22/07/2017 6:55 AM AEST | Updated 22/07/2017 6:55 AM AEST

The Five Books I Needed To Read When My Mum Died Of Cancer

When grieving, we need rawness, realness, and quick thinking from our best writers.


My mum died of cancer when I was 19. It remains the worst day of my life so far, and it will take a stupidly-shitty thing to top it. At first it weighed on me physically, how bent the world seemed without her in it. I wanted to vomit all the time, but it was a spiritual and emotional sickness, and couldn't be easily expelled from my body.

As the years passed, the world grew into a new shape. No less confusing or sad, and no less fractured, yet full of a whole set of new blessings I could recognise. I found new people to call my family, to love and protect daily, with a new appreciation, and admittedly fear of, how short a life can be.

I often think about how I got through, and am still endeavouring to get through, the most part of a decade without her. There is no real cure, I realise. Time certainly helps, although with time passing also comes the fading of my memories of her, which sucks, and creates its own pain.

Little moments of synchronicity are powerful potions, too. When people come into my life who echo my mum's wisdom, or turns of phrase, or when life takes me in a direction I feel for certain must be orchestrated by her.

But mostly, I've taken solace in books (particularly memoirs), written by people reflecting on their own loss. These pages full of truthful reflections on the worst part of human experience -- losing the ones we love most -- reach a hand out to those caught in a similar, aching state. They deliver a powerful yet simple message. You're not alone, even if you feel that you are.

Grief, although isolating, is deeply universal. We all unfortunately must walk down its road at some stage. These books offer a roadmap of how other human beings did it, and still actively do it.

My top five books for the grieving are:

'The Rules of Inheritance' by Claire Bidwell Smith.

Claire, an only child, was 14 when both her parents were diagnosed with cancer. Her mum died when she was 18, her dad when she was 25. Heartbreakingly, she writes that she was suddenly 'no one's special person'. This memoir is an honest and well-crafted examination of grief, as well as a coming of age tale.

Claire falls down and gets back up many times over many years, before finally finding some semblance of healing. Claire is now a trained grief counsellor, having experienced mourning in full force during her life. The memoir is being made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence, so get in quick before the movie.

'The Spare Room' by Helen Garner.

Garner, the Australian matriarch of writing about difficult subjects, explores grief before death in her short but powerful novel. Helen looks after her friend Nicola who is very sick, but in denial about her condition. What follows are three arduous weeks caring for a woman who is dying and yet insists on seeing alternative therapists who promise they will heal her.

This is an important novel -- I say novel but in true Garner style it is a memoir for all intents and purposes -- for a couple of reasons. It exposes the fear and denial of death that anyone unlucky enough to have an untreatable form of cancer experiences -- it's an icky, uncomfortable subject that we culturally sweep under the rug. It also gives permission to those caring for them to feel all shades of emotion, including red hot anger.

'The Opposite Of Loneliness' by Marina Keegan.

This collection of personal essays was published posthumously, after promising-young writer Marina Keegan died in a car accident. No, it's not a book about grief at all, quite the opposite; it's about life and youth from the perspective of a bright-eyed, intelligent writer.

But, the 22-year-old's death frames the book. It wouldn't have been published had she not died. Her parents and college professor brought it out to the world to share an early sample of the writer Marina may have become.

As readers we share in her family's loss and are awoken to the message its author may not have intended to promote: That life is short and we never know when it will be snatched from us. Enjoy it with passion and purpose while you can.

'Swimming In A Sea Of Death' by David Rieff.

This short memoir didn't go down very well with critics, but that doesn't stop me putting in a recommendations list. In fact, it further propels me to do so.

David Rieff, journalist and only child of the prolific writer Susan Sontag, writes about his mother's cancer experience with rawness. This is the reason the critics didn't like it: It was not well formed, didn't discuss Sontag's life and fame enough, and it was written quickly, perhaps hastily. But we need these kinds of stories. When mothers get cancer, we need rawness, realness, and quick thinking from our best writers.

A bit like Garner in 'The Spare Room'living with her desperate-to-survive friend, David is confused about the ethics of his position as his mother's sounding board. Sontag doesn't want to die, to the very end of her life she rejects the notion. Does he tell her what she wants so desperately to hear? Or does he reveal his concern that she may not beat this, as her medical results show?

'The End Of Your Life Book Club' by Will Schwalbe.

Will Schwalbe, a New-York-based editor and publisher, takes to the page himself in his moving memoir about his mother's illness and the power of books to communicate messages we may have trouble speaking about out loud.

In 2007, Mary Schwalbe was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. She and son Will would often discuss what books they were reading to pass the time in waiting rooms and during long chemo sessions. During one conversation, they discovered they were reading the same book. This spurred the idea to start a mother and son book club, as the memoir's title suggests.

Ultimately, this is a story of a son's love and admiration for his amazing mother. It's also a reminder of how certain books can help us articulate what may be too difficult to put into words.


Why Do We Remember Some Books And Forget Others?

There are many reasons why reading can be therapeutic. Known as bibliotherapy, taking to books to seek wisdom and clarity when going through any form of existential crisis is a healing technique recommended by many counsellors and psychologists (and no doubt librarians).

The trick, in my experience, is to select the book/s carefully. There is some debate over what genre works best for therapy. Some argue didactic works, like self-help books, are the most helpful. Others believe it is in the whimsy of fiction that one can seek refuge from reality. It really comes down to personal preference, but my pick is the genre in-between: Memoir.

First-person accounts of complex experiences such as grief offer a raw and truthful depiction of a lived experience that may not be spoken about as eloquently, or as often, outside of the pages of a book. If nothing else, a memoir is proof that someone else has gone through something of what the reader is or has, and has triumphed over their pain enough to communicate the nuances of the experience.

Of course, there's no way to read away life's dark patches, but a good book can be articulate company for the oft-lonesome journey.