Essential Titles for Supporting Patrons Who are Grieving | Collection Development

Build collections and help patrons with these key titles for mourning as a family and starting difficult conversations around death.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more than one million deaths worldwide, a figure that frighteningly continues to climb. Almost 300,000 of those deaths (as of December 14, 2020) have occurred in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Add to that the grief we experience as we confront police brutality and systemic racism in our country, and it is evident that we have much to mourn right now. Increasing the burden, social distancing guidelines do not allow for large-scale gatherings or in-person mourning, resulting in many grieving in isolation.

Building collections to help our communities is essential, but unfortunately there is no perfect "how-to" manual for grief and even though grief is something we will all experience at some point in our lives, it is still a subject that remains largely taboo in our society.

While there is no right way to mourn, there are many memoirs that describe this unique yet collective experience. Grieving library patrons may want to read about another person's experience losing someone close to them, or they may shy away from these stories and instead prefer help from handbooks or support resources. This article offers a range of titles. It also includes works that span the many different types of grief, such as anticipatory grief, which occurs before loss actually happens, as in the case of having a loved one with a terminal disease. There is disenfranchised grief—the mourning often unrecognized by others, such as over a miscarriage or the death of a pet. We also experience grief from losing things besides a loved one. The loss of a job, an identity, or a relationship can also lead to feelings of grief.

Children are known to grieve differently than adults, and chances are if there is an adult grieving, a child may be as well. Included in this list are resources for mourning as a family and starting difficult conversations around death.

Starred () titles are considered essential for most libraries.

View this list as a downloadable spreadsheet.

Biographies & Memoirs

Alexander, Elizabeth. The Light of the World. Grand Central. 2016. 240p. ISBN 9781455599868. pap. $11.99.
Alexander's marriage to her husband Ficre was a great love, one filled with his painting, her poetry, their cooking, and an extended family all over the world. So when Ficre dies suddenly, the life she has built with him and their two sons seems to disintegrate. This gorgeous, shimmering work from a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry is an homage to their 15-year partnership.

Deraniyagala, Sonali. Wave. Vintage. 2013. 240p. ISBN 9780345804310. pap. $15.95.
While vacationing with her family in Sri Lanka in 2004, Deraniyagala lost her husband, two sons, and parents in a devastating tsunami. Though a small volume, her memoir tells the story of a loss so big it raises the question, "How can a person bounce back from this?"

Downs, Maggie. Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime. Counterpoint. 2020. 304p. ISBN 9781640092921. $26.
When travel writer Downs’s mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, she vowed to see the places her mother always thought she would visit. This book is for readers who want to experience the thrill of solo travel as experienced by someone slowly losing a parent.

Granata, Vince. Everything Is Fine. Atria. Apr. 2021. 304p. ISBN 9781982133443. $27.
When Granata received a call from his father and asked if he was OK, the response changed his life forever: "No. Tim killed Mom." In this memoir, Granata follows his brother's descent into mental illness as he confronts his own grief after losing his mother.

Greene, Jayson. Once More We Saw Stars. Knopf. 2019. 245p. ISBN 9781524733537. $25.99.
On a Sunday morning in spring, two-year-old Greta Greene was resting on a bench on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her grandmother when debris fell from the building above them and killed her. Greta's father, Jayson, a contributing editor at Pitchfork, writes about what happened after the accident as he and his wife began a journey of grief, healing, and, eventually, hope.

Kalanithi, Paul. When Breath Becomes Air. Random. 2016. 228p. ISBN 9780812988406. $26.
On the cusp of completing his training to be a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer, a terminal diagnosis. In this profoundly moving memoir, he faces his mortality, meditating on what it means to live a meaningful life.

McCracken, Elizabeth. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. Back Bay. 2010. 208p. ISBN 9780316027663. pap. $15.99.
McCracken and her husband were living in a farmhouse in France, awaiting the birth of their first child. But a week past her due date, she learned her son had no heartbeat. This exquisitely written memoir reflects on a type of grief rarely talked about in our culture: that arising from miscarriage and stillbirth.

O’Rourke, Meghan. The Long Goodbye. Riverhead. 2012. 320p. ISBN 9781594485664. pap. $16.
After her mother died of cancer at 55, O'Rourke was surprised by the depth of her own sorrow. Even though grief is a universal experience, she felt frustrated by how it can be so easily swept under the rug. O’Rourke's deeply moving memoir blends research with her lived experience.

Rosenthal, Jason. My Wife Said You May Want To Marry Me. Harper. 2020. 240p. ISBN 9780062940599. $26.99.
In this follow-up to children's book author Amy Krouse Rosenthal's popular op-ed in the New York Times, "You May Want To Marry My Husband," Rosenthal shares his own pain from watching his wife die from ovarian cancer and the new perspective it gave him.

Seager, Sara. The Smallest Lights in the Universe. Crown. 2020. 320p. ISBN 9780525576259. $28.
Astronomer and planetary scientist Seager was familiar with the mystery of our universe from her work searching for exoplanets that can sustain life. But when her husband died unexpectedly and left her widowed with two small children at age 40, she was forced to find sustenance through her own earthly connections.

Streeter, Leslie Gray. Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like “Journey” in the Title. Little, Brown. 2020. 273p. ISBN 9780316490719. $21.99
Streeter's memoir of losing her husband to a heart attack and then having to embrace what she calls her "new widow lifestyle" is irreverent and funny as she explores widowhood through the prism of race and aging.

Ward, Jesmyn. Men We Reaped. Bloomsbury USA. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9781608195213. $26.
Ward chronicles the lives of five young Black men, including her brother, who lost their lives in her hometown in rural Mississippi. More than a grief memoir, Ward's book explores the topic of race and how Black men are treated in this country.
 

Self-Help & Handbooks

Devine, Megan. It's OK That You're Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. Sounds True. 2017. 280p. ISBN 9781622039074. pap. $17.99.
Rather than showing readers how to fix their grief, Devine's guide presents it as a mystery to be honored, not something to just get over. It's full of practical advice for managing stress and anxiety as well.

James, John W. The Grief Recovery Handbook, 20th Anniversary Expanded Edition: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses Including Health, Career, and Faith. Morrow. 2017.  240p. ISBN 9780061686078. pap. $16.99.
Updated to commemorate its 20th anniversary, this handbook walks readers through the grief recovery process. This new edition includes information on healing from trauma and PTSD, as well as grief resulting from the loss of faith, money, and/or health.

McCormack, Jerusha Hull. Grieving: A Beginner’s Guide. Paraclete. 2006. 148p. ISBN 9781557254931. pap. $14.99.
This compact guide takes readers through situations they may encounter while grieving. It also offers compassionate advice for supporting grieving individuals.

Rando, Therese A. How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies. Bantam. 1991. 338p. ISBN 9780553352696. pap. $18.
Considered by many to be the seminal work on the topic, this comprehensive guide covers a diverse range of types of grief and will help readers understand their grief as well as find ways to support and care for themselves.

Raynor, Andrea. The Alphabet of Grief: Words To Help in Times of Sorrow. WaterBrook. 2017. 160p. ISBN 9780735290297. $14.99
Chaplain and spiritual counselor Raynor uses the letters of the alphabet as prompts for readers to reflect on their grief journey. Each chapter ends with a meditation and an affirmation.

Wade, Breeshia. Grieving While Black: An Antiracist Take on Oppression and Sorrow. North Atlantic. Feb. 2021. 208p. ISBN 9781623175511. pap. $14.95.
Wade, a Black end-of-life caregiver, uses her own life story and that of the people she works with to explore Black grief and its relation to systemic oppression.
 

For Families

Jeffers, Oliver. The Heart and the Bottle. Philomel. 2010. 32p. ISBN 9780399254529. $18.99.
A little girl likes to read with an older man, presumably her grandfather, in his chair. But when the chair is empty one day, the girl bottles up her heart and wears it on a string around her neck. This subtle but beautifully illustrated picture book will help kids talk about their own grief.

Schwiebert, Pat with Chuck DeKlyen & Taylor Bills (illus.). Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss. Grief Watch. 2006. 56p. ISBN 9780961519766. $19.95.
This book follows Grandy, who, after suffering a great loss, decides to whip up a batch of “tear soup.” Appropriate for both adults and children, this work gives advice for grieving many different types of loss.

Silverman, Phyllis R. & Madelyn Kelly. A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children: Rebuilding Your Family After the Death of a Loved One. Oxford Univ. 2009. 272p. ISBN 9780195328844. $20.95.
A scholar on children’s grief and a widow with two children explore how to support a child through the grieving process. Research-based guidance is combined with checklists of things to think about and watch.
 

Graphic Nonfiction

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. 2007. 240p. ISBN 9780618871711. pap. $16.99.
After Bechdel’s father was struck and killed by a truck in what she believed was a suicide, she slowly learned about her father’s sexuality while reflecting on her own sexuality and the parallels between them.

Hart, Tom. Rosalie Lightning: A Graphic Memoir. St. Martin’s. 2016. 272p. ISBN 9781250049940. pap. $19.99.
Eisner-nominated cartoonist Hart’s graphic memoir is a tribute to his daughter Rosalie, who died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of two. In beautiful images, he attempts to find meaning in the face of unimaginable loss.

Linthout, Willy. Years of the Elephant. Ponent Mon. tr. from Dutch by Michiel Horn. 2009. 162p. ISBN 9788492444304. pap. $18.95.
Belgian comic artist Linthout's story of Carl and Simone, who lose their adult son, Jack, to suicide, is based on the author's own life.
 

Demystifying Death

Doughty, Caitlin. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. Norton. 2015. 272p. ISBN 9780393351903. pap. $15.95.
The author applied to a job at a mortuary in Oakland, CA, where she then spent six years cremating bodies, shaving corpses, and picking up stillbirths from the hospital. This memoir is a call to arms for our society to pull back the formaldehyde curtain and face death head-on.

Doughty, Caitlin (text) & Dianné Ruz (illus.). Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? And Other Questions About Dead Bodies. Norton. 2019. 240p. ISBN 9780393652703. pap. $15.95.
Mortician Doughty answers questions from kids about death and dying like, "If I die making a funny face, will it be stuck like that forever?"

Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Norton. 2003. 303p. ISBN 9780393050936. pap. $16.95.
Roach writes about what happens to cadavers after they have been donated to science, as well as how cadavers were used in the past.

An LJ reviewer since 2013, Erin Shea is a Branch Supervisor at The Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT. She was a 2014 Library Journal Mover & Shaker.

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