Shared Wisdom

Book Bag: Reading Your Way Out Of Grief

After her 12-year-old son died, author Anna Whiston-Donaldson discovered a small but potent shelf of books whose wisdom and shared experience helped her heal.


I am a reader. Right after my 12-year-old son died, however, I doubted I would ever read again. It was too difficult. My newspapers sat untouched on the kitchen table, and the idea of reading a novel repulsed me, as it seemed frivolous compared to the life and death matters playing out in my house.

When I eventually began to read again, for a few months I focused solely on books about grief, because if I were to use my depleted energy for something other than writing or taking care of my family, I wanted to somehow glean meaning out of our loss and learn from others who had been in my new, ill-fitting shoes.

Those books soon formed a sort of grief library, and some resonated with me more than others. I held them loosely, looking for opportunities to share, hoping they would help others as much as they helped me.

Here are my top six:

A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Lossby Gary Sittser.

Sittser lost his wife, his mother, and one of his children in a car accident. His book openly and honestly explores the spiritual issues that accompany great suffering. Sittser is a religion professor, and this book is from a Christian perspective. Sittser doesn’t make assumptions about how others should grieve, but he shows how growth can come out of loss and that joy is possible, even in the midst of darkness. This is a book I could read again and again.

Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing after Lossby Pat Schwiebert.

Schwiebert’s illustrated book, only 51 pages long, looks like it’s for children; but it’s truly helpful for all ages. It is a fable about an elderly woman, “Grandy,” who has suffered an unnamed loss. It follows Grandy’s grief journey in the days and months ahead. This is an excellent book for the bereaved and for the un-bereaved who walk beside them. It helps emphasize the individual approaches to grief, the many different types of losses in life, and it provides practical ways to help those who grieve.

Life After the Death of My Sonby Dennis Apple.

This memoir is excellent for bereaved parents. It is raw, yet gentle and relatable. Apples uses his journals to take us back to the sudden loss of his 18-year-old son. Rather than giving advice, Apple’s approach is to share the hard-earned personal insight he gleaned while fighting to maintain his marriage, his faith, and his will to live.

A Rumor of Angels: Quotations for Living, Dying and Letting Goby Gail Perry Johnson and Jill Perry Rabideau.

This slim book would be quite easy to overlook. It is a collection of hundreds of quotations about loss from many sources: Shakespeare, Khalil Gibran, Alice Walker, and the Bible. I found this book made me feel connected to a community of sufferers both real and fictional, spanning centuries. My loss was not the first in the world, nor would it be the last. The format of quotations and snippets of songs and poems, made it easy to read, when reading anything longer was a challenge. It would be an excellent gift to accompany a sympathy card.

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Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Griefby Martha Whitmore Hickman.

These short daily devotions help the bereaved feel less alone. Each entry begins with a quotation from literature, then offers a short meditation by the author on some aspect of grief, and ends with a statement or affirmation from the point of view of the reader such as, “I will open my heart and trust that, in ways I do not now understand, my loved one will continue to be present in my life.” I found that these 365 meditations put into words what I was feeling, and it didn’t matter if I read them in sequence or at random.

To Heaven and Backby Dr. Mary Neal.

There are many excellent books about near-death experiences that can help comfort a bereaved person with the hope that perhaps this life is NOT ALL THERE IS. I found this one particularly riveting. Dr. Neal is a spine surgeon who made a trip to heaven while drowning in a kayak accident in South America. Her book details her experience there, as well as her long recovery. This book touches on what heaven is like, the role of angels and signs of comfort from God in our world, as well as there being a plan and a purpose to each person’s life. Love and hope shines through this book.

Anna Whiston-Donaldson is a popular blogger at An Inch of Gray. A graduate of Wake Forest University, she taught high-school English for six years before becoming a full-time mom and writer. She lives with her husband, Tim, and daughter, Margaret, in suburban Washington, D.C.