Of all the challenges that we face as individuals, grief is perhaps the most universal. There are few – if any – people able to get through life without experiencing loss, making grief an inevitability for all of us. I am lucky to have reached 30 without losing any of the people close to me (certainly a privilege) but I am acquainted with grief in a number of ways. While grieving the loss of a loved one is perhaps the most traumatic and troubling experience of grief, we go through a process of grieving wherever major loss is involved. When our lives change in a dramatic way, we will often find ourselves struggling to ‘let go’ and move forward on a new path. The big changes that I’ve experienced over the past couple of years – moving away from a country that I love, leaving friends and family, and deciding to abandon a career in academia – have all inspired a process of grieving, with which I am still grappling. Given the universality of grief, it is so important that we equip ourselves with coping mechanisms that, while not removing the gravity of the loss, will allow a shift in perspective that assists in navigating the pain.
Given the prevalence of grief as one of the major emotional challenges we must face, it is no surprise that literature deals at length with loss and its consequences. This third post in the bibliotherapy series (previous articles are linked at the bottom of this post) considers bibliotherapy as a tool for navigating the challenges of grief. I’ll start by talking through the relationship between bibliotherapy and grief, looking at the physiological and psychological symptoms of grief as they can manifest in response to loss. Based on this, I’ll then be drawing on the three components of bibliotherapy – (1) identification; (2) catharsis; and, (3) insight – to make recommendations of some books that might help you to process any feelings of grief. Whether you are experiencing grief due to the loss of a loved one, a redundancy, or another significant change in circumstance, literature has something to offer you.
As always, be sure to get in touch via a comment or email if you have any thoughts, experiences, or recommendations that you would like to share! If you are interested in the other posts of the bibliotherapy series, they are linked at the end of this post. You can also access them via the site menu.
*These posts are not intended to suggest that bibliotherapy and literature are a replacement for professional help. Although I believe that fiction can serve as an effective tool in the maintenance of mental health and the treatment of mental illness, it must be viewed as a complement to professional intervention, where appropriate. If you are struggling with mental illness or otherwise, please do not hesitate to reach out to someone who is in a capacity to help.*
Bibliotherapy and Grief
Given that grief can exist in response to many different kinds of loss, it’s unsurprising that the experience and symptoms of grief can also have a variety of manifestations. Most of us are familiar with the ‘stages of grief’, wherein it’s suggested that the process of grieving involves progressing through five different psychological states – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While it can be useful to conceptualise grief as stages in order to recognise emotional patterns, research shows that we do not typically progress through these stages in a predictable fashion and, in many cases, certain stages are not even present in an individual’s experience of grief. It is importance to recognise that, despite our tendency to categorise experience and behaviour, grief looks different to different people. There is no set time frame to the grieving process, nor any one particular way in which grief shares characteristics across individuals.
This said, there are aspects of grief that present as more common across experiences. The overwhelming sadness that we typically associate with grieving is often present. This sadness can, of course, bring with it a number of physical symptoms – tension in the body, headaches, a desire to sleep more than usual, a loss of appetite. These symptoms highlight one of the major difficulties in dealing with grief, namely the point at which the scale of grief becomes problematic and requires intervention. The term ‘complicated grief’ is applied to grief at its most extreme. In this case, the sufferer may find herself struggling to maintain her daily routine, experiencing depression, engaging in self blame or self harm, and/or having suicidal thoughts. Complicated grief can also involve feelings of anxiety and, in certain cases, lead to addiction as an attempt to cope with the emotional turmoil of loss. In instances of complicated grief, it is of course recommended that professional intervention be sought out. However, grief in its ‘non-complicated’ form (we could certainly write essays on the appropriateness of the terminology in use here) can still feature similar symptoms, including disruption to routines and extreme sadness. Grieving is an important process and is vital to arriving at the point where one can look back upon their loss with a sense of gratitude and warmth for the time spent. Finding ways to manage, whether through support groups, therapy, or the identification, insight and catharsis provided by literature, is, however, incredibly important.
*The following couple of paragraphs are a brief introduction to the components of bibliotherapy. If you have read my previous posts on the subject, you might want to skip ahead to the recommendations!*
The universality of grief makes the experience of loss and the process of grieving fertile ground for fiction writers. As one of the most common shared emotions, grief through loss is something that we will all encounter. Fortunately, the fact that literature deals so plentifully with grief creates ample opportunity for bibliotherapy to provide some reprieve from the sadness and questioning that often plays a role in the grieving process. As I highlighted in Can Fiction Help You? An Introduction To Bibliotherapy, bibliotherapy can be grouped into three distinct (but sometimes overlapping) categories:
(1) Identification with the character or text;
(2) Catharsis in response to the text;
(3) Insight into problems through the text.
As they pertain to grief, each of these components have something truly important to offer. Identification and insight are tied to the representation of grief via the text of a novel. Research has demonstrated that our brains process fictional scenarios as if they were happening to us directly. Reading thus equips us with better tools for the management of challenging scenarios and a degree of emotional resilience when confronting situations first-hand. Our brains quite literally learn to change and adapt our response to grief as we read about fictional encounters with the same emotion. The catharsis aspect of bibliotherapy is similarly important as it pertains to grief. Not only does fiction have the ability to calm any physical distress – for example, the sadness (both psychological and physiological in manifestation) that often comes with grieving – it can also provide an important mirror for our experiences and, through this, an alleviation from the isolation that grief can impose.
Making sure to choose the right novel to meet each of these requirements is important. While there is less risk of ‘triggering’ by reading the ‘wrong’ novel in regards to grief – as opposed to with conditions such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD – our requirements will vary depending upon our situation and our needs. We might be looking for identification with characters, in order to find representation of our experiences. Alternatively, it might be insight that we desire, in an effort to confront our grief head-on by finding coping mechanisms or a shift in perspective. Or maybe it is catharsis that we are looking to find – a chance to connect with characters more generally or an opportunity to laugh and alleviate some of the physical distress caused by feelings of grief. The following section talks through book recommendations that fall into each of these categories. While they are obviously not personalised exactly to your needs, they are a starting point – a signpost toward the lists that you can continue to create for yourself.
These fictional works all centralise characters and situations that overlap with the experience and/or symptoms of grief. The process of identification with a text is believed to increase a reader’s capacity for empathy and compassion toward individuals and scenarios as represented in fiction and, by extension, the ability to better understand personal suffering.
Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak
To fans of The Book Thief, it is no secret that Markus Zusak is a master of humanistic storytelling. His newest work – Bridge of Clay – follows the Dunbar brothers as they grapple with the loss of their mother to cancer and their father’s decision to abandon his sons. The story unpicks diverse manifestations of grief, as the boys work to move forward in a variety of different ways. The position of storytelling, memory, and reconciliation as central to the processing of grief in Bridge of Clay stand out as some of the book’s most profound reflections on dealing with loss. It is a powerful work and one in which you will find that grief exists less on a spectrum and more as an arrow pointing forward.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Lucia Berlin deserves recognition as one of the most insightful authors of the 20th century. Her incredible short story collections dwell in the every day, taking time to explore the life of laundromats, cleaning women, immigrants, and hospitals. Using Berlin’s own experiences as their jumping-off point, A Manual for Cleaning Women considers a truly expansive array of life events, both peculiar to Berlin and yet meaningful far beyond her own biography. Berlin’s exploration of grief – in the impending death of her sister to terminal cancer and attempts to reconcile herself to the loss of her mother – is incredibly raw and affirming in its reality. Berlin deals incredible well with the complexities of grief – the moments of laughter that exist, the difficulties of grieving when your relationship with the lost person was ambiguous or toxic. A Manual for Cleaning Women provides so much insight and a worthy mirror for anyone experiencing grief.
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
The gravity of the events depicted in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice make it a difficult read. Following Sophie Zawistowska, a survivor of Naziism and concentration camps, as she attempts to make a life for herself in the US, the novel deals heavily in the aftermath of atrocity. Told from the perspective of her neighbour, Stingo, the reader watches Sophie’s self-destruction as she wrestles with the grief of her past and the choice that has defined her to popular consciousness. Sophie’s Choice is a depiction of grief at its most extreme, ripe with guilt and a determination to cope in the most troubling ways. It is, however, an important reflection on grief at the precipice, capturing elements of the grieving process that feel troublingly real.
As I mentioned above, the cathartic capacity of fiction is one of the most meaningful and direct ways in which literature can assist those of us experiencing grief. Catharsis indicates an alleviation of physiological and/or psychological distress and can be achieved in a variety of ways. In my experience, there are three principle ways to achieve catharsis via fiction – as it pertains to grief – and this is via (1) calming, (2) levity, and (3) nostalgia. Although the manner in which each of these works for you – as well as the books that evoke each response – will depend largely on your individual preferences, the novels listed below can serve as a point of reflection and exploration for you to figure out what offers the best cathartic response.
Calming: Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
I read Einstein’s Dreams many years ago and it has stuck with me ever since. Much as with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Einstein’s Dreams takes the form of a chapter-by-chapter fictionalisation of different worlds. Each of these worlds is an imagining of Einstein’s dreams (hence the title) as he formulated his theory of special relativity. As neither a physicist nor a philosopher, I’m sure that much of the book’s profundity was lost on me. However, Einstein’s Dreams remains one of the most prosaically fluid and calming feats of imagination that I’ve ever read. For those in the midst of grief, the writing will assist in soothing the physiological urgency of sadness, whilst the expansive worlds that the book imagines – along with some truly beautiful reflections on the nature of time – will offer you an opportunity to shift your understanding of love and loss.
Levity: Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson
I’m currently re-reading E.F. Benson’s wonderful Mapp and Lucia stories to help remedy a period of heightened anxiety. For escape, there is perhaps no collection of stories that I could more willingly recommend. Following the village socialites and leaders, Miss Mapp and Lucia, as they work to secure authority over their domains, the Mapp and Lucia omnibus is a wonderfully light-hearted work, in the vein of Nancy Mitford. Lucia’s efforts to work past the death of her husband provide additional insight into the workings of grief, albeit with a sufficiently light touch to retain the story’s incredible humour and social perception. Mapp and Lucia is one that I return to again and again, whenever I’m looking for an emotional reprieve. While it stays closely conformed to realities of the human experience – jealousy, grief, and friendship – the humour of the stories is always profoundly cathartic.
Nostalgia: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I think that just about everyone has a book that defines their childhood – for me, that book is The Secret Garden. Not only was I utterly obsessed with the story, I watched the film more times than I can count (and to this day, it remains one of my favourites). The evocation of nostalgia can be central to bibliotherapy’s offerings on grief – it inspires a (hopefully) positive reflection on past times, a sense of comfort, and, through this, encourages a happy looking-back at times past. Being able to reflect on time spent prior to loss is key to working through grief. For me, The Secret Garden evokes a particularly positive sense of nostalgia in which I always find comfort. While the book that best does the same for you will vary depending upon your own attachments, The Secret Garden is also an excellent choice for its own reflections on grief. We watch Mary and the Cravens deal with grief and the process of working through this – characterised explicitly in the garden and what it represents.
When reading fiction for insight, it is not necessarily the case that novels need directly refer to or deal with the problem at hand. Where identification allows us to explore characters and situations to which we can directly relate, insight permits us to consider ways of operating that might allow us to better navigate our challenges. While the books listed below do not necessarily portray grief directly (although, in most cases they do), they offer a variety of reflections on coping and moving forward that provide particular insight into the problems that grief can create.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Although Lincoln in the Bardo is certainly one of the saddest books I’ve read, it is also the most remarkable in terms of the way that it represents grief. The story offers a mix of historical accounts surrounding the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie and fictionalised representations of Willie’s transition to the ‘bardo’ – an earthly purgatory in which Willie exists, along with other spirits struggling to accept their deaths. Through the narrative of the spirits, the reader is given accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s visits to his son’s grave and Willie’s attempts to accept the truth of his own demise so that he can move out of the bardo. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much at the closing of a novel. But I have absolutely no doubt that when it is my turn to encounter grief through the loss of a loved one, Lincoln in the Bardo will be the first novel to which I turn.
Regeneration by Pat Barker
Pat Barker’s Regeneration is an impressive fictional accounting of the history behind attempts to rehabilitate psychiatrically damaged soldiers during World War I. Featuring the celebrated war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Regeneration offers a remarkable insight into the damage wrought on soldiers forced to encounter death, atrocity, and the loss of their friends. Making this a particularly powerful novel for those looking to gain some insight into grief and its process, it is the novel’s centralisation of art as a means to grapple with loss that most resounds. Based on Owen’s real friendship with Sassoon and the role of mentor that Sassoon was able to play for the young poet, grief’s complexity and its, sometimes extreme, consequences are perfectly captured through the struggles of the novel’s characters.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five is arguably one of the most important – albeit, in this respect, under-recognised – literary offerings on grief and the grieving process. Death is central to the novel’s narrative, as the story’s famous reprise “So it goes” – featuring at each mention of a death – reminds us. As the story flits between World War II, its build-up, and its aftermath, it is inevitable that some reflection would be inspired on the nature of human life and its apparent superfluousness to those in political power. Yet, to me, it is the main character, Billy Pilgrim’s, abduction by the alien Trafamaldorian race that provides the most insight on grief. The Trafamaldorian’s conception of time – having no past or future – remains rooted in the present moment. Thus the reflection that, “When any Trafamaldorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.” This emphasis on presence and gratitude is central to Slaughterhouse-Five and provides a beautiful recourse for anyone looking to explore insights into grief.
Other Posts in the Series: