"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." — Joan Didion
The Greeks were definitely on to something. The idea of catharsis — of releasing feelings by watching someone else going through the motions of our emotions — is a powerful force, and can be your best friend in the periods following a major loss. Our culture is one where grief is “dealt with” in private (if at all), and saying we’re “hanging in there” is more accepted than really letting ourselves go. By experiencing the stories of others, whether watching a film in a sold out movie theater or curling up with an old paperback in bed, we have the chance to try out different ways of moving through loss. We have a chance to feel similar and seen, not alone in the deep worry, relief, fear, hope and pain that can come with loss. We can be a character’s companion to the depths of despair, and together find our way through the darkness. We witness what seemed to work for our heroes and heroines, and what didn’t—and can take those lessons back to our own life path.
Thankfully, “grief memoirs” are being penned by today’s most celebrated authors, and films with powerful stories of loss and triumph are waiting to be streamed online. And remember, only one half of the iconic drama mask is crying. Straight-up laughter is powerful medicine, too. So maybe the greatest catharsis will come not from reliving the difficult moments of loss, but from a snack-stocked marathon of your favorite comedies. Happy reading, watching and moving forward.
Here’s our recommended reading list—crowdsourced from Dinner Partiers across the country:
- Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed
- The Long Goodbye, Meghan O’Rourke
- The Rules of Inheritance, Claire Bidwell Smith
- The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
- A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis
- Grieving Mindfully, Sumeet Kumar
- Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser
- Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman
- A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers
- I Wasn't Ready To Say Goodbye, Pamela Blair
- We Bed Down Into Water, John Rybicki
- Your Illustrated Guide to Being One With the Universe, Yumi Sakugawa
- Collected works of Flannery O'Connor
- Let This Darkness Be a Belltower, R.M. Rilke
- Lucia Series, E.F. Benson
- Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling
- The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
- Daring Greatly, Brené Brown
- When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön
- Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach
Which stories are finding you?
Books have been my drug of choice since the summer after second grade when I got my first library card and my first pair of glasses. Reading is entertainment and escape, adventure and anesthesia, research and reflection.
Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit, Alison Bechdel, Elizabeth McCracken—these were my guides through grief precisely because they weren’t trying to be guides. These weren’t self-help or how-to books; instead they were personal explorations of loss. Here I found memoirs that captured the gamut of emotions from cold shock to numbing sadness to unwieldy rage to unbounded joy. In these books, tears lived alongside laughter... and in each story I found something that mirrored my own experience.
These women’s honesty gave me the courage to pick up my own pen again. For me, the only way to get past the surreal nature of losing both my parents was to transform it into a story...my story. Writing is my way of reclaiming control of the messy process that is grief. Through crafting stories out of words and pictures, I’m able to process my emotions and understand them just little bit better. I’m able to remember and honor the memory of my parents. And I’m able to fuel my own healing process by shining a light onto all of it.
This piece appears in Finding What Feeds Us: Rituals & Recipes for Living Well After Loss.