These are books I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But when the worst happens, that’s when they’re necessary. Here are my observations about some books I’ve read (I want to say, “books I’ve used,” since I’ve deployed them as tools) during a terrible time.
First, here are two I cannot recommend:
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
Warning: This is a brutally honest book, and Lewis does not pull his punches. His grief was so raw as he was writing, that it is agonizing to read. I confess that I was rather traumatized while (and after) reading this book. Lewis gives us some difficult truths about Christianity and life after death—and I believe he is trustworthy— and it’s not comforting. It just isn’t.
This book looks innocent: it’s a slim volume by a man best-known for The Chronicles of Narnia. But I tell you: steer clear unless you have a stout heart. He does not aim to comfort.
Letting Go with Love: The Grieving Process by Nancy O’Connor
This book made me mad. (I’m using polite language here. It really actually made me something rather stronger than “mad,” but I’m refraining from using the language that nearly aches to burst forth.) Here’s why: I turned to the section about losing a parent, and the author suggests that since losing a parent is not as difficult as other losses. Hmmph. I put the book down right there and hauled it back to the library directly. So there.
Now, on to the good ones:
On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler
Calm, soothing, and reassuring. This book is beautiful. Kubler-Ross is famous as the author of the book On Death and Dying, which introduced the now well-known five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The authors explain the importance of mourning, crying, and anger—and how, without them, a person cannot heal after the loss of a loved one. This information alone is terribly comforting.
They acknowledge that the stage of “acceptance” does not mean that a person “is OK” with a loss, but instead that one accepts that life will never be the same. And they describe the way one may be “haunted” by a loss—by having traumatic memories of a loved one’s suffering, for example.
Every word is true, every word is thoughtful, and every word is kind. This is a good book. It is my top book recommendation on this topic.
When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner
In this wonderful book, Rabbi Harold Kushner addresses the sense of perplexed abandonment and anger that a person feels upon experiencing a loss. He writes from experience: his son had a debilitating medical condition that cut his life very short.
The main strength of this book is that it helps make sense of the senseless.
Kushner posits that when bad things happen to good people, we are faced with a conundrum:
either God is all good, or God is all powerful—but God cannot be both.
If God were both all good and all powerful, how could such terrible things happen? It doesn’t make sense. Kushner’s suggestion is that God is indeed entirely good, but is not always all powerful.
This can be a difficult idea to swallow, especially when a person of faith considers all she has been taught about God’s omnipotence. But when our feeble little selves are faced with situations that make absolutely no sense, what else can a person do? I’ve determined that it’s more comforting to believe that God is loving and unable to help in all situations, than to believe otherwise.
What to Do When a Loved One Dies: A Practical and Compassionate Guide to Dealing with Death on Life’s Terms by Eva Shaw
This book’s title is accurate; the book is both practical and compassionate. Thank goodness for such books.
It is filled with information that I found helpful and comforting—about how to approach holidays and anniversaries, what to expect during the weeks and months following the death of a loved one (with specific sections that deal with the loss of a parent, child, spouse, etc.), and suggestions for actions one can take when dealing with grief.
This book also includes information about all kinds of topics such as making funeral arrangements and preparing for the loss of a loved one who has a terminal illness. (Though, frankly, I confess that it never occurred to me to read a book about these things during such a time, when one is flailing merely to make it through each day.)
This book has a detailed table of contents, which I really appreciate; it allows a person to go directly to the topics that are most relevant.
The things that I find most comforting about this book are its honesty about what to expect, its gentle tone, and its simple statements that match exactly what I have been experiencing. Especially when one reaches the point at which others think one should be “over it,” it can feel terribly lonely; reading this book makes me feel understood and accepted.
Healing the Adult Child’s Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas after Your Parent Dies by Alan D. Wolfelt
A gentle, comforting guide that offers simple, distinct things a person can do when grieving the loss of a parent. Not all tips are right for all people, but there is plenty here to help a person who is mourning.
These steps allow (encourage) a person to move through grief in a healthy way—acknowledging it and letting it happen. This book is helpful in suggesting specific things a person can do, but it also provides a gentle way to learn about the importance of actually mourning a loss so one can learn to live with it.
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