By Cassidy Smith, Written Communications Specialist
Reading can be many things for many people. It can be an expansion of the imagination; it can be a vacation from life without having to lift a finger; it can be therapy for people going through hard times. These 20 books are meant to give the reader a new perspective on illness, death, and grief, while also attempting to help the reader accept these things as natural pathways of life. Each book’s description has been pulled from its Amazon page.
- Dear Life – Dr. Rachel Clarke. As a specialist in palliative medicine, Dr. Rachel Clarke chooses to inhabit a place many people would find too tragic to contemplate. Every day she tries to bring care and comfort to those reaching the end of their lives and to help make dying more bearable. Rachel’s training was put to the test in 2017 when her beloved GP father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She learned that nothing – even the best palliative care – can sugar-coat the pain of losing someone you love. and yet, she argues, in a hospice there is more of what matters in life – more love, more strength, more kindness, more joy, more tenderness, more grace, more compassion – than you could ever imagine. For if there is a difference between people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it is simply this: that the terminally ill know their time is running out, while we live as though we have all the time in the world. Dear Life is a book about the vital importance of human connection, by the doctor we would all want by our sides at a time of crisis. It is a love letter – to a father, to a profession, to life itself.
- Mourning Diary – Roland Bartles. “In the sentence ‘She’s no longer suffering,’ to what, to whom does ‘she’ refer? What does that present tense mean?” ―Roland Barthes, from his diary. The day after his mother’s death in October 1977, Roland Barthes began a diary of mourning. For nearly two years, the legendary French theorist wrote about a solitude new to him; about the ebb and flow of sadness; about the slow pace of mourning, and life reclaimed through writing. Named a Top 10 Book of 2010 by The New York Times and one of the Best Books of 2010 by Slate and The Times Literary Supplement, Mourning Diary is a major discovery in Roland Barthes’s work: a skeleton key to the themes he tackled throughout his life, as well as a unique study of grief―intimate, deeply moving, and universal.
- Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson – Mitch Albom. Maybe it was a grandparent, or a teacher, or a colleague, someone older, patient and wise, who understood you when you were young and searching, helped you see the world as a more profound place, gave you sound advice to help you make your way through it. For Mitch Albom, that person was Morrie Schwartz, his college professor from nearly twenty years ago. Maybe, like Mitch, you lost track of this mentor as you made your way, and the insights faded, and the world seemed colder. Wouldn’t you like to see that person again, ask the bigger questions that still haunt you, receive wisdom for your busy life today the way you once did when you were younger? Mitch Albom had that second chance. He rediscovered Morrie in the last months of the older man’s life. Knowing he was dying, Morrie visited with Mitch in his study every Tuesday, just as they used to back in college. Their rekindled relationship turned into one final “class”: lessons in how to live. Tuesdays with Morrie is a magical chronicle of their time together, through which Mitch shares Morrie’s lasting gift with the world.
- The Long Goodbye: A Memoir – Meghan O’Rourke. What does it mean to mourn today, in a culture that has largely set aside rituals that acknowledge grief? After her mother died of cancer at the age of fifty-five, Meghan O’Rourke found that nothing had prepared her for the intensity of her sorrow. In the first anguished days, she began to create a record of her interior life as a mourner, trying to capture the paradox of grief-its monumental agony and microscopic intimacies-an endeavor that ultimately bloomed into a profound look at how caring for her mother during her illness changed and strengthened their bond. O’Rourke’s story is one of a life gone off the rails, of how watching her mother’s illness-and separating from her husband-left her fundamentally altered. But it is also one of resilience, as she observes her family persevere even in the face of immeasurable loss. With lyricism and unswerving candor, The Long Goodbye conveys the fleeting moments of joy that make up a life, and the way memory can lead us out of the jagged darkness of loss. Effortlessly blending research and reflection, the personal and the universal, it is not only an exceptional memoir, but a necessary one.
- The Still Point of the Turning World – Emily Rapp. What does it mean to be a success? To be a good parent? To live a meaningful life? Emily Rapp thought she knew the answers when she was pregnant with her first child. But everything changed when nine-month-old Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a rare and always-fatal degenerative disorder. He was not expected to live beyond the age of three. Rapp and her husband were forced to re-evaluate everything they thought they knew about parenting and to learn to parent without a future. Even before the book’s publication, Rapp set the Internet ablaze with her New York Times op-ed piece about parenting a terminally ill child. An immediate bestseller, The Still Point of the Turning World is Rapp’s memorial to her lost son and an inspiring and exquisitely moving reminder to love and live in the moment.
- A Grief Observed – C.S. Lewis. Written after his wife’s tragic death as a way of surviving the “mad midnight moment,” A Grief Observed is C.S. Lewis’s honest reflection on the fundamental issues of life, death, and faith in the midst of loss. This work contains his concise, genuine reflections on that period: “Nothing will shake a man — or at any rate a man like me — out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.” This is a beautiful and unflinchingly honest record of how even a stalwart believer can lose all sense of meaning in the universe, and how he can gradually regain his bearings.
- The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe. During her treatment for cancer, Mary Anne Schwalbe and her son Will spent many hours sitting in waiting rooms together. To pass the time, they would talk about the books they were reading. Once, by chance, they read the same book at the same time—and an informal book club of two was born. Through their wide-ranging reading, Will and Mary Anne—and we, their fellow readers—are reminded how books can be comforting, astonishing, and illuminating, changing the way that we feel about and interact with the world around us. A profoundly moving memoir of caregiving, mourning, and love—The End of Your Life Book Club is also about the joy of reading, and the ways that joy is multiplied when we share it with others.
- Singing beyond Sorrow: A Year of Grief, Gratitude, and Grace – Carole Marie Downing. Singing beyond Sorrow is Carole Downing’s story of finding a way to embrace life after the unexpected and unimaginable death of her husband from cancer. Written in a journal style, the book chronicles her ups and downs, the “firsts” without her husband, the parenting of their six-year-old son, and the sometimes tragic, sometimes funny conflicts between a young widow picking up the pieces of her life and a world that would rather close its eyes to death and bereavement. While working through her grief, Carole discovered the gift of finding gratitude in each day, no matter how small: her son’s laughter, the generosity of a stranger, or the simple beauty of a field of poppies. She came to understand that even amidst the raw pain of loss, the preciousness of life was present when seen through the lens of gratitude. As a former hospice nurse and bereavement volunteer, Carole’s unique blending of professional experience with her personal story sheds light on the often hidden process of grief. Her book can help the newly bereaved on their path of healing, while also offering us all an opportunity to see moments of grace in our everyday lives.
- The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying – Nina Riggs. “We are breathless but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other.” Poet and essayist Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer—one small spot. Within a year, she received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal. How does a dying person learn to live each day “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? How does a young mother and wife prepare her two young children and adored husband for a loss that will shape the rest of their lives? How do we want to be remembered? Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, Nina asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? The Bright Hour is about how to make the most of all the days, even the painful ones. It’s about the way literature, especially Nina’s direct ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer.
- When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi. At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. and just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality. What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir. Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.
- The Conversation: A Revolutionary Plan for End-of-Life Care – Angelo Volandes. There is an unspoken dark side of American medicine–keeping patients alive at any price. Two thirds of Americans die in healthcare institutions, tethered to machines and tubes at bankrupting costs, even though research shows that most prefer to die at home in comfort, surrounded by loved ones. Dr. Angelo E. Volandes believes that a life well lived deserves a good ending. Through the stories of seven patients and seven very different end-of-life experiences, he demonstrates that what people with a serious illness, who are approaching the end of their lives, need most is not new technologies but one simple thing: The Conversation. He argues for a radical re-envisioning of the patient-doctor relationship and offers ways for patients and their families to talk about this difficult issue to ensure that patients will be at the center and in charge of their medical care. It might be the most important conversation you ever have.
- Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death – Katy Butler. Katy Butler was living thousands of miles away when her old but seemingly vigorous father suffered a crippling stroke. She flew east and in time became her parents’ part-time caregiver, thoroughly re-embroiled in the childhood family dynamics she thought she’d left behind. Her father’s natural suffering was bad enough. But in time she saw it prolonged by an advanced medical device — a pacemaker — that kept his heart going while doing nothing to prevent his slide into dementia, near-blindness, and misery. When he said, “I’m living too long,” Katy and her mother faced wrenching moral questions, faced by millions of America’s 28 million caregivers. Where is the line between saving a life and prolonging a dying? When do you say to a doctor, “Let my loved one go?” After doctors refused to disable the pacemaker, Butler set out to understand how we had transformed dying from a natural process to a technological flail. Her quest had barely begun when her mother, faced with her own grave illness, rebelled against her doctors and met death head-on. Part memoir, part medical history, and part spiritual guide, Knocking on Heaven’s Door is a map through the labyrinth of a broken medical system. Its provocative thesis is that technological medicine, obsessed with maximum longevity, often creates more suffering than it prevents. It also chronicles the rise of Slow Medicine, a movement bent on reclaiming the “Good Deaths” our ancestors prized. In families, hospitals, and the public sphere, this visionary memoir is inspiring passionate conversations about lighting the path to a better way of death.
- Grief Diaries Series – Lynda Cheldelin Fell. Believing in the power of stories to heal, Lynda Cheldelin Fell created Grief Diaries in 2014 as a radio show featuring guests who had turned pain into purpose after loss. She expanded the brand into live filming, the National Grief & Hope Convention featuring Martin Luther King’s daughter, and the award-winning Grief Diaries book series. To date, over 700 writers from 11 countries have participated in the series. The brand’s accumulation of stories from blog submissions, interviews, and the award-winning book series has created the largest collection of grief experiences in the world.
- The Death Talker: What We Need to Know to Help Us Talk about Death – Molly Carlile. Since the dawn of time, human beings have been curious about death. Most of us have little time in our busy lives to think about the things that are important to us. Often, it’s not until we have a personal experience that we give any serious thought to our own life and our mortality. The Death Talker offers a common sense approach to the issues we should all be thinking about so we can live and die well. The personal stories and practical information provide a sensitive guide for exploring the ‘stuff that matters’ to each of us and to help us have meaningful conversations with the people we love. Molly Carlile AM has over twenty years’ experience as a specialist palliative care nurse, grief and bereavement counsellor and educator. More recently she has held senior executive roles in both palliative care and acute health, currently as Chief Executive Officer of a large metropolitan, community palliative care service.
- In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying – Eve Joseph (20 years of experience in hospice). Eve Joseph is an award-winning poet who worked for twenty years as a palliative care counselor in a hospice. When she was a young girl, she lost a much older brother, and her experience as a grown woman helping others face death, dying, and grief opens the path for her to recollect and understand his loss in a way she could not as a child. In the Slender Margin is an insider’s look at an experience that awaits us all and an intimate invitation to consider death and our response to it without fear or morbidity, but rather with wonder and a curious mind. Writing with a poet’s precise language and in short meditative chapters leavened with insight, warmth, and occasional humor, Joseph cites her hospice experience as well as the writings of others across generations—from the realms of mythology, psychology, science, religion, history, and literature—to illuminate the many facets of dying and death. Offering examples from cultural traditions, practices, and beliefs from around the world, her book is at once an exploration of the unknowable and a very humane journey through the land of grief.
- On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. One of the most important psychological studies of the late twentieth century, On Death and Dying grew out of Dr. Kübler-Ross’s famous interdisciplinary seminar on death, life, and transition. In this remarkable book, Dr. Kübler-Ross first explored the now-famous five stages of death: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Through sample interviews and conversations, she gives readers a better understanding of how imminent death affects the patient, the professionals who serve that patient, and the patient’s family, bringing hope to all who are involved.
- It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture that Doesn’t Understand – Megan Divine. In It’s OK That You’re Not OK, Megan Devine offers a profound new approach to both the experience of grief and the way we try to help others who have endured tragedy. Having experienced grief from both sides―as both a therapist and as a woman who witnessed the accidental drowning of her beloved partner―Megan writes with deep insight about the unspoken truths of loss, love, and healing. She debunks the culturally prescribed goal of returning to a normal, “happy” life, replacing it with a far healthier middle path, one that invites us to build a life alongside grief rather than seeking to overcome it. Many people who have suffered a loss feel judged, dismissed, and misunderstood by a culture that wants to “solve” grief. Megan writes, “Grief no more needs a solution than love needs a solution.” Through stories, research, life tips, and creative and mindfulness-based practices, she offers a unique guide through an experience we all must face―in our personal lives, in the lives of those we love, and in the wider world. It’s OK That You’re Not OK is a book for grieving people, those who love them, and all those seeking to love themselves―and each other―better.
- Finish Strong: Putting YOUR Priorities First at Life’s End – Barbara Coombs Lee (former nurse/PA). From the President of Compassion & Choices, THE guide to achieving the positive end-of-life experience you want and deserve. It’s hard to talk about death in America. But even though the topic has been taboo, life’s end is an eventual reality. So why not shape it to our values? FINISH STRONG is for those of us who want an end-of-life experience to match the life we’ve enjoyed. We know we should prepare, but are unsure how to think and talk about it, how to live true to our values and priorities, and how to make our wishes stick. The usual advice about advance directives and conversations is important but woefully inadequate. This book describes concrete action in the here and now to help live our best lives to the end. Written with candor and clarity by a nurse, physician assistant and attorney who became a leading advocate for end-of-life options, this book can help you FINISH STRONG.
- Grief is a Journey: Finding Your Path through Loss – Dr. Kenneth Doka. Dr. Kenneth Doka explores a new, compassionate way to grieve, explaining that grief is not an illness to get over but an individual and ongoing journey. There is no “one-size-fits-all” way to cope with loss. The vital bonds that we form with those we love in life continue long after death—in very different ways. Grief Is a Journey is the first book to overturn prevailing, often judgmental, ideas about grief and replace them with a hopeful, inclusive, personalized, and research-backed approach. New science and studies behind Dr. Doka’s teaching upend the dominant but incorrect view that grief proceeds by stages. Dr. Doka helps us realize that our experiences following a death are far more individual and much less predictable than the conventional “five stages” model would have us believe. Common patterns of experiencing and expressing grief still prevail, yet many other life changes accompany a primary loss. For example, the deaths of parents, even for adults, modify family patterns, change relationships, and alter old family rituals. Unique to this book, Dr. Doka also explains how to cope with disenfranchised grief—the types of loss that are not so readily recognized or supported by society. These include the death of ex-spouses, as well as non-fatal losses such as divorce, the end of a friendship, job loss, or infertility. In addition, Dr. Doka considers losses that might be stigmatized, including death by suicide or from disease or self-destructive behaviors such as smoking or alcoholism. and finally, Dr. Doka reminds us that, however painful, grief provides opportunities for growth.
- Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End – Atul Gawande. In Being Mortal, best-selling author Atul Gawande tackles the hardest challenge of his profession: How medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending. Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming birth, injury, and infectious disease from harrowing to manageable. But in the inevitable condition of aging and death, the goals of medicine seem too frequently to run counter to the interest of the human spirit. Nursing homes, preoccupied with safety, pin patients into railed beds and wheelchairs. Hospitals isolate the dying, checking for vital signs long after the goals of cure have become moot. Doctors, committed to extending life, continue to carry out devastating procedures that in the end extend suffering. Gawande, a practicing surgeon, addresses his profession’s ultimate limitation, arguing that quality of life is the desired goal for patients and families. Gawande offers examples of freer, more socially fulfilling models for assisting the infirm and dependent elderly, and he explores the varieties of hospice care to demonstrate that a person’s last weeks or months may be rich and dignified. Full of eye-opening research and riveting storytelling, Being Mortal asserts that medicine can comfort and enhance our experience even to the end, providing not only a good life but also a good end.
Disclaimer: Shepherd’s Cove Hospice does not endorse or claim to have read any of these texts. The views shared in these texts may not necessarily reflect our own views. We simply wanted the resources to be there for our friends and family in case they are needed.