Death is a subject few think about on a day to day basis. If, like me, you read to escape, a book about death may not be something you’d choose to read for pleasure. But, to sound like a cliché, it is something that will impact us all during our lives and a subject that, in the end, none of us will escape.
This week is ‘Dying Matters’ Week – a week that happens each May to open up difficult conversations about death, dying and bereavement. There is no doubt it is a sensitive subject. For many people, it can be hard to put into words. During last week and this week, in some of our libraries, we’ve been joined by Cat Weatherill and Ruth Graham and their show “Unforgettable” (details here). The shows and their accompanying workshops aim to bring ‘unforgettable’ characters to life and explore the topic of death and dying. At sessions, you’ll be able to think about your own ‘unforgettable’ characters and consider how to write a eulogy as well as be entertained by a thought-provoking and engaging duo. Sessions are free and have been really well-received so far.
For many though, such thoughts can be difficult to express, if not impossible. In my own experience, I have found books and authors have often been able to put into words the things that I, myself, haven’t been able to. Their words have explained what I feel, helped develop my understanding, and even books aimed at young children have bought solace and comfort in the past, during the present and will no doubt continue to in the future.
With that in mind, I’ve bought together title suggestions for books to start these difficult conversations. Titles aimed at both young and old are featured, offering guidance and support that may help with the grieving process (though this will be different for everyone – there is no “right” way to grieve the loss of a loved one and if you find that you are struggling or need someone to talk to, I have included some organisations that can provide help at the end of this post).
Explaining death and dying to young children can be difficult. They may not yet understand what is happening, be able to control or verbalise their emotions. They ask questions that have no answers. The death of a pet can often be the first time children face loss and can be hugely painful. “I Miss You: a First Look at Death” explores the topic, while “The Sadness Hole” by Ji-yeong Min follows Harry after his pet chick Pippi dies. Bel Mooney’s “Goodbye Pet & See You in Heaven” looks at pet loss from an adult perspective as the death of a favourite animal can be painful at any age.
Lisa Wells, a mother diagnosed with terminal cancer, has written “Only One of Me” in two versions – one from Mum and one from Dad. Each features the same poem that helps explain loss to young children and provides comfort during a sad time.
This year is the 35th anniversary of the publication of Sue Varley’s “Badger’s Parting Gifts“– a picture book exploring the passing of time and celebrating a life well lived. You can read an interview with Sue Varley here in which she discusses the impact the book has had through the years. “The Scar” by Charlotte Moundlic follows a young boy as he comes to terms with the death of his mother and the feelings this provokes. An incredibly poignant read that is beautifully illustrated.
Unexpected death and suicide can be extremely difficult subjects – “Rafi’s Red Car” by Louise Moir tackles the issue with sensitivity, while “Is Daddy Coming Back in a Minute?” by Elke Barber is especially aimed at younger children and uses simple language.
In Warwickshire, we have a collection of books called ‘Mini-Sorted’ that can help with these difficult conversations. Titles include “Lovely Old Roly” by Michael Rosen and “Always and Forever” by Debi Gliori – a beautiful reminder that, although people may be gone from our lives, they live on in our hearts. You’ll find other titles in the collection that give suggestions for activities such as making memory boxes and information books that help explain what has happened.
The death of a loved one is painful at any age. For young adults, already dealing with growing and maturing, it can be life-changing and a landscape that is almost impossible to navigate. Books like “Finding a Way Through When Someone Close Has Died” can give help and activities to work through, advice for where to look for further help and offer reassurance that support is available and you are not alone.
Booktrust, the UK’s children’s reading charity have produced this list of titles for young adults featuring novels by authors such as John Green, Cat Clarke and Patrick Ness which can help hugely. You’ll find many of them on the Warwickshire Libraries catalogue.
“They Both Die at the End” by Adam Silvera has the kind of title that gives something huge away but then, the premise of the novel is just that – in a near future, people receive a phone call on the day of their death – a very different take on death. The book follows how Mateo and Rufus, and their loved ones, process this information and what decisions they make about their final day. Certainly a thought provoking YA novel!
There are many books that cover wide-ranging topics from caring for people who are dying, to having the difficult discussions that come before a death. There are many memoirs of those who have planned for their final days and of those left behind. For anyone caring for someone at the end of their life, “Caring for the Dying” provides guidance, while “The Conversation” by Angelo Volandes explores how discussions with people nearing the end can ensure the care offered meets their needs. Recently published “With the End in Mind” by Katherine Mannix similarly looks at how we manage end of life care with dignity and respect for both the patient and their family.
For more philosophical takes on death and dying, “The Five Invitations” by Frank Ostaseski is described as “an exhilarating mediation on the meaning of life and how maintaining an ever-present awareness of death can bring us closer to our truest selves.” “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande likewise questions what is important at the end of a life, as does “Seize the Day: how the dying teach us to live” by Marie Hennezel. For an account of how these lessons are put into practice, “Driving Miss Norma” by Tim Bauerschmidt charts the adventures of nonagenarian Miss Norma, her cancer diagnosis and how she chooses to approach the last months of her life – with a road trip across the US. “Dying” by Cory Taylor likewise explores how those with a terminal diagnosis can choose the circumstances of their death and plan in advance.
Grief is a unique and individual process – it will impact in different ways, with no “right” way to grieve the loss of a loved one. While there are many ‘guides’ to the process, each will be useful to different people in different ways so the titles mentioned here are by no means endorsed or the only ones to look out for. Jeff Brazier, who is the father of the late Jade Goody’s children, has written “The Grief Survival Guide”, offering advice from preparing for a death to supporting family members through the darkest of times. At 400+ pages, it covers a lot of ground. For those looking for a shorter read, Lianna Champ, a bereavement counsellor with 40 years of experience, has written “How to Grieve Like a Champ” with information broken down into smaller and more digestible chunks. “Grief Works” by Julia Samuel similarly approaches the subject in an accessible way, using real people’s losses to explore death and bereavement.
I recently read “A Manual for Heartache” by Cathy Rentzenbrink and it really impacted. It was a book that dealt with grief in a straightforward and honest way – so much so that once I had returned the copy I borrowed from the library, I went out and bought my own as it is one I want to revisit. Other memoirs include “Being Adam Golightly” by Adam Golightly – following the journey through grief after the loss of a spouse – and “Bittersweet” by Matthew McAllester – a look at how cookery can be both a powerful healer and distraction after the loss of a parent. “It’s Okay To Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too)” by Nora McInerny Purmont also charts the love and loss of a partner while “Wild and Precious Life” by Deborah Zieglar is a parent’s story of finding out their child has a terminal diagnosis and the journey the family takes towards death on their own terms. “It’s Not Raining, Daddy, It’s Happy” by Benjamin Brooks-Dutton sees grief through the eyes of a child coming to terms with the loss of a parent and how that can be a healing process for the adults left behind. Similarly, Rio Ferdinand’s “Thinking Out Loud” provides insight to parenting through the loss of a partner. “Mum’s List” by St John Greene was the creation of Kate Greene. Before she died, Kate created a guidebook for the children she left behind that in the years following her death have provided comfort and memories for her family.
Our Books on Prescription collection features some of the titles already mentioned along with others that offer support – you can browse them here – and you’ll also find links for ‘Mood-Boosting’ books, a collection of titles crowdsourced by the Reading Agency and offering distraction that some may find useful.
The titles featured here are just a few of the many that are available and you may need to try a few to find the one that best supports in each different circumstance. If you are looking for support or help, there are lots of places to turn. Visit your doctor or the NHS website. You can also find local information on the Warwickshire County Council website here or on the Guy’s Gift and Shakespeare’s Hospice websites.
This week is also Mental Health Awareness Week and lots of Mental Health charities such as Mind offer guidance for bereavement. You can also find more information about this subject from the Dying Matters website, Cruse and, for children, Hope Again.
Remember that you are not alone – it’s not easy but there are people, perhaps very close by, who can help you remember fondly the times past, live today well and move into a future respecting the love lost.