The holidays are a thorny time for people who are recently bereaved. On the one hand, all the get-togethers supply a steady stream of company. But being surrounded by joyful revelers can sometimes feel lonelier than simply being alone.
Those who have moved through grief know that it can feel as if no one has ever felt the same particular pain. While it seems as though friends and colleagues don’t understand what you’re going through, there is no shortage of authors who do - and who have experienced that familiar push-me/pull-me of simultaneously craving community and needing solitude. Is it better to grieve with others or do it solo? These books thoughtfully consider the options. They may not offer up concrete answers, but they’re guaranteed to make readers who are suffering feel less isolated.
• “A Grief Observed,” by C.S. Lewis (1961)
When this memoir was published, grief was considered a private affair, so Lewis initially used a pseudonym. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” the book begins, before Lewis explains how blindsided he feels by his emotions. For Lewis, a Christian, the loss is sharpened by its disruption of his faith. “Meanwhile, where is God?” he wonders. He can no longer count on his Christian community for solace because he isn’t comforted by the fact that his wife is now with God. Ultimately he realizes that grief is a process, not a permanent state of being, and a renewed sense of faith emerges from his experiences.
• “The Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion (2005)
Didion broke new ground in 2005 with this chronicle of the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death and the illness of her only daughter. One of the challenges for Didion, who has previously used “research and reading” to cope with life’s challenges, was that so few people had written of their experiences with grief, which increased her sense of aloneness. But she went on to create a community of readers who understood what she was talking about when she described, for example, the “vortex effect” of being pulled into powerful memories, triggered by the presence of familiar places and objects.
• “The Red Parts,” by Maggie Nelson (2007)
When the man who murdered her aunt is finally arrested and brought to trial three decades after the crime, Nelson and her family mourn the young woman all over again. Nelson explores the paradoxical forces inside of her that tell her she is feeling “too much” or “not enough.” Her previous belief that her family had grieved in “faulty” ways gives way to the discovery that mourning is complex and sometimes illogical, which brings her back to her family.
• “The Light of the World,” by Elizabeth Alexander (2015)
Poet Elizabeth Alexander was widowed without warning when her husband, Ficre, died of a heart attack while exercising. “I just lost my husband,” she writes in her memoir. “Lost implies we are looking, he might be found.” As she travels her own path of mourning, she also becomes a guide to help her two sons through their own grief. Comfort arrives over shared dinners as they begin making meals that combine the spices of Eritrea - Ficre’s homeland - with his imagination as a professional chef.
• “Grief is the Thing with Feathers,” by Max Porter (2015)
Porter’s novel follows a father of two sons who has just lost his wife. The widower’s desire for privacy puts him in conflict with those who want to comfort him. He looks at the “orbiting grievers” who descend for the funeral with an almost anthropological eye, dividing them into: “the overwhelmed, the affectedly lackadaisicals, the nothing so fars, the overstayers, the new best friends of hers, of mine, of the boys.” And he wonders if they will leave him alone long enough to comprehend the “black space” of his own grief.
• “All at Sea,” by Decca Aitkenhead (2016)
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Aitkenhead’s partner Tony drowned while they were vacationing in Jamaica, leaving her to raise their two sons. In her book, she writes that the tragic nature of Tony’s death - which was covered in the news - appears to prolong the amount of time that people remain interested in her story. To warrant their comfort, she feels she will be “obliged under the terms of some bizarre contractual barter to offer them the story in return.” The alternative, she feels, would be to remain completely alone.
• “Let Me Be Like Water,” by S.K. Perry (2018)
In her debut novel, Perry explores the limitations of solo grief. The novel takes place in the year after 20-something Holly moves from London to Brighton following the death of her partner. She has sought isolation to avoid reminders of him but also feels lonely. She eventually finds a community of people who have all suffered significant loss and are at various stages of moving forward. They show her just how human her feelings really are.