In writing The Book Proposal for Reclaiming Joy, I must describe the (lack of) competition. I found no book that helped when Lev died six years ago, and when I ask other widows if they read any helpful books, they tend to laugh with a bit of a snort and say, “Oh, no….” You might like to read about my research. Perhaps there is something here for you.
A search of Books in Print for spouse grief death yielded only 39 titles in May 2015. Some of these were duplicates—ebook, hardback, paperback—and most appear to have been published by independent publishing companies or organizations. None were among Amazon.com 100 best-sellers in the categories of relationships>love and loss or grief and bereavement>death and grief.
In fact, among Amazon’s Top 20, few authors write specifically for this vast market of widows who must now learn to live alone.
Grief experts agree that widows get too much advice—too many people telling them how to grieve, how long to grieve, when to make decisions, when to move on. What works for one person may not work for another. There is no single right or wrong way to mourn the loss of a spouse. Nevertheless, most books on grief are how-to books written in second-person. Self-help books also tend to deal with only a few aspects of grief: What one needs to know in settling the estate, in managing finances, in dating again, in rearing children alone.
The experts also agree that platitudes about the loved one being with the angels and the like are not helpful, yet most religious devotional books on grief do exactly that. And while they usually concentrate on faith, heaven, and eternity, other books are almost completely devoid of any reference to the spiritual components of grief and healing.
Memoirs of grief by widows are beneficial because they capture the craziness and haziness of those first months. Like grief recovery groups, they normalize the experience of overwhelming grief for the new widow. She learns that she is not alone. She is not losing her mind. Her reaction is normal. However, most memoirs are based on journals kept those first dark, painful months. Few offer hope that life will be good again.
The stories of sudden, unusual, traumatic, and young death are more likely to be published; yet less than one percent of women under 40 are widowed and under two percent of women between 40 and 49.
Most of Amazon’s Top 20 are classics:
- How to Survive the Loss of a Love, Peter McWilliams, Harold H. Bloomfield, Melba Colgrove. Originally published 1976
- The Grief Recovery Handbook, John W. James, Russell Friedman. Originally published 1989
- When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold S. Kushner. Originally published 1981
- A Grief Observed, S. Lewis. Originally published 1961
- The Path of Loneliness: Finding Your Way Through the Wilderness to God, Elizabeth Elliot. Originally published 1988
- On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, David Kessler. Originally published 2004
Three memoirs deserve special attention and comment:
The Light of the World: A Memoir, by Elizabeth Alexander, was published April 21, 2015, and was #15 on the Amazon list in June. Alexander, a noted poet, was married fifteen years to an artist from Eritrea, in East Africa; and her grief was that of a fifty-year-old woman with two young sons. Her descriptions of him and his culture, of their family life, and their love are lyrical; and her ability to describe her grief resonates. My bed, the bedroom, the house, was suffused with sorrow. Sorrow like vapor, sorrow like smoke, sorrow like quicksand, sorrow like an ocean, sorrow louder and fuller than the church songs, sorrow everywhere with nowhere to go.
Unlike memoirs of grief by two literary authors a generation older than she, Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates, Alexander’s book expresses hope for the future and gratitude for what she had and what she still has.
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, was published in 2007, three years after her husband died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack. For much of that first year, her only daughter was in a coma, greatly complicating Didion’s grief. Recently the book was #16 among memoirs by authors.
A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, by Joyce Carol Oates, 2011, also dealt with the sudden death of her husband in February 2008. Both Didion and Oates describe the horrors of those first months of widowhood in painful, graphic, elegant language. Both are very dark, devoid of faith and hope. Some reviewers criticized Oates for ending her story in August 2008, before she met Dr. Charles Gross, a professor of neuroscience, whom she married in 2009. It was as if—to tell a more compelling story—she omitted the fact that life does go on and can be happy.
All three memoirs of grief assure new widows that their haziness and craziness is normal, that they are not losing their minds. In fact, that is probably the value of memoir for those widows who do not have friends who can function as role models and mentors. However, these unique, individual experiences—often told without later reflection—fail to offer guidance on how to move from grief to happiness.
This will be my initial entry to “Resources for Widows” on my website, and in the days ahead I will add the books on my personal bookshelf—the books I have read this past year as I have written Reclaiming Joy. I dared not read the literature of grief until I had found my voice for my book, for I have good retention, and I can commit plagiarism or adopt another author’s voice without even realizing it.
Photo: My chair, my library…full of books, but none that helped when Lev died.
I would love to hear from you. Did you find any books that helped?