". . .
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go . . ."
— Stanley Kunitz
Books related to aging, grief, and relationships
Author Richard Ford Says 'Let Me Be Frank' About Aging And Dying
In this interview on Fresh Air, Ford speaks about aging and dying, about the ludicrousness of calamity, of end of life issues, of life itself. Ford is the author of four sequential novellas about Frank Bascombe, a character who brings both the profane and funny to life and death. In his most recent book, Let Me Be Frank With You, Frank's ex wife is in assisted living, he has a dying friend, and his own body is acting its 68 years, all while he must deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
An excerpt: “You survived. Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right?” I don’t, of course, believe this. Most things that don’t kill us right off, kill us later.”
Masters of Love
Science says lasting relationships come down to—duh!—kindness and generosity in this article from The Atlantic magazine, June 2014.
Living apart, together
1.9 million Canadians, many 60-plus, are saying no to cohabitation and marriage from Maclean’s magazine, September 17, 2013. The author of the article, Sharon Hyman, hosts a fun and informative Apartners group on Facebook. Visit her website for more articles, books, and other resources on Apart-ners.
Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief by Jill Smolowe
Smolowe jostles preconceptions about caregiving, defies cliche´s about losing loved ones, and reveals a stunning bottom line: far from being uncommon, resilience like hers is the norm among the recently bereaved. With humor and quiet wisdom, and with a lens firmly trained on what helped her tolerate and rebound from so much sorrow, she offers answers to questions we all confront in the face of loss, and reminds us that grief is not only about endings--it's about new beginnings.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury, and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.
Through eye-opening research and gripping stories of his own patients and family, Gawande reveals the suffering this dynamic has produced. Nursing homes, devoted above all to safety, battle with residents over the food they are allowed to eat and the choices they are allowed to make. Doctors, uncomfortable discussing patients' anxieties about death, fall back on false hopes and treatments that are actually shortening lives instead of improving them.
In his bestselling books, Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon, has fearlessly revealed the struggles of his profession. Here he examines its ultimate limitations and failures―in his own practices as well as others'―as life draws to a close. Riveting, honest, and humane, Being Mortal shows how the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life―all the way to the very end.
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
We are breathless but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other.
Poet and essayist Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer—one small spot. Within a year, she received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.
How does a dying person learn to live each day “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty? How does a young mother and wife prepare her two young children and adored husband for a loss that will shape the rest of their lives? How do we want to be remembered?
Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, Nina asks: What makes a meaningful life when one has limited time? “Profound and poignant” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Bright Hour is about how to make the most of all the days, even the painful ones. It’s about the way literature, especially Nina’s direct ancestor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer.
The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America by Ann Neumann
When Ann Neumann’s father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she left her job and moved back to her hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She became his full-time caregiver—cooking, cleaning, and administering medications. When her father died, she was undone by the experience, by grief and the visceral quality of dying. Neumann struggled to put her life back in order and found herself haunted by a question: Was her father’s death a good death?
The way we talk about dying and the way we actually die are two very different things, she discovered, and many of us are shielded from what death actually looks like. To gain a better understanding, Neumann became a hospice volunteer and set out to discover what a good death is today. She attended conferences, academic lectures, and grief sessions in church basements. She went to Montana to talk with the attorney who successfully argued for the legalization of aid in dying, and to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to listen to “pro-life” groups who believe the removal of feeding tubes from some patients is tantamount to murder. Above all, she listened to the stories of those who were close to death.
What Neumann found is that death in contemporary America is much more complicated than we think. Medical technologies and increased life expectancies have changed the very definition of medical death. And although death is our common fate, it is also a divisive issue that we all experience differently. What constitutes a good death is unique to each of us, depending on our age, race, economic status, culture, and beliefs. What’s more, differing concepts of choice, autonomy, and consent make death a contested landscape, governed by social, medical, legal, and religious systems.
In these pages, Neumann brings us intimate portraits of the nurses, patients, bishops, bioethicists, and activists who are shaping the way we die. The Good Death presents a fearless examination of how we approach death, and how those of us close to dying loved ones live in death’s wake.
In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying by Eve Joseph
Part memoir, part meditation, this book is an exploration of death from an "insider's" point of view. Using the threads of her brother's early death and her twenty years of work in hospice care, Eve Joseph utilizes history, religion, philosophy, literature, personal anecdote, mythology, poetry and pop culture to discern the unknowable and illuminate her travels through the land of the dying. This is neither an academic text nor a self-help manual; rather, it is a foray into the land of death and dying as seen through the lens of art and the imagination.
Rather than relying solely on narrative, In the Slender Margin gains momentum from a build-up of thematic resonances. Joseph writes toward thinking about death and in the process finds the brother she lost as a young girl. She wrote the book as a way to understand what she had seen: the mysterious and the horrific.
Replete with literary allusions and references, from Joan Didion and Susan Sontag to D. H. Lawrence and Voltaire, this is an absolutely absorbing and inspired consideration of how we die and how we deal with it; a profoundly moving and helpful meditation on the mystery that awaits us all.
Grief Is Love: Living with Loss Hardcover by Marisa Renee Lee
In Grief is Love, author Marisa Renee Lee reveals that healing does not mean moving on after losing a loved one—healing means learning to acknowledge and create space for your grief. It is about learning to love the one you lost with the same depth, passion, joy, and commitment you did when they were alive, perhaps even more. She guides you through the pain of grief—whether you’ve lost the person recently or long ago—and shows you what it looks like to honor your loss on your unique terms, and debunks the idea of a grief stages or timelines. Grief is Love is about making space for the transformation that a significant loss requires.
In beautiful, compassionate prose, Lee elegantly offers wisdom about what it means to authentically and defiantly claim space for grief’s complicated feelings and emotions. And Lee is no stranger to grief herself, she shares her journey after losing her mother, a pregnancy, and, most recently, a cousin to the COVID-19 pandemic. These losses transformed her life and led her to question what grief really is and what healing actually looks like. In this book, she also explores the unique impact of grief on Black people and reveals the key factors that proper healing requires: permission, care, feeling, grace and more.
The transformation we each undergo after loss is the indelible imprint of the people we love on our lives, which is the true definition of legacy. At its core, Grief is Love explores what comes after death, and shows us that if we are able to own and honor what we’ve lost, we can experience a beautiful and joyful life in the midst of grief.
The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss by Mary-Frances O'Connor
A renowned grief expert and neuroscientist shares groundbreaking discoveries about what happens in our brain when we grieve, providing a new paradigm for understanding love, loss, and learning.
In The Grieving Brain, neuroscientist and psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD, gives us a fascinating new window into one of the hallmark experiences of being human. O’Connor has devoted decades to researching the effects of grief on the brain, and in this book, she makes cutting-edge neuroscience accessible through her contagious enthusiasm, and guides us through how we encode love and grief. With love, our neurons help us form attachments to others; but, with loss, our brain must come to terms with where our loved ones went, or how to imagine a future without them.
Based on O’Connor’s own trailblazing neuroimaging work, research in the field, and her real-life stories, The Grieving Brain combines storytelling, accessible science, and practical knowledge that will help us better understand what happens when we grieve and how to navigate loss with more ease and grace.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, 2016
At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.
What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.
Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both.
Books exploring social and cultural issues
Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right? — Michelle Obama
An American Marriage: a novel by Tayari Jones
This is, at its heart, a love story, but a love story warped by racial injustice. ―Kirkus Reviews
An excerpt: I angled toward her again, and again she didn't move. I placed my hands on her defenseless head, and she didn't stop me. I kissed her every way I could think of. I kissed her forehead like she was my daughter. I kissed quivering eyelids like she was my dead mother. I kissed her hard on her cheeks like you do before you kill someone. I kissed her collarbone the way you do when you want more. I pulled her earlobe with my teeth the way you do when you know what someone likes. I did everything, and she sat as pliable as a doll. “If you let me,” I said, “I can forgive you.” Starting my circuit of kisses again, I made my way to her neck. She shifted her head slightly so I could touch my nose where her pulse beat close to the surface. But the thrill wore off fast, like the rush of a homemade drug, the way the cheap stuff hits you hard but leaves you hungry in an instant. I moved to the other side, hoping she would tilt her head the opposite way, allowing me access to all of her. “Just ask me,” I said, my voice barely more than a rumble in my chest. “Ask me and I will forgive you.” I held her now; she was limp, but she didn't resist. “Ask me, Georgia,” I said. “Ask me so I can say yes.”
The House on Mango Street: a novel by Sandra Cisneros
Cisneros draws on her rich [Latino] heritage ... and seduces with precise, spare prose, creat[ing] unforgettable characters we want to lift off the page. She is not only a gifted writer, but an absolutely essential one. —The New York Times Book Review
Winner of the 2019 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, it gives a real feel to the rhythms and of 1980's Latinx life in Chicago.
An excerpt: At night Nenny and I can hear when Earl comes home from work. First the click and whine of the car door opening, then the scrape of concrete, the excited tinkling dog tags, followed by the heavy jingling of keys, and finally the moan of the wooden door as it opens and lets loose its sigh of dampness.
Her Sister's Tattoo: A Novel by Ellen Meeropol
The elegant restraint of Ellen Meeropol's prose and the painstaking precision of her vision offer us discerning glimpses over decades and generations into the complexities of political engagement--its big questions and especially its intimacies. At a time when radical movements are on the rise, we find in Her Sister's Tattoo exactly what we now need: both caution and hope. —Angela Y. Davis, Distinguished Professor Emerita, University of California, Santa Cruz
Interestingly, this author is the wife of the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, a fellow spy, delivered strong testimony against the couple in court—suggesting a whiff of similarity between the Rosenberg saga and this novel.
An excerpt: “One more word from you and I’ll hold you in contempt of court.” The judge’s words landed like spittle on Rosa’s cheeks. She ached to wipe her face. Instead she sat up straight in the witness stand, willing her hands to stay clenched in her lap. She returned his stare, imagining her own olive skin facing off against his purple complexion. Maybe he would burst a blood vessel. Imagining that worked better than picturing him walking naked down the street, the emperor without clothes—that’s what her lawyer suggested if she felt intimidated by the courtroom ceremony, the robes and office.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Fiercely political and bleak, yet witty and wise, the novel won the inaugural Arthur C Clarke award in 1987, but Atwood has always maintained that the novel is not classifiable science fiction. Nothing practised in the Republic of Gilead is genuinely futuristic. She is right, and this novel seems ever more vital in the present day, where women in many parts of the world live similar lives, dictated by biological determinism and misogyny. —the Guardian
The basis of the greatly expanded story of Hulu series.
An excerpt: “It's impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because of what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many.”
Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion by Jean H. Baker
It is a mark of the still controversial nature of birth control that Margaret Sanger remains a controversial subject. Now, finally, she has the biography she deserves. Jean H. Baker has restored Margaret Sanger to history and history to Margaret Sanger. ―Ellen Dubois, Professor of History, UCLA
An excerpt: ...Declaring that discrimination was a universal failing to be opposed everywhere, she found its solution in the education of white men. “We must change the white attitudes … When you have Negroes working with whites you have the break down of barriers, the beginning of progress. Negro participation in planned parenthood means democratic participation in a democratic idea. Like other democratic ideas, planned parenthood places greater value on human life and the dignity of each person.”
“Books bridge divides between people. Book bans create them.” - Jodi Picoult
If you haven't read these books, read them!
While you still can.
During the first half of the 2022-23 school year PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 1,477 instances of individual books banned, affecting 874 unique titles, an increase of 28 percent compared to the prior six months, January – June 2022. That is more instances of book banning than recorded in either the first or second half of the 2021-22 school year. Over this six-month timeline, the total instances of book bans affected over 800 titles; this equates to over 100 titles removed from student access each month. This school year, instances of book bans are most prevalent in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A Miami-Dade County school library restricted elementary-aged students from reading “The Hill We Climb,” the poem written and recited by Amanda Gorman at Joe Biden’s inauguration as president.
Jodi Picoult books banned in Martin County, Florida
I don't profit from the sales of these books, I link to Amazon because it is easiest.