7 Comforting Books About Loss and Life


My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in December 2009, healthy and well. Six months later, they were both gone, dying four weeks apart, taken by pancreatic cancer (my mother) and a freak brain infection (my father). The chaotic whirlwind of managing their care and their deaths was all-consuming, allowing for only the briefest moments of reflection. Which made the roaring silence after they were gone all the more terrifying.

Fortunately, I had my son to think about, 6 years old and very overwhelmed by all the changes both around him and in me. So I bought the children’s book Tear Soup to read to him, to try to provide simple concepts about what he might be feeling. Turns out, Tear Soup was even more important for me. Its honest, raw, and beautifully poetic allegory about what we do with grief reconnected me to my faith in words and the solace of storytelling as a way to find comfort, and company, in life’s dark and lonely times.  

Here are the books that found their way to me on my very long journey of grief, which, of course, I am still living today, 8 years later. I cried really quite a lot when I read each one—some stories of other people’s terrible losses, some just terrifically profound meditations on how we carry our experience of living—but each one made me feel “Yes, yes, this is what it is to be human. I can keep going.”


Tear Soup book cover

Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen

“Grief always takes longer to cook than anyone wants it to.” This is the just one of the wise things the kindly lead character, Grandy, shares in this beautifully illustrated book, as she stands at the stove stirring a pot full of her bitter tears for an unnamed loss. She moves about her home slowly, collecting all the memories, good and bad, she wants to keep, and adding them to the soup to make a “large, overflowing pot of memories.” In telling the story of tear soup, Grandy touches on differences in the way people grieve (her husband makes his own soup), the power of comfort foods (chocolate and mashed potatoes go into the soup), her friends’ wish that she would finish making her soup, and we even meet Miss Cries-A-Lot who thinks Grandy isn’t making the soup quite the right way (she is summarily dismissed; only Grandy knows how to make her own tear soup). The tale artfully captures the aching solitude of loss, while also showing that grief can be—and, in fact, is—love: love for those we miss, and love for ourselves as we learn slowly how to move on.


When Things Fall Apart book cover

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

This book was already on my shelf when my parents died, and rediscovering it after those losses was like breathing pure oxygen. Chödrön is one of the most well-known (and well-loved) Tibetan Buddhist authors in the west. Her perspective on how facing our fears and accepting the pain of loss are both pathways to living a life of less agony—the pain she can’t help with; the agony, she can—is warm, approachable, self-effacing, and sometimes damn charming. Don’t fear a mental or spiritual workout: it’s a book of loosely connected essays that can be picked up and skimmed until you find a thought or idea that hits you right in the chest. 


H Is for Hawk book cover

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

After her father’s sudden death, Helen Macdonald—a poet, historian, and longtime falconer—attempts to bury her shattered heart and mind in adopting and training a fierce goshawk, a large predator of a bird. What follows is an absolutely engrossing story of feathers and prey and claws and wounds and the search for something that feels concrete in her world, since she is in many ways now lost to herself. Macdonald writes, “I now know that I am not trusting anyone or anything any more…. It’s like living without sleep. Eventually it will kill you.” An absolutely breathtaking piece of writing, and watching her find her way back to herself—slowly, unevenly—is familiar and satisfying.


Rare Bird book cover

Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

Anna Whiston-Donaldson lost her 12-year-old son, Jack, in a particularly nightmarish way: She had sent her children out to play in the rain, not knowing that a “paltry creek” in their neighborhood had swelled to many times its normal size. He was swept away, his body found a day later after. I watched part of this story unfold on Anna’s blog in real time, which was devastating. The book she has written, however, is devastating, raw, and absolutely brilliant, in the crystalline, light-shedding sense. She doesn’t hide the anger, the doubt, the self-loathing, and the endless, twisting confusion of trying to set the world to rights. She allows herself to be angry at God, who had been such a strong anchor in her and her family’s life. And she shares all the strange, luminous moments that can happen after a loved one dies: the moments she feels her son, or God, or both, close to her, the unexplained coincidences, the reminders that she will never really be separated from Jack. She writes a dotted, weaving path straight to the heart of faith, a path anyone can follow, no god required.


Broken Open book cover

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser

Sometimes there is safety in numbers, and that is what I found in this book that is part memoir, part guidebook for surviving life’s most crushing moments. Elizabeth Lesser, founder of The Omega Institute, one of the nation’s largest wellness and spirituality centers, proposes that these moments can be turned into what she calls “the Phoenix Process,” a way to become more open (the “open” in broken open) to the mysterious and beautiful nature of life, even through pain. I loved this book for how I could dip in and out, as she shares the stories of dozens and dozens of people she’s encountered in life or through the Institute. Some of the examples are just two and three pages long; some sections are long meditations on her own “mistakes” and “evil” and how living those made her bigger, freer. And on days I was really struggling, I would simply open the book and seek out all the italicized scraps of poetry, song lyrics, and wise quotations that are sprinkled throughout, to grab a little dose of comfort.  


The Year of Magical Thinking book cover

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, shared a lifetime of writing, both together and apart, 40 years of marriage and many books, movies, essays, and one daughter. That daughter is in the hospital when the book opens, in septic shock; the couple comes home from their hospital bedside vigil to sit down to dinner—and a massive heart attack fells John before Didion’s very eyes, so abrupt at first she thinks it is a joke. What follows is a brave, stark account of how her brilliant mind copes with the insanity of the first year of grief, the way in which life is suddenly emptied of meaning, and yet, the days go on. Didion’s gift here—as it has always been—is her taut, observational prose, forever the journalist. The absence of mournful and hysterical language makes the mourning and the hysteria she feels exquisitely, painfully true to the experience. 


Help Thanks Wow book cover

Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott

In this slim volume, Lamott charms with her trademark, irresistible, sacrilegious way of writing about faith. (She is a devout fan of god-with-a-capital-G God, but leaves it to us to decide what “great mystery” it is to whom or which we each pray.) It’s short, and sweet, and funny, filled with Lamott’s burbling, gamboling observations on pain, love, loss, and the general difficulty of existing: “Human lives are hard, even those filled with health and privilege, and don’t make much sense,” she writes. Yes, Anne, yes. Lamott pulls us through this mess with good humor and manic delight, and makes prayer feel like it’s an unfussy magic trick that holds us up when we are down. The three prayers—help, thanks, wow—mark the progression of what healing feels like: first, the hurt; then, the small bits of comfort we find wherever we can; and, at last, the eventual return to wonder and moments of joy, ours for the taking when we are ready.

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