VICE may receive a commission if you buy products through the links on our site. Read more here.

The Best Books to Help You Cope With Death and Dying

How the wisdom of Joan Didion, death doulas, and Big Bird have prepped me to dance into the void (and plan my estate).
MF
New York, US
August 12, 2021, 2:54pm
8 best books about death and dying 2021
Composite by VICE

The chillest people I know are the ones surrounded by death. I’ve spoken with a lot of them over the years: end-of-life doulas, hospice workers, embalmers; eco-coffin designers, grief counselors, and country homesteaders; all of whom look their inevitable demise square in the face. They’ve all taught me something different about death and dying, but they’ve also driven home a similar point: Death doesn’t have to be this freaky egg that gets cracked on your head out of the blue. Death—rather, dying—is a process, and that process is what you make of it. 

One of my first writing gigs in college was all about death (which is why I’m on this coffin-shaped soap box in the first place). I freelanced for an end-of-life planning business in San Francisco, which was part practical, local resource for what to do after a loved one dies, and part death blog (that was my jam). We were always careful not to stew in topics related to death and dying in a macabre way—the landing page was baby blue, and blogging topics ranged from DIY crafts for memorializing loved ones to learning more about biodegradable urns. Why on Earth they let a 19-year-old with no knowledge of funeral homes write for them is beyond me, but I’m so glad they did. I learned that when you’re constantly surrounded by death, it doesn’t feel as foreign and unnavigable. Of course, those in the death and dying industry don’t become magically exempt from the emotional demands of death, and having the time and resources to live and die well is a privilege. But in the years I spent learning about estate planning, or talking to home health aides about what you can do literally moments after a loved one has died to find some peace, I learned that dying well is just like living well: You reap what you sow. 

So where do you start? Books. Read what other people have been through in hospitals, at home, or with their own existential crises. While the titles below are hardly a definitive guide to death and end-of-life planning, they’re the ones that have helped me feel better prepared to dance into the void. 

No one does death like le French

Simone de Beauvoir is a *chef’s kiss* great Frenchy to hold your hand through the topic of death. This is one of the author’s most beloved books from the 1960s, and it takes you through the experience of her mother’s death with an acute sensitivity to detail; it’s Beauvoir’s talent for focusing on the more “banal” moments of terminal illnesses and dying with philosophical panache that makes it so good. 

Pantheon

A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir

Learn how physicians feel about patient care

This one reads like a diary, if diaries were super exacting tell-alls by medical professionals. Author and doctor Ira Byock is a palliative care physician, and getting insights into the strides and pitfalls of his end-of-life care experiences teaches you a lot about the kinds of questions you’ll want to ask when/if you ever end up navigating similar situations and medical institutions. It’s the kind of book that just makes you feel like you have someone on your side, even in the face of daunting health scares. 

avery

The Best Care Possible by Ira Byock

Yes, there are end of life doulas

We usually think of doulas as kindly granola folk who help bring wee babes into this world, but there are also doulas and death midwives who are trained to accompany those who are dying and usher them into whatever comes next. I’ve spoken with a lot of them over the years, but this book rec actually comes from a friend who just started pursuing a career in end-of-life care. “I picked up this book to learn more about reclaiming deathcare as a sacred, holistic, and intimate practice,” she told me, saying she’d absolutely suggest this book for those who could see themselves in a similar profession, or who just want to learn more about the above.

Anne-Marie Keppel

Death Nesting by Anne-Marie Keppel

There’s room for creativity

Overall, I think the United States has this knee-jerk reaction to sterilize the processes of death and dying. We exact our funerary ceremonies with a kind of uniformity and somberness—which is fair. Death is hard, and everyone grieves differently. But, dude. Have you ever seen the coffins in Ghana? They’re beautiful, and personal. A really celebratory labor of love. 

Benteli

The Buried Treasures Of The Ga: Coffin Art In Ghana by Regula Tschumi

Raise your hand if you’ve got daddy issues

A hard read, but a super cathartic memoir by Jesmyn Ward for anyone who has lost a loved one at a young age, or who tightrope-walks their relationship with their parents. The book follows the author’s relationships with five different people in that sense, and it’s also a powerful portrait of what it means to live and mourn as a Black person in the American South. 

Bloomsbury USA

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

That’s one way to cope

We’ve all had it happen, or seen it happen to someone else: Rather than confront our grief, we pour ourselves into a new hobby or time-suck pursuit (cc: all those quarantine sourdough loaves). And that’s OK. There’s no etched-in-stone timeline for grief, and this memoir by Long Litt Woon, written about her late husband, is a great reminder of that; it’s about all the curious, dark, and beautiful places our grief can take us, such as mushroom hunting. “Long tells the story of finding hope after despair lightly and artfully,” writes the New York Times in a review that I think really hits the nail on the head. “[She writes with] self-effacement and so much gentle good nature that we forgot how sad she (and we) are.” Then, like the narrator, we remember. But guess what? We’re still in one piece. 

Scribe UK

The Way Through the Woods by Long Litt Woon

If you’re not spiritual… 

… Then read every essay and book by Joan Didion, honestly. Her writing will spoon feed you a tough yet deeply observant love, and feels like getting a sit-down chat from your most level-headed relative about hippies, the Pioneer West, and, in this case, the death of her husband and collaborator John Gregory Dunne. So many books on death and dying are deeply spiritual or religious, but for those of us who have only ever had faith in logic and, IDK, Pokémon, Didion is your gal. No one else writes quite like her about the surreal logic of grief-brain with as much honesty and accuracy. 

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

One for the kids

Do you have Muppet Feels? (Of course you do.) You might remember the legendary Sesame Street episode where Big Bird deals with Mr. Hooper’s passing. Heavy shit, man. The children’s book adaptation of that episode brings the same nuanced tenderness of the show, and literally everything in life is better when Big Bird is by your side. Give this to a kid, or anyone going through it. 

Random House / Children's Television Workshop

I'll Miss You, Mr. Hooper by Sesame Street

See you in the next life. 


The Rec Room staff independently selected all of the stuff featured in this story.