Coping with Grief Through Books

At the BBC, Hephzibah Anderson recommends books that offer comfort during bereavement. Anderson's list is a solid collection of grief texts that, I think, others will find useful, like C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, and the anthology Poems of Mourning by Everyman's Library Pocket Poets.

Lewis's A Grief Observed is at the top of a great stack of books on my night table. I reach for it often, opening to a random page and finding a passage that knocks the wind out of me. The rawness is so refreshing, so necessary, especially at times when I feel so raw myself. I need to connect with a language that is equally raw and truthful, that doesn't pretend to put a positive spin on devastation. I need the bones and blood. Don't let Lewis's Christian theology scare you away from the text. I'm an atheist and I still find the book resonant.

Anderson's take on A Grief Observed:
One place to start might be CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, whose opening words will give you permission to be afraid. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”, he writes. The book is strung together from reflections on the loss of his wife, American poet Joy Davidman, who died of cancer just four years into their marriage. Though best remembered for children’s classics like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis was among other things a lay theologian, and coming from a devout Christian, his book was shocking to some. How could a person of faith feel such utter despair? He is still a believer in the book, it’s just that he is appalled by God’s cruelty. Regardless of your own beliefs, it’s Lewis’ acknowledgement of his bewilderment that makes the book so comforting.
I read Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking a few years ago when I was still in college. I remember lying in bed in my dorm and feeling emotionally flayed. With her straightforward style, Didion delved into all the messiness of grief without drowning in it. I was the one always drowning. While some people are put-off by Didion's celebrity and class privilege, these things are superficial parts of the book. Didion moves beyond them and touches a true depth that strikes a nerve with many readers.

Anderson writes of The Year of Magical Thinking:
For Didion, calamity was twofold. Shortly before Christmas in 2003, she and her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, had to watch their only daughter be placed on life support in an induced coma. Then, the night before New Year's Eve, Dunne died of a massive heart attack. As Didion confides, “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty”. Though slender, it’s a book filled with such truths, another of which may ring extra true for you as a twin: “We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all”.

Books have always been central to my life but what can a book really do in the wake of devastation? A book can't bring back the dead or piece your life back together. I think grief showed me the limits of books, but grief showed me the limits of everything. For me, what matters is the experience of being in the text itself. It's not about before or after, only right there inside the words, walking along with the writer, entering her world, feeling her emotions. That experience is what keeps me reading and also keeps me living because it means connection and contact with something beyond you is possible. As Anderson writes:
In hours of darkness, books are invaluable companions. As Shakespeare noted, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break”. As well as giving your sorrow words, a good book will take you out of yourself for a few hours, even as the plights of its characters might remind you that others have gone through similar ordeals. Just knowing that, and feeling less alone, will make you stronger.
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