Welcome to Reading Lists, comprehensive book guides from the Strategist designed to make you an expert in hyperspecific or newsworthy topics (or at least a fascinating dinner-party companion), from microdosing and psychedelic therapy to French cooking. Here, a selection of books about understanding grief and the grieving process.
Processing grief can be a significant challenge to those directly experiencing loss and their loved ones. According to Dr. Lynn Horridge, “People’s experience of grief is so subjective, and as a culture, we suffer from a lack of literacy around death and grieving. This leaves people feeling isolated and unsupported in their grief, at a time when they need people and support most.” While no single text can offer a simple answer, we’ve compiled a list of books that can, at the very least, help you better understand the grieving process. “When we suffer core-level losses, the narrative arc of our life stories is torn apart,” explains Dr. Miriam Benhaim, clinical director of the Center for Loss and Renewal. “There are no shortcuts in this process, but books can help to repair and rewrite those narratives as we learn about the stories and struggles of those who have gone before us in meeting these challenges and in validating our feelings and reactions.”
We consulted a group of grief-focused psychologists, social workers, and counselors to find the best books about grief and grieving that cover a range of experiences and relationships. Our panel of experts includes social worker R. Benyamin Cirlin, executive director at the Center for Loss and Renewal; grief counselor Diane Brennan; author of Mindfulness and Grief Heather Stang; psychotherapist and author Karla Helbert; social worker Dave Roberts; Dr. Rebecca S. Morse; senior director of advocacy and training at The Dougy Center Dr. Donna L. Schuurman; grief counselor Shakira Perez-Jones; Dr. Laura Goorin; social worker Rebecca Gerstein; Dr. Alexis Tomarken; family grief counselor Jill S. Cohen; psychotherapist Ruth Kreitzman, social worker Colleen Bloom of the Center for Complicated Grief; and Dr. Gloria Horsley and Dr. Heidi Horsley of the Open to Hope Foundation and authors of Teen Grief Relief. As always, each book comes recommended by at least two experts.
Best book about dealing with grief after a death
Three of our experts recommended this text by Dr. Therese Rando, a pioneer in the field of grief counseling and the current Clinical Director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss. Her seminal guide to grief gently walks readers through essential and often overlooked aspects of the process while remaining inclusive of all types of losses.
According to Benyamin, the book is essential reading because her description of the grieving process is both “comprehensive and illuminating.” Brennan adds that it covers both the “practical and emotional steps necessary to recover from a major loss” from managing funeral preparations to learning how to accept help from friends and family. And Cohen calls it is “a classic” that is “practical, inspiring, and so worthwhile to read.”
Best books on grief for children
Obviously, the way a child comes to understand loss is quite different from the way an adult does. When it comes to explaining death to young children, Cirlin recommends finding books that “help to contextualize the role of change, loss, and death in our lives” by finding metaphors in nature or the world at large. Four of our experts cited The Invisible String as a go-to book “that skillfully communicates to children the reassuring meaning of attachment and its importance in all kinds of losses,” says Kreitzman. Gerstein adds that she loves this book “because it can be used to discuss any type of loss” and the metaphor of the string is easily understood by children of all ages.
While it may be a parent’s first instinct to shield children from the realities of death, several of our experts noted that it is more harmful in the long term not to facilitate these discussions. And a book provides a simple yet effective way to break the ice with kids. Three of our experts suggested The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, which follows the life cycle of a leaf named Freddie and his friends. “Simple and wise, this story is an allegory about the balance between life and death,” says Helbert. Cirlin adds that it is filled “with great warmth” and “meant to be read and reread.”
Three of our experts — Ruth Kreitzman, Jill S. Cohen, and Donna Schuurman — suggested keeping When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death on hand to answer any questions kids might have. “This book provides clear and straightforward information about death in a very engaging format,” says Kreitzman; and Cohen says it is “full of compassion and comfort.” Schuurman adds, “This is one of the few books specifically for children that doesn’t oversimplify or give pat answers about why people die. It explores the things children wonder about as they try to make sense of dying and death, as well as how to cope.”
Best book about the science of grief
The Other Side of Sadness, by George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, was recommended by two of our experts for those seeking a more research-based look at grief. “Bonanno is an astute observer of the intersection between science and soul-searching,” says Goorin. He couples the story of the death of his father with easy-to-read scientific research, based on hundreds of interviews. Bonanno is best known for introducing the concept of resilience into the field of bereavement and trauma, and explores this concept in-depth here. “If you’re interested in a scientific look at bereavement and what Bonanno does and does not think our culture gets right, this is a good choice,” adds Brennan.
Best books about sudden loss
Compared to an expected loss when the bereaved have time to prepare and say good-bye, sudden loss often “robs the bereaved person of a sense of safety and normalcy,” explains Benhaim, who compares it to an act of sudden violence. “This book does a masterful job of describing this dizzying and destabilizing assault on the inner and outer life of the mourner.” Stang notes that the book covers a wide range of material “from offering the wise advice to ‘treat yourself as if you were in intensive care,’ to debunking harmful myths, and even offering guidance on dealing with the media,” which makes it “an invaluable resource addressing all ages and relationships.” While this is not a memoir, the authors take the time to address their own experiences with a sudden loss in the first few chapters, which establishes a “sense of safety and companionship” between them and the reader, she adds.
This book is “for anyone dealing with the traumatic death of a loved one,” says Helbert, and is general enough to apply to most relationships whether you are dealing with the loss of a child, spouse, or friend. “She emphasizes the reality that grieving takes time and should be given the time it needs,” says Perez-Jones, adding that it teaches mourners how to “eliminate the need to acquire the permission or approval of others” while they navigate how to “redefine life” after an unexpected loss.
Best book for parents of bereaved children
Parenting a grief-stricken child — especially when a parent is also mourning — can be new territory for a lot of adults. According to Schuurman, “This book helps parents navigate their own grief, as well as better understand how to support their children following the death of a family member” by offering advice and strategies. The book is geared toward all age groups and covers everything from explaining death to a toddler to how best to manage the shifting moods of a grieving teenager. By weaving her own story of loss with the stories of dozens of young people and their parents, the authors help readers “feel a greater sense of normalcy in the midst of an abnormal and terrible event,” says Cirlin.
Best books for bereaved teens
“The death of a parent throws the teenager into a disrupted and potentially isolated life because it is so far from the norm of most of his and her peers,” explains Cirlin. So it is essential that teenagers, in particular, feel connected to a community that is dealing with the same feelings and circumstances. This “very relatable and real” book of personal essays written by grieving young adults covers almost every grief and loss topic, and “pulls no punches,” says Schuurman.
“The author explains to teens what to expect from the loss of a loved one and how to cope, grieve, and live through and with this grief,” says Cohen. Helbert describes it this way: “Just what it says. Straight talk about death when any loved one or relative has died.” This straightforward and practical text covers topics ranging from “Self-Inflicted Death” to “Crying” while exploring the tough questions teens may have, she says.
Best books about grieving a sibling
“Siblings are often called the ‘forgotten mourner’ because attention usually is placed on surviving parents, spouses, and children related to the deceased person,” explains Cirlin. Gerstein, who is a self-described member of this group of mourners, suggests this book by Alan D. Wolfelt because it “validates the sibling relationship and introduces the reader to the concept of disenfranchised grief, which many siblings feel but have difficulty articulating.” Wolfelt, who is the founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, provides 100 action-oriented ideas for embracing your grief while honoring the relationship you had with your sibling.
Both Cohen and Horseley recommend this book for bereaved siblings, which features both memoir writing and journalistic research. The author reflects on her personal experience of sibling illness and loss, while also gathering insights and stories from over 200 sibling survivors, says Horseley. Because professional texts for this kind of loss can be limited, the feelings and voices of survivors are highlighted and uplifted.
Surviving the Death of a Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies seeks “to elevate and elucidate the experience and altered lives of siblings who have lost lifelong companions and friends,” says Cirlin. Cohen particularly likes that the book offers both general guidance and “great coping strategies” to those grieving this particular and profound type of loss.
Best book about the adult loss of a parent
“Many clients in our practice are surprised by the depth of their grief after the loss of a parent and struggle with a newfound sense of identity and aloneness,” says Benhaim. Because this is not an “out of order” death, like a parent grieving the loss a child, or a parental death experienced by a young child or teen, an adult child may feel pressure to cope with the loss of an elderly parent quickly. However, “the death of a lifelong witness to one’s existence is a huge change.” Cohen recommends The Orphaned Adult because it “validates how hard, perhaps surprisingly, it is as a grown adult to handle” the loss of a parent and explores “how this signifies so much more in the ‘big picture’ of an adult’s life.”
Best book about supporting someone who is grieving
Figuring out strategies to understand and support a loved one experiencing a traumatic loss can be very difficult. Many of our experts noted that the current culture surrounding death does not adequately prepare individuals with the right tools. Schuurman recommends this text for bereaved individuals and especially to those who support them, because the author, who is both a therapist and bereaved partner, “understands the pain that grieving people carry on top of their actual grief, including the pain of being judged, dismissed, and misunderstood” by others. The book challenges the myths of grief, while also outlining skills and suggestions for providing comfort and care. “Megan Devine has captured the grief experience: grief is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be honored.”
Best book for bereaved spouses
Far and away the most recommended book — by eight (!) of our experts — was The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, which chronicles her first year coping with the sudden loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. While this is not a self-help text, many of our experts recommended memoirs as a powerful tool. Tomarken generally recommends memoirs to her patients because people benefit “from feeling the familiarity of their experience.” Gerstein says, “Didion’s book on losing her husband is the holy grail of grief books. It is raw, personal, and captures the experience of grief up close.” Schuurman adds that “she writes in detail about both the existential and mundane aspects of grief.” While Goorin notes that Didion is describing her experience with chronic grief, which is a “less common response to loss” it is still a stunning “depiction of the depths of suffering” that other bereaved spouses are sure to feel connected to.
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