Entries in books (10)


Days With My Father

A wonderful, uplifting way to say goodbye. Photographer Phillip Toledano captures the days he spends with his aging father through intimate portraits of everyday moments.

"My Mum died suddenly on September 4th, 2006

After she died, I realized how much she’d been shielding me from my father’s mental state. He didn’t have alzheimers, but he had no short-term memory, and was often lost.

I took him to the funeral, but when we got home, he’d keep asking me every 15 minutes where my mother was. I had to explain over and over again, that she had died.

This was shocking news to him.

Why had no-one told him?
Why hadn’t I taken him to the funeral? 
Why hadn’t he visited her in the hospital?

He had no memory of these events.

After a while, I realized I couldn’t keep telling him that his wife had died. He didn’t remember, and it was killing both of us, to constantly re-live her death.

I decided to tell him she’d gone to Paris, to take care of her brother, who was sick."

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Searching for Mercy Street

Searching for Mercy Street is Linda Gray Sexton's unflinching memoir about growing up with her mother, the gifted American poet, Anne Sexton as she battled severe depression and suicidal tendencies while raising her family. This isn't an easy read, but I found it immensely worthwhile. It's just probably not a great idea to read this on your bus ride to and from work. 

Anne Sexton c.1970 by Elsa Dorfman, via Wikipedia

'What makes this memoir so powerful and affecting is its candid, often painful depiction of a daughter's struggles to come to terms with her powerful and emotionally troubled mother. In these pages, Ms. Sexton grapples not only with her mother's sexual and emotional abuse of her, but also with the psychological implications of her mother's writing: the fact that Linda's own childhood and youth were routinely mined for dramatic material by her mother, the fact that her mother spilled their family's domestic difficulties for all the world to see.'

Read the rest on the New York Times »

Also worth a read is Linda's short essay about her mother's legacy in A Tortured Inheritance.

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How the Dying Teach Us to Live

Speaking frankly and deeply about death doesn't come easily for most of us, even for those who've experienced grief firsthand. It's a taboo topic and not surprisingly, it makes for some pretty awkward dinner party conversations (I can totally vouch for this, I've been there).

What's worse is when we find ourselves without words, right at the moment when we must speak honestly and fearlessly. That is, when we're right by our loved one's side during their final days. 

In Seize the Day: How the Dying Teach us to LiveFrench psychologist Marie de Hennezel recounts her personal experiences of supporting terminally ill patients in a progressive palliative care ward. She shares with us her own ways of accompanying the dying and supporting them and their families as they confront death, wrestle with the meaning of life and transform the short time they have left together into deeply meaningful experiences.

De Hennezel strikes a perfect chord of insight, inspiration and inclusiveness that helped me understand how even our smallest gestures can have profound and uplifting effects on the dying. If you will be saying goodbye to someone you love, perhaps soon or in the not-to-distant future, please have a read, if not for wisdom, then for some sustenance along the way.

Contact with Paul is hard right now. There is enormous anger in him, which he can express only by turning it on himself, refusing to eat, shutting himself off, his eyes closed, his large body curled into a ball, turned away towards the window. The only way I have found of maintaining any contact with him is to suggest that we smoke a cigarette together. It is the one thing that rouses him to site up in bed and agree to talk a little. 

'I want to get out of here; I want to be left alone.' There is violence in his eyes and in the way he says this to me.

― from Seize the Day: How the Dying Teach Us to Live


Read: Sorry for Your Loss: What Grieving People Wish You Knew

When I first saw the cover for this book, I was a little skeptical about its helpfulness. My inner-design geek cringed a little at the choice of dusky lavender and Courier New for its title font, but at least the cover kept true to Mies van der Rohe's philosophy of 'less is more'.

And so, there was some hope. 

There aren't many books available written specifically for the friends and family of the bereaved, which seems weird to me since the feeling of not knowing what to say or how to help is such a common experience. However, we needn't feel this way, particularly when some of the things we can do are simply small acts of compassion that can make a world of difference.

So, I was totally wrong. Don't judge a book by it's cover and pick up a copy of Sorry for Your Loss: What Grieving People Wish You Knew by Alicia King. It's only about $10 from Amazon. King's easy to read guide contains some very practical and appropriate tips for how to support friends and family in grief. King picks up on the finer details about what the impact of other's actions (or inactions) have on the bereaved and gives some guidance on how to have a positive impact instead.

Of the 20 Things King lists out, here are a few of my favourite sentiments:

  • Listen and listen some more - remember to keep uplifting cliches and words of wisdom to yourself
  • Bring some food - cooked meals are great or as a friend once did for me, bring some groceries. A simple way to help out if you don't know what else to do. For those wanting to take it to the next level, the author suggests organising a delivery calendar between a group of friends and family to ensure most meals are catered for. That sounds hardcore to me, but some people might find it useful.
  • Be specific when you offer your support - 'I'm here if you need anything, just call me' isn't enough. Some examples of offering more specific support include offering to do their laundry, running errands for them or planning a suitable time to come over and help with the housework
  • Accept their grief as it comes - often, grief is triggered by a familiar sound, place or other imperceptible situation. Remember to listen, remind the bereaved that what they're feeling is normal and let them express their grief.

Now for me, the most important one is:

Acknowledge their loss - saying or doing nothing is one of the most painful things you could do. At the very least, a brief and sincere 'I'm sorry to hear about your (father). How are you doing?' will be appreciated. For closer friendships, remember to keep in touch, especially over the longer term. Disappearing friends are definitely noticed.

That's it for my picks from the book but there's plenty more that I didn't get to touch on here. If you get a chance, grab a copy and find out the rest for yourself.



Alicia has sinced released a new book, Healing: The Essential Guide to Helping Others Overcome Grief & Loss


Swimming in a Sea of Death

Swimming in a Sea of Death is David Rieff's memoir about his mother Susan Sontag and her determination to survive an incurable form of leukaemia that would ultimately take her life. Bound by his mother's fervent refusal to face the prospect of death, Rieff finds himself irrevocably supporting her fantasies of beating a pessimistic prognosis from the moment of diagnosis to the last hour of her life.

One can’t say Susan Sontag died a particularly private death. She once declared she wouldn’t tell her readers “what it is really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there,” but it seems other people were determined to do it for her. The latest glimpse we have of her sickbed is “Swimming in a Sea of Death,” David Rieff’s intelligent, disordered account of his mother’s final illness.

Read the rest of the review on NY Times or read an excerpt of the first chapter here »

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The Disappearance

The tragic death of her two young daughters from a motor accident is recalled in this deeply moving excerpt from a mother's memoir, the Disappearance. This story is Act One of Episode 144 from This American Life.

I should have gone to see in that room in the hospital where they put my daughters. I knew as soon as they suggested it to me. I knew that by refusing, I was setting a precedent for a future of weakness because I was not worthy of-- I do not know what. Just not worthy. So I did not go to see them dead. They were there, and Mummy did not come. They were only one or two rooms away. They remained alone. Mummy did not cross the doorway.

Listen to the excerpt on This American Life or read the transcript here »


Blue Nights

Blue Nights is author Joan Didion's memoir about the death of her adopted daughter Quintana from acute pancreatitis. 

From The New York Review of Books

Blue Nights is a haunting memoir about the death of Joan Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, at the age of thirty-nine, death from an infection that began just before Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack at the dinner table... Blue Nights describes Didion’s descent into the inevitability of living in a world not only without her husband, not only without her daughter, but, finally, without hope. The book is possessed by an immeasurable, unrelenting despair. And it is alive with what is lost.

Read the rest of the review on The New York Review of Books »


From the Guardian

Blue Nights is a disturbing book, though not for the obvious reasons. While Magical Thinking "just flew out", she says, this one was torture to write and it shows. The style seems empty, mannered. The elegiac tone, which has, on occasion, made critics roll their eyes, tips here into contrivance.

And yet. (As she would put it.)

Blue Nights is a horrifying documentary of a writer observing herself in the moment of dissolution, when she can't remember how to write, can't wholly remember who she is. "What if I can never again locate the words that work?" she writes and Blue Nights, while a failure in conventional terms compared with Magical Thinking, is in some ways a more accurate depiction of a woman unravelling.

Read the rest of the review on The Guardian »

Blue Nights is the companion memoir to The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion's highly acclaimed account about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.

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Let's Take the Long Way Home

In her memoir, Let's Take the Long Way Home, Pulitzer Prize winner Gail Caldwell, recalls the friendship she shared with her best friend Caroline Knapp and the deep grief she experiences when Caroline dies three weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.  

As the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Gail Caldwell observes in her new memoir,“Let’s Take the Long Way Home,” profound grief, like the pain of childbirth, is something we’re mostly “wired to forget” because we couldn’t go on if we knew it was waiting for us out there somewhere. “Remembering the suck and force of death,” she writes, “is like trying to hold water in your hand.” Emotionally, it’s another country, one we hope to visit rarely. 


It says a lot for “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,” Gail Caldwell’s ferociously anguished chronicle of her best friend’s terminal cancer, that it manages to be, among many other things, a properly intelligent examination of the way in which dogs can help heal our past, enhance and challenge our knowledge of ourselves, even shed light on the mysterious workings of the human soul. If female friendship is the beating heart of this book, then a bond with a dog is the vein of pure tenderness that runs through its pages. You feel that the women’s friendship would never have existed in quite the same way without this crucial, balancing canine element.

An inspiring interview with Caldwell about her decision to write about her grief and the journey of penning the memoir.

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion's highly acclaimed memoir about the death of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne from a fatal heart attack at the dinner table. 

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.

Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file ("Notes on change.doc") reads "May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.," but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact.

For a long time I wrote nothing else.

Life changes in the instant.
The ordinary instant.


The Mercy Papers

An extract from The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks by Robin Romm. 

"I know it's selfish, mum, but I can't tell you it's ok to die. I can't imagine life without you."

For nine years Robin Romm watched her mother fight a losing battle with cancer. Here, in an extract from her heartfelt memoir, The Mercy Papers, she details her struggle with a care worker, her refusal to consider assisted suicide and her mum's final act of kindness.

Read the rest of the excerpt on The Observer »

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