Grief Book Recommendations
"At seven minutes past midnight, thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. But it isn't the monster Conor's been expecting - he's been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he's had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments. The monster in his backyard is different. It's ancient. And wild. And it wants something from Conor. Something terrible and dangerous. It wants the truth."
I feel like the only correct way to start off this list is by mentioning a novel that has personally helped me in a time where I needed it the most. It's a beautifully haunting and unique portrayal of childhood grief, that has the destinction of being one of the rare novels to not only make me cry, but full out bawl out in public.
A Monster Calls follows 13-year old Connor during the last weeks with his terminally ill mother. If you know me personally, you may see the parallels starting to form already, as 13 is also the age at which I lost my mum to a long illness. Reading A Monster Calls was honestly a life changing thing for me, as it was one of the first times where I felt my feelings I had during that time were put to paper. A Monster Calls is brutally honest in its portrayal of the hurricane of feelings to overcome a child in that situation: ranging from despair to anger, to guilt and defeated resignation. This novel has a very special place in my heart, and hopefully will for you as well.
"You go through life thinking there’s so much you need… Until you leave with only your phone, your wallet, and a picture of your mother."
It's honestly incredible how much a book that is all about loneliness, managed to made me feel connected. The more often I reread it, the more the latter stands out to me. We Are Okay is about love and loss, grief and comfort, fear and hope, and packs a larger punch in its 200 pages than many a 500 page brick. In my review of it on Goodreads, I describe what makes this book special to me, and I still stand by that opinion. If you want a book that will bring you to tears, but also fill you with hope: this is it.
“I was okay once, I will be okay again...”
So will you...
Had we been telling the truth, he would have said, “the place where I’m sending you – it looks beautiful, but it’s haunted”.
“Okay” I would have said.
“It will bring everything back. All that you tried to bury”.
Nina LaCour makes her second appearance on this list with her latest novel Watch Over Me, which was probably just as good as her last one.
This ghostly magical realism tale follows Mila, a girl who has recently aged out of the foster system, as she goes to work as a tutor for foster children on a remote farm at the North Californian coast. Haunted by the literal ghosts of her past, Mila start her journey to carve out a new future and a place in the world for herself.
“I’ve decided language isn’t as advanced as we think it is. We’re still apes trying to express our thoughts with grunts while most of what we want to communicate stays locked in our brains.”
Where the Forest meets the Stars is an adult contemporary novel, with a slight magical realism vibe, that both thematically and tonally seemed almost made for me.
We follow a graduate student in her mid-twenties, who has isolated and buried herself in her thesis on bird-nesting, in order to keep her mind of the recent events in her personal life. She has recently survived cancer, but only after losing her mother to the same hereditary tumor, and has not allowed herself the time to grieve either of those losses. A remarkable friendship with the similarly reclusive egg-salesman next door, and a mysterious girl who claims to have come from the stars, helps her to find her way back to other people, and to face her feelings and her future again. Again: heartwrenching ánd heartwarming at the same time in its message that good things cán and will follow, even from the darkest of times.
“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
Look, as a medical student ánd a cancer survivor, there was not way this book could not be on this list. It's not just due to its personal relevance to me, but also because it's a fantastically written and brilliantly insightful memoir.
Paul Kalanithi, was a highly intelligent neurosurgeon, who at the young age of 36 was diagnosed with terminal lungcancer. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles his journey of becoming a doctor, leading up to his diagnosis, followed by his transition from doctor to patient. In the most eloquent way, he tackles existential questions and finding a balance between the grief of knowing you're about to lose your uphil battle, and the pride and accomplishment that comes from what you were fortunate enough to experience.
Paul died in 2015, before being able to finish this book, but left behind this masterpiece. His wife wrote the final chapter in his honour, and let me tell you: get your tissues ready for that one...
“Again. I beg everything again.”
In a London flat, two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother's sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness. In this moment of despair they are visited by Crow - antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This self-described sentimental bird is attracted to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him. As weeks turn to months and physical pain of loss gives way to memories, this little unit of three begin to heal.
This one is truly unique, and to be honest, I have a weird relationship with this book. I have read this multiple times and keep feeling differently about it. At times I hate it, at times I love it, and each time I find something new that I hadn't picked up on before. No matter what happens though, there is a certain gravity-like pull that always brings me back to this story. As a concept, it has been with me for one of the hardest times of my life. Like the its feathered protagonist, it's at times unpleasant and obnoxious, at times a comfort, but always a companion that is with me in the background of my mind at all times, which tells you something about the quality of this story.
" I want you to remember ... I will. I will remember."
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird. Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life. Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.
Another case where magical realism is used in the best way possible to depict the story of a teenage girls journey through grief. The beautiful (own-voice) cultural representation and the fact that this is a debut(!) make for even more reasons why you should pick this book up.
“It’s a grace feather. See how its colors shift from green to blue, like the sea? It means remembrance. It shows that no distance, no amount of water between two people, will make them forget. Someone gave it to say that they remembered you.”
As a Gracekeeper, Callanish administers shoreside burials, laying the dead to their final resting place deep in the depths of the ocean. Alone on her island, she has exiled herself to a life of tending watery graves as penance for a long-ago mistake that still haunts her. Meanwhile, North works as a circus performer with the Excalibur, a floating troupe of acrobats, clowns, dancers, and trainers who sail from one archipelago to the next, entertaining in exchange for sustenance. In a world divided between those inhabiting the mainland ("landlockers") and those who float on the sea ("damplings"), loneliness has become a way of life for North and Callanish, until a sudden storm offshore brings change to both their lives - offering them a new understanding of the world they live in and the consequences of the past, while restoring hope in an unexpected future.
It's been a long time since the first time I read The Gracekeepers, but from the very moment I finished the first chapter, I knew I was reading the words of an all time favourite author. Combining immaculate worldbuilding with fantastic character work and understated emotion, The Gracekeepers is one of the most criminally underrate novels on this list. It's not just about grief, but neither is life, and the way it weaves death and loss into the story of our two protagonist is masterful.
“There were reasons to leave, and reasons to stay, and all of it was the same.”
The breathtaking story of five brothers who bring each other up in a world run by their own rules. As the Dunbar boys love and fight and learn to reckon with the adult world, they discover the moving secret behind their father’s disappearance.
At the center of the Dunbar family is Clay, a boy who will build a bridge—for his family, for his past, for greatness, for his sins, for a miracle.
The question is, how far is Clay willing to go? And how much can he overcome?
Speaking of underrated novels; it's a mystery to me how Markus Zusak's (famous for The Book Thief) latest novel has managed to fly so under the radar. Brigde of Clay is a hard novel to summarize, and the text on the backflap doesn't do much to help you. I think that's for the better, however, as you should simply trust the author and let this story and its characters take you on their journey. I adore Bridge of Clay for many reasons, but mostly for its portrayal of a family (of only men) and their dynamic following a horrible loss. I have a full review on Goodreads where you can read more of my thoughts if you're interested.
"Sometimes dead is better”
So far, there hasn't been a single horror novel featured on this list, although horror in itself is (to me) the perfect genre for exploring grief in media. Maybe it's for that reason that I'm hypercritical of horror novels that venture into this topic, and many of the ones I've read just haven't made this list. However, Pet Sematary is one that had to be here.
The story will be familiar to many of you: a family moves with their daughter and infant son to a seemingly idyllic new home. On one side lies the main road that ferries the traffic through their small town. On the other lies a patch of woods with a Pet Cemetary. When the family cat gets run over by a car on the street, the family decides to bury the cat at the pet cemetary in the woods, only to find out that it hid a secret he wasn't expecting.
Equally unexpected was the profound effect this book had on me. I'm not easily fased by cheap scares, gore or supernatural scares, but the deep existential fear and psychological dread that this story touches upon unsettled me to the core. Combine that with the many aspects of grief through the eyes of the family members (from their infant sons first brush it by the death of the family pet; an experience that many of us will be able to relate to), to the inconceivable tragedy that strikes later, and you have a novel that will have a profound impact on almost anybody.
“I thought I at least understood what that story meant-that life was fragile and short, but maybe knowing this helped us appreciate it more.”
To balance out the darkness of the previous entry, I'm throwing in some middle grade fiction that may be a bit lighter in tone but no less poignant when it comes to it's messages. Often middle grade novels are overlooked in their ability to be impactful, but these two entries on my list will prove how this genre is the perfect one to discuss difficult topics with people of all ages. I've said this before, but there is a tremendous amount of skill involved in conveing emotions that are difficult to understand for adult, in a way for a child to grasp. Ali Standish and Ali Benjamin do a phenomenal job in the next two entries. August Isle is one where I don't want to go into plot too much, as part of the beauty is uncovering the truth alongside our main character. All you need to know is we follow Miranda as she spends her summer with her "aunt" on an island of the Floridian coast. The same island where her mother used to spend all her summers a child, but now refuses to revisit or discuss. Curious as she is, she starts looking for clues from the past, and uncovers more that she ever thought she'd find.
The fact that this book has only 300 ratings on Goodreads is criminal and I need you guys to help me change that.
“There’s no single right way to say goodbye to someone you love. But the most important thing is that you keep some part of them inside you.”
After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy must have been a rare jellyfish sting--things don't just happen for no reason. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory--even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy's achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe...and the potential for love and hope right next door.
Another fantastic novel about navigating grief for the first time, through the eyes of a young girl. Suzy as a protagonist is what makes this one stand out from the crowd. She approaches the world from an almost academic and analytical point of view (in which I saw a lot of myself as a child), but is also young enough to retain her "magical thinking"; the two of which clash when she's forced to grapple with the aftermath of a loss at a way too young age. It's a wonderful story and one I'd recommend to parents who want a sense of the world of loss through a childs eyes as well.
"Suddenly you will stop. You , me and all of us. Your lungs will rest at last and the electric pulse in your pulse will vanish into the darkness from which it came. Put your fingers in your ears, lay your head on the pillow and listen to the footsteps of your blood. You are alive..."
The Tidal Zone may seem like an odd one out on this list, as it doesn't obviously deal with the loss of a loved one, or even the loss of much health to begin with. Here, a family's life is turned upside down as their daughter nearly passes due to an analfylactic shock. Although she physically recovers just fine, their lives will never be the same after this rude awakening that death is around every corner. This is a stunning novel about living through and with the terrifying and humbling realization of the fragility of life. It's an intimate, compassionate and ultimately true representation of the effects of a lifechanging health-event and the uncertainty that follows, on a family as a whole. I can't recommend this one enough, if purely for its unique take on the aftermath that follows a brush with death.
“Maybe I was destined to forever fall in love with people I couldn’t have. Maybe there’s a whole assortment of impossible people waiting for me to find them. Waiting to make me feel the same impossibility over and over again.”
1987. There's only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that's her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn's company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June's world is turned upside down. But Finn's death brings a surprise acquaintance into June's life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.
Tell the Wolves I'm Home is Carol Rifka Brunts highly aclaimed debut about a girl on a quest to get to know her deceased uncle after his passing. This book is about só many more important themes, other than grief, that I can't discuss without "spoiling" some of the story. What I appreciated about this novel on the grief-side is its representations of the curiosity and the almost desperate infatuation that can follow the death of a loved one you wished you'd known better.
This is a dynamic list that will be updated and expanded in the future. If you have a recommendation for me that you thing belongs here too, feel free to send it to me via my Goodreads. I'm always in the market for more on this topic.