The inevitability of death and the eternal need for consolation mean that new books flow each season to people in need of inspiration and information. Many new and recent titles speak quietly about private losses, experiences that while always unique still emphasize the common human condition. Some books explore a spiritual tradition's practices for dealing with suffering and bereavement; Judaism is especially articulate and rich. Still other books help those who stand beside the suffering, offering wisdom on what to say or do in times of crisis.
Losing a child is excruciating and unusual, making compelling books about it useful. Journalist Amy Kuebelbeck's Waiting with Gabriel: A Story of Cherishing a Baby's Brief Life (Loyola, Mar.), about the author's loss of her newborn son to congenital heart malformation, earned press attention and readers. Loyola marketing manager Melissa Crane reports that sales have been especially strong in the author's home area of the Twin Cities and the Midwest. "We've had a lot of readers contact both us and the author to ask how they can contribute to local hospitals to help families who have lost an infant," Crane says.
When Loyola editorial director Jim Manney first heard about the book from Kuebelbeck's agent, he thought it sounded familiar—maybe too familiar. "How many stories like that have I read in my decades as a book editor?" he asked himself. Yet reading it convinced him and his staff that it was a fresh story of love, loss and difficult ethical decisions. "People look for these books when the time comes and they need them," he says.
Vivid human story and answers from experience are often keys, but other authors take different approaches. Safe in the Arms of God by popular evangelical Christian pastor and author John MacArthur (Nelson, July) uses Christian scripture to console parents who have lost newborn children. And Then Mark Died: Letters of Grief, Love and Faith by Susan Sonnenday Vogel (Abingdon, Feb.) takes the old-fashioned form of letters—emotionally intimate, reflective ones—written to friends and family by Vogel, a theology school dean, after the death of her adult son in an auto accident.
Those who long to be parents but can't conceive also suffer. Infertility: Finding God's Peace in the Journey by Lois Flowers (Harvest House, July) uses a combination of personal experience and scripture to address difficult questions. Adoption might be an option, and Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner's Spirit of Adoption: At Home in God's Family examines the Christian meaning of the events of adoption—the pain of barrenness, the challenge of waiting, the search for identity (Westminster John Knox, May).
The death of writer Nora Gallagher's brother informs her midlife spiritual memoir, Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment and Moments of Grace (Knopf, Mar.). Widows' tales include Searching for a Mustard Seed: One Young Widow's Unconventional Story by Miriam Sagan (Quality Words in Print, Aug.), a Jewish poet dealing with the death of her husband, a 36-year-old Zen priest. The latter has been chosen as a DearReader.com (formerly Chapter-a-Day) online book club selection that will circulate to 150,000 members.
Grief counselor Harold Ivan Smith's Grieving the Death of a Mother (Augsburg, Mar.) and Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir (Schocken, Aug.) by former New York Times religion writer Ari L. Goldman (see InProfile, this issue) address the inevitability of parental loss and the emotional and religious demands it presents.
From the Jewish Tradition
Goldman and Sagan both draw on the cultural and religious wisdom of Judaism, a tradition rich in literature and practices that respond to bereavement, grief and suffering. "Judaism is so steeped in ritual," notes Altie Karper, editorial director of Schocken. "When something happens to you that hits you emotionally, your first impulse is this personal feeling, and then you look to tradition, saying, 'There's got to be something within our tradition that will speak to me at this time.' "
Centrist Orthodox Jewish teaching about suffering and mortality is found in Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Suffering, Mourning and the Human Condition edited by David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler (KTAV, Mar.), the third volume in a posthumous series of works by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who taught for more than 40 years at Yeshiva University. Jewish law pertinent to life-and-death medical ethics is explored in Nishmat Avraham II: Medical Halachah for Doctors, Nurses, Health-Care Personnel and Patients by cardiopulmonary specialist and teacher Abraham S. Abraham (ArtScroll/ Mesorah, May).
Psychiatrist and Rabbi Abraham Twerski shifts from self-help nonfiction to fiction in The Light at the End of the Tunnel (Shaar, Apr.), a novel about a successful lawyer who learns what is really important when he develops cancer. An end-of-life book, That You May Live Long: Caring for Our Aging Parents, Caring for Ourselves edited by Richard F. Address and Hara Person (UAHC Press, Mar.), offers Jewish perspectives on growing older and caring for the elderly.
The Gifts of Illness
Illness also challenges the spiritual imagination. Walking One Another Home: Moments of Grace and Possibility Through Alzheimer's by Rita Bresnahan (Liguori, May) broaches the spiritual benefits of Alzheimer's that the author—a nun, educator and psychotherapist—came to know through caring for her mother. Suffering in Slow Motion: Help for a Long Journey Through Dementia and Other Terminal Illness by Pamala Kennedy and Richard Kennedy (Servant, Sept.) offers the unique dual perspective of Richard, a successful evangelical Christian pastor who was diagnosed with fronto-temporal dementia in 1997 when he was 47, and his wife Pamala, a writer who has watched the progression of the illness. Broken Body, Healing Spirit: Lectio Divina and Living with Chronic Illness is by Mary C. Earle (Morehouse, July), an Episcopal parish priest whose experience of acute pancreatitis helped her develop a spiritual discipline to aid the sick. Earle adapts lectio divina, the process of reflective reading of a short text, as a way to understand and live with a chronic illness.
Debra Farrington, publisher at Morehouse, says this application of lectio divina to illness is unique. "This takes a very Catholic concept and applies it to territory that has been somewhat the domain of secular and of New Age thinking and does so in a theologically satisfactory way," she says.
Ignatian spiritual practices are drawn on in A Healing Walk with St. Ignatius: Discovering God's Presence in Difficult Times by Lyn Holley Doucet (Loyola, Mar.), a Louisiana spiritual director who has worked with people in distress. The Art of Helping by Lauren Littauer Briggs (Cook, Apr.) offers both stories and tips to help someone experiencing crisis. In the same helpful vein is If There's Anything I Can Do... by Rebecca Bram Feldbaum (Feldheim, Mar.), with more stories and techniques.
Hold the Casseroles and Advice
Don't leave turkey casseroles or other unsought help is among the recommendations given by clinical psychologist and grief specialist Nancy Reeves in Found Through Loss: Healing Stories from Scripture and Everyday Sacredness (Northstone, dist. by Pilgrim, Apr.). The book adds the personal touch of Reeves's voice on two accompanying CDs. What to do as death approaches is the subject of On Angel's Eve: Making the Most of Your Final Time Together by Garnette Arledge (SquareOne, Aug). A hospice chaplain and spiritual director, Arledge lost her own husband in a freakish auto accident while she was writing the book. Tilda Norberg mined her own youthful loss of her parents in a plane crash in writing Ashes Transformed: Healing from Trauma (Upper Room, Mar.). The New York author, a clergywoman and pastoral counselor worked with many affected by the World Trade Center conflagration of September 11, and the book recounts vignettes and suggests prayers for responding to traumatic loss.
The WTC disaster also surfaces in Joan Chittister's Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope (Eerdmans, Mar.), but it's only one of many instances of loss and grief the Benedictine nun, author and lecturer reflects on to describe human struggle as a demanding and strengthening process. The book has already been excerpted in Sojourners and Christian Century magazines and on the Beliefnet Web site, and three-quarters of a print run of 10,000 is already sold.
Jon Pott, editor-in-chief at Eerdmans, says that the best books in this subcategory have "the willingness to not let God off the hook so easily." Grief and suffering books don't stint on the experience of suffering, but they also offer hope, and both those conditions must be authentically conveyed, springing from specific and detailed experience. "Watch out for the formulas: 'well, it was God's will,' " Pott says.
Illness, death and suffering make for hard reading and living, but they are also the subjects of books that a vast audience will find helpful. "You can't go to classes on how to deal with the death of a parent," says Altie Karper at Schocken. There may be no classes, but there are books that can be given and books that can be read when the time comes.