WSIRN Ep 137: Bibliotherapy for the toughest times

Readers, today’s guest Leigh Kramer is a longtime friend, a blogger, a former medical social worker, and the author of a brand new novel about life, love, and loss called A Storied Life. Today Leigh and I focusing on a tough, nuanced topic: grief. I love this conversation, and think you will too—but you should know that some of the books we discuss grapple with things like cancer, death, miscarriage, and other trauma. If you know these topics are triggering for you, or if you are currently recovering from a loss, please take care of yourself by listening with caution, or simply putting this episode aside for a later time.


From instructive texts, to descriptive fiction, to tales-of-caution, the bookshelf has a lot to say about this universal human emotion. Grief is an essential underpinning in so many of our favorite stories, and today we talk about why that is. I assure you that not everything discussed in today’s is a bummer, but we’re definitely not avoiding the hard stuff.

If you’re sticking with us, let’s take a deep breath – and dive into some big time bibliotherapy.

What Should I Read Next #137: Bibliotherapy for the toughest times with Leigh Kramer

Connect with Leigh Kramer: Book | Blog | Instagram | Twitter


Books mentioned in this episode:
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• Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• The Day of the Duchess, by Sarah MacLean (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
The Garden of Small Beginnings, by Abbi Waxman (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
 The Beauty that Remains, by Ashley Woodfolk (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• They Both Die At The End, by Adam Silvera (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Tell Me Three Things, by Julie Buxbaum (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Goodbye Days, by Jeff Zentner (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• The Possessions, by Sara Flannery Murphy (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Here If You Need Me: A True Story, by Kate Braestrup (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, by Molly Wizenberg (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
 Before Everything, by Victoria Redel (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say, by Kelly Corrigan (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
 Goodbye Vitamin, by Rachel Khong (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
 Idlewild, by Jude Sierra (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Healing Your Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas, by Alan D. Wolfelt PhD (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart, by Alan D. Wolfelt PhD (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial, by Kathryn Mannix (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
 I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)
• One True Loves, by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Amazon | Barnes and Noble)

Also mentioned:
• Leigh’s Favorite Nonfiction Books About Death, Dying, and Grief

What book helped you through a time of grieving? Are “sad books” cathartic experiences, or your worst nightmare? Let us know in the comments!

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Leave A Comment
  1. Lisa K says:

    I really enjoyed this episode! Lots of books for my list. And it’s the first time that I remember a specific romance novel and author being mentioned. I love Sarah MacLean’s stories. Warning for those who don’t like steamy – skip this. If you like steamy – you will like all of MacLean’s books.

  2. Andrea says:

    “Anne’s House of Dreams” totally covered the issue of miscarriage. I remembered as I faced the loss of two pregnancies, how emotional this book had been for me as a preteen- not knowing that I would experience the same thing. Looking back at the book during that difficult time was comforting for me. Still pretty amazing to me that a novel written long ago could connect with me on such a human level today.

  3. Molly Grimmius says:

    After my father died very suddenly on vacation all my sisters read Choosing to see by Mary Beth Chapman. Her story of losing their five year old daughter. It is a hard book but it was a balm during a hard time. I recommend it to many after losing some one especially suddenly.

    • Anne says:

      Molly, I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m so glad the right book brought you some measure of comfort—thanks for sharing it here for your fellow readers who need such a thing right now.

  4. Fiona says:

    Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I put off reading it for the longest time because I wasn’t sure how I would deal with the grief. It was so well written and dealt with grief in a hopeful way.

  5. Debi Morton says:

    I just have to echo the recommendation for Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking.” As always, Didion was honest about her feelings, and wrote about a time when she felt the way I think many recent widows feel, but don’t know how to express. So well written, as stated above.

  6. Susan says:

    I recently read The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. The author’s husband dies suddenly and this book is about him and their love and relationship. It is a beautifully written story about their life and love together. I loved it!

  7. Some similar titles* that I’ve recently loved:
    1. Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett – Quirky, fictional and shows healthy and unhealthy ways of dealing with grief
    2. Love Walked In by Marisa De Los Santos – Features so many different types of love and so many different types of grief
    3. And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman – A beautiful, extended goodbye
    4. Last Things by Marissa Moss – graphic memoir about care giving that is just about the most poignant thing I’ve ever read
    5. Option B by Sheryl Sandberg – a how-to guide of grief and resiliency
    6. Where the Light Gets In by Kimberly Williams-Paisley – an absolutely honest, heartbreaking story of a mother and daughter dealing with the worst of circumstances
    7. The Cafe by the Sea by Jenny Colgan – a fun, romantic read that also deals with the ways we deal with grief and move on from sorrow
    *Apparently, I like these sorts of book, too!

    • I can’t believe I left this one off, but PLEASE read To Dance with the White Dog by Terry Kay. I read this one last year on a whim. I laughed and I cried and I SOBBED. In a matter of days, it became one of my favorite books ever! I don’t think I thought of this book originally because to me it’s a love story. But, it is definitely, definitely about loss and grief.

      Imagine if The Art of Racing in the Rain (also good!) and A Man Called Ove (also good!) had a baby book. It would be To Dance with the White Dog.

  8. Holly C. says:

    What’s Heaven? by Maria Shriver is a wonderful book for children that are dealing with the death of a loved one, that is explained on their level. It is also a very comforting book for an adult.

  9. Paula says:

    It’s so true that so many of our beloved books deal with the issue of grief! Some that came to mind for me were the Harry Potter series (so many instances of dealing with loss over the course of the books), Belong to Me by Maria de los Santos (the story of Piper and Elizabeth is so beautiful), Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (wonderful story of a young girl dealing with the loss of a beloved uncle), Ms. Bixby’s last day (amazing middle grades book), and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. So many beautiful stories!

  10. s says:

    I wasn’t sure I could listen to this episode right now as I sit witness to my father’s journey to the end of his life after suffering from dementia these past few years, but I told myself I could hit stop anytime. The books discussed are many I’ve read and others I will put on my TBR list, although I didn’t like Goodbye Vitamin at all (just didn’t ring as authentic to me). I just returned With the End in Mind to the library – it’s too raw right now I think, so just bad timing. I just finished “Everything Happens for a Reason…” which deals with a terminal illness, although the author is still alive at the end of the memoir. The other books I’ve loved that deal with how to show up for friends who are suffering are Katrina Kenison’s last 2 books – “Gift of an Ordinary Day” and “Magical Journey”. She sounds like the friend you want beside you when facing a serious illness. I read “Just Show Up” a couple years back and found it inspiring. Thank you for the recommendations.

  11. I loved (and sobbed my way through) When Breath Becomes Air. The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs was similar to When Breath Becomes Air. Both of those books have stuck with me. I know others have talked about Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which I really enjoyed, but I’ll plug her book Blue Nights as well. I love Didion’s writing.
    For fiction, Tell Me Three Things and Everything I Never Told You are both wonderful, but very different. I’ll also plug Penny Reid’s Beauty and the Mustache. It’s a romance novel, but it is so much more than just that.

    • Leigh Kramer says:

      I loved Beauty And The Mustache as a story but Penny really (REALLY) misrepresented hospice so I didn’t include it on my list. But I do think the grief aspect of that novel was done well. And I’m still a huge raving Penny Reid fan! Plus: Drew.

  12. I’m currently developing an online class called “Grief and Grace” for the University where I work as a campus minister. Only one of Leigh’s suggested books (Here if You Need Me) is on my list, so I look forward to exploring these additional titles. Here’s the blog post I wrote about my decision to design the course, including the reading list I’m pondering: Thanks for exploring one of my favorite topics!

  13. Ruth says:

    Two non-fiction books that have helped me in dealing with grief are How to Survive a Shipwreck, by Jonathan Martin and Invitation to Tears, by Jonalyn Fincher and Aubrie Hills. Both of these are from a Christian perspective, but not at all preachy or filled with pat answers.

  14. Linda S. Poncetta says:

    I just listened to your episode on grief. After my husband died I wanted to know what was next. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking spoke to me as no other book did. Others were helpful, but this became my bible. It helps to know that what you are feeling isn’t just you!

  15. Great episode. We’ve read a lot of the same books but here’s a couple of others that might appeal to you:
    Bloodroot: Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss by betsy Warland
    In The Slender Margin : The intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying by Eve Joseph
    Mister Owita’s Guide To Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart by Carol Wall
    Wondering Who You Are by Sonya Lea
    The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen

  16. Erin Wyman says:

    I was recommended a book after a break up in my 20’s. This book has stayed with me for years and covers sooo many types of loss. I highly recommed. How to Survive the Loss of a Love by Melba Colgrove

  17. Kelly says:

    We Know How This Ends: Living while Dying by Bruce Kramer and Cathy Wurzer is excellent. Kramer was an educator who continued that mission when diagnosed with ALS. I was able to see some of the interviews with Wurzer and Kramer and found them very uplifting and critical in learning how to process my own grief. They talk about how Kramer tried to think about death in a way that allowed him to fully embrace the life he had left. Beautiful.

  18. TheGirlintheAfternoon says:

    This is officially my favorite episode of the podcast. I was thrilled to hear the discussion of genre romance, which I love deeply, and which I often describe to non-romance readers as people working to become worthy of one another. Between that and the mentions of The Garden of Small Beginnings and Here If You Need Me, I truly loved this episode. I’d be thrilled if there were additional future episodes that followed this format!

    • Anne says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And I have good news: I’m talking to a librarian who loves romance later this summer so you’ll be hearing more picks from that genre. 🙂

  19. Lisa V says:

    One of my favorite books is Elizabeth Alexander’s A Light in the World exploring her life before and after the sudden death of her husband. I read it after the divorce of my parents and greatly appreciated her honest portrayal of grief and hope and remembrance. I wonder if sometimes it is easier to read about loss that is different from our own, while other stories may hit too close to home when we are still very close to our own grief.

  20. Diane says:

    What a great podcast. Thank you Anne and Leigh.
    I would like to recommend a book I have picked up many times.
    This is true story.
    “Tolstoy And The Purple Chair” deals with losing a precious sister to cancer and how Nina copes with her intense grief by reading a book a day for a year. And lover of reading will find this book incredible.

  21. Amy Hysell says:

    The Story of Edgar Sawtelle had several passages written about grief told from the perspective of the dog. Those passages articulate the experience of grief unlike any I’ve ever read. That & (again) The Year of Magical Thinking held my head above water after the too early death of my mom.

  22. Rhiannon Mullen says:

    Just finished Yann Martel’s book “The High Mountains of Portugal”. Not sure if it has been mentioned yet but after discussing it at my IRL bookclub I immediately thought of this episode and it’s ties to grief.

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