Non-theist's guides to grief, please?
August 5, 2010 6:38 PM   Subscribe

Memoirs on grief, please? Looking for books, articles or blogs that are about the personal experience of surviving and processing the death of a loved one. Humanists and non-theists of various stripes welcome; inspirational tomes, not so much.

My beloved MIL died a few weeks ago. Now that the post-death logistics are tapering off, I need to start dealing with the fact that her death *really happened.*

I have read Calvin Trillin's "About Alice" and Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," and both books let me look at how someone else remembered a particular life and death without resorting to religious consolations (and yes, I have seen this question). Are there other memoirs in this vein--analytical examination of one's own processing of a death, together with a recollection of a good life--that have helped you through a bad moment?

For various reasons, writings advocating religious responses to death and grief would be unhelpful. I am much more interested in seeing how other people think about and feel their losses, and how they perceive their own responses outside of institutional frameworks or conventional mourning, as well as in how loss shapes the reconstruction of a life.

(I miss her. I've cried a good bit. I want to see how others, how good writers, have wrestled with the sadness and come to some co-existence with it. This is NOT MEANT to be a discussion of, or commentary on, the merits of a non-religious/religious response to death, just a simple, non-flame-inducing request for a specific kind of memoir. Please read my use of "non-theist" in the spirit in which it's intended, from a non-theologian looking for a useful, relevant read. Thanks, folks.)
posted by MonkeyToes to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield (Rolling Stone editor) is a really lovely and deeply personal memoir about his experience of becoming a widower at a very early age. It's told through a pop culture lens, with music as the predominate theme. It's really great.
posted by kimdog at 6:49 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might want to check out Megan O'Rourke's series at Slate.
posted by alphanerd at 6:51 PM on August 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: alphanerd: I'm so glad I did. Reading it now. This is exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for; thank you.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:10 PM on August 5, 2010

Best answer: Donald Hall: Without
Marie Howe: What the Living Do
posted by ryanshepard at 7:12 PM on August 5, 2010

Not sure if poetry fits the bill, but of these collections have a narrative, "working through" arc.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:14 PM on August 5, 2010

I really, really enjoyed An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. It's about a certain kind of greif but it was gripping and beautiful.
posted by Saminal at 7:21 PM on August 5, 2010

The Stuff of Life, The Best Day The Worst Day, The Mercy Papers. Exact Replica of a Figment is amazing, too.
posted by rdc at 7:49 PM on August 5, 2010

Matt Logelin lost his wife one day after their daughter was born. His blog is a beautiful and achingly honest account of how he survived in the first days, weeks, and months after her death while learning how to raise their daughter alone, as well as many beautiful photographs and anecdotes about his late wife. Their daughter is two and a half now, I think, and he's still blogging.
posted by anderjen at 8:07 PM on August 5, 2010

The Spohrs are Multiplying

Dealing with a very different situation than yours but good reading nonetheless. This blog has really changed how I think about grief and grieving--and other things too.
posted by Neofelis at 8:09 PM on August 5, 2010

P.S. I am so sorry for your loss.
posted by anderjen at 8:10 PM on August 5, 2010

This thread has some suggestions that might work for you-- I know it did for me.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by karminai at 8:32 PM on August 5, 2010

Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters is a collection of poetry mostly about his wife Sylvia Plath, before and after she died.
posted by wayland at 8:42 PM on August 5, 2010

I think Una Glennon's Ciara's Gift is helpful. I listed to this interview with the author and found it such a beautiful conversation. It resonated powerfully with me in its cliche-free honesty.
posted by honey-barbara at 10:10 PM on August 5, 2010

Douglas Hofstadter's I Am A Strange Loop is partially about the loss of his wife. Even if you don't entirely buy the "consciousness emerges from self-reference" premise (I didn't), you may find the book moving (I did). The latter chapters are very much about "how loss shapes the reconstruction of a life".
posted by vorfeed at 10:55 PM on August 5, 2010

This isn't quite what you're looking for, but you could consider it a memoir in audio form -- the Antlers' 2009 album Hospice is an astounding remembrance of the death of lead singer Peter Silberman's wife. Even just reading the lyrics can be devastating.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 11:16 PM on August 5, 2010

Thinking of P.F. Thom├ęses Shadowchild: A Meditation on Love and Loss still gets me choked up. It is incredibly beautifully written (at least in the original Dutch), raw and brilliant. "She is nowhere else but in language".

I'm very sorry for your loss.
posted by sively at 11:43 PM on August 5, 2010

If zen is not too much like religion, I recommend Nine-headed Dragon River, by Peter Mathiessen. It deals in part with the death of his wife.
posted by Bruce H. at 12:17 AM on August 6, 2010

West - a journey through the landscapes of loss by Jim Perrin. A wonderful writer (I'm very fond of his The Climbing Essays) he lost his son and his wife within less than a year.
posted by sianifach at 1:15 AM on August 6, 2010

The Boy Who Fell From the Sky is a fantastic book. As part of the grieving process, Ken Dornstein writes half memoir, half biography of his brother David who died in the Lockerbie bombing.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:15 AM on August 6, 2010

Best answer: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

(Obviously he's a theist, but this book is remarkably...not.)
posted by Ouisch at 7:24 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I came in to suggest A Grief Observed. Please do not be turned off because it is CS Lewis. While there is some struggling with religion, I have found this book to be the best book about dealing with a personal loss that doesn't dwell in platitudes.

Also, if you are interested in poetry, Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved by Gregory Orr. Or Poetry as Survival by the same author. The second book is a memoir that deals with several losses in the author's life including the death of his younger brother for which the author was responsible.
posted by rachums at 8:21 AM on August 6, 2010

I can't recommend A Very Easy Death highly enough. It's Simone de Beauvoir's account of her mother's final days.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:05 AM on August 6, 2010

I enjoyed the following, all of which deal with grieving characters or imminent loss:

The History of Love - Features all different types of loss/grief. This is one of my favorite books.

Mathilda Savitch: A Novel - Features a young girl dealing with the loss of her sister.

The Leisure Seeker: A Novel- Features an elderly couple on a road trip, one with dementia and one with terminal cancer.

The Spare Room: A Novel - Explores the relationship between two friends when one is diagnosed with terminal cancer
posted by parakeetdog at 1:51 PM on August 6, 2010

Peter Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
posted by Neilopolis at 4:21 PM on August 6, 2010

Segment by Dan Savage talking about his mother on the podcast "Return to the scene of a crime" (This american life).
posted by cynicalidealist at 4:25 PM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am completely biased by the fact that this was written by a family member, but The Grieving Time has helped a lot of people. My grandmother wrote it as a diary of the year after my grandpa died from a fairly quick-moving form of cancer (he was maybe 60 at the time, I think). It's not the kind of thing you'd find at Borders, but you should be able to find it pretty easily on Amazon. It's been reprinted several times

(This book is kind of the rare exception to "vanity presses" -- one that actually gets widespread recognition and is written by an accomplished author. She was a very no-nonsense lady who was trained in biology at a time when women were not usually given that opportunity, and she was a published writer on other topics. The book was originally published by a small local company that my dad set up, but it was then picked up by Dial and then several other national/international companies.)
posted by Madamina at 2:04 PM on August 7, 2010

« Older Help me fix the A/C in my VW Golf TDI   |   How to ask a guy for casual sex? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.