Eight books to read when you're grieving (and for bereaved children)
Literature can help navigate the process of bereavement and make better sense of your loss, writes Suzanne Harrington
Grief is both as universal and individual as your fingerprint. We will all encounter grief and loss at some stage - or several stages - throughout our lives. It's as inevitable as tomorrow. Grief and loss involves literal and metaphorical death, graded from worst awful to least awful. The death of a child is deemed worse than the death of an old person; the death of parents expected, the death of children not so. Natural causes make fewer ripples than unnatural causes; sudden, violent loss leaves us reeling more than a slow build-up.
But does that decrease our sense of loss?
With miscarriage, parents are not afforded the same levels of cultural empathy as if their baby had been already in the public domain. We dismiss people who are devastated when their dog dies. We categorise our grief, we curate it.
Despite its everyday reality, the same as birth, we remain hamstrung by loss and grief, unable to speak about it openly, the taboo still surrounding death in our culture rendering us mute at a time when we most need connection. When we most need to express ourselves, and be heard.
Can books help? The short answer is yes, although once again, our responses are as individual as we are. There is no single go-to book for grief and loss, because what are you grieving, and what have you lost? When, and in what circumstances? Are you allowed to feel emotions beyond socially-sanctioned sadness, sorrow, regret? What if you are full of rage in your grief - is there a book for that? (Yes there is, see below).
And what if your grief and loss do not involve actual funerals, but you are still grieving? The end of a marriage or a love affair - does that count? Of course it does. Grief is a spectrum.
But no matter how booky you are, there's little point in trying to concentrate on reading about grief when you're in its initial stages. You'll just read the same sentence over and over, because grief is like concussion. Go for a walk instead, or a swim, or a yoga practice. It is inside you, and it cannot be rushed. It's exhausting, achey, wrecks your concentration, your sleep patterns and appetite - it's as much in your body as your head.
1 On Grief & Grieving Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Kübler-Ross was the identifier of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). "They are not stops on some linear timeline in grief," she reminds us. "Our grief is as individual as our lives."
Lucy Hone's Resilient Grieving was written after her 12-year-old daughter died in car crash. How do you come back from that? Hone combines positive psychology with bereavement research, to try and find new meaning in a life shattered by loss.
She uses the metaphor of a jigsaw, its pieces suddenly scattered; resilient grieving allows the creation of a new picture using the pieces which are left. Musician Nick Cave and wife and Susie epitomise resilient grieving, after the sudden death of their teenage son; they used their individual creativity in grieving, and made a conscious decision to carry on, rather than be subsumed forever.
2 Healthy Healing Michelle Steinke-Baumgard
Michelle looks at using exercise to process grief and loss. After the death of her husband in a plane crash, she found that books designed to help her with her grief were making her feel worse. Instead, she got physical with her grief, and began a blog, 'One Fit Widow'.
Her book offers a programme from gentle yoga to kick boxing, to release everything from sorrow to fury; she treats the whole body as a grieving entity, rather than just the mind.
3 You'll Get Over It: The Rage of Bereavement Virginia Ironside
Grief can manifest in anger as well as sadness, as Virginia Ironside writes in You'll Get Over It: The Rage of Bereavement. Expressing anger remains taboo, which can make our grieving process even more isolating.
Ironside rails against the sentimentality of bereavement (mawkish ideas of the dead person being "in the next room"). "After my father's death I wanted to write a book that said 'allis not well," she writes. "Bereavement is a beastly business. Death stinks." Indeed.
4 I'm Grieving As Fast As I Can Linda Feinberg
This book looks at losing your life partner while still young. "There are so many ironies when somebody dies," she writes. "The person you need most to help you through this experience is the person who died... You spend your whole adult life living for Fridays, but after someone dies, you live your whole life living for Mondays."
5 Tibetan Book of Living & Dying Sogyal Rinpoche
Once past the immediate aftermath of grief, when the sensations of loss are not quite so raw, and you have regained some semblance of a daily rhythm in your life, zooming out with something philosophical can be immensely comforting. The classic, essentially the Tibetan Book of the Dead rewritten for Western readers, presents huge unwieldy ideas like impermanence, compassion, the practicalities of dying, the process of death, and its aftermath.
It is written with great simplicity, as comforting as a warm blanket, but without sugar-coating, euphemism, or sentimentality: "Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are."
For those bereaved by suicide, A Savage God by Al Alvarez is a cultural history of suicide which can leave you feeling less isolated in what is surely the most isolating form of bereavement).
6 When Things Fall Apart Pema Chodron
When Things Fall Apart by another Buddhist thinker, Pema Chodron, offers "heart advice for difficult times", written with her trademark clarity: "Usually we think brave people have no fear. The truth is that they are intimate with fear... Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth."
7 A Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion
If self help or philosophy are not your thing, try literature. Joan Didion's A Year Of Magical Thinking is about the loss of her husband. Didion is haunted by questions concerning the medical details of her husband's death, the possibility that he sensed it in advance, and how she might have made his remaining time more meaningful. CS Lewis wrote A Grief Observed after his wife of four years died of cancer. Elizabeth Smart's 1945 classic By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept is not about physical death, but the loss of love.
8 And finally... for the children
They need to know about loss and grief too, which is why hamsters are good pets. The life cycle of a hamster is two years - hamsters provide an entry level concept of bereavement. As does Judith Kerr's Goodbye Mog, about the death of a very old beloved cat who is so tired she wants to sleep forever.
For losses bigger than small animals, Pat Thomas's I Miss You: A First Look At Death is excellent for small children. And for pre-teens, the inimitable Jacqueline Wilson offers Vicky Angel, about a girl whose best friend dies. It's not as grim as it sounds, honest.
* Self help
Grieving - A Beginner's Guide - Jerusha Hill McCormack
The Rules of Inheritance - Claire Bidwell-Smith
It's OK That You're Not OK - Megan Devine
Muddles Puddles & Sunshine - Winston's Wish
Health & Living