Books about dying, death and grief: A reading list

Kate BucklandBlog

It might sound morbid to actively seek out information on death and dying, but as humans whether we want to or not, we do dwell on death.

Believe it or not, reading about dying can actually be a very helpful and practical activity that serves a range of purposes. Reading about death can help us through different stages of the grieving process, can help us face our fears about dying and can also be useful when you or a loved one have been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

It’s easy to sweep the topic of death under the carpet until you lose someone you love or you are faced with a terminal diagnosis yourself, but we encourage you to read your way around your questions and fears. There are literally thousands of books out there on the topic of death and dying, but here we’ve put together a small reading list (in no particular order) of some of what is available out there for you. Ultimately, you have to do what works for you, but we hope that this article provides some guidance in a useful direction.

We’ve also included some books to help children understand death at the end of this article.

  1. Surviving the Tsunami of Grief – Katrina Taee and Wendelien McNicoll

    “An illustrated and oral guide to grief, for those who are grieving and their families and friends who are supporting them. It offers guidance, wisdom and hope for the longer bereavement journey. The last three chapters suggest ways people can help those who grieve and offers practical and useful suggestions to support them.”

  2. With the end in Mind – Dr Kathryn Mannix

    “How should we think of death and how can we prepare for it? With the End in Mind is a book for us all: the grieving and bereaved, the ill and the healthy. By turns touching and tragic, funny and wise, it tells powerful human stories of life and death… A powerful and emotional book based on a lifetime’s clinical experience, With the End in Mind offers calm, wise advice on how to face death, live fully and find a model for hope in dark times.”

  3. Outside the Box – Liz Rothschild

    “We live in a society where people struggle to look death in the eye. Death has become the territory of professionals and we rarely see a dead body, unless it is someone very close to us. Death has become hidden, and so more traumatic. This book shows that, if we start talking openly about death, it can change the way we live. In it, people from all walks of life share their experiences and what they have learned from accompanying others. Heartbreaking, angry, questioning and contradictory – even laugh-aloud funny – the stories illuminate, inspire, reassure and inform. They are accompanied by advice and comment from professionals working in end-of-life planning, health, bereavement and funeral care.”

  4. Undying – Michael Faber

    “In Undying Michel Faber honours the memory of his wife, who died after a six-year battle with cancer. Bright, tragic and candid, these poems are an exceptional chronicle of what it means to find the love of your life. And what it is like to have to say goodbye.”

  5. From here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find a Good Death – Caitlyn Doughty

    As a practising mortician, Caitlin Doughty has long been fascinated by our pervasive terror of dead bodies. In From Here to Eternity she sets out in search of cultures unburdened by such fears. With curiosity and morbid humour, Doughty introduces us to inspiring death-care innovators, participates in powerful death practices almost entirely unknown in the West and explores new spaces for mourning – including a futuristic glowing-Buddha columbarium in Japan, a candlelit Mexican cemetery, and America’s only open-air pyre. In doing so she expands our sense of what it means to treat the dead with ‘dignity’ and reveals unexpected possibilities for our own death rituals.

  6. Being Mortal – Atul Gawande

    For most of human history, death was a common, ever-present possibility. It didn’t matter whether you were five or fifty – every day was a roll of the dice. But now, as medical advances push the boundaries of survival further each year, we have become increasingly detached from the reality of being mortal. So here is a book about the modern experience of mortality – about what it’s like to get old and die, how medicine has changed this and how it hasn’t, where our ideas about death have gone wrong. With his trademark mix of perceptiveness and sensitivity, Atul Gawande outlines a story that crosses the globe, as he examines his experiences as a surgeon and those of his patients and family, and learns to accept the limits of what he can do.

    Never before has aging been such an important topic. The systems that we have put in place to manage our mortality are manifestly failing; but, as Gawande reveals, it doesn’t have to be this way. The ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death, but a good life – all the way to the very end.

  7. Gone From My Sight – The Dying Experience – Barbara Karnes, RN

    The biggest fear of watching someone die is fear of the unknown; not knowing what dying will be like or when death will actually occur. The booklet “Gone From My Sight” explains in a simple, gentle yet direct manner the process of dying from disease. Dying from disease is not like it is portrayed in the movies. Yet movies, not life, have become our role models. Death from disease is not happenstance. It doesn’t just occur; there is a process. People die in stages of months, weeks, days and hours. “Gone From My Sight” is literature used to reduce fear and uncertainty; to neutralize the fear associated with dying. It is designed to help people understand dying, their own or someone else’s.

    A short, quick and powerful read that is often given to patients who have just entered hospice, and their families. It explains what happens to the body as someone dies.

  8. Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death – Katy Butler

    “This is a book so honest, so insightful and so achingly beautiful that its poetic essence transcends even the anguished story that it tells. Katy Butler’s perceptive intellect has probed deeply, and seen into the many troubling aspects of our nation’s inability to deal with the reality of dying in the 21st century: emotional, spiritual, medical, financial, social, historical and even political. And yet, though such valuable insights are presented with a journalist’s clear eye, they are so skillfully woven into the narrative of her beloved parents’ deaths that every sentence seems to come from the very wellspring of the human spirit that is in her. This elegiac volume is required reading for every American adult; it has about it a sense of the universal.” (Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland, author of How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter)

  9. The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

    This powerful book is Didion’s ‘attempt to make sense of the weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness … about marriage and children and memory … about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself’. The result is an exploration of an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage, and a life, in good times and bad.

  10. A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby

    “In four distinct and riveting first-person voices, Nick Hornby tells a story of four individuals confronting the limits of choice, circumstance, and their own mortality. This is a tale of connections made and missed, punishing regrets, and the grace of second chances.”

  11. Beloved – Tony Morrison

    “Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby.”
  12. Three Tall Women – Edward Albee (a play)

    “As an imperious, acerbic old woman lies dying, she is tended by two other women and visited by a young man. Albee’s frank dialogue about everything from incontinence to infidelity portrays aging without sentimentality.”

  13. How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter – Sherwin B Nuland

    “A runaway bestseller and National Book Award winner, Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die has become the definitive text on perhaps the single most universal human concern: death.”
  14. Advice for Future Corpses (and those who love them): A Practical Perspective on Death – Sallie Tisdale

    “A lyrical, thought-provoking yet practical perspective on death and dying in this frank, direct and compassionate meditation on the inevitable.”
  15. On Death and Dying – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

    A book on death, grief and dying that is mostly used by professionals but can be useful for those who are deep in grief. Can be a heavy read for those who are not in a profession where they are dealing with such emotions all the time.
  16. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the meaning of grief through the five stages of loss – Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler

    A book aimed at the general public that is an easier read than On Death and Dying.

  17. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? – Roz Chast

    A memoir based on the author’s life as an only child dealing with the final few years of her parent’s lives. New York Times #1 Best Seller.

  18. The Conversation: A Revolutionary Plan for End of Life Care – Angelo Volandes

    “Part memoir, part tales from the trenches, part guide, The Conversation shows how medicine fails patients with serious illness, then offers a different, better approach to improve not only how we die but—more importantly—how we live.”
    — Louise Aronson, MD, Director, Northern California Geriatrics Education Center and UCSF Medical Humanities

    “Volandes has done more than anyone to translate the incomprehensible and the unimaginable into clear visual terms for real human beings trying to decide how they want to be cared for in the future.”
    — Diane Meier, MD, Director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care; Professor of Geriatrics & Palliative Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine
  19. When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

    “Paul Kalanithi tells an emotional and advice-filled story in When Breath Becomes Air. It’s an account of his own experience with death and dying: becoming a world-class neurosurgeon, only to be diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. 
  20. The Death Class: A True Story about Life – Erika Hayasaki

    In this true story a kind professor, by teaching a course on death, shows her students how to live. An incredible book on healing and the perils of dying, this book is truly a reflection of life. She takes her students to morgues, cemeteries, hospitals, etc., to put their pain into perspective. She is asking them to go deep into their cycle of grief and tragedy to finally fully experience life. A beautiful, comforting read, this book is warmth and love combined in the form of words.

Books to help children understand death:

  • The Goodbye Book – Todd Parr
  • Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You – Nancy Tillman
  • The Invisible String – Patrice Karst
  • I Miss You: A First Look at Death – Pat Thomas
  • Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs – Tomie DePaola
  • Ida, Always – Caron Levis
  • Sammy In The Sky – Barbara Walsh

For more books that help children to deal with death and grief, take a look at this comprehensive list by What’s Your Grief, complete with age suitability guidelines.