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Observing Grief: Six Books for People Experiencing Bereavement

Nothing can ever quite capture the experience of loss and bereavement. Grief is at once, utterly universal and deeply personal. Our relationships and circumstances profoundly impact our experiences of loss. As such, there is no one correct way to mourn, and unfortunately there is no one piece of advice, or single book that has all the answers. Still, the sense of disorientation and isolation that comes with grief means that it is often at this time that we need direction and guidance. We look to the advice of professionals and the wisdom of the experienced, and for this there are a wealth of books that seek to provide comfort.

We’ve compiled a list of books here that hope to provide a starting point for navigating the grieving process. This list of suggestions includes a variety of types of books; some are reference books that give practical advice and information, while others are memoirs of experiences with grief that simply reach out a hand to say, "you are not alone."

The Mourning Handbook

As mentioned before, there is no correct way to mourn, but in times of devastation it’s important to have places to turn to for advice and guidance. Helen Fitzgerald’s book The Mourning Handbook was carefully crafted to walk its readers through the many hardships that bereavement entails. The book carries the compassion, but also the practicality, of an author who has dedicated her life to caring for those who are grieving. It is split up into short and manageable parts, so that readers can find the parts more relevant to them. This is particularly helpful given Fitzgerald’s commitment to creating a truly comprehensive guide. 

She offers insight and advice for a huge range of circumstances, from long illnesses to sudden and tragic events. Her advice is helpful and clear, and avoids turning to saccharine platitudes. Fitzgerald suggests and advises, without putting pressure or guilt on the reader. Her work is carefully balanced, it gives clear advice without sounding overly clinical, and provides emotional insight and comfort without being cloying. For a self help book with a greater focus on the emotional turmoil of grief you might wish to read How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies.

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Progressing Through Grief: Guided Exercises to Understand Your Emotions and Recover from Loss

If you’re looking for something to engage with, rather than simply read, Progressing Through Grief is great interactive resource. In her book, Stephanie Jose accompanies her advice with writing prompts to help readers explore and analyse their own experiences. The spaces for writing are provided within the book and so allow you to create a combined self-help book and journal that is personal to you. This emphasis on the unique and personal aspect of grief is at the heart of Jose’s book. She reassures the reader that although painful, what they are going through is normal, and that all experiences of grief are different. There is no timetable for grief here, the book can be dipped into whenever appropriate, and allows you to pick out the pieces that relate most to what you’re going through at that moment.

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A Grief Observed

C.S. Lewis, along with his fame as a children’s author, was also a well-known Christian theologian. In 1940, Lewis published The Problem of Pain, which remains a touchstone in scholarly discussion on the place of pain and suffering in a Christian worldview. However, it wasn’t until the death of Lewis’ wife in 1960 that his writing moved from scholarly hypothesising to painfully personal. Following the death of his wife, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed, a journal describing his inconsolable grief. Here, Lewis’ writing is far from the measured logic that characterises his theological work. Instead he shows himself to be fumbling in the dark, overtaken by emotion and unable to sustain coherent trains of thought. It certainly a Christian work, but it is one that rages confusedly at God. His faith is as much a source of torment as it is comfort. Lewis captures the disorientation and conflicting emotions that often characterise grief. 

As Lewis notes:

"Aren’t all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device (if only he could find it) which will make pain not to be pain."

Lewis is eloquent, even in his disorientation, and renders the rawest emotions in simple yet compelling prose. He may not be able to make pain not be pain, but in reading A Grief Observed, there is a comfort in finding that it is not endured alone.

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The Long Goodbye

On Christmas Day, after a long battle with cancer, Meghan O’Rourke’s mother passed away. Filled with grief and rage, O’Rourke created this honest and at times ugly memoir of bereavement. Her writing is blunt and candid, she refuses to give any elegiac nobility to grief here. Even though O’Rourke recognises that her experience of grief was in some respects a straightforward encounter, she shows that grief rarely obeys expectations:

“I know that I am one of the lucky ones. I am an adult; my mother had a good life… Knowing that I was one of the lucky ones didn't make it much easier.”

Her grief is messy and unyielding, but that makes it all the more relatable. O’Rourke dives into the science and the theories around grief and mourning, but her book is at its best when she is simply lays out her own experiences. She highlights the social confusion in interacting with someone grieving. In a society that has lost many of its mourning rituals and traditions, not only does she not know what to do, no one else does either. O’Rourke’s book offers no sugarcoating but it does give an intimate portrayal a relationship and a grief that is both ugly and beautiful.

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A Monster Calls

Our recommendations so far have been nonfiction, dealing with real experiences of loss. However there are times when only fiction and fantasy can illustrate the truth of our inner turmoil.

A Monster Calls was originally conceived by author Siobhan Dowd during her terminal illness. She passed away before she could write it, and so the story was taken up by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay. It is a story about coming to terms with loss and grief, centred around a 13-year-old boy, Conor O’Malley, who is struggling to cope with his mother’s deteriorating health. At night he is visited by a monster who tells him stories, and challenges Conor come to terms with his grief. Through the fantasy elements and fairytale motifs, A Monster Calls delivers a very real depiction of the process of letting someone go. Written for a middle grade audience but with enough emotional sincerity for any audience, A Monster Calls perfectly illustrates the help which fiction can provide to help us navigate our own struggles and hardships. 

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The Essential Rumi, New Expanded Edition

Just as we can find comfort in fiction and fairy tales, poetry gives its readers a space to address emotions, and seek comfort.

This is certainly true of work of 13th-century Sunni Muslim poet Rumi. Rumi's work has stood the test of time, providing readers with a source of inspiration and solace. A spiritual master, Rumi practiced Sufi whirling that allowed him to create his ecstatic poetry with profound insights on love and life. However, his poetry also came from a place of grief. It was the death of his mentor and intimate friend Shams Tabrizi that led Rumi to write almost 70,000 verses of poetry. Rumi’s depth of feeling and understanding make his poetry a refuge in times of struggle and grief, while his simple and clear style make his work accessible even in moments of exhaustion and distraction.

Don’t run away from grief, o soul,

Look for the remedy inside the pain,

because the rose came from the thorn

and the ruby came from a stone.

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Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.