When my mother was first diagnosed with cancer two and half years ago, with a prognosis that was far from optimistic, I began searching for ways to manage my crushing sadness and the looming inevitability of the greatest loss I would face in my life thus far.
My hunt took me on the familiar path of books, which have always been a source of comfort in my life. I just knew that someone, somewhere had filled up the pages of a book with the exact emotions I was feeling, and through this universality of grief, could help me process them.
After reading books like Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” and Zauner’s “Crying in H Mart,” especially, I quickly found that the burden of loss is much easier to endure when reminded that you’re not the only one who has borne it.
Reading books on grief, whether they be fiction or works of truth, allowed me the ability to share and explore the complexities and trauma of this particular experience, all in my own time and without having to sit face-to-face with someone (which means I can ugly-cry in peace).
By the time my mother passed away in late May 2022, I had already read a couple of the books below, while others I have used like therapy in recent months. Some of them are unexpected, some feel profound and others contain really thoughtful musings on death –– but all have helped me find a way to move through life alongside my sadness. And they might be able to help you or a loved one, too.
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"Crying in H Mart" by Michelle Zauner
Michelle Zauner's bestselling memoir received a ton of press after it was published in April 2021, and I quickly added it to my virtual shopping cart not knowing how similar my and Zauner's experiences were.
In the book, we meet Zauner as a busy 25-year-old who has unintentionally distanced herself from her Korean roots. Then, when her mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Zauner is prompted to rediscover her culture in a way that's both food- and relationship-driven, and recounted in a way that's incredibly sensorial and satisfying.
Probably my favorite element of "Crying in H Mart" is the way that the author speaks with such honesty about her relationship with her mother. It's a complex one, like most mother-daughter relationships, and she is now being forced to observe it all in its entirety through the lens of losing her. It was incredibly relatable and helped me to break down my own memories with my mother and our connection to each other, outside of her illness.
Before I ever tucked into this book, I knew I was in good hands. Joan Didion has such a delicious way of telling stories and evoking privately lived experiences so that, in the end, you feel like they were your own.
In "The Year of Magical Thinking," Didion wields her quintessential way with words and uses them to tell her own personal story of loss, and about the natural ebbs of flows of life in general. It's just before Christmas and Didion's daughter falls ill, only for her husband to die a week later. Although this sounds completely doom and gloom, there's light at the end of the tunnel, I can assure you.
There's always something that has seemed a little wrong about witnessing the people you admire divulge on a personal topic such as grief. Reading this memoir helped drive home the fact that everyone experiences loss and that there's nothing shameful about sadness.
"My Year of Rest and Relaxation" by Ottessa Moshfegh
Although I didn't set out reading this book with the intent that it would help me process grief, it did give me a front-row seat to all ways it can be destructive given the right sort of environment.
Our narrator is a pretty, entitled Columbia graduate who is living a reckless existence after both of her wealthy parents pass away. For an entire year, she decides to hide from the world by ingesting a cocktail of irresponsibly prescribed drugs, one after another. In between her moments of hibernation, we witness the narrator's loopy ramblings, memories of her parents and her bizarre relationship with her best friend, who also happens to be losing her mother to cancer.
At the end of the "year of rest and relaxation," the reader sees that positive things can happen, even from some of life's cruelest curveballs.
This was another read that unintentionally allowed me to understand losing a parent and the trauma surrounding that loss. In Lisa Taddeo's book, our unlikely protagonist, Joan, leaves her sordid existence in New York and flees to the sweltering Topanga canyons of Los Angeles in search of the only person who can help her understand the deep and complex trauma of her past – trauma that most likely began when she lost both of her parents as a young girl. Throughout the course of the story, we see the ways in which Joan copes, channels her rage and ultimately finds the strength to move forward.
Although "Animal" is a work of fiction, Taddeo has been open about the death of both of her parents early in life and this relationship with loss is reflected in the experiences had by Joan. And while I wouldn’t recommend this novel for the faint of heart, it's completely riveting from start to finish and put together with some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read.
Admittedly the first time I had ever heard of Carole Radziwill and her New York Times-bestseller novel "What Remains" was during her tenure as a cast member on “The Real Housewives of New York.” On the show, she was known as the cool and intelligent former journalist that had suffered great tragedy when her best friend's plane crashed into an ocean, and then her husband passed away from cancer three weeks later.
Reading Radziwill's memoir felt kind of like reading a fairy tale, even in those dark moments of despair. She manages to articulate unimaginable loss in a way that's beautiful and clear to understand and ultimately lands on the importance of friendship, love and the concept of destiny.
I was a little bit hesitant to read this book. Although C.S. Lewis is a childhood-favorite author of mine, I know he is a devout Christian and that faith would be heavily referenced in his memoir – something that would be difficult for me to identify with as an atheist. After reading it, however, I appreciated Lewis' dissection of grief, his observation of faith and the honest way he expressed the dwindling of that belief system after losing his wife to cancer.
Towards the end of the memoir, which is bursting with profound descriptions and analogies of grief that ring so true to those who have experienced it, Lewis finds his faith again and, with it, a kind of peace.