A new hobby engenders empathy and self-reflection
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.
- Emily Dickinson, “I measure every Grief I meet”
The start of a new year is always a time to reflect on the past year, including the things we did or wished we had done, and look ahead to what the upcoming year holds for us. I have been encouraged by the warm reception to my initial writings here over the last couple months and can share that there is much more in store for the year ahead.
I recently asked a professional writer friend of mine if she had any advice for how I could improve my writing, to which she responded, “Always be reading!” It just so happened that last year, I started reading books a lot more than I used to, partly to pass the time when I had trouble sleeping and partly (mistakenly) because I thought grief was like a problem that could be solved if I just knew enough about it.
In my quest to understand grief, I turned to the memoirs of those who themselves had been forced to confront this dark and lonely dimension of the human condition. Reading is a solitary activity yet not actually a lonely one - you are, in some form, connected to the writer on the other side of the words. And in doing so, I found a camaraderie with those who reluctantly knew loss, or their own mortality, on an intimate level.
Linda had been a bookworm - she used to say that in an alternate life she might have liked to be a librarian - and would frequently encourage me to read to no avail. So it was somewhat ironic that I adopted, unconsciously at first, reading in her absence. Of course, it was not coincidental either; it has become a form of solace to find comfort in a hobby she enjoyed. They say that you grow to become more like your partner after you get married. Perhaps it is even truer once that person is gone.
In the past year I also began reading books with my elder daughter to help her understand the feelings and emotions surrounding her own grief. And along the way, I had the opportunity to read a couple books on parenting and work-life balance that I found quite insightful.
So from me to you, here are the 15 books I read in 2019 that I recommend for 2020 (or really any year).
Grief and Loss
Two Kisses for Maddy by Matthew Logelin
This memoir was one of the first books recommended to me after Linda died, because of its obvious parallels - it is the story of a man who lost his wife the day after she gave birth to their first child and the experience of being a grieving widower and single father that followed.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
This memoir is an honest, piercing account of the first year after a woman suddenly loses her husband. It explores the extraordinary to the mundane and everything in between, sometimes highlighting how surreal the experience can be.
The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
This memoir is a beautiful, poetic expression of how a story of loss is also a story of love.
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
This work explores the raw emotions and questions regarding one’s faith that a man faced after losing his wife.
It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny Purmort
This book is what I think of as “chick lit” for grief - it is a lighthearted and honest account of a woman’s experience of losing her husband. The author also hosts an excellent podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking that uncovers stories of grief and loss.
Modern Loss by Rebecca Soffer & Gabriel Birkner
This is an anthology of sorts, providing unapologetic perspectives on grief and a reminder that nearly all of us will experience loss, in some form, at some point, in our lives.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
This memoir was written by a neurosurgeon who powerfully confronts his own illness and mortality.
Both Sides Now by Nancy Sharp
This memoir describes the experience of losing a husband to cancer and being left to raise two young children as a single parent.
Option B by Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant
This book covers a woman's experience of suddenly and unexpectedly losing her husband and how one can rebuild a life after tragedy.
Grief and Loss (For Children)
Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved
This children’s book helps instill the notion of how loss and life are related and how to make sense of the concept of death.
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
This book provides a way of showing children how love and remembrance live on even after someone is gone.
Personal Growth After Trauma
Supersurvivors by David B. Feldman & Lee Daniel Kravetz
This book examines how trauma and suffering can provide an opportunity (perhaps counter-intuitively) for personal growth.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb
This book is a fun read that delves into the workings of psychotherapy through the lens of personal stories.
Parenting and Work-Life Balance
The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson
This book helped me understand how a child’s brain is wired and how it develops, including the science behind it.
Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter
This book grew out of an article in The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” It illuminates the socioeconomic factors that impact the tensions between professional ambition and parenting, particularly for working mothers. I found it especially helpful to gain a new perspective on how to approach work-life balance as a single parent.