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Our Reading Lives

Reading Through Grief

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Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

Four years ago, my aunt entered hospice right before Thanksgiving, after being treated for ovarian cancer for a little over 2 years. between Thanksgiving and New Years, we entered that stage of saying goodbye and watching the dying process take place. She died in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day. Recently, after a month’s hospital stay, a heart procedure, and another brief hospital stay, my grandfather passed away. Four years ago, reading brought me great comfort, and once again, I am turning to books to help ease the familiar tsunami of grief that I find myself fighting.

cure for griefThe Cure for Grief, by Nellie Hermann, was always with me 4 years ago. She was one of my writing professors at the time, and her novel of losing multiple members of her family and dealing with life and loss was invaluable to me. She captured the nuances of relationships, family, grief, and healing so painfully well, and I would comb the pages looking for instructions on how to deal with things. I reread it now, still finding comfort in her words.

The Anatomy of Hope, by Jerome Groopman. This is one of my all-time favorites. I first read this when working in psychosocial oncology. Dr. Groopman is a hematologist-oncologist, and this book presents stories about his patients and their families, and what it means to have hope in dire situations. It explores what the concept of hope is, how we find it in other people and things, and really, what relationships really mean. After reading this for the first time more than 10 years ago, I carried it around in my purse for months and months, just because it gave me comfort.

Chronology of Water by Lidia YuknavitchThe Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch. Given that grief often feels like an ocean – whether you’re drowning in it, trying to stem the tide, or learning to surf its waves, it’s only fitting that this book is on my list. Yuknavitch writes about losing her daughter, losing her parents, and losing a variety of people, relationships, and intangibles. But throughout it all, learning to live and love and survive, finding meaning in art and creating new stories. This is another one I carried with me in my bag for years.

Illusions, by Richard Bach. I was first told about this book in college – and then, through pure serendipity, found a copy of it lying on the floor in the arts center, a few weeks later. This is one of those books where, if you open it randomly to a page, somehow, it always contains something you need to read at that moment. It has an uncanny way of telling you what you need to hear right when you need it most. Reading it and rereading it over the years has brought me something different each time.

For me, reading while grieving or hurting makes me feel less alone. Familiar words and voices on the page are like friends, telling me it’ll be okay. While occasionally, I’ll pick up something new to read as a distraction, I inevitably return to familiar books during this time, for their comfort and retelling of what I need to hear.

What are your favorite books that bring you comfort?