Our Reading Lives

The Books I Read and Didn’t Read While Grieving

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Christine Hoxmeier

Staff Writer

Christine Hoxmeier can usually be found hard at work in her beloved home of Austin with a cup of coffee in one hand and a taco in the other. She spends her free time reading, writing, and dreaming of a teleportation device so she can visit her friends spread across the globe on a daily basis. If it were possible to live inside one Disneyland attraction for the rest of her life, Christine would cheat and choose to split her time between It's A Small World and The Enchanted Tiki Room. She prefers to communicate in CAPSLOCK and with gifs. Twitter: @aramblingfancy

It’s the end of January 2021. I’m sitting on my bed, staring at the copy of Something to Talk About which has been lying on my floor for days now. It was the book I was carrying around in my bag the day my boss died and now I can’t bear to touch it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the book. I was halfway through and thoroughly enjoying it. But now I look at it and am reminded of the hours I spent waiting, worrying, and praying during the worst night of my life. The bright cover seems to mock me. “Her boss is dead,” I imagine the woman on the covering whispering. “She’s a nanny to a widower and his kids now,” she tells the other woman. It’s true — and yet I don’t believe it.

Something to Talk About Cover

February brings a catastrophic winter storm to Texas. I pack my bags to stay at the house of the family I look after during the storm. I give the kids the books I bought them for Valentine’s Day, and the 1st grader reads theirs in one sitting. I’m so proud! I brought books for myself and a pamphlet on caring for grieving children someone gave me. After putting the kids to bed, I call my parents and fall asleep listening to podcasts about movies. I don’t read anything this week.

When the ice and snow finally begin to melt, I go back home to my cat. My roommate and I drive carefully to our local bookstore and buy stacks of books and puzzles for a sense of normalcy. I buy Happily Ever Afters, The Body Keeps the Score, and two Olivia Waite romances. I pile them on a bookshelf in my room. I don’t read a single book in February.

March arrives and I begin marking the time since my boss died in weeks instead of days. I finally pick up my preorder of Love at First, and my cat sits in my lap as I read bits of it over the next ten days. “I finished a book!” I exclaim and my roommate praises me in the same manner in which I praise the youngest child when they let me brush their hair. A few days later, I pick Something to Talk About off the floor and finally finish reading it. I feel nothing.

The Body Keeps the Score cover

I start reading The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics and feel like I can finally escape into a book. I’m sure this means my brain and heart are healing. I can take pleasure in something I like doing again!

I sort through condolence cards and gifts for the kids I nanny while they are out of town for one week. Someone sent them a copy of The Invisible String, and it makes me mad. My friends send me cards and care packages too — full of tea, sweets, and books. I pick up Tweet Cute from one such package and read it in two sittings. With each page I turn, I think about how much I miss the kids. My boss is still dead.

I decide to go to another local bookstore. I text my friend to remind me of the title of that one queer fantasy/SciFi book she was talking about last year. I buy it and Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, along with a few more escapist reads. A few weeks later my friend asks if I’ve started The First Sister yet. I have not. Every one of the books I bought that day remains untouched on a bookshelf in my room.

It’s the end of March and I know I am depressed but I cannot crawl out of it. I don’t want to read. I don’t want to write. I just want to be with the kids and laugh and jump on the trampoline and be sad together all at the same time. I go back to BookWoman to peruse books on grief and trauma. I hold a copy of Progressing Through Grief for half an hour whilst I try to find another fun book to buy so the bookstore employee won’t wonder if I’m okay. Every book I pick up taunts me: “You think I might make things better for you, but I won’t.” I purchase an art print of girls reading along with my grief book and cry on the drive home.

In April, the only time I read is with the kids and honestly, it’s usually the 1st grader reading Dog Man books to me. We laugh at the jokes and I have to forcibly remove the book from their hands before bath time. Later, I hold a list of recommended reading for grief and kids my widower boss gives me. “Pretty much the most depressing books ever,” he ruefully says. I look at titles like When Dinosaurs Die, Molly’s Mom Died, How Do We Tell the Children? and wonder where is the Ways A Nanny Can Cope When Your Boss Dies and the Oldest Child is Confiding Their Crush to You and the Youngest Proudly Shows You Their Drawings of Their Dead Mom As An Angel book.

Somehow it’s now the middle of May. I can tell my anti-anxiety and anti-depression meds are helping. My new therapist is encouraging me to journal again. I see How to Carry What Can’t Be Fixed pop up as a new release at BookWoman and decide to buy it that weekend. I purchase two other books that day, including a novella because I think maybe a short romance will jump start my reading. The owner comments on the range of my book choices and after looking at the grief journal, decides she needs to order two more copies for the store. I feel no anxiety whilst talking to her about my books. I smile on my way out the door even though no one can see it because of the mask I’m wearing.

It’s been seven weeks and the longest I’ve gone without reading a book in years — even my 2020 pandemic reading droughts never lasted more than a few weeks. I flip through the grief journal and decide I’d rather read the forward for The Five. I take the kids to swim practice every day and then come home and read about the victims of Jack the Ripper with my cat on my lap. I try not to think too hard about why I am so mesmerized by the story of the lives of women that have been overshadowed by their death and the manner in which they died. I finish the book in four days.

Luck of the Titanic cover

Today, it is raining. There are still piles of unread books all over my room. I thought about working through the grief journal, but grabbed my notebook and wrote this essay you’re reading instead. Tonight, I think I’ll go buy Zen Cho’s newest book, and browse the books on grief and trauma and tuck one into my purchase stack. Maybe I’ll actually read this new grief book. Or maybe I’ll just sit with my cat on my lap and read Luck of the Titanic, because that’s what my brain and heart can handle.

I don’t know why I’m writing about this. Grief is weird and lonely. They say grief isn’t something you get over, but rather something you learn to live with. I guess I’m learning to live with mine, through stacks of books I will one day read.

My boss is dead forever. Maybe I will never read all those books after all. I think that’s fine.