If you are dealing with issues surrounding death, these best books about death, dying, and grief are honest. In a video interview I watched, the author of The Unwinding of the Miracle, featured below, remarked:

I know this is dark and depressing, but I promised I would be honest with you.

– Julie Yip Williams

That’s exactly why I’m writing about a dark and depressing subject. Books on death and dying are a gateway to managing real life, and I am here to provide genuine support for authentically living — not a highlights reel.

open book in front on clouds and light.

Now, I can barely count the number of death books I have read that have dealt with the death of a character (or real person), and/or the aftermath that ensues, including nearly every thriller. But, the true purpose of posting the best books about death, dying, and grief are to assist those dealing with end-of-life issues.

So, this list has breadth: from fiction to memoir, non-fiction, and YA (young adult) novels about death. For each book on death I could have potentially recommended here, I paused and asked myself, “If someone I knew was dealing with end-of-life issues and/or grief and asked me for a book recommendation in their moment of need, would I recommend this book to them?”

The following list of the best books about death, dying and grief includes the books for which I answered, “yes.”

Top Pick for the Best Book About Death, Dying & Grief

  • #1 New York Times bestseller
  • Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

The memoir When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi remains one of my favorite non-fiction books of all time, and indeed it tackles all topics this post covers: death, dying, AND grief.

A 36-year-old neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer questions the meaning of life in the face of his own mortality in ways that truly do take your breath away.

Best Books About Death, Dying & Grief

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Named a best book of the year by The Washington PostThe New York Times Book Review, NPR, and Chicago Tribune

Being Mortal came highly recommended to me, and its content surprised me. I was expecting a non-fiction book on death about making major end-of-life decisions, and while it was this, it was also very much a historical and socio-economic argument about enhancing elderly living.

It gives a voice to the elderly and makes you think and question what you thought you knew about the quality of their lives.

Crying in H Mary by Michelle Zauner

  • New York Times bestseller
  • A best book of the year: Entertainment Weekly, Good Morning America, Wall Street Journal, and more

Crying in H Mart is the heartbreaking, yet unforgettable, memoir of the indie rockstar in the band Japanese Breakfast about her mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis and death, which formed her own identity as a Korean American adult.

It’s uniquely the story of a complex mother/daughter relationship — one more Korean and the other more American, and how the mother’s death forever changes the daughter.

While the author struggled growing up due to her mother’s high expectations of her and her status as one of the only Asian Americans at her school, when her mother was later diagnosed with cancer, she savored the time they had left together and found a new appreciation for the Korean culture her mother gave her.

This book about mothers is also unflinching and raw in relaying what it’s really like to bear witness to daily life with a terminal cancer diagnosis, as well as the death of a parent.

It’s an absolutely flawless portrait of both grief and self-reflection that leaves no stone uncovered and keeps the memory of the author’s mother alive in both rich anecdotes and life lessons.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

  • New York Times bestseller
  • Named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, Parade, LibraryReads

The only way out of it is through it.

– Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward is a popular Read With Jenna Bush Hager book club selection. It’s one of the best fiction books about death and grief because it’s an especially unique coming-of-age story detailing the teenage years of a 12-year-old boy after he is the sole survivor of a plane crash.

It’s very heavy and deep, but I grew to love the characters and the arc of grief, resilience, and hope that blossomed in the years following the crash. What’s especially moving is Edward’s friendship with a young girl named Shay, who supports him along his unique journey.

Edward’s grappling with questions of survivor’s guilt was also meaningful. I listened to the audio version of this book about grief and found it very engaging.

Everything Beautiful in Its Time by Jenna Bush Hager

Everything Beautiful In Its Time felt as comforting as coffee with a friend and left me teary-eyed. In just one year, former first daughter Jenna Bush lost three of her four grandparents, including our former president, George H.W. Bush.

With beautiful and authentic prose, she nostalgically reflects in her memoir book about grief on issues of family, love, and loss with a focus on her relationships with her grandparents. She’s real, she’s relatable and she had me reminiscing about my own grandparents and their impacts on my life.

Of note, she exquisitely also speaks across all political party lines with unifying words. And it’s a great book for book lovers, with several book references as well as bookish women (including herself, her mother, and her maternal grandmother). I adored this heartfelt book about grief and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke

New York Times bestseller 

From Scratch was one of my favorite selections by Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club and one of the best books set in Italy. I was teary-eyed listening to this sad book about death.

Tembi Locke is an actress, as well as an exquisite writer who captures her emotions in a way that makes you empathize with her grief and her resilience.

From Scratch is her memoir of life and death with her husband, Saro, whom she met while she was studying in Florence, Italy. Saro was a Sicilian chef whose family did not approve of him marrying a black American actress.

After the couple moves to Los Angeles and adopts a baby girl, Saro is diagnosed with cancer and dies.

From Scratch chronicles the three Summers that Locke spends in Sicily, Italy, with her daughter, as they try to piece together their lives without Saro. Sicily is a place of comforting food, but it also becomes a place of forgiveness, growth, grief, healing, and strength in the face of a tragic death.

The Guncle by Steven Rowley

  • An NPR Book of the Year
  • Finalist for the 2021 Goodreads Choice Awards

Steven Rowley is no stranger to writing about grief (see: Lily and the Octopus), but what’s great about The Guncle, and why it just may be the right book at the right time for someone, is that it takes a more heartwarming approach to grief.

There’s nothing light about the storyline: “Gay Uncle Patrick” (aka “GUP”) is a once famous Hollywood actor left to care for his young niece and nephew during Summer in Palm Springs after their mother dies and while their father (Patrick’s brother) copes with addiction. Patrick is also grieving the loss of his own boyfriend.

As heavy as that sounds, Patrick’s colorful personality and the children’s rambunctious energy make them a fun trio who share all kinds of laugh-out-loud funny jokes and adventures, despite their differences on the surface, and their inner turmoil.

It’s a charming look at how a family can grow and heal together in spite of really difficult circumstances.

Related Post: The Guncle Summary

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

  • National bestseller
  • Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner
  • National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
  • “Novel of the Year” at the Dalkey Literary Awards
  • Shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize
  • Longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction

Set in England during the late 1580s, Hamnet is loosely based on the death of William Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son from “The Black Death,” which inspired his famous play, Hamlet, about an opposing scenario in which a son grieves his father, King Hamlet.

Hamnet shifts timelines between the story of Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife, Agnes (also known in history as Anne), and the illness that begins with Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, and ultimately ends with him, just as William Shakespeare’s playwrighting career is taking off. Ultimately, it’s about how a family copes with grief.

As evidenced by the awards it’s received, it’s best books of the 21st century — an absolute work of literary art with meticulous plotting, heavy use of literary devices, and a very lush, literary writing style that will linger with you long after the final page.

Related Post: Book Club Questions for Hamnet

How to Make Friends With the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow

Confession: When the YA (young adult) fiction book about grief How to Make Friends With the Dark became available to me from a library hold, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. The concept of a teen dealing with the unexpected death of her single mother just seemed like such a horribly sad book about death.

But, I dove in and ended up deeming it one of the best books about death. Yes, it’s sad. But the tone isn’t as dark as the title suggests. The author perfectly captured the teenage voice of Tiger, dealing with average teenager issues while also coping with grief, as she bounces through foster homes and meets an unknown family, uncovering her history.

The truth is that we owe it to grieving children (particularly orphaned children) to hear their story, and How to Make Friends With the Dark was exquisitely crafted from the experience of the author and her mother. You won’t be able to put it down.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

  • A Best Book of the Year: The Washington Post, NPR, Entertainment WeeklyReal SimpleMarie Claire, New York Public Library, LibraryReads, The Skimm, Lit Hub, Lit Reactor
  • An instant New York Times bestseller 

Family dramas are my favorite genre, and The Immortalists ranks high on that list for me as a fiction book about death. It’s a thought-provoking family saga about a group of 4 siblings from the 1960s-2010, all of whom become obsessed with their looming deaths.

The story begins when the siblings are children in New York City and a fortune teller predicts the dates of their deaths. This one childhood moment of curiosity forever changes their lives as, throughout the decades to come, they continually grapple with their predicted dates of death.

Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco. Dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, blurring reality and fantasy. Eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11. And bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundaries between science and immortality.

But, that’s really just the beginning, as you will compulsively turn the pages of this novel about death to see if the siblings meet their pre-ordained fates. With rich language and complexity, The Immortalists leaves the reader to question our personal roles in our destinies, the power of belief, time spent on earth, the role of mental health in our lives, and the beauty and freedom of uncertainty.

What’s more is that it’s told with complexity and depth that makes you savor each word on the page. Are we living, or are we dying?

(Answer this question and more with these discussion questions for The Immortalists.)

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl

  • Named a “Best Book of the Year” by New Statesman, New York Public Library, Chicago Public Library, and Washington Independent Review of Books
  • Southern Book Prize Finalist
  • An O, the Oprah Magazine pick
  • Publishers Weekly “Pick of the Week”
  • An Indie Next selection
  • An Indies Introduce selection
  • A 2019 Okra pick

Late Migrations is a Read with Jenna Bush Hager book club selection which I discussed with Jenna on The Today Show! In the memoir, Renkl shares snippets of her life, including some larger moments and some smaller moments, primarily during her upbringing in Alabama in the 1960s.

Her prose encompasses short micro-essays which connect to major themes of nature, love, loss, the value of memories, and the meaning of life. For these reasons, it’s also a great book for Spring.

It’s one of the best books about death wherein each word matters, and the micro-essays have poetic lyricism. They are soulful and they are bittersweet, exploring a complex range of universal emotions: love, joy, sadness, and darkness.

Renkl, who was formerly Reese Witherspoon’s teacher (yes, really!), ultimately acknowledges that everything that lives will die, but along the way, she exquisitely explores the meaning of life and the grief that follows long after death.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

#1 New York Times bestseller 

With more than 2 million copies sold, A Man Called Ove is the beloved modern Fredrick Backman fiction novel about, you guessed it – A Man Called Ove (Ooh-vuh). Outwardly, he’s a stereotypical elderly curmudgeon with a short temper. But inwardly, he’s grieving the loss of his wife and dealing with his own mortality as a dying man living out his older years.

When a friendly young family moves in next door to him, they start to change each other’s lives. The result is both moving and bittersweet. The more time passes, the more I appreciate Ove’s lessons in this beautiful fiction book about grief.

The Measure by Nikki Erlick

In the novel The Measure, one day, every adult over age 22 awakens to find a box at his or her doorstep. It reads: “The measure of your life lies within.” Inside the box is a string of a length that corresponds to the lifespan of the recipient.

Instantly, the world is changed. Some characters grapple with what to do with his or her time left, while others are too afraid to even look in the box.

As time passes and the meaning and impact of the strings play out in a variety of contexts throughout the world and in the lives of the characters, the reader is left to question, among other philosophical musings, whether the strings are a blessing or a curse.

It’s a thought-provoking book that offers a blend of magical realism and a bit of a dystopian feel to get you pondering fate and free will

Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene

One of the best books of the year: Time Magazine, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, BookPage, Book Riot, Library Journal

I have read a lot of memoirs about dying, death and grief, but Once More We Saw Stars uniquely discussed a very unexpected tragedy — the loss of a child after a freak accident.

This sad book about death includes a minute-by-minute journey through the aftermath. It’s a wonderful, but profoundly sad, yet hopeful, tribute to young Greta Greene and the many others uniquely suffering the same type of loss as her parents. It’s a very worthy read that will bring out your deepest empathy.

Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose by Joe Biden

Instant #1 New York Times bestseller

Promise Me, Dad is the unforgettable memoir book on death about the year in which Joe Biden’s son, Beau, was diagnosed with and died from brain cancer (of the same type as Senator John McCain).

I listened to the audio version of this book, and years later, I can still hear the pain and exasperation in the elder Biden’s voice when I think about this book. Although Biden was Vice President of the United States at the time this story unfolded, he recounts it as any other American grappling with a devastating diagnosis of a dying family member — from treatment decisions to family planning, and trying to balance all that is life in the process.

I recommend this book to anyone dealing with the effects of cancer.

Reminders of Him by Colleen Hoover

Reminders of Him is a different type of book on this list, as it’s a steamy romance novel, but hear me out — it packs a real emotional punch on the topics of grief and forgiveness.

It’s about a 26-year-old woman who is released from prison for involuntary manslaughter relating to the death of her boyfriend.

She seeks to reunite with her daughter and find forgiveness for his death, but she is shut out by everyone in her small town for her misdeeds, except a local bar owner with a connection to all of them. He just may be the only one who can help redeem her and offer everyone a greater sense of peace in their grief.

I especially liked this book because ALL of the characters were experiencing grief over the same person, in different ways, and they all are faced with coming together in spite of their pain, to cope and move forward from a tragedy.

Related Posts: Reminders of Him Summary | Reminders of Him Review 

Signs: The Secret Language of the Universe by Laura Lynne Jackson

New York Times bestseller

Most of the non-fiction death book Signs tells stories about signs others received from their loved ones who have passed away, which I found really interesting. Mixed in are details about how signs present themselves, how to open yourself to signs, how energy in the universe works, and related things, like dreams, positive thinking & intuition.

It may sound hokey, but as a very logic-brained and skeptical person, I can say it did not present that way at all! And, sure enough, I used the tools from the book to ask for two signs, and I received both, from two different people, within less than two days.

I recommend Signs to anyone interested in signs or searching for signs in managing their grief.

Spare by Prince Harry

#1 International bestseller

Prince Harry’s revealing memoir, Spare, is about many things that occurred during his life to date, including his teenage mistakes, military service, marriage, bad brushes with the media, and family problems, but the common theme that runs throughout ALL of these tales is his grief over the loss of his mother, Princess Diana.

The things he felt in grief, and the lack of support he received, are downright shocking and heartbreaking, and his memoir makes it clear how this had reverberations for decades to come, ultimately changing him through therapy.

For more, read my full review of Spare by Prince Harry and book club questions for Spare.

Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom

#1 New York Times bestseller

With 12 million copies sold, Tuesdays with Morrie is the bestselling modern classic memoir in which Mitch Albom visits his old professor every Tuesday in the last few months of his professor’s life, dying with ALS, to learn lessons about living.

Being both a modern classic and a very quick read, I recommend it to everyone as one of the best books about death.

The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip Williams

New York Times bestseller

The Unwinding of the Miracle is a Read with Jenna Bush Hager book club selection that is a memoir of life, dying, and everything that comes after.

Williams is a young wife and mother facing a terminal cancer diagnosis. With a jaw-dropping background facing insurmountable odds, including being born blind in post-War Vietnam to a family that wanted to end her life and an unbelievably tumultuous months-long escape, she had surgery that restored part of her sight and eventually became a Harvard-trained lawyer who traveled to all seven continents on her own.

It’s hard to imagine that a terminal cancer diagnosis followed at the age of thirty-seven. Seeking clarity, Williams began to write the story of her life.

In The Unwinding of the Miracle, she walks the reader through the day-to-day emotional journey of living and dying with cancer: shock, loneliness, sadness, despair, anger, and hope. She’s candid and real in this death book, and the miracle of her life forever touched my heart.

We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman

We All Want Impossible Things resonates so deeply that I thought it was a memoir for the entire first half. (It’s a novel.) It walks the reader through the process of befriending a loved one through hospice treatment unlike any book I’ve read — both tenderly and humorously (because that’s how real life is).

It’s a story of friendship through the good times and the bad times, from the beginning to an ending no one wanted, and evaluating one’s own life in the process. The details are so nuanced that the characters feel real and their story, unforgettable.

What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan

#1 New York Times Sports and Fitness bestseller

What Made Maddy Run is the non-fiction story of the 2014 death by suicide of University of Pennsylvania freshman, Madison Holleran. It is meaningful for both adults and teens as a YA (young adult) book on death.

Maddy was an athletic and scholastic over-achiever who struggled tremendously in transitioning from a very small, safe, and loving hometown community where nothing bad ever happened to the world of the Ivy leagues, where each and every star student and athlete shone bright, and the cityscape was vast and intimidating.

Kate Fagan explores the issues so many college students face, particularly what it means to be a “perfect” student-athlete and perceptions of aspirational college life on Instagram. And Maddy’s friends and family were brave and open in sharing their grief stories, and Maddy’s life and death story, so that others can potentially prevent suicide deaths. It’s a raw and up-close look at how a downward spiral happened, even amidst a supportive and loving family, unexpectedly dealing with the loss of a child.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

  • #1 New York Times bestseller
  • Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize

When Breath Becomes Air was the first audio book to which I ever listened, and I never forgot its lasting impact. It’s one of my favorite non-fiction books of all time.

In the memoir, Kalanithi is a 36-year-old neurosurgeon, unexpectedly diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. As he deals with dying, he philosophically questions the meaning of life with painstaking detail and complexity. After all, what makes life worth living, when you come face to face with your own mortality?

As both a patient and a medical provider, Kalanithi has a nuanced perspective, which like the title of his book suggests, will take your breath away.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

  • National bestseller
  • National Book Award Winner

The Year of Magical Thinking is the book in which Didion recounts her year of grief after the sudden and unexpected death of her husband.

Didion has a way with words, and this stunning book depicts her experiences in ways both personal to her and universal to everyone. The reader uncovers a portrait of a marriage, in good times and bad, and the meaning of love.


That concludes the list of the best books about death, dying, and grief, including fiction, memoirs, non-fiction, and YA fiction books about grief.

To recap and help you decide where to start first or next, my top pick is the #1 New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, When Breath Becomes Air.

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