate classic—now updated with new material from the authors—hospice nurses Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley share their intimate experiences with patients at the end of life, drawn from more than twenty years’ experience tending the terminally ill.

Through their stories we come to appreciate the near-miraculous ways in which the dying communicate their needs, reveal their feelings, and even choreograph their own final moments; we also discover the gifts—of wisdom, faith, and love—that the dying leave for the living to share.

Filled with practical advice on responding to the requests of the dying and helping them…

Who am I?

I’m an award-winning author of fiction that always explored existential questions but in a ruminating sort of way. After the loss of my only child, I turned to memoir and wrote Little Matches: A Memoir of Finding Light in the Dark, to tell the story of my search for satisfying answers to the big life questions. I spent months reading the philosophers and visiting people who claimed psi abilities. I sought out books on the paranormal written by critical thinkers, books by people who possessed real-world credentials, and/or had been tested and certified by groups I respected. They opened the door to a fascinating world of ideas and beliefs.


I wrote...

Little Matches: A Memoir of Finding Light in the Dark

By Maryanne O'Hara,

Book cover of Little Matches: A Memoir of Finding Light in the Dark

What is my book about?

After losing my only child, I looked for answers to the big life questions. Where is she? Is she? Is there more to life than this life? Does consciousness survive death? Does my existence serve any real purpose? Does anyone's? 

Little Matches is my recounting of my search and the surprising, affirming answers I discovered.

Inside the O'Briens

By Lisa Genova,

Book cover of Inside the O'Briens

I adore stories about medical ethics and weighted decisions, those which cause me to ponder what I would do if faced with a similar choice. 

Joe O’Brien, a veteran police officer, is devastated to receive a diagnosis of Huntington’s disease. With a fifty percent chance of inheriting the disease, each of his four adult children must decide whether to get tested. Will they decide to learn their fate and face the consequences or roll the dice and take their chances?

Inside the O'Briens

By Lisa Genova,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Inside the O'Briens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times bestseller ▪ A Library Journal Best Books of 2015 Pick ▪ A St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best Books of 2015 Pick ▪A GoodReads Top Ten Fiction Book of 2015 ▪ A People Magazine Great Read

From New York Times bestselling author and neuroscientist Lisa Genova comes a “heartbreaking…very human novel” (Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves) that does for Huntington’s disease what her debut novel Still Alice did for Alzheimer’s.

Joe O’Brien is a forty-three-year-old police officer from the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts. A devoted husband, proud father of four children in their…

Who am I?

I am a radiologist specializing in emergency room and breast imaging and a lifelong book nerd. Though I chose radiology as my medical specialty, I have always been fascinated by the complicated workings of the human mind. I majored in psychology in college and strongly considered careers in both psychiatry and neurology. Books exploring the fragility and fallibility of the human brain never fail to catch my attention. These stories explore the essence of what it means to be human and highlight the resilience of the human spirit.  


I wrote...

Better to Trust

By Heather Frimmer,

Book cover of Better to Trust

What is my book about?

When trust is violated, can it ever be recovered? Alison Jacobs needs brain surgery and places ultimate trust in her sister's husband, Grant Kaplan, a world-renowned neurosurgeon and expert in treating her condition. But Grant is hiding a dark secret which threatens the outcome: an addiction to prescription pills. As Alison struggles to rebuild her life, she’s also harboring her own secret, an extramarital affair with a woman. Her close call with mortality spurs her to take a closer look at her marriage, explore her newfound sexuality and figure out what she wants for her future. Secrets swirling around drug use and sexual identity must be dealt with in order for the family to learn to trust each other again.

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