When I was a kid, I was terrified of death, which was slightly peculiar, as the topic of death was not an unfamiliar one in my family. My mother is a pastor and besides church services and weddings, she often leads funeral services, about which she shares stories often enough. On the other hand, that explicit affirmation of death’s existence might have caused my mind to want to deny its existence, if at all possible.
If a hearse drove past, my heart started beating faster, and I would turn my head, hoping to forget that moment as quick a possible. Whenever I was in church with my parents and a song had a line that referred to that eternal irreversibility, I would simply stop singing as if the line, as well as death, did not exist. Laying on my back in bed and accidentally folding my hands in front of my chest would creep me out and I hoped that I would not die that instant because I was already laying as dead people do. “It might give Death some ideas,” I seemed to think. And books. Books about death had to be avoided at all costs, please and thank you.
I’m not sure what I was so afraid of. I think it was the unknown – I never really believed in heaven (I was never really religious despite my church visits), and I did not know whether there was an alternative.
Yet it was books that took that fear away, for a major part. A particular series that was, and still is, important to me in particular, is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Our protagonist Harry lost his parents at age one, and continues to lose many people very close to him. It is the people around him, especially Dumbledore, who help him through this by making him see that “death is but the next great adventure”. And with that they help us readers. Two other soothing lines by Dumbledore that I do really love are: “You think the dead we love ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble?” and “do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”
The result of reading these books was that they took away many of my fears. It does not make losing someone any less terrible or sad or irreversible, but I try to think of comforting words as the ones from these books at such times, after losing someone very dear to me.
I’ve collected some books that deal with death, that deal with characters dealing with death, and that may help you deal with death.
On Life After Death – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1991)
Kübler-Ross is an Swiss-American psychiatrist and most known for her book On Death and Dying (1969) in which she discusses her theory of the Five Stages of Grief. She was a pioneer in studies on near-death experiences, and that lead her to formulate a certain theory on what happens to us when we die. On Life After Death is based on her conversations with people of all ages who were in the process of dying. Although it may be a bit spiritual, the book is interesting if you want to know if there possibly is something between believing in heaven or there not being anything at all.
I read it after one of my uncles passed, and although I was not sure if I could believe all that Kübler-Ross describes, it was a soothing read.
The Illicit Happiness of Other People – Manu Joseph (2012)
This book is about a father, who preferably smokes two cigarettes at a time, trying to figure out whether his son Unni’s fall from a balcony was an accident or not. Three years after Unni’s death, he receives a package that leads him to search for possible answers. Meanwhile, his wife tries to raise their youngest son, who is dealing with missing his brother and falling in love. The Illicit Happiness of Other People tells a beautiful, philosophical, and multi-layered story of loss, of people, of how difficult it is to lose someone, and of how life must go on.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran-Foer (2006)
After the father of nine-year old Oskar Schnell is killed in the attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11, Oskar sets out to solve the mystery of a key that he finds in his father’s closet. Oskar’s adventures lead him to meet many strangers, and to slowly find some peace with his father’s death.
Geluk is Gevaarlijk – Rutger Kopland (1999)
This is a very personal pick – not all the poems by this Dutch poet are on death, but many poems are about life, about memory, about happiness, and it is what I read when I knew that someone close to me would pass soon. The poems are not necessarily comforting, but I understood the poems and the poems understood me.