For nearly two decades, I’ve claimed that reading grief memoirs was purely “research” for my own book. Only now, after finally publishing The Goodbye Diaries: A Mother-Daughter Memoir last month, can I confess what my friends and family likely knew all along but were far too kind to say: That was not research; that was survival.
Because when your mom is diagnosed with cancer when you’re seventeen and dies when you’re twenty, the thing you need most are stories. Grief memoirs taught me how to live in the world without my mom. Even more, they urged me to live, if only to share the book my mother and I had begun writing together, alternating chapters to reveal how a mother and teenage daughter find their way back together after a shocking diagnosis.
And so, subconsciously, over the past nearly twenty years, I’ve curated my own grief memoir book club. Total members: one—though I have a hunch there’s more of you out there. Below are some of the books that saved me. I only hope now mine can save someone, too.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Traversing life, and caring for his eight-year-old brother, in his early twenties after losing both of his parents, Eggers’s debut is a raw examination of death and grief. My college boyfriend gifted me this book when my mom was sick with cancer, and I remember reading it and feeling terribly exposed. I was very private about my mom’s illness, and, for the first time, I saw myself in a book. Only instead of hiding his mom’s cancer like a secret, Eggers was revealing it all. And I mean all. As early as page two, Eggers’s mother, couchbound, spits green gunk into a plastic receptacle as if it’s just another ordinary day with cancer. Shocked, I thought, Oh my god, the gunk. He’s writing about the gunk! It struck me as an act of courage and candor, two qualities I promised myself to infuse into my own memoir.
The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith
It’s only fitting that Smith follow Eggers. Both were orphaned in their early twenties and grew brave enough to write about it. Smith even worked alongside Eggers at his nonprofit youth writing center, 826. Written in a bare, devastating style, The Rules of Inheritance flutters through timelines a la 500 Days of Summer to explain Bidwell’s loss of her mom at eighteen and her dad at twenty-five. To this day, I worry about Smith in a scene from her book. Newly parentless, she’s in a bad fender bender. She stops the car and stares hard at her phone, but can’t think of anyone to call: “I’m nobody’s most important person.” Smith eventually calls a friend—a brief moment, one of many that defines this book about building your own family and reclaiming your life in the wake of loss.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
It’s easy to romanticize our dead people—she was the best mother; he was the best father—until you realize the disservice of remembering them holy rather than wholly. Madden bravely embraces the latter. Exposing the instability and loneliness of her childhood, Madden’s memoir describes coming of age as a biracial, queer teen against the backdrop of her mother’s and father’s severe drug and alcohol addictions. And yet, through Madden’s stunning and poetic prose, we adore her parents as she does. We love her Chinese-Hawaiian mother, who, when clean, zaps lice from Madden’s hair with a straightening iron. We love her white, shoe mogul father as Madden strokes his hair while he’s passed out on the couch, right before she and her mother flee his drug-fueled rage. Mostly, we love Madden, who survives their neglect and goes on to discover her sexuality and—thankfully for us—her storytelling prowess.
Her: A Memoir by Christa Parravani
My mom and I were always fascinated by twins and the close connection they share. Perhaps this inseparability is best understood in Parravani’s memoir about grieving the loss of her identical twin sister, Cara, who died of a drug overdose in their late twenties. The book opens with Parravani looking in the mirror and longing for her sister who is so painfully present in her own reflection. Sparse and poetic, Her is equal parts haunting and heartbreaking. Cara floats through the prose like a specter, particularly in excerpts from her diaries, which illuminate her suffering. This was the first memoir I read that included diary entries from a family member who died, the way mine pulls heavily from my mom’s diaries. Her reassured me that printing the words and thoughts of the dead is perhaps the most honest way to honor their legacy—and allow them to live on.
Modern Loss: Candid Conversations About Grief. Beginners Welcome. by Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner
This collection of personal essays from the founders of ModernLoss.com reads like forty-plus mini-memoirs. Essays range from illustrated how-tos (Tré Miller Rodriguez’s “Things To Know Before Scattering Ashes”) to pop culture pain points (Kate Spencer’s “When Mom Kan’t Keep Up With the Kardashians”) to taboo-yet-true confessions (Emily Rapp Black’s “Meet the Twins: Grief and Desire”). With each story, you become part of the Modern Loss community. Not the stereotyped women-weeping-with-copious-Kleenex support group, but the ones who live in the real world, where you cry in the strangest of places and also maybe you don’t cry at all? Because, as this book will reassure you, all of it is totally normal.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Grappling with the loss of her brother and four close friends—all young, black men; all victims of addiction, accidents, suicide; all within five years—Ward begrudgingly takes on the task of writing about their deaths in order to tell the stories of their lives. “Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten fucking story,” Ward ends the book’s preface. Men We Reaped is the “Lives” of #BlackLivesMatter. By sharing her personal grief, Ward voices our collective grief and ensures that we all assume responsibility for these lives moving forward.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
The whole world read Wild and became obsessed with hiking the PCT. I read Wild and only remember her mom dying. We all read books through our own lens, and dead-mom memoirs have been my niche for a while. In my defense, what I love about Wild is not Strayed’s mom’s death, but her mom’s life and the enormous way she loves her kids. Strayed’s retelling of the way her mom would string her kids’ names together—KarenCherylLeif—made my mom’s voice echo through the halls of my memory all over again. I flew cross-country to see Strayed speak in 2014 and asked her advice for aspiring memoirists. Her answer boiled down to this: What is the story you want to share with the world? In the end, perhaps my story is not so different than Strayed’s: both are stories of a mother’s infinite love.
Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
We know Kaling as the hilarious actor/writer/comedian/producer/director from The Office and The Mindy Show (and assume we’d be besties if we ever met IRL). So it’s surprising to discover that this comedic force is fueled, in part, by the loss of her mother to pancreatic cancer in 2012. (Her mom died the same day The Mindy Show was greenlit.) Although Kaling has opened up to the media about how she continues to miss her mom, her second collection of essays doesn’t address it. But the omission of her loss from the book is its intrinsic value. Reading Kaling’s essays through the grief lens allows you to appreciate her humor even more—and will encourage you to embrace laughter and inappropriateness, and to pursue your own dreams, all in your loved one’s honor.
Half a Life: A Memoir by Darin Strauss
Most grief memoirs have a clear perpetrator (e.g. cancer) and obvious victims (e.g. the dead person and their loved ones). Strauss shook that world upside down. In high school, one moment changed his life: he was driving with friends in his car, then suddenly collided with a classmate on her bicycle and she died. Without a second of self-pity (you’re almost begging this poor guy to let himself off the hook), he details the way the loss of her life nearly made him lose his. What inspired me most was his honesty about writing the memoir “half a life” later, now married with young kids: “And at night, I could switch the computer off and walk down the hall to where the people now in my life were making their different sounds.” It helped me appreciate those moments of transition when writing my own book, and taught me not to long so much for the past that you forget to live in the present.
Grief Girl: My True Story by Erin Vincent
It’s every child’s worst nightmare to lose both parents in a car wreck, and that’s basically what happens to Vincent. Her mom dies on impact; her father dies a month later due to complications. At fourteen, she’s left with an older sister who resents the new responsibility of caring for her younger siblings, including a toddler brother who she acknowledges will likely have no memories of his parents. What could be the most depressing book ever is instead a deep dive into a young person’s psyche and worldview after such sudden loss. Vincent’s authentic voice gave me hope that I could convey my own teenage thoughts, even all these years later.
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
Real talk: pancreatic cancer is sort of a lesser cancer. It’s one of the deadliest, to be sure, but it can’t hold a luminary candle to, say, breast cancer, with its legions of pink products and rah rah survivor walks. Part of the problem is we have so few survivors. Part of it is a language flaw: as Schwalbe pointed out when we spoke by phone a few months ago, “pancreatic” is not a sexy word. If you’ve lost someone to pancreatic cancer—my mom died of it, and so did Schwalbe’s—your eyes light up when you meet someone else who has, too. That’s how I felt when I discovered The End of Your Life Book Club, in which Schwalbe and his mother connect during chemo treatments over their shared love of reading. In writing about pancreatic cancer (there’s that word again—sorry, Will!), Schwalbe gives voice to all of us who have suffered from it, and we’re so grateful.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Topics you expect to encounter in Becoming: ambition, marriage, motherhood, first ladyship. The topic you don’t see coming: grief. A quarter of the way into the book, it smacked me in the face when Michelle Obama, in her twenties, experiences the crushing double loss of her college roommate and, shortly after, her own father. The chapter following her father’s death begins in her blunt style: “It hurts to live after someone has died. It just does. It can hurt to walk down a hallway or open the fridge.” Anyone who has lost someone will nod in agreement. Even more relatable is the scene of the future first lady and her brother arguing over the appropriate level of fanciness for their father’s coffin. It’s almost laughable, if it weren’t so laudable: her courage in sharing these moments with us.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Including this memoir may elicit an eye roll because of course it’s on the list. Here’s why: grief makes you feel like you’re legit going crazy, and Didion was the first to describe the way your brain becomes delusional. Didion’s denial of her husband’s sudden death fuels an obsession over keeping his shoes: “We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.” Her inner monologue runs laps like a combo of Rain Man’s title character and Homeland’s Carrie Mathison. The benefit of her crazy: you realize she’s not—and neither are you. It’s just grief, working its way through our systems, and hopefully, eventually, finding its way out.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Marisa’s and her mother’s co-authored memoir, The Goodbye Diaries: A Mother-Daughter Memoir, out now from Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing! – Ed.
The Goodbye Diaries: A Mother-Daughter Memoir by Marisa Bardach Ramel and Sally Bardach
The Goodbye Diaries offers a touching glimpse into both sides of a terminal diagnosis—the one who will leave and the one who will be left behind. Sally and Marisa have always shared a rare closeness, but their relationship is unrecognizable when Marisa cannot figure out how to be there for Sally as she struggles through stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Only seventeen, Marisa avoids her mother’s illness by filling her life with perfect prom dresses and imperfect boyfriends. But when Marisa throws herself into a tumultuous relationship, Sally performs a final act of motherhood to prepare her daughter for life without a mom. Told in alternating voices, Sally and Marisa reveal their fears, their frustrations, and their fierce connection to each other. This poignant mother-daughter memoir is an intimate look at unconditional love during a heartbreaking goodbye.