Thursday, February 6, 2020

Katie Reads {Books on Grief and Suffering}

Books have always been hallmarks of events from my life. If my eyes scan across my shelves, certain titles remind me not only of characters and stories, but the events that were going on in my life as I read the pages. Books have power to teach, to comfort, to distract, and to guide. After the unexpected death of my mom last spring, I reached for books to help me make sense of the new life we had to carry on with and to help me understand what my faith had to say about suffering and hope.

Of all the Katie Reads posted here on the blog, I pray that this one reaches the people that need to see it. I'd like to share some of the books I've read over the past months in the hope that they will help someone else enduring loss, suffering, death- or honestly anyone who needs a refresher on keeping our eyes fixed on heaven. These books have really walked with me through my grief, and many of them have passages well underlined and reread, referred to repeatedly already. I will say that I'm overall not a big fan of self-help style books and couldn't stomach platitudes and "advice" during this painful time. Not all of the books I'm recommending here are even about death. Instead, these titles speak of timeless truth about the meaning of suffering and the hope of heaven.

I also asked some friends who have their own stories of grief as well as my community on Instagram to share titles that have mattered to them. While I haven't read all of them, those titles are included at the end of the post.

Whether you are in need of a book on grief, you are looking for the right book to gift to someone going through a struggle, or you want to read more about suffering to better be a companion to a friend or family member in pain, I think that the books I share here might be helpful.

Of course, Scripture has been the greatest and more important comfort. I'd highly recommend a slow read through the Psalms, the Book of Job, and the Gospels. Feel free to respond in the comments or send me an email if you have your own book recommendations. I'd appreciate hearing from you and will happily update this list!

***And I have a giveaway for three of these books going on over on Instagram until Sunday night if you want to go enter!***

(This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. That means that if you click through and purchase something, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you.)

In Heaven We'll Meet Again by Fr. Francois Rene Blot
A collection of seven letters from a priest to a grieving woman, this little book is a treasure trove.  Full of wisdom from Scripture and many Saints, Fr. Blot's letters link together quote after powerful quote about suffering, redemption, heaven, and hope. The beautiful cover featuring scores of Saints and choirs of angels is an accurate image to portray the beauty and hope of the content within. The letter pose so many of the questions running through the mind of someone staring death in the face, and I so appreciated that the author used the wisdom of the Church, not just his own words, to comfort and teach about such an important topic.

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
Out of everything I've read, this book most accurately described what so much of grief feels like. C.S. Lewis has become a close companion for me as I've read and reread many of his books through the lens of suffering. He originally wrote this as a set of journals after the tragic death of his wife, never really intending them to be published- but I'm so glad they were. Each section depicts his honest thoughts and understanding as he moves through grief, showing the pain and questions leading more to conviction and peace. It felt so good to read this and think, "Yes! Exactly! That is what this feels like." It's as if Lewis had the ability to read some of my thoughts, validating so many of my emotions and struggles. I also would highly recommend this book for someone who is walking alongside an individual who is grieving, as the unique perspective I think can help friends and family know how to support a loved on in the throes of grief even if they don't have firsthand experience.

Our Grounds for Hope by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
I've read several of Fulton Sheen's books this year, but this was a perfect book to pick up here and there for encouragement. A collection of his quotes on the Cross, suffering, and hope, it is a little book that could be read a little at a time and in any order, so it's perfect for someone who doesn't have the energy or mental space to dive into a complex text. Any of Sheen's many books on the Cross (like The Cries of Jesus from the Cross, which I reviewed in this post) would make for great reflection as to the purpose of pain and the redemption we have in Christ.

What is Heaven by Mother Angelica
With Mother Angelica's characteristic matter-of-fact style coupled with her warmth and wisdom, this little book is a great place to dive into the Catholic teaching on Heaven. With chapters containing info on the soul, the resurrection of the body, the Biblical description of Heaven, and more, it was a very approachable read on the Last Things.

That Nothing May Be Lost by Fr. Paul Scalia
This book technically has nothing to do with grief, but it has had a huge impact on my grieving process. I can count on one hand the number of books that have impacted my faith from cover to cover, pushing me to prayer, or tears, or frantic note taking alternately, and this book from Fr. Scalia is one of them. Titled "That Nothing May Be Lost" from the end of the story of the feeding of the 5000 when Jesus asks the Apostles to gather up the fragments at the end of the meal, the author explains that the writings in the book are just that- fragments left over- articles, bulletin commentary, and blog posts.  But organized together into themes, the book shares about 80 such essays that pack in truth in a profound way.  His style of writing, rooted in Scripture and full of allegory, reminds me of how Fulton Sheen often wrote.  Each essay made me think but also gave me attainable takeaways.  The book is organized into nine sections and contains introductions that are essays themselves from other Catholics such as Scott Hahn, Lizz Lovett, Raymond Arroyo, and Archbishop Charles Chaput. Many of the entries made for poignant reflections on suffering, loss, and the hope of Heaven. 

Remember Your Death Memento Mori Journal by Sr. Therese Aletheia Noble
I recommended this book last year along with my Lent book reviews, and really enjoyed the beginning but didn't get to finish it after my mom was admitted to the hospital. Regardless, I read enough to know it was powerful, and plan to finish it this Lent, albeit with a different perspective on pondering death. A couple of years ago, Sr. Theresa conducted an interesting experiment were she kept a ceramic skull on her desk and used social media to talk about Memento Mori- the concept that Christians must "remember their death" each day.  Have you ever seen art of a Saint depicted with a skull?  The pondering of death is not morbid, but a manner that constantly turns our gaze to Heaven.  In this Lenten devotional, Sr. Theresa is bringing back the ancient practice through her written reflections and a guided Memento Mori examen for each day. While some who are grieving might not be ready to use a journal with this theme, the content, quotes, Saints, and reflections are all meant to reorient our understanding of death as the beginning of eternal life. It is designed as a Lent journal, but regardless I think it could be picked up anytime the reader wants to spend more time contemplating death and eternity.

The Virtue of Hope by Fr. Philip Bochanski
Hope became an important focus for my family and I during my mom's illness and as part of our grieving process.  I knew when I saw this title it would be a good read for me, hopefully a piece that would help me grow in my understanding of heaven in the midst of our grief. The author first shares an analysis of the Theological Virtue of hope, and then writes about hope within the themes of change, service, struggling, suffering, and prayer with several Saints or people of faith highlighting each topic. Never reading like a string of biographies, Father Bochanski uses the experiences of actively living the virtue of hope as an example for the reader, weaving in commentary and quotes from other writers and church documents, as well as the Saints themselves. I think that this book would be a good read for any Christian, but certainly would recommend it to those going through struggles, grief, or big changes in life.

The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis
In this book, Lewis confronts the theological question that everyone who suffers must ask- If there is a God, and He is good, why does He allow us to endure pain? Showcasing his intelligence and ability to share complex complex concepts in an understandable but thought provoking manner, there is much to ponder in this book. I particularly liked the chapters on Omnipotence, Hell, and Heaven. Definitely a must read for someone considering the big questions about pain during hard times.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
I know this book isn't quite like the others, but this is one of the primary reasons I feel that C.S. Lewis has walked alongside me this year. Despite being a voracious reader, I never read the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid. I've picked them up here and there as an adult, rereading The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe several times, but I had never finished the series. After my mom died, going to bed at night was an occasion when it was too easy to get sucked into memories and sadness, so I made myself read something light at the end of the day. Narnia fit the need perfectly, and this spring and summer I read the whole series. I knew about the allegory and symbolism hidden in Lewis' famous stories, but to read them again through eyes clouded with pain, I certainly saw the stories a little differently. They were what helped me drift off to sleep with hope in my heart.
“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Those were the books that have meant the most to me so far, but here are a few lists of other books you might be interested in.

Books for Kids on Heaven, Loss, and Grief:
I've had many people ask what I recommend for kids experiencing loss. My niece and nephews are all a bit young still to have need of these yet, but I took some time to look through and read some of the kids' books in the grief section at my local Catholic Book store, and I really thought these had some good things to offer. No book on grief is perfect, and especially with kids, I would read everything first to make sure it is a good fit for the child and the situation. All of these would be great resources to springboard conversations for kids who are hurting.

Heaven is a Wonderful Place
This new book has lovely illustrations and is one of best I've seen at describing Heaven for a child. Focusing on Biblical descriptions of Heaven, the story is told by a grandmother to her grandchildren as they process the death of their grandfather. It would a perfect read for early elementary kids who have experienced a loss, or those that are asking big questions about death and eternity. I think this could work well for 5-8 year olds.

I Will Remember You: My Catholic Guide Through Grief
Unfortunately, it looks like this one isn't available online, which is a bummer. It is an extensive guided journal and book meant for older kids during the whole first year after a loss. I was impressed by the depth of content covered. Combining solid teaching and explanation of topics relating to death (including what to expect at a funeral, how to celebrate special days without the loved one, praying for the dead, and tons more) and gives space for the child to write, draw, and add in details regarding their own loss, creating a keepsake in the process. It would be worth tracking down a copy, especially for a 8-13 year old dealing with a difficult death.

After the Funeral
While a little dated in looks, this one would be great resource to help kids name and work through all of the strong emotions that come alongside grief. Through short vignettes of children grieving lots of types of loss, it first show the child struggling in someway, and then offering a supportive solution. It would be a gentle way to start conversations or help a child know that their emotions are real, important, and are understood. Would work well for 5-8 year olds.

Sometimes Life is Just Not Fair: Hope for Kids Through Grief and Loss
This book is by Fr. Joe Kempf, a priest who founded a ministry using puppets to help young children understand the connection of faith and real life. (He stars in my favorite set of videos for 2nd grade Sacrament prep too.) This book gently gives the reader reflections and appropriate explanations about pain, suffering, and death. There are also additional resources for parents and teachers to support the child. This one is probably best for 5-8 year olds.

When Your Grandparent Dies: A Child's Guide to Good Grief
You may have seen some of the other "Elf Help" series of books that deal with tough topics for kids. Told from the young child's perspective, it is a resource for all of the painful experiences surrounding the death of a grandparent, and would be a good fit for a 5-8 year old.

Today Someone I Loved Passed Away
This large keepsake book also walks through many of the experiences of a child after the death of a loved one. Told through a story about a boy losing his grandfather, it also has resources about Catholic specific customs like Anointing of the Sick, the funeral rite, Purgatory, and praying for the dead, as well as an extra page with funeral customs for other religions.  I think that could be especially helpful in forming the understanding of the Catholic child while acknowledging that the one who dies might be of another faith. I'd probably recommend this one for ages 7-10.

Also, here are some books I've read this year that shared personal stories of loss/grief/suffering:
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken
61 Minutes to a Miracle by Bonnie Engstrom
Love Your Cross: How Suffering Becomes Sacrifice by Therese Williams
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

Next on my list to read include:
JP2's Apostolic Letter on the Christian Meaning of Grief and Suffering
Midwife for Souls by Kathy Kalina
Roses Among Thorns by St. Frances de Sales
The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross

Other recommendations from readers and friends
(feel free to add your own in the comments):
Arise from Darkness: What to do When Life Doesn't Make Sense by Fr. Benedict Groeschel
The Tears of God: Going On in the Face of Great Sorrow or Catastrophe by Fr. Benedict Groeschel
Grief One Day at a Time by Dr. Alan Wolfelt
Man's Search for Meaning by Victor E. Franckl
Winter of the Heart by Paula D'Arcy
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
There is No Good Card for This by Dr. Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell
Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman
Motherless Mothers by Hope Edelman
Suffer Strong by Katherine and Jay Wolf
My Sisters the Saints by Colleen Carroll Campbell
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Uniformity with God's Will by St. Alphonsus Ligouri
Searching for and Maintaining Peace by Fr. Jacques Philippe
Chiara Corbella Petrillo, A Witness to Joy by Simone Troisi
The Extraordinary Parents of St. Therese of Lisieux by Helene Mongin
Plan B: What to do When God Doesn't Show Up the Way You Thought He Would by Pete Wilson
It's OK to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny Purmort


  1. A Grief Unveiled by Gregory Floyd addresses the reality of the pain of loss from someone with strong faith. A father who lost his son.

  2. Wish You Were Here by Amy Welborn is fantastic.