Like each of you, my needs and preferences for resources and support related to loss shift quite frequently. I have bookcases filled with volumes on grief and loss, overwhelmingly long bibliographies for bereavement counseling, and more podcast episodes than I could reasonably listen to and absorb throughout the rest of my days. My moods shift, my viewpoints change, and I continue to gather losses and to support others as they do as well. So a volume that may be helpful to me one year I find nearly useless the next. Films I once studied to help me open to my own grief and to help others mourn sometimes become stale for me. I spent years avoiding grief memoirs altogether, harshly judging them as myopic and self-indulgent. Then, I devoted one entire summer to reading nothing except grief memoirs. During a different season of grief, I sneered at any volume for bereaved persons that provided what felt like directives. Honestly, I still sometimes sneer at those; invitations work better for me than instructions.
Because I am always changing, what helps me likewise always changes. Therefore, I continually expand the resources I find and those I am able to recommend to others.
No matter what my mood, what my particular needs are, I continue to return to four volumes and to give them to almost everyone I meet who has some connection to grief. Two of these function as psychological guides, and two are grief memoirs. However, those such genre distinctions become blurry here, which is exactly why these four are my favorite books for grief support.
Megan Devine and Patrick O’Malley are both therapists whose personal experience with loss catapulted them into new realms of awareness regarding bereavement. Each one found that all their training, all their knowledge about grief, did not make their loss any easier to handle. They discovered that they previously had not been grief experts. Instead, they realized that they became experts (only in their own individual grief) when they experienced the loss of their beloved partner (Devine) and child (O’Malley). Many of us arrive in bereavement counseling jobs through our own great losses; those who do not almost always eventually encounter great loss and are humbled by our previous lack of expertise (watch for a future blog on this subject coming out in November!). Indeed, as Megan notes, shortly after her sweetheart died, she began to regret many of the things she used to say to her therapy clients regarding grief. As Maya Angelou said, “When we know better, we do better.” And, unfortunately, knowing better in grief usually requires that we lose something very dear to us.
Devine’s It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand and O’Malley’s Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss both describe how challenging it can be to grieve in our contemporary Western world, where employers regularly limit bereavement leave to three days and friends and loved ones wander out of our lives when our mourning exceeds the limits of time or intensity they have subconsiously determined are “normal”. Both of these volumes consistantly remind us that whatever our grief looks like, it is normal. Devine’s title clearly indicates her strong stance that our culture is not supportive of individual grief experiences. O’Malley seems to agree with this assessment. Rather than instructions, what both of these volumes provide are invitations. They exist as encouragement for you to feel and express whatever is true for you.
My two favorite grief memoirs are likewise invitations. Both written by parents after the loss of a child, Mirabai Starr’s Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation and Jayson Greene’s Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir are intensely intimate. They detail and deconstruct the authors’ sorrow in raw and stunning language.
Greene narrates one specific period of intense loss, while Starr examines a lifetime through the lens of loss, consistently returning to the most painful of all. Why am I drawn to these two volumes again and again, when each was created by a parent of a deceased child, something I am not? I find both of these exceptional in terms of their writing, their honesty, their insight. The very best memoirs take us through a tiny door into the experience of another, one whose life may be vastly different from ours. But through that experience we are somehow woven into the collective.
Amy's Favorite Books (right now)
And with grief, that is vitally important. Our loss needs to be approached as the unique, never before and never again existence that it is (just like each relationship that precedes each loss). It also needs to be treated as part of the collective of human experiences. It both separates us from all others and, when honored with presence and witness, weaves us into the fabric of all humanity. These four volumes are stunning examples of both the separating and the weaving.