11 Books About Death That Are Bursting with Life

June 7 2021
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Sometimes, we all need a good cathartic cry. If you’re in the mood for inspiring, bittersweet, and revelatory storytelling, pick up one of these books that may seem, on the surface, about death, but actually hold some of the richest truths about life. In these eleven must-reads, characters cope with loss, forge new bonds, and rediscover what it means to live, despite and because of the grief they’ve faced. By turns funny, sad, romantic, and stirring, these books will break your heart only to heal it all over again.

Together We Will Go
by J. Michael Straczynski

At only thirty Mark knows he is about to die and plans a showstopping trip. In a junky bus driven by an army vet, Mark sets off on a cross-country trip and invites anyone else ready to end it all to join. His companions include a bipolar neo-hippie, a coder with a heart defect, a young woman bullied for her weight, and another woman with a chronic pain disorder. The group plans to drive off a cliff together, but the journey they take to get there will prove to be the true highlight of this unforgettable journey.

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Together We Will Go
J. Michael Straczynski

The Breakfast Club meets The Silver Linings Playbook in this powerful, provocative, and heartfelt novel about twelve endearing strangers who come together to make the most of their final days, from New York Times bestselling and award-winning author J. Michael Straczynski.

Mark Antonelli, a failed young writer looking down the barrel at thirty, is planning a cross-country road trip. He buys a beat-up old tour bus. He hires a young army vet to drive it. He puts out an ad for others to join him along the way. But this will be a road trip like no other: His passengers are all fellow disheartened souls who have decided that this will be their final journey—upon arrival in San Francisco, they will find a cliff with an amazing view of the ocean at sunset, hit the gas, and drive out of this world.

The unlikely companions include a young woman with a chronic pain sensory disorder and another who was relentlessly bullied at school for her size; a bipolar, party-loving neo-hippie; a gentle coder with a literal hole in his heart and blue skin; and a poet dreaming of a better world beyond this one. We get to know them through access to their texts, emails, voicemails, and the daily journal entries they write as the price of admission for this trip.

By turns tragic, funny, quirky, charming, and deeply moving, Together We Will Go explores the decisions that brings these characters together, and the relationships that grow between them, with some discovering love and affection for the first time. But as they cross state lines and complications to the initial plan arise, it becomes clear that this is a novel as much about the will to live as the choice to end it. The final, unforgettable moments as they hurtle toward the decisions awaiting them will be remembered for a lifetime.

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The One-in-a-Million Boy
by Monica Wood

Ona is 104 years old and believes nothing can surprise her anymore. Despite her misgivings, she begins to open up to the eleven-year-old boy who has been told to help her out every Saturday morning. When he stops showing up, Ona assumes he’s left her like everyone else; that is, until his parents arrive on her doorstep to finish their son’s job after his unexpected death. A bittersweet and heartfelt tale about love, loss, and life’s surprises, THE ONE-IN-A-MILLION BOY is about the lifesaving bonds we form through grief.

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The One-in-a-Million Boy
Monica Wood

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Faye, Faraway
by Helen Fisher

In this emotionally poignant story that will appeal to fans of THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, Faye is a dedicated mother and wife who takes every opportunity she can to remind her daughters how much she loves them. When she suddenly wakes up in 1977, Faye realizes she has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reconnect with the mother she lost at the age of seven. As adult Faye begins to befriend her mother, she realizes that soon she will have to decide between the people she loved in the past and those she’s responsible to in the present.

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Faye, Faraway
Helen Fisher

A heartfelt, spellbinding, and irresistible debut novel for fans of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Outlander that movingly examines loss, faith, and love as it follows a grown woman who travels back in time to be reunited with the mother she lost when she was a child.

Faye is a thirty-seven-year-old happily married mother of two young daughters. Every night, before she puts them to bed, she whispers to them: “You are good, you are kind, you are clever, you are funny.” She’s determined that they never doubt for a minute that their mother loves them unconditionally. After all, her own mother Jeanie had died when she was only seven years old and Faye has never gotten over that intense pain of losing her.

But one day, her life is turned upside down when she finds herself in 1977, the year before her mother died. Suddenly, she has the chance to reconnect with her long-lost mother, and even meets her own younger self, a little girl she can barely remember. Jeanie doesn’t recognize Faye as her daughter, of course, even though there is something eerily familiar about her...

As the two women become close friends, they share many secrets—but Faye is terrified of revealing the truth about her identity. Will it prevent her from returning to her own time and her beloved husband and daughters? What if she’s doomed to remain in the past forever? Faye knows that eventually she will have to choose between those she loves in the past and those she loves in the here and now, and that knowledge presents her with an impossible choice.

Emotionally gripping and ineffably sweet Faye, Faraway is a brilliant exploration of the grief associated with unimaginable loss and the magic of being healed by love.

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Summer Bird Blue
by Akemi Dawn Bowman

All Rumi has ever wanted to do was make music with her sister, Lea. So, when Lea dies in a car accident, Rumi is left devastated. Unsure how to help Rumi cope with her grief, Rumi’s mother sends her to live with her aunt in Hawaii. There, with the help of neighbors—a wildly happy young surfer dude and an emotionally wounded eighty-year-old—Rumi will rediscover what it means to live and find the inspiration to finish the song she and Lea always dreamed about.

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Summer Bird Blue
Akemi Dawn Bowman

“A lyrical novel about grief, love, and finding oneself in the wake of a tragic loss.” —Bustle
“Gorgeous prose and heartbreaking storytelling.” —Paste Magazine
“Grabs your heart and won’t let go.” —Book Riot

A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year

Three starred reviews for this stunning novel about a mixed-race teen who struggles to find her way back to her love of music in the wake of her sister’s death, from the author of the William C. Morris Award finalist Starfish.

Rumi Seto spends a lot of time worrying she doesn’t have the answers to everything. What to eat, where to go, whom to love. But there is one thing she is absolutely sure of—she wants to spend the rest of her life writing music with her younger sister, Lea.

Then Lea dies in a car accident, and her mother sends her away to live with her aunt in Hawaii while she deals with her own grief. Now thousands of miles from home, Rumi struggles to navigate the loss of her sister, being abandoned by her mother, and the absence of music in her life. With the help of the “boys next door”—a teenage surfer named Kai, who smiles too much and doesn’t take anything seriously, and an eighty-year-old named George Watanabe, who succumbed to his own grief years ago—Rumi attempts to find her way back to her music, to write the song she and Lea never had the chance to finish.

Aching, powerful, and unflinchingly honest, Summer Bird Blue explores big truths about insurmountable grief, unconditional love, and how to forgive even when it feels impossible.

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The Possible World
by Liese O'Halloran Schwarz

Six-year-old Ben is the only survivor of a horrific crime who can’t remember or face what he experienced. Lucy is the overworked ER doctor on duty when Ben is brought in, who finds herself determined to help him, even if that means making him remember the worst night of his life. Clare is a nearly-100-year-old woman who has a lifetime’s worth of secrets and it’s finally time to confess. In this captivating and moving novel, these three people’s paths will converge in a story about motherhood and finding meaning in grief.

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The Possible World
Liese O'Halloran Schwarz

“A brilliantly written, moving story” (The Washington Book Review) about the converging lives of a young boy who witnesses a brutal murder, the doctor who tends to him, and an old woman guarding her long-buried past.

It seems like just another night shift for Lucy, an overworked ER physician in Providence, Rhode Island, until six-year-old Ben is brought in as the sole survivor from a crime scene. He’s traumatized and wordless; everything he knows has been taken from him in an afternoon. It’s not clear what he saw or what he remembers.

Lucy, who’s grappling with the demise of her marriage, feels a profound, unexpected connection to the little boy. She wants to help him…but will recovering his memory heal him or damage him further?

Across town, Clare will soon be turning one hundred years old. She has long believed that the secrets she’s been keeping don’t matter to anyone anymore, but a surprising encounter makes her realize that the time has come to tell her story.

As Ben, Lucy, and Clare struggle to confront the events that shattered their lives, something stronger than fate is working to bring them together.

“Schwarz blends a clear-eyed acceptance of life’s pain and cruelties with a hopeful message about the enduring power of love in this rich and memorable novel” (Publishers Weekly). The Possible World spans nearly a century—from the Great Depression through the Vietnam War era and into the present—and “in beautifully crafted prose” (Booklist) captures the complicated ways our pasts shape our identities, and how timeless bonds can triumph over grief. “A bittersweet story full of imagination and nostalgia, loss and redemption…The Possible World will seize readers from the first scene and hold tight until its satisfying conclusion” (Kirkus Reviews).

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Self-Portrait with Boy
by Rachel Lyon

In this compulsive and provocative debut, Lu Riley is a struggling photographer living in gentrifying Brooklyn in the early ’90s. During a self-portrait session, she accidentally captures a young boy falling to his death outside her window. The photograph is stunning, and it could make Lu famous, but it would also complicate her budding relationship with the boy’s devastated mother Kate. As Lu and Kate are brought together by grief and unexpected attraction, their relationship may be what saves them both, or what Lu must sacrifice to make her dreams come true.

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Self-Portrait with Boy
Rachel Lyon

Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize

“Fabulously written, this spellbinding debut novel is a real page-turner. A powerful, brilliantly imagined story” (Library Journal, starred review) about an ambitious young artist whose accidental photograph of a boy falling to his death could jumpstart her career, but devastate her most intimate friendship.

Lu Rile is a relentlessly focused young photographer struggling to make ends meet. Working three jobs, responsible for her aging father, and worrying that her crumbling loft apartment is being sold to developers, she is at a point of desperation. One day, in the background of a self-portrait, Lu accidentally captures an image of a boy falling to his death. The photograph turns out to be startlingly gorgeous, the best work of art she’s ever made. It’s an image that could change her life…if she lets it.

But the decision to show the photograph is not easy. The boy is her neighbors’ son, and the tragedy brings all the building’s residents together. It especially unites Lu with the boy’s beautiful grieving mother, Kate. As the two forge an intense bond based on sympathy, loneliness, and budding attraction, Lu feels increasingly unsettled and guilty, torn between equally fierce desires: to advance her career, and to protect a woman she has come to love.

Set in early 90s Brooklyn on the brink of gentrification, Self-Portrait with Boy is a “sparkling debut” (The New York Times Book Review) about the emotional dues that must be paid on the road to success and a powerful exploration of the complex terrain of female friendship. “The conflict is rich and thorny, raising questions about art and morality, love and betrayal, sacrifice and opportunism, and the chance moments that can define a life…It wrestles with the nature of art, but moves with the speed of a page-turner” (Los Angeles Times).

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Yolk
by Mary H. K. Choi

Sisters Jayne and June were as close as sisters could be when they moved from Seoul to San Antonio to New York together. But over the years they’ve grown further apart: June lives in a lonely apartment with a soul-crushing job in finance while Jayne can’t graduate, get a job, or pick the right man. When June is diagnosed with cancer, Jayne is the only person who can help her, and to do so Jayne must acknowledge that she might need some help too.

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Yolk
Mary H. K. Choi

From New York Times bestselling author Mary H.K. Choi comes a funny and emotional story about two estranged sisters and how far they’ll go to save one of their lives—even if it means swapping identities.

Jayne and June Baek are nothing alike. June’s three years older, a classic first-born, know-it-all narc with a problematic finance job and an equally soulless apartment (according to Jayne). Jayne is an emotionally stunted, self-obsessed basket case who lives in squalor, has egregious taste in men, and needs to get to class and stop wasting Mom and Dad’s money (if you ask June). Once thick as thieves, these sisters who moved from Seoul to San Antonio to New York together now don’t want anything to do with each other.

That is, until June gets cancer. And Jayne becomes the only one who can help her.

Flung together by circumstance, housing woes, and family secrets, will the sisters learn more about each other than they’re willing to confront? And what if while helping June, Jayne has to confront the fact that maybe she’s sick, too?

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My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry
by Fredrik Backman

From the author of A MAN CALLED OVE, MY GRANDMOTHER ASKED ME TO TELL YOU SHE’S SORRY is a humorous and poignant tale of friendship and grief. Seven-year-old Elsa knows that she and her seventy-seven-year-old grandmother are “different.” But Elsa also knows that her grandmother’s magnificent fairy tales are part of who she is. After her grandmother’s death, Elsa finds letters her grandmother wrote, apologizing to everyone she’d wronged. With these in hand, Elsa embarks on a journey to deliver the letters, a journey that leads her to the edges of her grandmother’s fairy tales and back.

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My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry
Fredrik Backman

A charming, warmhearted novel from the author of the New York Times bestseller A Man Called Ove.

Elsa is seven years old and different. Her grandmother is seventy-seven years old and crazy—as in standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-strangers crazy. She is also Elsa’s best, and only, friend. At night Elsa takes refuge in her grandmother’s stories, in the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas, where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal.

When Elsa’s grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters apologizing to people she has wronged, Elsa’s greatest adventure begins. Her grandmother’s instructions lead her to an apartment building full of drunks, monsters, attack dogs, and old crones but also to the truth about fairy tales and kingdoms and a grandmother like no other.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is told with the same comic accuracy and beating heart as Fredrik Backman’s bestselling debut novel, A Man Called Ove. It is a story about life and death and one of the most important human rights: the right to be different.

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Millard Salter's Last Day
by Jacob M. Appel

In this heartwarming story, Millard, who is terrified of being an old and lonely burden, has decided to end his own life before it’s too late. On his last day, he sets to wrapping up loose ends: having a final talk with his chronically unemployed son, confronting his estranged first wife, visiting his second wife’s grave, and saying goodbye to Delilah, the widow he has unexpectedly fallen in love with. But Millard’s plans go awry as his family proves to have more in store for him than he anticipated.

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Millard Salter's Last Day
Jacob M. Appel

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Bear Necessity
by James Gould-Bourn

BEAR NECESSITY is a lovely and inspiring story of overcoming grief in which a father and son find an unusual way to reconnect. Things haven’t been easy since Danny’s wife’s unexpected death. Danny is struggling to help his eleven-year-old son, Will, recover from the tragedy, and he’s lost his construction job. Desperate to pay rent, Danny buys a ragged panda costume and becomes a street performer in the park, where he begins chasing bullies away from Will. Even though Will hasn’t spoken to Danny in the year since his mother’s death, he does start to confide in his new, unlikely friend.

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Bear Necessity
James Gould-Bourn

A “refreshing,” (Kirkus Reviews) unpretentious, and uplifting story about a father and son reconnecting and finding happiness in the most unlikely circumstances—for fans of Nick Hornby and The Rosie Project.

Danny’s life is falling apart. His eleven-year-old son, Will, hasn’t spoken since the death of his mother in a car crash a year earlier, and Danny has just been fired from his construction job. He’s behind on the rent and his nasty landlord is threatening to break his legs if he doesn’t pay soon. Danny needs money, and fast.

After observing street performers in a local park, Danny spends his last few dollars on a tattered panda costume, impulsively deciding to become a dancing bear. While performing one day, Danny spots his son being taunted by a group of older boys. Danny chases them off, and Will opens up for the first time since his mom died, unaware that the man in the panda costume is his father. Afraid of disclosing his true identity, Danny comforts his son. But will Danny lose Will’s trust once he reveals who he is? And will he be able to dance his way out of despair?

Filled with a delightful cast of characters, Bear Necessity is “a moving, sensitive story that is also very funny, and a perfect literary antidote to anxious, troubled times” (Shelf Awareness).

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Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead
by Emily Austin

Gilda is a twentysomething lesbian and atheist whose rabid anxiety has her obsessed with death. Desperate for some relief, she responds to an ad for free therapy at a Catholic church, but when the priest in charge thinks she’s there for an interview, Gilda can’t bear to correct him. Soon, Gilda has replaced the church’s recently deceased receptionist, Grace, and strikes up an email correspondence with Grace’s old friend. Unable to break the news of Grace’s death, Gilda continues impersonating Grace until mysterious circumstances surrounding Grace’s death forces her to come clean in this hysterical debut.

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Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead
Emily Austin

This hilarious and profound debut for fans of Mostly Dead Things and Goodbye, Vitamin, follows a morbidly anxious young woman—“the kindhearted heroine we all need right now” (Courtney Maum, New York Times bestselling author)—who stumbles into a job as a receptionist at a Catholic church and becomes obsessed with her predecessor’s mysterious death.

Gilda, a twenty-something, atheist, animal-loving lesbian, cannot stop ruminating about death. Desperate for relief from her panicky mind and alienated from her repressive family, she responds to a flyer for free therapy at a local Catholic church, and finds herself being greeted by Father Jeff, who assumes she’s there for a job interview. Too embarrassed to correct him, Gilda is abruptly hired to replace the recently deceased receptionist Grace.

In between trying to memorize the lines to Catholic mass, hiding the fact that she has a new girlfriend, and erecting a dirty dish tower in her crumbling apartment, Gilda strikes up an email correspondence with Grace’s old friend. She can’t bear to ignore the kindly old woman, who has been trying to reach her friend through the church inbox, but she also can’t bring herself to break the bad news. Desperate, she begins impersonating Grace via email. But when the police discover suspicious circumstances surrounding Grace’s death, Gilda may have to finally reveal the truth of her mortifying existence.

A delightful blend of warmth, deadpan humor, and pitch-perfect observations about the human condition, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is a crackling exploration of what it takes to stay afloat in a world where your expiration—and the expiration of those you love—is the only certainty.

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Photo credit: iStock / Nutthaseth Vanchaichana

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