I’m a reader, always have been. Rich always used to gently tease me about the number of books I bought, and how the minute we’d started talking about the next place we wanted to visit together I’d bought every guide book on Amazon. But books are my thing, and although Rich needed to rest his eyes in the evenings after lip reading all day, books were his thing when we were on holiday too. In fact we shared reading material, just as we shared everything else. We knew that the other would enjoy any book we chose.
As with every other aspect of my life though, Rich’s death has changed my ability to read. I can still read, but only books about death, widowhood, and end of life care. I’m just not interested in anything else. And whereas I used to be able to get through several books a week, or often in hours on the academic side of things, now it takes me a few weeks or more to finish a book. I turned to books not necesarily for answers, but to know that I wasn’t so alone in grieving and mourning for Rich in the way that I am, and for feeling the despair that I do. Without exaggerating, I have literally bought every book I could find on Amazon that deals with the aftermath of death. The following are the ones that have provided some level of comfort.
Top of the list. Megan Devine’s ‘It’s ok that you’re not ok’. This book is my pocket counsellor. It is the only book that I’ve read more than twice (5 times and counting), and goes with me everywhere.
A few memoirs touched a chord, but to be honest most went to the local charity shop. These stayed. Joan Didion’s ‘The year of magical thinking’ – not about rainbows or magic thoughts at all, but about how the death of someone so close causes devastation. Decca Aitkenhead’s ‘All at Sea’, about her husband’s Tony death by drowning after he’d saved their son. Gordon Darroch’s ‘All the time we thought we had’ – about his wife Magteld and her death at the age of 37 from breast cancer. Benjamin Brooks-Dutton’s ‘It’s not raining daddy, it’s happy’, about his wife Desreeen who was knocked down and killed when a car mounted the pavement they were all walking along. Elizabeth Turner’s ‘The blue skies of Autumn’, about her husband Simon who was in one of the twin towers when they collapsed on September 11th, 2001. Nina Riggs’ ‘The Bright Hour’ – her story of living with terminal cancer. ‘Paul Kalanathi’s ‘When breath becomes air’. Paul was a surgeon and writes candidly about a medic’s perspective on facing death. Lindsay Nicholson’s ‘Living on the seabed’ – Lindsay lost both her husband and daughter in the space of months. Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘A widow’s story. And Jonathan Santlofer’s ‘The Widower’s Notebook’, about the death of his wife Joy. There are a few sections in this where I thought the author was a bit of an eejit, but if you can get past those, you might identify with some of what he writes.
Poetry. I know. I never thought I’d be reading poetry either, but these two collections touched every nerve and chord: Michel Faber’s ‘Undying: a love story’, and Susan Furniss’s ‘Beneath the surface: grief’.
In terms of self-helpy books, I gave up on most after a chapter, or sometimes even a few paragraphs, but these survived the cut. Debbie Augenthaler’s ‘You are not alone: a heartfelt guide to grief, healing and hope’. Just pretend that the words ‘hope’ and ‘healing’ are not in the title. And Cathy Retzenbrink’s ‘A manual for heartache’, the sort of book that you feel is holding your hand whilst you lie on the floor gasping for air.
Finally, the books about mortality and end of life care. Atul Gawande’s ‘Being mortal’ – a stark reminder that we will all die, but that since life expectancy (for most) has extended, death has become a taboo subject, which means that when people like Rich die young, the support networks are few and far between. And last but by no means least (I still have a room full of books to get through), Kathryn Mannix’s ‘With the end in mind: dying, death and wisdom in an age of denial’. All about dying with dignity, and the need to start talking about doing so.