Death Drawing Near: Fiction About the End of Life

Laura Marie

Staff Writer

Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. She reads one or two audiobooks every week, loves falling into a good cooking memoir, and debates feasibility of tech from sci-fi books with her husband.

One Night Two Souls Went Walking by Ellen Cooney (Coffee House Press)

A young interfaith chaplain is joined on her hospital rounds one night by an unusual companion: a rough-and-ready dog who may or may not be a ghost. As she tends to the souls of her patients—young and old, living last moments or navigating fundamentally altered lives—their stories provide unexpected healing for her own heartbreak. Balancing wonder and mystery with pragmatism and humor, Ellen Cooney returns with a generous, intelligent novel that grants the most challenging moments of the human experience a shimmer of light and magical possibility.

There are many events in life for which we struggle to find the words, and one of those occasions is when someone’s death draws near. Whether we’re searching for the words to talk about how aging has made us feel or how we relate to those we may lose or have lost, fiction about the end of life helps us come to grips with the uncomfortable realities of the circle of life.

From stories about those who have left us too soon to families who come together to work through a heartbreaking diagnosis, books can help us emotionally work through our own experiences of the end of life and find comfort in the shared experiences that skilled writers share with us on those topics.

Here are some of our top picks for exploring the many ways that the end of life can manifest itself, be it far too early or after a long life well lived.

Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

This YA novel shows how some of the hardest moments in life are what make us who we are, as the protagonist struggles with how to be a good friend when faced with impending death and his own high school challenges.

It’s Not All Downhill from Here by Terry McMillan

Vivacious Loretha has an optimistic, excited view of aging, but life doesn’t always give you what you expect. When she experiences family challenges and a particularly tough diagnosis, Loretha’s positive attitude is tested. Thank goodness she has her stalwart friends beside her. A beautiful story about relying on community and experiencing growth in all seasons of life.

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

A magical realism story where, after an untimely death, the protagonist goes to the world of Elsewhere and ages backwards. In her adventures in Elsewhere, Liz is given time to think about grief and loss and the end of life even as she finds new paths to explore. Zevin finds a charming way to address a tough, heartbreaking topic with new candor and thoughtfulness.

An Ocean Between Them by Cheryl Espinosa-Jones

Ever since Chloe came out to her Mom a decade ago, they’ve been estranged. However, Sal is now diagnosed with cancer and the potential for the end of her life puts her in a position to reevaluate her choices. Chloe and Sal must determine what can be salvaged after the breaking of trust.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

An intergenerational epic, A Spool of Blue Thread brings a new twist on the old concept that the stories we tell shape what we believe about our families, even when secrets abound behind the stories. It shows how loss will never stop impacting a family’s fabric. Four generations of a single family are discussed in this sprawling saga set in Baltimore.

The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

This lyrical book follows a death that results in a healthy heart being available for transplant, but only if it can be completed in the 24 hours that follow the death. Unusual and lovely, this book expands a single day out to showcase the breadth of human interaction through all the lives touched by the events after one person’s death.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

When the main character loses one of her closest friends and gains custodianship of his beloved dog, she must make some hard choices. After all, her apartment doesn’t allow dogs! The unfolding connection between her grief, herself, and the new pet in her life create interesting conflict. The Friend is a rumination on how we all grow and move on, and what we keep with us forever.

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

A novel in vignettes, this story focuses on motherhood, identity, and grief. Main character Thandi is between worlds, mourning the loss of her mother, and also looking for love and passion. The unusual, short-sections style really brings new life to familiar topics.

Continuing your journey of understanding? Check out these 50 Must-Read Books For Tackling Fear of Death and A Year of Mourning and Reading.