11 Poignant Books About Grief and Loss
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Reading books about grief and loss can help us deal with our own grieving when we inevitably face it ourselves. These novels about grief are good options when you want to turn to stories to help you through a difficult time.
As I write this at the beginning of 2021, so many of us are in the midst of grieving.
We’re grieving a lost year.
We’ve grieving our social circles, our special events, our time with family.
We’re grieving our routines and our escapes, our hobbies, and even our ability to smile at strangers.
We grieve for our children, missing their friends and schools and activities. We grieve for our parents and grandparents, missing our children.
And so many are grieving the deaths of hundreds of thousands who died from COVID–and we all dread the likely hundreds of thousands of deaths still to come.
The layers of grief we are collectively experiencing will only continue to be revealed in the coming years.
Grief is not just about death, but loss as well, and various types of loss can pull us into the grieving process.
If you’re struggling, as so many are right now, you might be grieving. Consider turning to a book to accompany you through your grief.
The fiction books below are poignant, sensitive examinations of the complexities of grief, loss, and acceptance.
11 Moving Books About Grief
A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do
Author: Pete Fromm
Taz and Marnie are just starting their lives together, working on their fixer-upper in Montana and anticipating the birth of their first child. When Marnie dies in childbirth, Taz is consumed by grief–and left to raise his newborn daughter without her mother. Taz struggles to navigate a world he no longer recognizes, controlled by the needs of the baby, floating through a fog of exhaustion, love, and hopelessness.
A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do follows Taz’s first two years with his daughter, supported by a small cast of characters who support, push, back away, and push again in a uniquely stoic, Montana way.
Fromm’s writing is emotionally resonant; expansive when it needs to be, but sometimes staccato and sharp. Reading it feels like grieving, while fighting debilitating exhaustion. This small story brought me to tears more than once–something that doesn’t happen often.
The Last Story of Mina Lee
Author: Nancy Jooyoun Kim
When Margot can’t get ahold of her mother, Mina, in Los Angeles, she travels from Seattle and finds her mother dead in her apartment. Determined to find out what happened, Margot begins digging in Mina’s past, from her immigration from Korea to her life as a single, undocumented mother, to the mystery of Margot’s father.
Told in alternating narratives (with Mina’s story being the most compelling), this is an intriguing mother/daughter story. Margot’s grief takes different shapes as she learns more about her mother and comes to terms with long-held resentments.
Clap When You Land
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Camino (Cami) and Yahaira (Yaya) are sisters, but they don’t know it until their father dies in a plane crash. As the teens grieve, they also must come to terms with the reality of life without their father. Cami, in the Dominican Republic, dodges a predatory pimp who wants her in his service, while Yaya, in New York City, tries to reconcile the father she loved with this new information about him. When Yaya takes off for DR, the two girls have to decide: will they hold on to resentment, or will they be family?
I don’t read much poetry, so I’m often hesitant about novels in verse. This, though, is excellent. Try the audio if you’re also not sure; the language is lyrical but not overtly poetic.
Author: Emily Henry
January has reluctantly moved into the beach house her dad left her after his death. The house was a surprise–as was his second life she never knew about. Now she’s trying to clean out his house, get over her writer’s block, and deal with her grief. Discovering that her neighbor is her college nemesis, Augustus (Gus)–who also happens to be an award-winning author–isn’t helping. Until they make a deal to switch genres and rivalry leads to romance.
The banter and fast pace of this book make this a lighter take on grief. The issues that both January and Gus were dealing with made their closeness feel realistic and not too fluffy.
The Opposite of Fate
Author: Alison McGhee
After 18 months in a coma, Mallie Williams has woken up, only to learn several shocking things: 1) She was attacked. 2) She was pregnant and had a child. 3) The world and family she knew is no longer the same.
As Mallie comes to grip with what happened to her and the decisions that were made on her behalf, she starts a journey to come back to herself. Her loved ones, as well, struggle to come to grips with the choices they made and the choices they couldn’t prevent.
McGhee perfectly creates her small cast of characters who do their best and create family in an awful situation. The grief in this one is a little different; each character grieves their loss of innocence, their hopes for the future, and even their beliefs about themselves.
The Other Americans
Author: Laila Lalami
The Other Americans is a complicated narrative focused on the hit-and-run killing of Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant who was crossing street one evening near his business. As his family grieves his death and learns truths about his life, the police investigate what happened.
Told from multiple points of view–Driss’ family, the investigators, neighboring business owners, and Driss himself–Lalami covers a lot of ground. From family tensions and expectations to prejudices, her story is subtle and nuanced. Learn more
Author: Jon Cohen
When 34-year-old Harry’s wife is unexpectedly killed, the Forest Service employee retreats to the trees to grieve and atone for his role in her death. There, he meets a young girl and a mother who are also grieving the loss of their father and husband. The girl, Oriana, is guided by her belief in magic and fairy tales, and is convinced that she and Harry have a mission. Only by completing it will they be pulled up from the depths of their grief.
Cohen uses writes with a lilting fairy tale structure that was grounded in a healthy amount of skepticism and realism that made it work. Despite its themes of grief, I found this to be an uplifting delight.
Say Say Say
Author: Lila Savage
Say Say Say follows a 20-something artist-turned-caregiver who takes a job in the home of a couple, caring for Jill, who suffered a brain injury in an accident. Jill’s husband, Bryn, is attentive and loving, but burned out by the duties and realities of this new life with Jill. In her caregiving position, Ella is brought closely, intensely, almost claustrophobically into the lives of Jill and Bryn, causing her to examine her own role and feelings.
This meditation on the strange intimacy and separateness of the caregiver role was interesting. Ella is an observer of Bryn’s devotion to his wife, while he also deals with losing her while she still lives.
Author: Yaa Gyasi
Gifty is a neuroscience PhD candidate at Stanford, studying reward-seeking behavior and addiction in mice. Driven by her grief for her brother, Nana, and a need to understand the addiction that killed him, Gifty throws herself into the science. At the same time, she grapples with the faith of her youth. The promised salvation hasn’t seemed to help her depressed mother, in bed since she arrived from Alabama.
A thoughtful look at the life of Ghanaian immigrants in Alabama, as well as an examination of grief, faith, and science.
Author: Sigrid Nunez
This strangely compelling National Book Award winner is less a story about a woman’s healing relationship with the Great Dane left to her by her deceased friend than it is a meditation on grief. The friend and mentor, who committed suicide and left no note, looms large in her thoughts and memories. The snippets with the dog are charming, but they are not the focus.
The deceased friend has few redeeming qualities, making the reader wonder about the narrator’s attachment to him, but part of the point seems to be the nature of suicide and the impossibility of resolution for those left behind.
The Great Believers
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Set in two time periods, the first in 1980s Chicago and the second in 2015 Paris, The Great Believers throws readers into the thick of–and the aftermath of–the 1980s AIDS crisis. From a group of young men in Chicago’s gay community to the people they left behind, mourning the loss of so many, this is grief on a large scale.
Makkai masterfully juxtaposes the AIDS crisis with several other tragic events, including world wars and terrorist attacks. These, as well as a thread about historical art, are brilliantly woven together to highlight the generations of people and talents lost to these devastations.
For more on this book, check out 11 Things to Know About The Great Believers: The Story of the Story
What books about grief and loss do you recommend?
You might also like:
- 20 Books About Tragedy and Real-Life Struggle
- 9 Books that Will Give You Hope in Uncertain Times
- 12 Fiction Books About Aging and End of Life
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I loved “Harry’s Trees”. I listened to the audio version, quite well done. The characters are well drawn, and some are quite quirky, until you find out their backstories. This book is like taking a leisurely walk through a gorgeous forest, enjoying the wonders of nature, and humanity.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I had the most cathartic cry over this. So good!