I know what you're thinking. Not the cheeriest of topics, especially for a Favorite Book list. And yet, this is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart for three reasons.
First, I've lost my fair share of loved ones and more loss is inevitably in my future. It is the bittersweet byproduct of being in relationship with others. Books have been a necessary part of my mourning process.
Second, I worked as a hospice social worker and child and teen bereavement counselor for several years. I've read tons of professional resources about death, dying, and grief and I love connecting people to the resources they need.
Third, we as a society do not talk about this enough and I want to encourage others to start the conversation with themselves and their loved ones. That's part of why I wrote my novel A Storied Life. That's why I'll be going on my friend Anne Bogel's podcast What Should I Read Next? in a couple of weeks to talk about my favorite novels and memoirs exploring this topic. (Update: listen to the episode here.)
And that's why I wanted to put together a nonfiction list so you can be equipped too.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt
Alan deserves his own category. He's a renowned grief expert who has written dozens upon dozens of books and they're my go-tos as both a professional and as a grieving person. He came up with the companioning philosophy for grief care and it's an incredibly gracious and compassionate approach. I had the opportunity to attend two of his trainings at the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins and they were the highlights of my career. He's written a book about almost every kind of loss, including divorce, perinatal loss, and more. You can see all of the books available at the Center here.
A few to highlight:
Companioning The Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers - Alan Wolfelt
Synopsis: This book by one of North America’s most respected grief educators presents a model for grief counseling based on his “companioning” principles. For many mental healthcare providers, grief in contemporary society has been medicalized—perceived as if it were an illness that with proper assessment, diagnosis and treatment could be cured. Dr. Wolfelt explains that our modern understanding of grief all too often conveys that at bereavement’s “end” the mourner has completed a series of tasks, extinguished pain, and established new relationships. Our psychological models emphasize “recovery” or “resolution” in grief, suggesting a return to “normalcy.”
Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart - Alan Wolfelt
Synopsis: One of North America’s leading grief educators, Dr. Alan Wolfelt has written many books about healing in grief. This book is his most comprehensive, covering the essential lessons that mourners have taught him in his three decades of working with the bereaved. In compassionate, down-to-earth language, Understanding Your Grief describes ten touchstones—or trail markers—that are essential physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual signs for mourners to look for on their journey through grief.
Healing Your Grieving Heart series - Alan Wolfelt
Synopsis: With sensitivity and insight, this series offers suggestions for healing activities that can help survivors learn to express their grief and mourn naturally. Acknowledging that death is a painful, ongoing part of life, it explains how people need to slow down, turn inward, embrace their feelings of loss, and seek and accept support when a loved one dies. Each book, geared for mourning adults, teens, or children, provides ideas and action-oriented tips that teach the basic principles of grief and healing. These ideas and activities are aimed at reducing the confusion, anxiety, and huge personal void so that living their lives can begin again.
Healing Your Grieving Heart is a great place to start but the book has been adapted for other mourners, including children, teens, spouses, parents, and adult children. You can see the whole series here.
Companioning The Dying: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers - Greg Yoder, foreword by Alan Wolfelt
Synopsis: Based on the assumption that all dying experiences belong not to the caregivers but to those who are dying—and that there is no such thing as a “good death” or a “bad death,” Companioning the Dying helps readers bring a respectful, nonjudgmental presence to the dying while liberating them from self-imposed or popular expectations to say or do the right thing. Written with candor and wit by hospice counselor Greg Yoder (who has companioned several hundred dying people and their families), Companioning the Dying exudes a compassion and a clarity that can only come from intimate work with the dying. The book teaches through reallife stories that will resonate with both experienced clinical professionals as well as laypeople in the throes of caring for a dying loved one.
With The End In Mind: Dying, Death, & Wisdom in an Age of Denial - Kathryn Mannix
Kathryn Mannix is a palliative care and hospice doctor in the UK. Her goal with this book is both to promote conversation about dying and to show that those who are dying are still living. This often surprised people when I still worked for hospice, that there was so much light and laughter in my days. Yes, there were sad, hard, and frustrating days- how could there not be?- but more often than not, my days were filled with life.
Mannix shares stories to illustrate what happens when people are dying and at various stages, as well as people’s reactions to their or their loved one’s decline. She shares stories from early on in her career when she was a student on up to the present. She doesn’t always get it right and I appreciate how she owned up to her mistakes and learned from them. This helps us learn too. She also shares how her colleagues helped her improve her practice.
This could simply be a collection of stories but Mannix also includes questions at the end of each section. These are questions to think through and then to discuss with family. You’re able to follow the process modeled by Mannix and her team.
Overall, this is a solid resource on end of life issues, whether you’re a family member facing the loss of a loved one or someone who has worked in hospice for years. The stories are often heartwarming and beautiful and even the hard ones illustrate some aspect of death and life we need to better understand. (Read my full review here.)
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory - Caitlin Doughty
I applaud Doughty's exploration of death and the funeral industry. Too few people recognize the value in these topics. When we ignore the reality of death, it hampers our ability to truly live and this plays out in myriad ways, from our healthcare system to Botox. Doughty has some unconventional thoughts about the post-mortem but I appreciated how she came to her conclusions and especially how she makes room for a difference of opinion over what should happen after we die. More than that, she makes room for honest conversation. Though I worked in hospice for several years and have attended funerals my whole life, I still learned a lot in these pages. If you're not familiar with the "death industry," you might not be prepared for the wacky sense of humor or what death looks like. And really, that makes the case for this book that much more.
My Glory Was I Had Such Friends - Amy Silverstein
This is an honest and unflinching portrayal of friendship and end of life issues. It's a memoir but I still believe it's a resource for caregivers and the chronically ill. Amy Silverstein had a heart transplant at age 25 in 1988. At the time, her doctors predicted she might live another 10 years at best. Instead 26 years passed, during which time Amy married her husband Scott, finished her law degree, adopted a son, and amassed a wonderful collection of friends.
People think once you get a heart transplant, life goes back to normal but Amy shows this is not the case. While she's lived a full life, she's also had to be vigilant about her health, dealing with numerous hospitalizations and close calls along the way. When the book begins, she's learned her transplanted heart is failing and she'll need to undergo another transplant. This is not an easy decision for her and she does not hold back on taking readers through her mindset about whether to take on the odds.
In the end, she decides to go for it and her friends immediately rally around her. Since Amy and Scott will have to relocate to LA for several months, nine of her friends decide they will take turns flying out and keeping Amy company while she waits for a heart. We get to learn through the process of how sick she gets and as she confronts her mortality. I'm so glad not only that she received a new heart in time but that she was able to write this account for us. (Read my full review here.)
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End - Atul Gawande
Surgeon Atul Gawande examines the role of medicine in extending life and how it is used when life is ending that can, in fact, lead to greater suffering. Profoundly insightful, well written, and engaging. These are good things to think through NOW. If you haven't talked to your loved one about their end of life wishes or yours, this is the time to think through it and start the conversation. Gawande didn't start out in the place of understanding he came to and he had the same questions and resistance many of us do when it comes to the hard talks and that's part of why this book works so well.
When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi
A wonderful addition to the end-of-life canon. Paul Kalanithi was was at the end of his training as a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. He began writing about his treatment and grapples with the question of what gives life meaning. He died before he finished writing this but his insights are an immeasurable gift. I wish he would have delved into his palliative care team but that is one of the limitations of writing a book while dying. There is much more he could have explored and yet the material he did give us is rich, impressive, and necessary.
Intern: A Doctor's Initiation - Sandeep Jauhar
Cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar gives us a revealing inside look at medical residency and the world inside hospitals. Because of my background, I was not surprised by much of what Jauhar encountered, although some improvements have been made since he completed residency. There's still much to be done! The book might have been stronger had Jauhar not waffled so much about his chosen career and calling but still, I'm glad he decided to lower the veil for those of us who do not work as doctors or nurses. While this doesn't focus specifically on death, dying, or grief, you can't write a book about a medical internship without delving into those topics. Jauhar doesn't always get it right but there's a lot we can learn from his stories and I think this gives great insight into what we expect, whether warranted or not, from our doctors.
On Death And Dying - Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Of course Kübler-Ross needs to be included on a list like this! While her work has been misapplied and misunderstood, her research was ground-breaking. Those five stages of grief everyone talks about? That's actually the five stages for the person who is dying: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In this book, she explores how a terminal prognosis affects the patient and how professionals can better serve the person and their loved ones. It's a valuable resource.
Disclosure: Affiliate links included in this post.