If there’s one thing that every human on this earth has in common, it is that, at some point, we will have to deal with death. And while the contours of grief are different in every case, it is a comfort in a wild epoch to know that there are books out there, nonfiction and fiction, memoirs and beyond, that can provide something like comfort and succor. It is also a record of just how many writers make sense of heartbreak by writing through impossible times. Here are 25 books that look straight into the face of death and reveal something new about what it’s like to be alive, saddled with that terrible knowledge that someday, we will die.
H Is For Hawk, Helen McDonald
When McDonald’s father dies, she goes wild: adopting and training a goshawk, she finds herself in the natural world. This is a genre-busting dazzler of a book, worthy of the near-universal accolades that it’s received so far.
The Long Goodbye, Meghan O’Rourke
O’Rourke, the prodigiously talented poet, cultural critic, and author, was only thirty years old when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She found herself looking at a future where she’d be unmothered, unmoored; and in this powerful memoir, she moves upon the shoals of grief in what feels like real time. Essential reading if you feel too young to be facing great loss.
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,’ Didion writes in her moving work about the year following the death of her husband and a serious illness for her daughter (who later passed away, inspiring the follow-up, Blue Nights.). Didion’s precision in the face of devastation is its own comfort.
A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis
Hillary Mantel writes: “A Grief Observed is a lucid description of an obscure, muddled process, a process almost universal, one with no logic and no timetable. It is an honest attempt to write about aspects of the human and the divine which, he fears, “won’t go into language at all”. At the heart of the enterprise is his quarrel with God, and in the end God wins, first philosophically, then emotionally.”
The Guardians: An Elegy, Sarah Manguso
If someone dies, someone who, perhaps, you knew once, you were Facebook friends with, but life had moved on from the time that you were friends: this is the book for you. It’s an oddly specific elegy for a strange, unfocused grief.
Mourning Diary, Roland Barthes
A posthumous book about a posthumous era, philosopher and theorist Barthes’ record of the days after his mother’s death saw publication in 2010, thirty years after he died, hit by a laundry van.
The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh
Well, for a little levity, let’s take on Waugh’s American satire, set in the funeral industry, where two rival Brits are in a love triangle and working at a pet cemetery and a classic Hollywood cemetery. Sometimes you need to see just how absurd and venal people can be, even in the face of tragedy.
The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford
Minor British aristocrat and former It girl Mitford takes on the American funeral industry in this classic work. Essentially, she’s making an early argument for a “good death,” by illustrating the absurd and corrupt lengths that the funeral industry goes to in order to take advantage of grief.
The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
Tyler, whose 20th and final novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, came out last month, does a beautiful job showing the divisions and pain that grief can create in this work. It follows Macon Leary, an author of “travel guides for reluctant business travelers” whose son was shot in a tragedy. His marriage is crumbling and his life is steeped in numb mundanity; until he meets a woman, Muriel Pritchett, who changes things.
Bough Down, Karen Green
A beautiful work of art, Bough Down is a hybrid of prose poetry and collage that, taken together, is an elegy for a husband who committed suicide. It is a work of consolation, of sanity, in a world gone mad, and it stands on its own merits, above and beyond the fact that Green is the widow of the late David Foster Wallace.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed
Strayed’s mother was the love of her life, until she passed away from lung cancer at forty-five, while both women were attending college. Strayed, who was twenty-two at the time, was cut loose for the next few years. Until she went hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey, reckoning, and ablution that changed her path (and, you know, eventually became an Oscar-nominated, Reese Witherspoon-starring movie).
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel
The reason why you’ve even heard of the Bechdel test, this artistic breakthrough is a gorgeous graphic memoir about the author’s relationship with her closeted father, who eventually committed suicide. Gripping, non-linear, and beautifully put together, it’s a strong argument for why Bechdel is a (MacArthur-winning) genius.
Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir, David Rieff
Where Rieff, the son of noted intellectual Susan Sontag, bears witness to the last nine months of his mother’s life, recording each moment and struggle with doctors, drugs, and the hospital. Consider it the brutal coda to Sontag’s classic Illness As Metaphor.
Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward
If you are an American citizen, you should read this book. In it, Ward, the National Book Award-winning author of Salvage the Bones, writes about five Black men who died young. It’s an elegy for men, for a community, for her beloved brother — and it also a succinct illustration of just how dangerous it is to be a young Black man in the United States, and of the weight and meaning behind why Black lives matter.
The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks
A small town in upstate New York is ripped open after a bus accident in which the bulk of the community’s children died. In the switching narrative, Banks takes us inside a plurality of lives — grieving parents, the lawyer leading the class-action lawsuit, the survivors — and shows us the sort of devastation that grief can lay on a rural town.
A Very Easy Death, Simone De Beauvoir
Short, fluid, and beautiful, this is a thirty-day journal of what it was like for De Beauvoir to be at her mother’s deathbed. It is an attempt to look rationally at an irrational act; and the tension leads to a modern masterpiece of grief literature.
Half a Life, Darin Strauss
Strauss, the critically acclaimed author of Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy, begins this memoir with this brutal confession: “Half my life ago, I killed a girl.” It was an accident, a car accident that left a bicycle-riding classmate dead, and it placed a terrible weight on the rest of Strauss’ life, a weight that he probes in this powerful work.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: & Other Lessons From the Crematory, Caitlin Doughty
Thank goodness for Caitlin Doughty, an angel from the mortuary determined to make sure that the in-denial masses will, at some point, understand death. In this memoir, Doughty starts as an innocent, and finds her life’s passion in the crematory, working to become a mortician.
The Still Point of the Turning World, Emily Rapp
When Rapp’s son, Ronan, is diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, she tries to write her way out of the looming heartbreak, while enjoying the short amount of time she had with her son. It sounds impossible, right? The book is a study of just how to pull it off: immense love in the face of impending death.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach
Yep, Roach would delve into the secret lives of bodies donated for scientific research. She shows us the after life of our human bodies, even as the soul has left the flesh, with stories about decomposition and new frontiers in things like auto industry safety practices. She is also hilarious throughout.
Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala
The 2004 tsunami took everything from Deraniyagala, who was vacationing at a Sri Lankan resort. She lost her parents, her husband, her two small sons. This book was called “the most exceptional book about grief I’ve ever read,” by Cheryl Strayed in The New York Times, and Deraniyagala is an extraordinary writer about absence and sorrow, stubbornly alive, with all the force and sorrow that entails, at the end of the day.
Her, Christa Parravani
There is loss in this world, and then there is the unimaginable loss of losing your identical twin. In this memoir, Parravani pilots across a loss that is doubled; her beloved twin, Cara, died too soon, after a tumultuous life. Christa is burdened with how to survive, when her very own sister, her very own genes, her very own image is gone from this world.
Death Be Not Proud, John J. Gunther
Get ready for tears, as this father’s memoir of watching his bright, beautiful son die of brain cancer. The son remains cheerful, facing death with a brave face, while Gunther, a journalist, tries to move house and home in order to find a cure.
On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
The way we talk about death and the way we talk about grief is shaped by Kubler-Ross’ concept of the five stages, from anger to acceptance. Try the original, or one of her many spinoffs, in order to get her essential perspective on how humans heal after devastation.
Love Is a Mixtape: Live and Loss, One Song at a Time, Rob Sheffield
Sheffield, the longtime music journalist who makes enthusiasm into high art over at Rolling Stone, turns his eye on his own life in this memoir. He writes vividly of falling in love with Renee Crist, the coolest girl in the world, the sort of crush that you spend all night making a mixtape for just to prove that you’re worthy, and theirs is a giddy, gorgeous romance and marriage, until Renee dies in her twenties, leaving Sheffield wrestling with the word widow. A beautiful tribute to love, until death do us part, this book will make you cry and give you the right tunes in equal measure.