Books on Death and Loss: My List

I am a compulsive reader. Ed and I re-read the Aubrey-Maturin series together during the nine weeks between his diagnosis and his death. For the next nine weeks, though, I don’t think I read a single book, for probably the first time since before I could read at all. I’d pick one up, put it down…

When I finally became able to read again, I alternated between re-reading familiar detective stories, and seeking out books about death, dying, and loss. I needed to see what others had experienced and what kind of sense they made of it. I wanted to be accompanied by people who had been down this path. I wanted to fit our experiences into a wider picture–whether it was as specific as the modern American medicalization of cancer, or as broad as how humans grieve. As I read I sometimes nodded, sometimes shook my head and argued, sometimes put the book down to cry. When I finished I would go looking haphazardly for the next book.

In case someone else needs such a list, here are the ones I’ve read in the past 10 months or so. (I’ve left out a couple of would-be inspirational volumes in which I could not discern practical information or a gut-level response to death.)

  • Kitchen Table Wisdom (Remen)
  • When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Kushner)–for some reason I’d assumed this would be sappy or simplistic. It’s not. The author is a rabbi whose son was born with a progressive, fatal condition.
  • Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows (Rehl)–realistic and practical.
  • Healing after Loss: Daily Meditations for Working through Grief (Hickman)–the author’s teenage daughter died in a summer vacation accident.
  • For Widows Only! (Estlund)–the author’s husband died beside her unexpectedly one night, and she wrote this book to help other widows navigate their path.
  • This is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t (Burroughs)–the author has been abandoned, abused, and addicted, and has watched those closest to him die of AIDS.
  • Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Bridges)–interesting theoretical perspective.
  • The Way of Transition (Bridges)–what he wrote after his theory met the fact of his wife’s death.
  • A Grief Observed (Lewis)–written by C. S. Lewis after his wife died.
  • Being Mortal (Gawande)–a discussion of how American medicine handles old age and death.
  • The Angel in My Pocket (Forbes)–about the author’s struggle to handle the sudden death of her young daughter.
  • The Year of Magical Thinking (Didion)–a memoir of the year after Joan Didion’s husband of many decades fell over dead at dinnertime one night.
  • How We Die (Nuland)–Dr. Nuland’s perspective is both personal, based on deaths within his own family from his childhood onwards, and professional: writing a couple of decades before Gawande, he tackles the same issues of the medicalization of death and dying.
  • Complications (Gawande)–not directly about death, but about decision making and the medical field.
  • H is for Hawk (MacDonald)–an account of the author’s reaction to her father’s abrupt death (an accomplished falconer, she got a goshawk). T. H. White is involved.

Of course, On Death and Dying belongs here. For some reason I haven’t finished it yet.

And one more thing: poetry. Written on the Sky, translated by Rexroth, a tiny volume you can carry in a pocket or purse, given to me by a good friend. Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times, edited by Garrison Keillor. Individual poems sent to me by hand, by friends and sisters: “A Brief for the Defense” by Jack Gilbert. “A Prayer in Springtime” by Robert Frost. Of course “Funeral Blues” by Auden.

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