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Trust me on these.
I know, I know – I joke to my husband that over the past year, this blog morphed into “vaguely poetic reflections on life and death.” (I still scratch my head that anyone else wants to read along, but I’m so grateful you’re here!)
But THIS writing I’ve got for you today is 100% amazing. Knock-your-socks-off good.
I’ve read stacks of death and grief memoirs over the past year. (They helped save my life, to be honest.) Maybe you have a handful like this too, the books that keep getting pushed down the “to read” list, because who wants to ruin a weekend reading something sad, even if it’s supposed to be good?
Well, for once in my life I could read anything. So I read them all.
Now having come up for air – and a deep gulp of fiction to cleanse the palate – I can assure that each of these four books is a life-changing read, no matter where you find yourself these days.
I chose these 4 recommendations very specifically. While there are many books on death and grief that I’d recommend to people suffering in particular situations, these are the 4 that everyone should read.
Because they will show you something beautiful, bright, and true about humanity. Because they will linger with you long after you finish reading. Because they will change you in good ways.
Each is a book I want to press into the hands of people I love and say, “Read this. Please.”
So I give them to you.
Best book about one’s own death: When Breath Becomes Air
If you haven’t yet read this memoir by Paul Kalanithi, run and buy it. Don’t walk.
Just as he was finishing his training as a neurosurgeon at Stanford, Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. His memoir is an incredible work of art, beautifully written and deeply moving. What it means to switch from doctor to patient, to face the prospect of death at age 36, to leave behind a wife and child, and to make sense of life as a scholar and scientist about to leave it – every question he tackles resonates with the human condition.
(It’s tied with the last book on this list for Best Book I’ve Read In Years.)
Best book about the death of a parent: The Art of Losing: Poems on Grief and Healing
I love Kevin Young’s poetry. (His poem “Expecting” perfectly captures the moment of hearing baby’s heartbeat on an ultrasound for the first time.) So when I read that he had compiled a collection of poetry on death and grief following the death of his father, I knew it would be rock-solid.
I found so many new favorites within its pages. The poems are divided into 5 sections: Reckoning, Remembrance, Rituals, Recovery, and Redemption. So the book is perfect for dipping into when you find yourself in different seasons of missing the ones you love. And he includes poems on the loss of parents, spouses, children, siblings, friends, even strangers.
(p.s. the Kindle version is only $1.99! That’s insane.)
Best book about the death of a child: Lament for a Son
Believe me when I say that I did an exhaustive survey of current Christian literature on losing a child. (Also, believe me when I tell you there are a lot of terrible books on the subject.)
This slim volume is a rare gem.
When his 25 year-old son died in a mountain climbing accident, Nicholas Wolterstorff tried to make sense of his loss and grief as a theologian and philosopher. His reflections on death and faith transformed the meaning of the Beatitudes and opened my eyes to see the meaning of the wounds in the risen Christ.
It’s no exaggeration to say this was the one book that gave me true hope and genuine comfort. I’ve read it twice. (Ok, I’ve read all the books on this list twice.)
But Lament for a Son is 90% underlined and exclamation-pointed. It’s that good.
Best book about the death of a spouse: The Light of the World
This book. Where to begin with my love?
I confessed on Instagram that even in all my memoir reading on grief and death, I shied away from books about losing a spouse. After all we’d been through, I could not bear imagining my husband’s death. (Also I hated Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, so she soured me to the subject. Sorry, Joan fans!)
Thank God I got over my hang-up and read this memoir. Scratch that: I poured through it without breathing. I actually sighed when it ended because it was That Good.
Elizabeth Alexander is a poet whose husband died suddenly, leaving her with two teenage sons. Her writing on his death, their marriage, and the life of love and beauty they created together – it’s simply breath-taking.
What I thought would be a book that might raise fear and anxiety for me turned out to be an elegy of light and joy. I treasured every page. I am convinced that I love my husband more for having read it. I don’t know how that is possible, but it’s true.
Turns out the book I thought was about death and grief is actually the best book I’ve ever read on love and marriage.
If you read no other book on this list, you must read this one.
Now it’s your turn! What would you add to this list? (Or what would you take away – feel free to disagree!)