All That You Leave Behind
Erin Lee Carr
When New York Times journalist David Carr died suddenly in 2015, he left behind three daughters, one of them 27-year-old documentary filmmaker Erin Lee Carr. But his voice wasn’t entirely lost to Erin; she had nearly 2,000 saved correspondences between them, which she weaves throughout the book as she considers what her father gave her—and the world—and how she’ll go on after his death.
Grace After Henry
Grace After Henry is about life-shattering loss, yes, but it’s also about the moments of surprise that come after. When Henry is killed in a biking accident, Grace has no choice but to keep going. She moves into their dream house in Dublin, goes back to work, binge-watches TV. And then Henry’s twin brother appears on her doorstep, looking back at her with Henry’s face. Laced with bittersweet humor, it’s a charming mix of grief and love.
Where Reasons End
Yiyun Li’s masterful novel of magical thinking—inspired by her own devastating loss—gives a grieving mother the opportunity to talk to her son in the first months after his death from suicide. Their conversations take place in an ethereal, in-between space, at turns poignant and good-naturedly sarcastic, in the way of mothers and teenagers. It’s a heart-wrenching yet cathartic story of a mother’s final moments with her son.
Laura Lynne Jackson
Renowned psychic medium Laura Lynne Jackson shares her knowledge about communicating with loved ones on the other side, particularly through the recognition of signs. These messages from our loved ones, Jackson says, help us find meaning and peace in our everyday lives, if only we’re open to receiving them. To hear more from Jackson about her work, listen in to the Read It Forward podcast.
The Way Through the Woods
Litt Woon Long
When Long Litt Woon lost her partner of 32 years, she found an unusual coping strategy: foraging for mushrooms. In the forests of Norway—where she met Eiolf as a foreign exchange student and promptly fell in love—Woon explores her new landscapes, both literally and figuratively. Tender and mesmerizing, The Way Through the Woods is a wholly unique meditation on mourning and the circuity of life.
Leaving the Witness
Over the course of Leaving the Witness, Amber Scorah endures several losses—of her religion, her faith-based community, and as a mother. But her memoir is also an incredible coming-of-age story for a woman in her 30s: having grown up a Jehovah’s Witness, Scorah travels to China to spread the church’s word, only to discover an entirely new way of life. Urgent and multilayered, Scorah’s story is unforgettable.
The Book of Dreams
From the author of The Little Paris Bookshop comes a novel that asks big questions about life, death, and unfinished business. Much of the book takes place in a hospital room, where absent father Henri Skinner lies comatose, as does a young girl who’s the sole survivor of an accident that killed her family. Meanwhile, Henri’s son and the woman who loves Henri wait for answers—and communicate, as best they can, among one another.
Lost and Wanted
On a Wednesday like any other, MIT professor Helen Clapp is surprised to get a call from her best friend and former college roommate, Charlie Boyce, due to the incontestable fact that Charlie has died, and far too soon. Bestselling author Nell Freudenberger weaves scientific inquiry with emotional heft in this moving story of the logic-defying power of friendship.
Author and journalist Pico Iyer contemplates the seasons of life and inevitably of death, particularly situated in the cultural context of Japan, where he lives part-time with his wife, Hiroko, and where his father-in-law has recently died. Meandering and philosophical, Autumn Light reckons with both the plodding movements of everyday life and the larger existential moments that accrue, as well as the “late fires” of a long marriage.
Everything in Its Place
The final volume from renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks can’t be missed. An eclectic collection of previously unpublished essays that jumps from medical cases to his passion for the natural world, Everything in Its Place shines with the extraordinary mind and voice of Sacks, who continued to indulge his curiosities even toward the end of his life. “I have rediscovered the joys of gefilte fish,” he wrote. “Gefilte fish will usher me out of this life, as it ushered me into it, 82 years ago.”
Orange World and Other Stories
Karen Russell’s latest story collection revolves around ways in which the world can damage people—and, in many cases, the impossibility of protecting our loved ones from that pain. In one story, a mother makes a deal with the devil to spare her daughter; in another, a boy desperately tries to protect a 2,000-year-old girl he pulls from a bog. Vivid and surprising, Russell’s stories chart a tangled emotional landscape.
In 1989 Sylvie is mourning her lover, Julien, when she discovers a letter that sets her off on a remarkable journey. She’s searching for Julien’s long-lost niece, who might have survived the Holocaust—Julien never managed to find her, despite years of trying—and while Sylvie continues his work, Julien’s ghost stays nearby. Chaudry’s debut is a stunning tale of enduring love.
Good Luck with That
Marley, Georgia, and Emerson bonded as teens at a weight-loss camp. Years later, Marley and Georgia are grieving the third member of their devoted trio, who left them with one final mission: to conquer their fears. While that directive looks different for each of them, it eventually becomes clear that what Emerson was truly asking of her friends was to love themselves as much as she loved them.
The White Book
In this lyrical narrative inspired by personal loss, Han Kang’s nameless narrator explores the streets of Warsaw while sifting through memories and observations colored in white. She’s contemplating the death of her older sister, who lived for only hours, all of them in their mother’s arms. Luminous and profound, it’s a beautiful read to sit with quietly.
The Art of Leaving
Ayelet Tsabari’s father died when she was 9 years old, and what follows in the Art of Leaving is a life of trying to run away from that grief, whether by leaving her native Israel to roam the world or drowning her sorrows in alcohol and attempts at love. It’s also a remarkable story of self-discovery, as Tsabari comes to understand herself and her Jewish Yemeni heritage through the generations of women who preceded her.
The Rules of Inheritance
Claire Bidwell Smith
“Grief whispers in my ear that no one understands me,” writes Claire Bidwell Smith in her astonishing memoir. The sentiment encapsulates much of her story in The Rules of Inheritance: an only child of older parents, Smith was only 14 when both her mother and father received cancer diagnoses, and by 25, she was alone in the world. Smith rages against her grief, is unmoored by it, and yet travels through it to a place of healing.
The Long Goodbye
Unsatisfied with a culture that tends to look away from grief, Meghan O’Rourke—after losing her mother to cancer—began to take note of her daily experience of mourning in all its ebbs and flows. The Long Goodbye is a product of that narrative, of separating from her husband and grieving alongside her family, combined with research about bereavement and memorializing those we’ve lost.
The unnamed narrator of Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award-winner isn’t mourning alone. She has the company of her departed mentor’s Great Dane, distressed over the sudden disappearance of his owner. His care becomes a channel for the narrator’s grief, who begins to spend every waking (and sleeping) moment with him in this pitch-perfect novel of companionship set in the ever-changing literary world.
What We Lose
As Thandi slowly and painfully loses her mother to cancer, she reflects on her own coming-of-age as a Black woman in America compared to her mother’s experiences growing up in Johannesburg. After her mother’s death, Thandi flails for meaning and love, attempting to reshape her existence without the woman who made her. Written in startling and intimate vignettes, Clemmons’s debut is a must-read.
The Year of Magical Thinking
Hailed as an essential book on grief and grieving since its publication in 2005, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles the sudden loss of her husband of 40 years, which coincides with the life-threatening illness of their only child, Quintana. An intimate portrait of a loving partnership and family, Didion brings her iconic prose to one of life’s most universal—and life-altering—experiences.
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” So wrote Joan Didion in the opening of her iconic memoir of grief and grieving, The Year of Magical Thinking, a title that’s often recommended to readers during periods of mourning in their lives—because let’s face it, those moments are inescapable. But while Didion’s modern classic is one of my favorites (and was even recommended reading when I trained to be a hospice volunteer), there are countless other books that deal with the universal yet intimate experience of grieving. These titles are an excellent starting point.
Featured Image: @gennacontento/Twenty20