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Recommendations on Grief and Loss: Patron and Staff Picks from Open Book Hour


Update: This post now includes recommendations from NYPL patrons who attended our March 9 Open Book Hour at the Mid-Manhattan Library at 42nd Street, featured below.

First, here are five recently published books related to our March theme, "Grief and Loss":

Modern Loss
Book of Resting Places
Grief Works
Furnishing Eternity
Books on grief and loss

Modern Loss: Candid Conversation About Grief: Beginners Welcome by Rebecca Soffer
Fresh, messy, and irreverent stories and illustrations from the Modern Loss website. Sections include Collateral Damage, Triggers, Intimacy, Identity, Inheritance, Loss in the Digital Universe, Work, "Griefspeak," along with things you never thought you’d have to think about in a million years.

The Book of Resting Places: A Personal History of Where We Lay the Dead by Thomas Mira y Lopez
Half memoir, half travelogue, this collection of essays on resting places spans culture and time, beginning with a backyard buckeye tree that may be the spiritual home of Mira y Lopez’s father—though he'd rather not think about it. But he does, deeply contemplating what places like this mean to those of us who remain above the soil.

Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving by Julia Samuel
This UK bestseller is organized into case studies, based on the person's relationship with the dead: partner, parent, sibling, child and, finally, those facing one’s own mortality. The trajectory is never the same, and none resembles the “five stages of grief," but it is illuminating and reassuring to witness the compassionate treatment of the differing journeys.

Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life by David Giffels 
What's one way to confront the inevitable and maybe save a few bucks when it’s your turn at the mortuary? Build your own casket. This is what Giffels (“The bard of Akron, Ohio”) decides to do as a way to connect with his aging woodworker/engineer father. As you might expect, death and loss are close at hand in this memoir, but so is humor, tenderness, and love.

From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty
A mortician and leader of the death positive movement (see point #2, "I believe that the culture of silence around death should be broken through discussion, gatherings, art, innovation, and scholarship"), Doughty takes us on a whirlwind tour of mourning and burial rituals in other cultures, with the aim of helping us reclaim meaning in our own.

Notes from March Open Book Hour

On Friday, March 9, readers at Mid-Manhattan Library at 42nd Street shared a wide variety of books that have helped them cope with grief and loss, from practical advice to favorite poetry, from memoirs of bereavement to fictional stories of loss. 

Passed and Present book cover

I started off our recommendations swap with two recent nonfiction selections. My first choice was Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive by Alison Gilbert, which offers ideas for projects and activities to help remember loved ones, and advice for dealing with personal effects and creating meaningful keepsakes.

Andrea seconded my other recommendation, Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life by David Giffels. She appreciated the humor and the author’s description of his almost sibling-like relationship with his father. When she first picked up the book, Andrea feared it might be morbid; instead she found it to be an uplifting, "joyful" book about death.

On My Own book cover

Helen related to On My Own, NPR host Diane Rehm’s 2016 memoir of her husband’s prolonged suffering and death from Parkinson’s disease and her struggle dealing with his illness and death. Helen shared, "The author describes how her life changed after her husband of 54 years died. She tells how alone she felt and also gives background of her life and family."

Miriam recommended books and articles that helped her, including two classic meditations on grief and the loss of a spouse; The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis. "Didion writes about the sudden, unexpected death of her husband, also a prominent author and script writer," said Miriam. "She describes details of shock, memories, support, ending with the death of their daughter shortly afterwards.”

About Stieg Larsson and Me book cover

Joan M. recommended “There Are Things I Want You to Know” About Stieg Larsson and Me by Eva Gabrielsson. Impressed by author Stieg Larsson’s concern for the mistreatment of women and his famous protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, Joan wanted to learn more about him. Her search led her to the memoir of Larsson’s life partner of 32 years, which provides insight into how and why Larsson wrote and the sources for the character Lisbeth. The memoir is also a moving account of shared life and love and Gabrielsson’s grief and loss at Larsson’s premature death at age 50.

Joan W. found Cecelia Ahern’s 2004 novel P. S. I Love You a moving story of holding on and letting go at the same time. A young widow’s mourning and re-engagement with life are helped by a series of notes her husband left her to read after his death. "It’s an entertaining way to appreciate how a couple deals with early death and its aftermath," said Joan, "and the way they have of staying close and letting go." Some of our group remembered the 2008 film based on the novel, and we speculated about the first use of the phrase "P.S. I Love You" in popular culture.  

Janet's One Hundred and One Famous Poems
Janet's copy of "One Hundred and One Famous Poems"

Janet brought her extremely well-read copy of One Hundred and One Famous Poems With a Prose Supplement edited by Roy J. Cook, a gift she from her mother when Janet had her tonsils removed at age seven. She shared that these poems have provided her with much comfort at different times throughout her life. The entire anthology even led her to discover more poetry when she was older. Janet's copy is from 1929, but you can read the 1920 edition online in HathiTrust!

Another reader recommended the anthology The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, edited by Kevin Young.

Additional Recommendations

Many readers find refuge in a good mystery. Louisa is a fan of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache mysteries, and recently enjoyed A Great Reckoning, the 2016 entry in the series.

"It is a mystery that takes place in Quebec, Canada," she explained. "I initially became interested because I once lived there. [Penny is a] very visual writer and [there are] good storylines. [I] never figure out the plot until the end.”

Elizabeth has been listening to the Harry Potter series on e-audiobook and was reminded of how the theme of loss runs through the books, reinforcing the idea that loved ones are never completely lost to us; some part of them remains with us always.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry

Thinking about children dealing with grief and loss reminded Helen of Fredrik Backman’s novel My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch. The novel is told in the voice of seven-year old Elsa, who has lost her beloved, and somewhat  eccentric, grandmother. Her grandmother leaves Elsa a series of letters to be delivered, leading her to find new friends and discover connections between favorite bedtime stories and the real world.

Thank you to everyone who attended Open Book Hour and to Elizabeth for taking detailed notes on the discussion. Please feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments below. 

What books do people talk about at our book socials? All kinds! Check out these reading lists from past events.


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