Reading Through Grief

Readers read for different reasons – for fun, for work, for school, for their kids, or to learn something new – but for many, reading is an escape.  There is a myriad of reasons for needing an escape from our everyday lives, and recently my own personal reason for reading was as an escape from grief.

When my dad died, I don’t think I experienced all the traditional five stages of grief.  I wasn’t angry, I didn’t bargain, I didn’t suffer from depression – he was 82 years old, had been battling leukemia for over a year, and my family was truly lucky that he felt good for most of that last year until the very end.  Of course, after his death, the feeling I did have was intense sadness that I would never see my dad again, never talk with him, or – most difficult to bear – never again hear his voice.  At first, I coped with that sadness by reading stories about characters dealing with situations that were a complete departure from my everyday life of missing my dad.  I wanted to fall into a fictional world where the characters’ problems were so different from my own that I wouldn’t feel the heavy weight of loss for a little while.  In the beginning, I especially read YA fantasy, because that was such a departure from reality for me that I could stop thinking about real-life things on Earth for a bit.  It helped me to occupy my mind with something other than the absence of my dad.  I stayed away from realistic fiction because that genre is full of dying characters, or characters dealing with the death of another character, and I just couldn’t handle it.  I couldn’t add fictional grief to my own. Not just then.

I found that during the time right after my dad’s death, I started buying some books as well.  I’ve always bought books, but in the past have tempered my purchasing with checking out books from the public library, or the middle school where I teach.  My dad’s death awakened a need in me to not only read stories as an escape, but to surround myself with them as well.  I bought middle grade fantasy books “for my kids,” and eventually moved into the dreaded realm of realistic fiction.  I had once avoided it because of the Dying Characters Thing, but after the first few months following my dad’s death, I found I looked forward to reading about characters who had also lost someone.  This time, it helped me to know that I could find someone who understood how I felt, even if that someone was fictional. It made me feel less alone.  Although I have plenty of friends who would understand if I wanted to talk about my grief, and my family would be there for me if I needed to discuss missing my dad, I’m not really the kind of person who has outward displays of emotions that might make me cry in front of people.  My fictional friends provided the comfort I needed without making a big deal out of my sadness or wanting to make it go away, and they enveloped me in comfort by wrapping around me on the shelves in my home.

Later that year, I continued my book buying therapy by purchasing nonfiction titles about history – both local and national.  My dad was a retired high school history teacher, and he loved talking about history and politics. Local history of the area where I currently live, but did not grow up in, was a point of interest for my dad as well, since my paternal 3x great-grandfather is buried in a church cemetery only a few miles away. When my dad was alive, history books written by local authors about the area where I live were something we enjoyed reading and discussing together, especially how the history related to our shared ancestor. Months after he was gone, every time I found a title that both he and I would find interesting, I bought it and read it, imagining the questions I would ask him and what he would have to say about the issues and facts addressed in each book.  To my surprise, I found that I could hear his voice again, which is what I missed the most. My loss of him was eased as I heard his voice in my head and in my heart, in imagined conversations about the topics in history we were both interested in and passionate about.

Reading books after my dad’s death helped me escape, helped me work through my sadness, and eventually helped me realize that my dad is still here.  My dad will always be here, a part of him living on in me.  When I find myself missing him, I can hear his voice again by simply opening the cover of a book.


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