The Five Best Books for Understanding Grief

Listening to someone who knows exactly how you feel can be a very meaningful and validating thing, and a thing like grief is often very isolating for this reason – you might sometimes feel as though there’s no one who understands what you’re going through. You can share your grief with people, but it can still feel as though the burden doesn’t get any lighter.

This is part of the beauty of reading: experiencing the world through others and feeling through their words that regardless of time or distance, they understand you and the way you feel. It’s not surprising that a technique often used in grief counselling called Narrative Therapy makes use of a similar idea.

Many people find it extremely helpful and beneficial to their wellbeing to begin to view the way that grief affects them as more of an external force, and less of an unchangeable part of themselves. In this way, meaningfully engaging with the detail of another’s experience within the same process can let us view grief from the point of an observer.

To put it simply, looking clearly at a problem that’s the same as ours but different can help us to make progress in our understanding, because we are rationally dealing with a lot less of the pressures we often put on ourselves.

It isn’t an easy road, but it’s one of the many different techniques available to those who have suffered loss. Let’s focus on those feelings some might come here with, and a fitting first book on this list:

1. A Grief Observed – C. S. Lewis

“Reading A Grief Observed during my own grief made me understand that each experience of grief is unique. There are always certain basic similarities…” – even the forward to this 1961 novel gives us a valuable lesson as to why reading about this topic is important.

Using journal entries at the time, and later reflections on his grief following the sudden death of his wife after only a few years of marriage, Lewis uses his powerful feelings of anger and bewilderment to create a candid and intensely emotional memoir of his experience with loss.

This book is a recommendation for the way it explores the early stages of grief, full of a lot of the kind of venting that is often a mind beginning to truly understand what it's faced with. Lewis’s account of grief is a much-needed relief, for a stage of the process that is often incredibly difficult and overwhelming.

The book's most memorable line: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear" is a great example of why this topic is such a moving one to read about. For both authors and readers, it is most often a real-life experience that motivates them to write or read about grief, creating an instant understanding of these types of everyday truths about living with loss.

2. A Heart That Works - Rob Delaney

Comedian Rob Delaney penned this deeply emotional and insightful memoir following the tragic loss of his young son to cancer. The sheer openness and honesty with which he confronts such a devastating subject easily make this one of the more difficult but rewarding books on this list to read. 

There is no avoiding that even in this subject of writing, this is a heartbreaking subject matter. Its uniqueness is here, in that subject matter being covered by a mind used to turning the serious into the amusing. Despite what you would think, Delaney manages still to pluck bits of humour and brightness from his story and create a really memorable read. Death is also about living, as Delaney says: “In between Henry's birth and his death was, of course, his life. That was my favourite part.”

With the original line from Juliana Hatfield in mind - "A heart that hurts is a heart that works" - it's clear, as with all these books, that grief is more than loss; it defines us as human, and reminds us we are alive.

3. Grief Demystified - Caroline Lloyd

Aside from those books on this list that aim to share the author's story from an emotional perspective, books that use an evidence-based approach to take a purely rational view of grief can be comforting in a different way and with different people. 

Grief Demystified gives an accessible introduction to the modern theory of grief, and aims to tackle many of the myths and assumptions that have found their way into common knowledge. If it feels as though you aren't sure if how you deal with grief is 'right', this book can offer a great deal of comfort that there are steps to dealing with what even may seem the most chaotic of thoughts. 

When grief is such a confusing and daunting issue, this book is an important addition to this list. To read more on the topic, visit Demystifying Myths About Grief

4. Grief is the Thing With Feathers

“Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.”  This debut novel looks to tackle our subject with an unusual story and humour, as well as a strong presence of metaphor that leaves a lot open to interpretation. 

The story, adapted into a 2018 play starring Cillian Murphy, centres around two boys and their father who have suffered the loss of their mother. This book can touch on externalising grief as a good strategy - here represented by a crow drawn to the protagonists until they no longer need him. 

Amongst a lot of books that can be emotionally taxing reads, a more fictional setting has always been helpful to separate us from the reality of a lesson, allowing us to better understand it from afar. Porter successfully combines the truths and stark realities of grief with a throughline of mystery and fable that made this a very interesting read.

5. The Way Through the Woods: Overcoming Grief Through Nature - Long Litt Woon

A book regarding mushrooms is perhaps not one you would expect to see on this list, but Woon's tale of her life after the loss of her husband of over three decades is an excellent lesson in continuing on with life meaningfully after grief. It shows us that far from being something we must shy away from to come to terms with, grief can inspire us to find new things in life and be a cherished part of our experiences into the future.  

It was in a beginner's course in mushrooming, lost in her grief, that Woon first rekindled a sense of curiosity and purpose to life and began to find parallels with nature's cycles of life and death. The curious cast of fellow mushroom hunters and sprinklings of fungal knowledge bring the subject down to earth, truly taking the reader along with Woon in a way that hobbies like hers guide people through grief. 

Grief is more than loss; it defines us as human, and reminds us we are alive

Ultimately there is no book that will help you if it isn't the right book - read around, try, change, put something down if it doesn't speak to you or take a break if it does a little too much. Your time spent grieving is valuable, which is why finding your own way through it is what's most important. A step backwards is not always in the wrong direction, especially if it shows you where you should have turned.

If you or someone you know have been affected by grief, we have some more information about dealing with bereavement and available support.

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