It is not my intention for this blog to become a ‘grief blog’. Back when life felt ‘normal’, I used to post here about books I’d read and the process of writing my novels, as well as new experiences I’d enjoyed or things I felt passionately about. Right now, however, my life feels stranger than fiction — writing novels is proving difficult — and most books don’t speak to me as they used to. There isn’t much in my heart or my head right now other than profound sadness.
But, in a faint attempt to strive for something familiar, I thought I’d post about the books I have been reading over the past two months. It’s surprised me that I have turned to non-fiction, and in particular those texts that reflect the shock that comes with the sudden loss of a loved one and the ensuing deep grief. The truth is that I am finding comfort in reading words written by people who have been there too. Their writing seems to normalise the extreme emotions I am feeling and somehow makes me feel a little less freakishly alone. So while I don’t intend for every blog post I write from here on to focus on the theme of grief, it is my hope that the list of books I’ve compiled below (for both adults and children) might offer comfort to one or two of you who have found my blog since Matt’s death and who share a similar journey to me.
The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
I bought this book before Matt died. It sat on our bookshelf collecting dust and for some unexplained reason I never reached for it. Not long after his death in July, I was gazing at Facebook seeking some kind of inane distraction from my pain when a post from the brain pickings site popped up into my feed. It was these words, from The Year of Magical Thinking, that leapt out at me:
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”
Reading that paragraph was like two charged wires connecting in my foggy brain. Yes. Here was someone who had walked my path. Here was someone who understood.
Joan Didion’s words reminded me of the strange, mechanical being I was at the celebration of Matt’s life just nine days after his accident. It felt like I was navigating my way through a terribly polite industry event – and I suppose in some ways I was. I stood at a podium. I read some words. ‘Hello, hello’. Hug. Hug. ‘A glass of champagne?’ ‘Why, thank you.’ I kept expecting to find Matt at my shoulder – see him appearing through the crowds. A shared smile, a knowing wink – just for me. But he never appeared. And in the midst of a polite conversation, I would suddenly remember with soul-searing pain why I was there. Funny how social mores can keep you in check, even in the most extreme or surreal situations. Didion is right about the ‘narcotic regression’ of the occasion, and how we have no idea until we are there, that the worst days are yet to come.
After reading Didion’s words online, I found The Year of Magical Thinking on our bookshelf and started to read. This is the book that first drew me back to the comfort of words and encouraged me to reach out for other books about grief and loss.
A Grief Observed – C. S. Lewis
This is a slim volume by C. S. Lewis and an honest exploration of his pain after losing his wife to cancer. It was passed to me by a good friend and I read it in one evening – gobbled it up – and copied out particularly meaningful passages into my journal. It really struck a chord. I particularly related to the comments he makes about suddenly feeling desperately self-conscious in social situations – for me it’s the school gates or bumping into people on my local shopping strip.
‘I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t … Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers. To some I’m worse than an embarrassment. I am a death’s head. Whenever I meet a happily married pair I can feel them both thinking, ‘One or other of us must some day be as he is now.”
It’s Not Raining, Daddy, It’s Happy – Benjamin Brooks-Dutton
In the earliest days after Matt’s death, three different people suggested I read this recently-published memoir, written by Benjamin Brooks-Dutton whose wife, Desreen, was killed by a car while walking home from an afternoon with friends in West Hampstead. Brooks-Dutton writes about his love for his wife and the painful first year that followed her death. It’s also him capturing their family memories onto the page for their young son, Jackson, who was just two-years-old when his mum died. There are many differences in our situations, and yet so many pages had me nodding my head in recognition at his experience and some sentences offered great comfort:
‘I was told by someone who worked at the bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, ‘He might forget the memories but he’ll never forget the love.’ What a wonderful thought to hang on to when a child loses a parent.’
‘Naturally, loved ones feel the need to be there when tragedy strikes, but when they arrive it must be impossible for them to know what to do. I imagine everyone who came to visit me felt useless. And the truth is that most people were. All anyone seemed to want to do was put things right or take away my pain, and those things just aren’t possible when you lose someone you love.’
Of particular help to me was the list of ‘Dos and ‘Don’ts’ the author has included at the back of the book that outline how to help those widowed young. I shared these with family and friends when they asked what they could do or say to help.
The Grief of Our Children – Dianne McKissock
Given to me by a children’s psychologist, this book has helped me to understand the profound sadness my children are experiencing and the different ways this manifests itself. It’s been helpful to have a guide through the maze of their experience and suggestions for things I can do to help them, even while coping with my own heartbreak. Particularly helpful were the three pages offering a ‘summary of strategies that can help a grieving child’, including simple tips such as:
- Talk about everything that is happening in simple language so the child can understand and not feel dumb or patronised. Tell them the truth.
- Talk openly about the person who has died, but don’t be surprised if the child doesn’t say much in the beginning, particularly about feelings.
- Continue to make the child feel special and loved.
- Let children help plan the funeral and participate in the service if that is important to them. Build in the right to change their mind.
- Help the child plan simple things to look forward to, so they can reassure themselves that life will go on, that there is a future, albeit a different future.
These are just a few suggestions taken from a long and helpful list. Most of them are quite obvious, but it’s amazing how even the obvious can seem elusive when your world is turned upside down.
Tiny, Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed
I’ve been a huge fan of Cheryl Strayed’s writing since I first discovered her anonymous ‘Dear Sugar’ columns on the Rumpus website. She is about to explode onto the big screen with the film adaptation of her moving memoir Wild, starring Reece Witherspoon – another excellent read – but for me, it’s Tiny, Beautiful Things that displays her beautiful, humane writing at its best. Several people reminded me to read Cheryl Strayed after Matt’s death, and I have returned to this volume and found solace in it since. These words are from her column entitled The Obliterated Place, in which she offers advice to a man whose son was killed by a drunk driver:
‘Small things such as this have saved me: How much I love my mother – even after all these years. How powerfully I carry her within me. My grief is tremendous but my love is bigger. So is yours. You are not grieving your son’s death because his death was ugly and unfair. You’re grieving it because you loved him truly. The beauty in that is greater than the bitterness of his death.’
I think it’s fair to say that there have been other books about grief that really haven’t worked for me. I threw one across the room the other day when it suggested comfort could be found in making a nice ‘Oxtail Stew with Madeira’. ‘Serve with mashed potatoes and peas and drink with a big, bold red wine,’ the author helpfully suggests, as if I were about to host a fancy ‘Nigella’ style dinner party. (Only three and a half hours cooking time required!). Each to their own, but that book definitely wasn’t for me.
Books for Young Children …
We are a very bookish family, but having a stockpile of children’s books about death wasn’t something I’d ever considered needing before. Luckily, in those earliest days after Matt’s accident, very kind friends sent me books to read with the kids. Some have been more successful than others in opening up a dialogue about what happened to Dad, or offering comforting messages about death and grief. Here are the ones that have proved particularly helpful to us, amidst the usual escapist books we still enjoy each night. (For the record, my son is six and my daughter is four.)
Tough Boris – Mem Fox & Kathryn Brown
This is a simple picture book about a rough and tough pirate. When we got to the page where the pirate’s parrot dies my son hesitated. ‘Can we play ‘I Spy’ on this page?’ he asked. We spent ten minutes talking about the pictures showing the pirate putting his beloved parrot in a violin case and floating him out to sea, before we turned back to the beginning, at Jude’s request, to read it again. He’d been in emotional lock-down since I’d broken the news about Matt. This was the story that got him talking.
Always and Forever – Debbie Gliori & Alan Durant
Four animals live as a happy family in a house in the woods until one day Fox goes out and doesn’t come back. Through the gentle words and sweet illustrations, we see the three remaining animals grieve and cry and slowly come to terms with Fox’s death. This is particularly popular with my daughter. Every time we get to the page where Fox dies, Gracie sighs: ‘Like Daddy.’
The Heart and the Bottle – Oliver Jeffers
We love books by Oliver Jeffers in our house – particularly Lost & Found. This one arrived in the mail from one of my husband’s work friends not long after his death. It’s the story of a little girl filled with wonder and curiosity. But one day, when someone she loves dies, she puts her heart in a safe place … until she decides one day that she’d like it back again … It’s a lovely metaphor which perhaps went a little over my children’s heads, but a very sweet and moving story, nonetheless.
The Invisible String – Patrice Karst & Geoff Stevenson
A thoughtful friend sent me this book and carefully changed the names of the characters to our own family names – even the cat’s! We read it in bed early one morning together. The kids got such a kick out of seeing it was about ‘them’. The message that we are all connected by invisible strings and that no one is ever really alone is a simple and beautiful one. We all went quiet for a little while after we’d finished reading it, thinking about the invisible string that still connects us to Matt.
The Paper Dolls – Julia Donaldson & Rebecca Cobb
While not specifically a book about grief, this lovely story was familiar to my children before Matt died, and we have returned to it since, for it’s wonderful and comforting message about how things that disappear from your life can still live on in your memory.
Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes In Between – Bryan Mellonie & Robert Ingpen
My son is bug and animal mad and this simple, beautifully-illustrated book offers a no-nonsense, practical explanation to the inevitable rise and fall of all living things. There is no sugar-coating. It just tells it like it is, using clear examples from the natural world.
‘There is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. In between is living.’
Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine – Diana Crossley & Kate Sheppard
This is an activity book for children who have lost a loved one. It offers all sorts of practical support and projects for bereaved children to complete, to help them express their feelings around the loss of a someone special. We haven’t begun to use it yet, but I think we’ll spend a little time this Father’s Day filling in a couple of pages and recording some memories of Matt.
The Bear and the Wildcat – Kazumi Yumoto & Komako Sakai
This is a really beautiful picture book about a bear whose best friend, a little bird, dies. Bear is bereft, but gradually, through the help of a new wildcat friend, he finds a way to live with his loss.
“This little bird must have been a very special friend of yours,’ he said. “You must miss him a lot.”
Bear looked up in surprise. No one had ever said that before.
The wildcat opened his box. Inside was a violin. He took it out and said, “Let me play a song for you and your little friend.”
So these are the books we have discovered to date. I’m wondering … are there any books that have helped you or your families cope with your own experiences of losing a loved one? If so, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. Thanks.