Think Before Recommending Books and Movies after a Death

I recently finished a book* several friends and associates recommended during the first two years after my husband died. Recommended might be too mild a word; they practically insisted I read it, yet something held me back, and I’m glad I waited until now, nearly seven years into widowhood.

I can almost imagine why they recommended this compelling work of historical fiction. Its vivid language, with three-dimensional settings and characters, made me feel I’d traveled into another era and community. It was a great read, yes — but it was a terrible recommendation for someone actively grieving.

“What were they thinking?” I asked myself — aloud — at least a dozen times over the three days while I read it. “What were they thinking?” At times I even exclaimed in all-caps volume that startled my dog. “WHAT were they THINKING?”

When I reached the end of the book, I sobbed. I’d shed a few tears within other pages, but these “The End” tears accompanied long, high, keening sobs like I haven’t released in years. Yes, years.

I can only begin to imagine how traumatized I’d have felt if I’d read it back then, while I was yet adjusting to widowhood and only beginning to develop ways of coping with my grief.

In the days after I finished reading, I couldn’t stop wondering: What were my friends thinking when they recommended this beautiful, breathtaking, heart-filled, heartbreaking story to me as a new, actively grieving widow?

A) Maybe the story of this character losing a loved one and falling utterly apart in the process will make my friend feel better about falling off the deep end herself. INCORRECT.

B) Maybe the story of this character’s tragic loss(es) will make my friend feel like her loss isn’t so bad after all. INCORRECT.

C) Maybe the realistic bereavement in this book will make my friend forget all about her own mourning. INCORRECT.

D) Maybe if my friend cries over these characters she’ll stop crying over her husband dying. INCORRECT.

Maybe they just weren’t thinking.

Almost as elusive as the answer to that question I asked (and re-asked) is the answer to a quieter, more introspective question: What was I thinking? Why didn’t I read it when they recommended it to me? Why did I wait?

I knew these nonfiction books focused on grief when I chose to read them, and I therefore found them cathartic — especially Melissa Dalton-Bradford’s “On Loss and Living Onward” and “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis (photo by Teresa TL Bruce,

Many people find reading next to impossible while mourning. Grief distracts them too much for the concentration reading requires.

But reading anesthetized my distraught nerves and temporarily muted my pain. I read 286 books of fiction and nonfiction (including plenty of titles about grief) in those same first two years after my husband died. While my head lived in the pages of other writers’ stories, I laughed, cringed, empathized, and feared for them. Reading set aside my distress long enough for my body and brain to recharge.

Reading (and writing) while grieving saved my sanity. Sometimes, mindlessly watching TV shows or movies did too. But those offered troubling issues too.

About a month after my husband died, some of my daughter’s friends, meaning well, invited her to join them for a movie night. That was a fantastic gesture, and she’d have gladly attended to distract herself from her grief over her father’s death … if they hadn’t chosen The Lion King, in which the young protagonist is traumatized by the death of his father. (Many Disney films present a minefield of grief triggers for children, of all ages, who’ve lost parents.)

Watching Monk because I knew the main character suffered from the loss of his spouse (and because he also suffered from OCD, as did my late husband) let me channel my bereaved emotions in a metered, measured way. Watching a show (or reading a book) in which I didn’t expect to face a character suddenly mourning a loved one threw me into shoulder-shaking, gut-churning paroxysms of grief.

Fiction in literature and film can offer cathartic release of emotions, particularly when the grieving person seeks it out. Sometimes, a good cry over a fictional character might momentarily lighten one’s own bereavement. But it can trigger cascading meltdowns in mourners, especially if unexpected similarities smack them in surprise.

When inviting grieving friends to join you in a movie or urging them to read a book you enjoyed — and you should do these things as a way to offer support — please think carefully about the content. If characters die or suffer other significant loss, choose something else to share, or alert your friends ahead of time so they can decide whether to proceed.


*It’s not the author’s fault this book pushed so many of my personal grief-trigger buttons. And I don’t want to make any of my friends who recommended this particular book feel badly for recommending it so many years ago. For these reasons, I’ve chosen not to name the title or writer here.





“Other” Grief (Not Triggered by Death)

For a while I’ve mentally composed this post about “other” grief triggered not by death but by different forms of loss. Not every person has experienced the death of a loved one (yet), but anyone mature enough to read these words has likely suffered their own significant losses, perhaps even grieved them.

If you’ve lost a job, you may have grieved the loss of income or the loss of stability. You may have grieved losing access to the company car (or to the “hottie” in the next cubicle). It didn’t matter that you–or your friends– “knew” you’d find another (source of funds, transportation, or “admiree”). What mattered in your moments of pain was that the situation was awful. It hurt. Long after you may have found your dream job, memories of that loss can still bring pain.

If you’ve lost your health, you may have grieved that loss. Whether illness impacted the whole sum of your parts or injury impaired the function in some of those parts, you might’ve grieved its physical (and/or emotional) pains. Even temporary conditions (a broken leg, a bout of the flu during vacation, a severe allergic reaction …) can trigger acute grief, though it soon fades. More life-altering diagnoses (an amputated limb, a loss of sight or hearing, a metabolic or mental condition, or the awful C-word — cancer …) can cause feelings of grief and despair that may take years to overcome. Life-altering means just that: life is never the same again.

These sources of grief are no less “real” than the death of a loved one. Your friend, relative, neighbor, coworker, random acquaintance or even your arch enemy who stumbles into such sources of “other” grief needs your kindness and understanding. You can apply tips from my related posts — and from sites listed on my Helpful Grief Resources page — to help you support them through whatever crises they face.

In some instances, their grief will be short-lived. They’ll find a better job or have their cast signed by a favorite celebrity. They’ll schedule another “once in a lifetime” trip in place of the one they spent puking instead of parasailing. They’ll heal. In other cases, the grief may linger long after you have “gotten over it” in their behalf; they are the ones still working their ways through the traumas. In either case, the most important grief to your grieving friends is whatever loss they are are feeling right now.

By all means, when comforting your friends, remember how you felt when you grieved your own “other” grief. You may not be a cat person, but you can remember the loss of your childhood dog to help you console the friends who mourn their cat. Draw upon the pain you once felt to help you relate to theirs. But don’t compare it aloud. Comforting them is about them and their pain, not about you and yours.

Has this reminded you of your own “other” grief? If so, please scroll down and share what it was (or is). What helped (or didn’t help) you deal with your “other” loss?