The shadow of a young boy reading beside a tree appears in front of a cloudy yellow sunset
Credit: Aaron Burden

Therapeutic reading: reading, grieving, and healing

By Monica Brotherton

Monica Brotherton describes how reading novels throughout her life has helped her come to terms with silenced grief.

My dad died when I was six years old. Even saying that sentence is still a little bit difficult, and I don’t think it will ever roll off the tongue. There’s an awful lot of uncomfortable emotions to unpack there. During my childhood, these emotions felt incomprehensible and were rarely soothed by adults. The rest of my family were, and remain, characterised by stiff upper lips. His death was a forbidden subject, and the toil of our grief was not to be shared. However, as I grew older, my grief was involuntarily hushed by the characters and stories I read. An avoider by blood, I never deliberately read bereavement aids. Instead, I received unsuspected kicks to the teeth by seemingly innocuous novels.

One jolting kick came when I was 11. By this time, I loved reading and as my own vocabulary grew, so would my capacity to confront my grief. The school library had an excess of Sarah Dessen’s novels, and I unwittingly read them all until The Truth About Forever struck. The novel’s protagonist Macy is reeling with the sudden loss of her father and coming to terms with his death. It wasn’t necessarily the obvious similarities between Macy’s loss and my own that hit a nerve. Rather Dessen’s descriptions of subtle elements of grief that often felt unspeakable; having to tell people who don’t know about your dad’s death; knowing that you are eventually going to have to make this big announcement that will alter their perception of you. When I was younger, particularly after entering high school, his death felt like an abnormal secret that would eventually have to be revealed to new people. By reading and relating to this character, I felt suddenly less alone. I was able to articulate my difficult emotions through Macy’s similar personal ordeal.

As a teenager, I still didn’t mindfully seek bereavement books and yet stories have a way of sneaking up on you. Camilla Monk’s Spotless is a comedic novel about a hitman suffering from OCD. A seemingly trivial book, Spotless moved me to tears when the protagonist Island’s image of her dead mother was destroyed. Sure, her mother turned out to be a hitwoman who’d stolen a priceless diamond, and my father’s life was never that dramatic, but losing a parent so young forces you to often feel as though you are missing the imagined idea of a person rather than the real them. Island’s realisation that she would never fully grasp her mother’s character was too painfully close to my own agonies. Spotless appeared a silly romcom and yet it addressed the difficult loss of a parent first in body and later in soul as your image of them is distorted. I guess the saying “never judge a book by its cover” really holds up.

Even now, despite all the time that has passed, I am still coming to terms and coping with his death. And even now books are still surprising me by ripping open my seemingly healed wounds. Over the summer, encouraged by its awards and its 99p price tag, I read Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen. Majella’s father left when she was a young girl and is presumed dead. Gallen’s illustrations of a long-dead parent were still painful for me to read. Majella expresses her reverential wonder at her father’s items that have been promoted to relics since his departure. My dad’s ties still lie in my mum’s wardrobe, and they probably always will. Majella’s hardened yet still very much present pain related to an older yet still healing me.

There was never an epiphany of complete resolution or single book that cured all parts of my grief. It was the fragmented pages of different stories that helped to ease elements of loss at different ages. Reading was unexpected therapy to comprehend the unthinkable. My grief will never entirely dissolve but novels were vital to rewriting my conception of my feelings. They provided an understanding figure, a revelation that many children had also lost parents, and unveiled the isolating aftermaths of death. I can’t guarantee that these stories will be therapeutic to you, even if you have experienced a similar loss. Novels strike different chords with different people; they might not even be read the same by me as I am now. But stories, however unsophisticated or childish they may appear, almost always contain some broken slivers of reality that will ease real trauma. Through reading, I am forever comprehending my grief.


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