If you are dealing with issues surrounding death, these best books about death, dying and grief are honest. In a video interview I watched, the author of The Unwinding of the Miracle, featured below, remarked:
I know this is dark and depressing, but I promised I would be honest with you.– Julie Yip Williams
That’s exactly why I’m writing about a dark and depressing subject. Books on death and dying are a gateway to managing real life, and I am here to provide genuine support for authentically living — not a highlights reel.
Now, I can barely count the number of death books I have read that have dealt with the death of a character (or real person), and/or the aftermath that ensues, including nearly every thriller. But, the true purpose of posting the best books about death, dying, and grief are to assist those dealing with end-of-life issues.
So, this list has breadth: from fiction to memoir, non-fiction, and YA (young adult) novels about death. For each book on death I could have potentially recommended here, I paused and asked myself, “If someone I knew was dealing with end of life issues and/or grief and asked me for a book recommendation in their moment of need, would I recommend this book to them?”
The following list of the best books about death, dying and grief includes the books for which I answered, “yes.”
Best Books About Death, Dying & Grief
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
Named a Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, NPR, and Chicago Tribune
Being Mortal came highly recommended to me, and it’s content surprised me. I was expecting a non-fiction book on death about making major end-of-life decisions, and while it was this, it was also very much a historical and socio-economic argument about enhancing elderly living.
It gives a voice to the elderly and makes you think and question what you thought you knew about quality of their lives.
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
- NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
- NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Washington Post • Parade • LibraryReads
The only way out of it is through it.– Ann Napolitano
Dear Edward is a popular Read With Jenna Bush Hager book club selection. It’s one of the best fiction books about death and grief because it’s an especially unique coming of age story detailing the teenage years of a 12-year-old boy after he is the sole survivor of a plane crash.
It’s very heavy and deep, but I grew to love the characters and the arc of grief, resilience, and hope that blossomed in the years following the crash. What’s especially moving is Edward’s friendship with a young girl named Shay, who supports him along his unique journey.
Edward’s grappling of questions of survivor’s guilt was also meaningful. I listened to the audio version of this book about grief and found it very engaging.
Everything Beautiful in Its Time by Jenna Bush Hager
Everything Beautiful In Its Time felt as comforting as coffee with a friend and left me teary-eyed. In just one year, former first daughter Jenna Bush lost three of her four grandparents, including our former president, George H.W. Bush.
With beautiful and authentic prose, she nostalgically reflects in her memoir book about grief on issues of family, love, and loss with a focus on her relationships with her grandparents. She’s real, she’s relatable and she had me reminiscing about my own grandparents and their impacts on my life.
Of note, she exquisitely also speaks across all political party lines with unifying words. And it’s a great book for book lovers, with several book references as well as bookish women (including herself, her mother, and her maternal grandmother). I adored this heartfelt book about grief and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke
New York Times bestseller
From Scratch was one of my favorite selections by Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club and one of the best books set in Italy. I was teary-eyed listening to this sad book about death.
Tembi Locke is an actress, as well as an exquisite writer who captures her emotions in a way that makes you empathize with her grief and her resilience.
From Scratch is her memoir of life and death with her husband, Saro, whom she met while she was studying in Florence, Italy. Saro was a Sicilian chef whose family did not approve of him marrying a black American actress.
After the couple moves to Los Angeles and adopts a baby girl, Saro is diagnosed with cancer and dies.
From Scratch chronicles the three Summers that Locke spends in Sicily, Italy, with her daughter, as they try to piece together their lives without Saro. Sicily is a place of comforting food, but it also becomes a place of forgiveness, growth, grief, healing and strength in the face of a tragic death.
For more, check out my full review with book pairings for From Scratch.
How to Make Friends With the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow
Confession: When the YA (young adult) fiction book about grief How to Make Friends With the Dark became available to me from a library hold, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. The concept of a teen dealing with the unexpected death of her single mother just seemed like such a horribly sad book about death.
But, I dove in and ended up deeming it one of the best books about death. Yes, it’s sad. But the tone isn’t as dark as the title suggests. The author perfectly captured the teenage voice of Tiger, dealing with average teenager issues while also coping with grief, as she bounces through foster homes and meets unknown family, uncovering her history.
The truth is that we owe it to grieving children (particularly orphaned children) to hear their story, and How to Make Friends With the Dark was exquisitely crafted from the experience of the author and her mother. You won’t be able to put it down.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
- A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR:
- The Washington Post, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, Real Simple, Marie Claire, New York Public Library, LibraryReads, The Skimm, Lit Hub, Lit Reactor
- AN INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Family dramas are my favorite genre, and The Immortalists ranks high on that list for me as a fiction book about death. It’s a thought-provoking family saga about a group of 4 siblings from the 1960s-2010, all of whom become obsessed with their looming deaths.
The story begins when the siblings are children in New York City and a fortune teller predicts the dates of their deaths. This one childhood moment of curiosity forever changes their lives, as throughout the decades to come, they continually grapple with their predicted dates of death.
Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco. Dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, blurring reality and fantasy. Eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11. And bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundaries between science and immortality.
But, that’s really just the beginning, as you will compulsively turn the pages of this novel about death to see if the siblings meet their pre-ordained fates. With rich language and complexity, The Immortalists leaves the reader to question our personal roles in our destinies, the power of belief, time spent on earth, the role of mental health in our lives and the beauty and freedom of uncertainty.
What’s more is that it’s told with complexity and depth that makes you savor each word on the page. Are we living, or are we dying?
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl
- Named a “Best Book of the Year” by New Statesman, New York Public Library, Chicago Public Library, and Washington Independent Review of Books
- Southern Book Prize Finalist
- An O, the Oprah Magazine July 2019 Pick
- A Publishers Weekly “Pick of the Week”
- An Indie Next Selection for July 2019
- An Indies Introduce Selection for Summer/Fall 2019
- A 2019 Okra Pick
Late Migrations is a Read with Jenna Bush Hager book club selection which I discussed with Jenna on The Today Show! In the memoir, Renkl shares snippets of her life, including some larger moments and some smaller moments, primarily during her upbringing in Alabama in the 1960s.
Her prose encompasses short micro-essays which connect to major themes of: nature, love, loss, the value of memories and the meaning of life. For these reasons, it’s also a great book for Spring.
It’s one of the best books about death wherein each word matters, and the micro-essays have poetic lyricism. They are soulful and they are bittersweet, exploring a complex range of universal emotions: love, joy, sadness and darkness.
Renkl, who was formerly Reese Witherspoon’s teacher (yes, really!), ultimately acknowledges that everything that lives will die, but along the way, she exquisitely explores the meaning of life and the grief that follows long after death.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
#1 New York Times bestseller
With more than 2 million copies sold, A Man Called Ove is the beloved modern Fredrick Backman fiction novel about, you guessed it – A Man Called Ove (Ooh-vuh). Outwardly, he’s a stereotypical elderly curmudgeon with a short temper. But inwardly, he’s grieving the loss of his wife and dealing with his own mortality as a dying man living out his older years.
When a friendly young family moves in next door to him, they start to change each other’s lives. The result is both moving and bittersweet. The more time passes, the more I appreciate Ove’s lessons in this beautiful fiction book about grief.
Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: TIME MAGAZINE • GLAMOUR • GOOD HOUSEKEEPING • BOOKPAGE • BOOK RIOT • LIBRARY JOURNAL
I have read a lot of memoirs about dying, death and grief, but Once More We Saw Stars uniquely discussed a very unexpected tragedy — the loss of a child after a freak accident.
This sad book about death includes a minute-by-minute journey through the aftermath. It’s a wonderful, but profoundly sad, yet hopeful, tribute to young Greta Greene and the many others uniquely suffering the same type of loss as her parents. It’s a very worthy read that will bring out your deepest empathy.
Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose by Joe Biden
Instant #1 New York Times Bestseller
Promise Me, Dad is the unforgettable memoir book on death about the year in which Joe Biden’s son, Beau, was diagnosed with and died from brain cancer (of the same type as Senator John McCain).
I listened to the audio version of this book, and years later, I can still hear the pain and exasperation in the elder Biden’s voice when I think about this book. Although Biden was Vice President of the United States at the time this story unfolded, he recounts it as any other American grappling with a devastating diagnosis of a dying family member — from treatment decisions to family planning, and trying to balance all that is life in the process.
I recommend this book to anyone dealing with the effects of cancer.
Signs: The Secret Language of the Universe by Laura Lynne Jackson
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Most of the non-fiction death book Signs tells stories about signs others received from their loved ones who have passed away, which I found really interesting. Mixed in are details about how signs present themselves, how to open yourself to signs, how energy in the universe works and related things, like dreams, positive thinking & intuition.
It may sound hokey, but as a very logic brained and skeptical person, I can say it did not present that way at all! And, sure enough, I used the tools from the book to ask for two signs, and I received both, from two different people, within less than two days.
I recommend Signs to anyone interested in signs or searching for signs in managing their grief.
Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom
#1 New York Times Bestseller
With 12 million copies sold, Tuesdays with Morrie is the bestselling modern classic memoir in which Mitch Albom visits his old professor every Tuesday in the last few months of his professor’s life, dying with ALS, to learn lessons about living.
Being both a modern classic and a very quick read, I recommend it to everyone as one of the best books about death.
The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip Williams
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Williams is a young wife and mother facing a terminal cancer diagnosis. With a jaw-dropping background facing insurmountable odds, including being born blind in post-War Vietnam to a family that wanted to end her life and an unbelievably tumultuous months-long escape, she had surgery that restored part of her sight and eventually became a Harvard trained lawyer who traveled to all seven continents on her own.
It’s hard to imagine that a terminal cancer diagnosis followed at the age of thirty-seven. Seeking clarity, Williams began to write the story of her life.
In The Unwinding of the Miracle, she walks the reader through the day to day emotional journey of living and dying with cancer: shock, loneliness, sadness, despair, anger, hope. She’s candid and real in this death book, and the miracle of her life forever touched my heart.
What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan
#1 New York Times Sports and Fitness bestseller
What Made Maddy Run is the non-fiction story of the 2014 death by suicide of University of Pennsylvania freshman, Madison Holleran. It is meaningful for both adults and teens as a YA (young adult) book on death.
Maddy was an athletic and scholastic over-achiever who struggled tremendously in transitioning from a very small, safe and loving hometown community where nothing bad ever happened to the world of the Ivy leagues, where each and every star student and athlete shone bright, and the cityscape was vast and intimidating.
Kate Fagan explores the issues so many college students face, particularly what it means to be a “perfect” student-athlete and perceptions of aspirational college life on Instagram. And Maddy’s friends and family were brave and open in sharing their grief stories, and Maddy’s life and death story, so that others can potentially prevent suicide deaths. It’s a raw and up-close look at how a downward spiral happened, even amidst a supportive and loving family, unexpectedly dealing with the loss of a child.
For more, check out my full review with book pairings for What Made Maddy Run.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
- #1 New York Times bestseller
- Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
In the memoir, Kalanithi is a 36-year-old neurosurgeon, unexpectedly diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. As he deals with dying, he philosophically questions the meaning of life with painstaking detail and complexity. After all, what makes life worth living, when you come face to face with your own mortality?
As both a patient and a medical provider, Kalanithi has a nuanced perspective, which like the title of his book suggests, will take your breath away.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- National Bestseller
- National Book Award Winner
The Year of Magical Thinking is the book in which Didion recounts her year of grief after the sudden and unexpected death of her husband.
Didion has a way with words, and this stunning book depicts her experiences in ways both personal to her and universal to everyone. The reader uncovers a portrait of a marriage, in good times and bad, and the meaning of love.
That concludes my list of the best books about death, dying and grief, including fiction, memoirs, non-fiction and YA fiction books about grief.
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