Shop Thoughts: On Loss


I read somewhere recently that grief actually lasts forever, that we, as stolid Americans, try to compact it into a period of time and then get over it, but really it goes on and on.  I wish I could remember where I read that.  It might have been in The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, which won the National Book Award in 2018, but which I just got around to reading.  

It’s about a woman who mourns the loss of a dear friend and who ends up adopting the dog he left behind.  I love the way the character makes connections, taking a tour through literature and the things people have written before her, remembering and connecting the thoughts.

Or maybe I read it in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which I also read not too long ago, shortly after Didion passed away.  In writing about her grief after her husband of 40 years dies, she pays incredible homage to their marriage and a life well lived.  She also navigates the physical form of grief, how our bodies respond, what happens in our brains.  

Grief is a progression, but as she only tackles a year, I’m left to wonder at the length of the progression.

Or maybe I read it in How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu, which is a stunning novel in stories, set in the future, about a pandemic—I know, who wants to read about a pandemic?  I didn’t think I did either, but Nagamatsu injects fantastical elements into his stories that forced me to stretch my imagination and understanding of what all this loss means.  Because the book is, of course, full of loss, and full of characters constantly trying to answer the question: how do we go on from here?

Or could it have been Left on Tenth, Delia Ephron’s forthcoming memoir about losing her husband of 54 years, grieving, finding love, and then surviving cancer?  She shows us that it is possible to continue grieving even while finding real happiness.  And she does so with humor and heart.  The surprise of new love at the age of 72 is part of the joy of it.

Don’t worry, I’m okay!  I didn’t seek narratives of loss out on purpose, necessarily.  (Though I will be moderating a panel on loss in literature at this year’s Newburyport Literary Festival—mark your calendars for April 30-May 1!—so I suppose I do have it on my mind.)  My reading tends to meander and lately it seems to have meandered in this direction.  Though, I probably wouldn’t have to try too hard to see that almost every book I read is in some way about how we grieve, even if the grieving is for the loss of a former self.  Or even, I suppose, a future self. Didn’t I learn in college that every novel is about death?  Again, I can’t remember.  But it makes sense.  Death being the only sure thing in life.  The thing all writers seem to be obsessed with, whether it’s their own or someone else’s.  For writers and readers, books are how we process the world and there are a million ways to do it.

Up next: The Unwritten Book by Samantha Hunt, which is about…ghosts.  The things that haunt us, which can be people, but also books.  Which reminds me, I really wish I could remember where I read that thing about grief being forever.

Hannah Harlow is owner of The Book Shop, an independent bookstore in Beverly Farms.  Harlow writes biweekly recommendations for us.  See more of what she recommends reading at

the friend by sigrid nunez, national book award, joan didion’s the year of magical thinking, how high we go in the dark by sequoia nagamatsu, left on tenth by delia ephron, the unwritten book by samantha hunt,