Books/writing on death, loss and grief.
December 19, 2006 2:11 PM   Subscribe

Books/writing on death, loss and grief.

I lost my girlfriend of 5 years to a freak car accident last weekend. The accident was completely random, and I'm an atheist, so there's really know no one to blame, get angry at, ask why, pray to, etc-- just a horrible void that I'll need to learn to fill over the coming weeks, months and years.

I have a strong support network of friends and family (and have read the recent post about liqourice's loss). I feel like I'm as prepared as I can be to grieve and mourn (which means, of course, that I'm completely, utterly unprepared).

I read pretty constantly, and am looking for good things to read when the mood strikes-- I've tried, and neither the latest issues of Maxim or the Economist are quite cutting it right now.

Last week (before), I happened to read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which fits more or less perfectly with what I'm thinking, but I'm really interested in any recommendations for fiction/non-fiction/classics/philosophy. They don't necessarily need to be completely secular, but I am an atheist, so if the driving point is that people go to a better place, or that god has a plan, it probably won't work. Self-help recommendations are ok and appreciated, but not really what I’m looking for.

For what it’s worth, I’m 26.
posted by cosmonaught to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
So sorry for your loss.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is one of the best and most powerful books I've ever read. It's completely secular and deals with the year after she lost her husband to a freak heart attack.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:15 PM on December 19, 2006

Gillian Rose's Love's Work. Certainly not atheistic, but a deep and powerful memoir.
posted by Bromius at 2:20 PM on December 19, 2006

Uh, on preview, what everyone else said.
posted by The Bellman at 2:21 PM on December 19, 2006

Seconding the Didion. It's amazing.

The other book I really found useful after my mother died was Going to Pieces without Falling Apart by Mark Epstein. It's psychology, and not on death exactly -- basically trying to reconcile Western notions of ego with Eastern notions of interconnectedness. But so much of what he writes about really spoke to the shattered way I was feeling, and I found his thoughts on that state helpful.

Jeannette Winterson's Written on the Body might be worthwhile.

I considered Shakespeare's tragedies but never dug them out; don't know if that's something you'd be interested in looking at.

Good luck with this -- I had the same impulse when my mother died, and I really felt like I was striking out (partly I think because I wanted a female perspective, which is harder to find, especially with classic works, which tends to be more where you find these sorts of ruminations...)

I'm so sorry about your girlfriend, and I wish you the best.
posted by occhiblu at 2:24 PM on December 19, 2006

And I have no idea if it's cheesy or deep, but another one that people always recommended to me was Moore's Dark Nights of the Soul. It sounds like he draws on a lot of different authors, and I did find various "Here's how a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures and traditions have talked about death and loss" to be worth reading, so I'm throwing this one out there for you.
posted by occhiblu at 2:33 PM on December 19, 2006

I am very sorry for your loss.

Even if you don't believe it's doing anything, you might find praying / talking it out to be cathartic.
posted by Alt F4 at 2:37 PM on December 19, 2006

Cosmonaught, I am so very, very sorry for your loss.

I'm an agnostic, and When Things Fall Apart has comforted me in some dark times, if you think you might be interested in a nontheistic, westernized buddhist approach.
posted by scody at 2:39 PM on December 19, 2006

Some other suggestions in this Chicklit thread. The focus is a bit different, but there may be a few things there that you'll find helpful.
posted by occhiblu at 2:42 PM on December 19, 2006

So so sorry to hear of your loss. On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross helped me get through a significant loss in my life, my hope is that it can help you, too. Best of luck.
posted by viachicago at 2:44 PM on December 19, 2006

Maybe John Bayley's Elegy for Iris or Alison Smith's Name All the Animals.
posted by mattbucher at 2:44 PM on December 19, 2006

I couldn't figure out why Buddhist philosophy kept coming up in my head for this, and then it occured to me that a great focus of Buddhism is learning to deal with loss (and not in a particularly after-life-y sort of way, just as a fact we have to deal with in life). There are a couple titles in this thread already, but it may be worthwhile checking out the Buddhism section of bookstores/libraries/Amazon in general for other works that appeal to you.
posted by occhiblu at 2:53 PM on December 19, 2006

I'm so sorry for your loss. What a terrible tragedy. I experienced a similar death last year and I too have no religion. I don't have a book -- I was coming in here to recommend the Joan Didion -- but I offer my sympathy.
posted by loiseau at 3:00 PM on December 19, 2006

My girlfriend constantly recommends Irvin Yalom's Love's Executioner & Other Tales of Psychotherapy for a nice dose of existential therapy.
posted by themadjuggler at 3:03 PM on December 19, 2006

They don't necessarily need to be completely secular...

As I mentioned on this thread yesterday, Lewis' A Grief Observed is an excellent book that deals with these issues head-on. Be warned, he does bring faith to bear, so you'll have to read those parts with a grain of salt or more open mind or whatever you decide to read it with.

But I've never yet read a book that has so helped me shape a healthy, fulfilling response to the grief of losing a loved one. Lewis isn't focused just on faith, and he deals with grief issues logically and very succinctly.

I realize you're an atheist, but I'm not, and so instead of wishing you luck or giving you my pity, the very best I can do is say a prayer for your comforting and healing.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:07 PM on December 19, 2006

Marcus Aurelius' Meditations is the most comforting book I've ever read.
posted by koeselitz at 3:11 PM on December 19, 2006


My heart goes out to you. Seriously. It's got a full schedule though, so it may take a while.

I second the Pema Chodron. And caution you to be very choosy when it comes to Buddhism.

I recommend On the Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts.

And I might as well mention two books that have found their way on to my shelf but haven't been read yet: How We Die by Sherwin B. Nuland and Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber. The latter was recommended to me, the former was just found and looks interesting.
posted by poweredbybeard at 3:19 PM on December 19, 2006

After my mom died, I found Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard cathartic and helpful and distracting, all at the same time.

I'm very sorry for your loss.
posted by rtha at 3:26 PM on December 19, 2006

Seconding Kubler-Ross.
posted by paduasoy at 3:33 PM on December 19, 2006

I don't really have a suggestion on some reading (though you may find Solomon's Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life an interesting read as a fellow secularist, for lack of a better word), I just wanted to send my condolences, as dry as that may sound. Stay strong, friend, and I'm very sorry for your loss.
posted by joe lisboa at 3:37 PM on December 19, 2006

The Tibetan Book of the Dead might be helpful.
posted by mullingitover at 4:06 PM on December 19, 2006

i highly recommend two books:

on death and dying by elisabeth kubler-ross...if you're an intellectual sort her quantification of the stages of grief might be helpful.

a more personal inspection of death and grief can be found in grace and grit - ken wilber is a sort of spiritual philosopher, and this is an autobiographical work written by him and his wife as she struggled with (and eventually succumbed to) breast cancer.
posted by jjsonp at 4:23 PM on December 19, 2006

oh, cosmonaught. I'm so sorry. I can't add book recommendations that haven't already been made (and some recs are really excellent), but fwiw, I lost a good friend to a car accident a few years back (sounds like a similar situation/age). I'm agnostic myself, but I kept a candle lit in the window.... couldn't put a finger on it, but it felt like I was doing something, maybe a type of acknowledgement. And I talked to her alot... well, to the air. Again, it felt like acknowledging. It was the only thing I knew to do to help myself adjust.

best wishes to you.
posted by AthenaPolias at 4:29 PM on December 19, 2006

Some of the above recommendations are really great. I also remember finding help in the past from a little book called The Courage To Grieve which is somewhat in the self-help genre, but not cheesy (I hate self-helpy type stuff, and I also hate stuff with a lot of god-talk in it, so since I didn't hate this book, it must have been pretty decent, even though it's been over a decade since I've read it).
posted by matildaben at 4:45 PM on December 19, 2006


...This sucks. I have to add my vote to Buddhist literature, which helped me a bit with the death of my mom. I read the Eggers about six times in the course of a year, so I think you're on the right track.

This whole genre, of smart honest writing about the experience of grief, seems to need some help. I know Anne LaMott is a Christian, but she writes about the painful parts of life with a sense of humor that I found useful.
posted by lauranesson at 4:59 PM on December 19, 2006

Thomas Lynch's The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (review). Mr. Lynch is a poet and an undertaker, and the book is a collection of essays on the meaning of live and death.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:57 PM on December 19, 2006

Heaven's Coast, Mark Doty

Borrowed Time, Paul Monette

A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis
posted by brandz at 6:40 PM on December 19, 2006

Seconding Mark Doty (and Paul Monette). I carried Doty's book Atlantis around for a long time.
posted by rtha at 7:28 PM on December 19, 2006

I Am The Cheese, Robert Cormier
posted by cottoncandyhammer at 8:01 PM on December 19, 2006

If you're a W. S. Burroughs fan, "Last Words" is all about mortality. His own impending death, Allen Ginsberg's death, the deaths of his cats.

Thinking is not enough. Nothing is. There is no final enough of wisdom, experience — any fucking thing. No holy grail, no final satori, no final solution. Just conflict.
posted by juv3nal at 8:03 PM on December 19, 2006

As far as Shakespeare... Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" (or the Tim Roth/Gary Oldman/Richard Dreyfuss film adaptation) is an amazing paen to the reconciliation of fate with chance/coincidence/rationality.
posted by cottoncandyhammer at 8:05 PM on December 19, 2006

A Grief Observed gets my vote.... (I am a widower and it kept me alive during devastating grief.) As a fellow athiest, I know it might sound silly to recommend a christian apologist's writing, but there is much good to be found in the book. It's a quick read, too.... from the heart and not the head.

Grief will grow you in unexpected ways.

Nothing but time will make it 'better'. In my experience, you integrate grief, it never really goes away. It has been 8 years for me, we were married for 24 and I knew her for 33. Having my limbs ripped off would have been easier. It has mostly passed out of daily life, but that took quite a while. Still, I can manage a sad thought of what she and I are both missing out on with very little effort. I mourn her death frequently. I honor her with recollections and story telling. I make her real by appreciating her complexity, and the pieces I loved and hated. She is in my mind as I navigate my life, and sometimes, I do things just because I know she'd be proud of me. Her death removed fear entirely from my life.

It probably doesn't look like it now, but if you can survive the short term, perhaps you'll find that her death has gifted you perceptions and wisdom you can't get from many other places.

Best of luck.
posted by FauxScot at 9:00 PM on December 19, 2006 [7 favorites]

I'm sorry to hear of your loss...

I'm throwing another vote in for A Grief Observed. FWIW it was required reading for a course I took on Grief, Death, and Dying.
posted by perpetualstroll at 10:05 PM on December 19, 2006

Shit. I'm so sorry.
posted by librarina at 10:42 PM on December 19, 2006

This post by Hamster is a favourite of mine
posted by Jofus at 4:00 AM on December 20, 2006

I'll quadrillionth the recommendations for Didion and Lewis. Are you into poetry at all? Didion draws on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins all throughout The Year of Magical Thinking. He's easily as religious as Lewis, but he also knows how to penetrate an emotion like grief, expose it, turn it into something we can recognize and confront.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 6:46 AM on December 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

Warm thoughts from here, cosmonaught. One of the finest pieces of writing on grief and loss I can recommend is Alan Shapiro's Vigil.
posted by Token Meme at 9:51 AM on December 20, 2006

You might check out Studs Terkel's Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
posted by sevenless at 11:23 AM on December 20, 2006

I'm so sorry for your loss. I also recommend Kubler-Ross "On Death and Dying".

Also, if you just need someone faceless and anonymous to babble at, my email is in my profile. I've had too much experience dealing the deaths of people I love...and I'm absolutely willing to be a soundboard if you need one.

Again, I'm so sorry.
posted by dejah420 at 1:06 PM on December 20, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everybody for all the recommendations. All the kind thoughts and prayers are really appreciated.

The funeral was today (very nice service, thank you), which I guess concludes the formal part of all of this, so that just leaves, you know, the rest of my life...

I picked up the "The Year of Magical Thinking" and downloaded Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations" to my Palm, for a start, but that's only a few hundred pages, so I'll be digging through the other books posted here as I feel the need/find the energy.
posted by cosmonaught at 5:11 PM on December 20, 2006

You might want to check out The Grief Recovery Handbook when you are ready. Most books I came across (including Kubler-Ross' seminal work) talk about death but not necessarily how to move through the grief. This one offers some ideas for things to do rather than things to think about, which may be of comfort to people of action.

(My ex-husband's father died unexpectedly and I gave this book to him. He reported back that it was very useful for not only addressing the death but also our divorce.)

All the best to you, your family, and your girlfriend's family during this hard time. I am very sorry for your loss.
posted by absquatulate at 1:01 PM on December 29, 2006

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