A Short Good Life

20+ Books that Expanded my Capacity to Face Loss and Death

These are books that have helped me. It’s a personal list, by no means complete or comprehensive. Many were on the syllabus of a course I taught at Union Theological Seminary for several years called Facing Death.

  1. After the Death of a Child: Living with Loss through the Years by Ann K Finkbeiner
    The renowned science writer synthesizes interviews with parents living over the years after the loss of a child.
  2. Armfuls of Time: The Psychological Experience of the Child by Barbara M. Sourkes
    Along with her prior book, A Deepening Shade, the psychologist shares her knowledge of the inner world of the child facing life-threatening illness.
  3. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
    A surgeon synthesizes research with personal experience to reveal medicine’s shortcomings in facing challenges at the end of life.
  4. Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality by Thomas Lynch
    Along with The Undertaking, wonderful essays by a midwestern funeral director and poet.
  5. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
    The beloved story of – among other things –cherishing life and facing death.
  6. Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief by Dennis Klass & Phyllis Silvermann, et al.
    This anthology of articles published in 1996 expands our understanding of healthy mourning.
  7. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
    The classic became more powerful when I read the chapter in Katherine Dalsimer’s Female Adolescence devoted to consideration of how Anne’s diary reveals so much that is ordinary about early female adolescence.
  8. Dying Well – the Prospect for Growth at the End of Life by Ira Byock
    Personal and professional reflections by a leading palliative care physician.
  9. How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter by Sherwin B. Nuland
    An eloquent surgeon demythologizes the dying process.
  10. The Iceberg: A Memoir by Marion Coutts
    The author’s brilliant account of supporting her husband and young son while facing her husband’s two year terminal illness.
  11. Iris and Her Friends: A Memoir of Memory and Desire by John Bayley
    Along with Elegy for Iris, the writer tells of his wife’s decline into dementia, reflecting on their extraordinary partnership.
  12. Last Watch of the Night by Paul Monette
    A series of powerful personal essays by the AIDS activist and novelist.
  13. Oscar and the Lady in Pink by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
    A small fable. A hospitalized ten-year-old protagonist writes letters to god as he faces the end of his life, a reality from which his parents tried to protect him.
  14. Shrapnel in the Heart: Letters and Remembrances from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Laura Palmer
    Letters left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial serve as portals for the author to share stories of survivors coping with grief of their loved ones lost in war.
  15. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
    A series of linked stories by the author based on his experiences of war in Vietnam.
  16. Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom
    A teacher faces the end of his life from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and shares his wisdom with a former student.
  17. Unspeakable Losses: Healing from Miscarriage, Abortion, and Other Pregnancy Loss by Kim Kluger-Bell
    A reproductive psychotherapist shares her experience and wisdom in the complex territory of pregnancy loss of all kinds.
  18. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
    The author’s memoir of surviving a tsunami in Sri Lanka while her entire family perished.
  19. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
    A posthumous memoir by a young neurosurgeon facing his death from cancer, addressing the value of life.
  20. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron
    A Buddhist teacher writes about our choices in facing suffering.

Honorable Mentions

  • Apeirogon by Colum McCann
    Based on a true story the novelist tells of the connection of a Palestinian and an Israeli – both parents who faced the death of a child amidst the conflict in the region.
  • The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
    The poet writes of her encounter with terminal cancer.
  • The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde
    The poet and activist responds to her diagnosis of breast cancer.
  • Comfort by Ann Hood
    The novelist’s memoir of searching for comfort after the death of her five-year-old daughter to an infection.
  • The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
    A 43 year old suffers a massive stroke and despite his “locked in” state, he learns to communicate of his experience.
  • Eric by Doris Lund
    A mother captures her teenage son’s journey with cancer.
  • Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler
    The author faces a cancer diagnosis and the challenge of making sense of the senseless situation.
  • Falling Out of Time by David Grossman
    The author created a unique book about parental grief – combining drama, poetry, and prose.
  • The Guys by Anne Nelson
    Based on a true story a journalist assists a fire captain in finding words to say about his fallen colleagues on 9/11/01.
  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
    The author copes with the death of her father.
  • Motherhood Exaggerated by Judith Hannan
    The author tells of her experience accompanying her daughter through cancer treatment and back to health.
  • My Mother’s Eyes by Anna Ornstein & Stewart Goldman
    The psychoanalyst shares vignettes from her experiences during the holocaust.
  • Necessary Losses by Judith Viorst
    The author and poet reflect on the centrality of loss in life.
  • Our Town by Thornton Wilder
    Taking us from the commonplace to the cosmic perspective.
  • Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle
    A novella of a father-to-be facing the pregnancy and birth of a child unable to survive.
  • Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying by Stephen Levine
    The poet and Buddhist teacher shares his perspective on the dying process as one of spacious growth.
  • A Window to Heaven by Diane Komp
    The author, a pediatric oncologist, finds faith through her engagement with her young patients.
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
    The renowned author gives words to her experience upon the sudden death of her partner.