7 Books About Daughters Grieving Their Fathers
Stories that celebrate and mourn the inextricable bond between fathers and daughters
I can go back to the morning I learned my father was dead moment by moment, exactly as it occurred, like I’m there again. I’m twelve-years-old. I’m supposed to be at school. I creep up the stairs, and I see my sisters and mother sitting on the couch. They stop whispering the moment they see me, so I self-consciously remove the headgear from my teeth. My mother beckons me over to her, which feels strange and out-of-character, but I oblige and sit on the edge of the couch as she kneels in front of me. “Something happened to Dad,” she says, and I know I’ve lost everything.
I spent my youth as my father’s number one fan, diving into sports, watching terrible Adam Sandler movies, crying onto math homework late into the evening because I didn’t want to finish it without his help. Even now, I find myself navigating each day resentful of losing that presence all daughters are supposed to have.
These seven books portray the fragile and complex relationships between fathers and daughters, and the shock as that bond is forever severed.
Negative Space by Lilly Dancyger
Almost a decade after the sudden death of her sculptor father, Dancyger revisits his notebooks, piecing together his life and art as she recontextualizes her grief. Hearing stories from old artist friends of his, she learns about a lost love and the beginnings of his heroin addiction, and finds parallels with her tumultuous youth in New York. Dancyger wonders how to reimagine her relationship with her father without him physically there—knowing her adult-self is an entirely new individual he could never meet. Losing a parent at the cusp of teenagerdom means configuring an identity without feeling wholly human. It’s an impossible feat that leaves you feeling guilty and angry. Nevertheless, Dancyger writes, “I started to think of everything he made as a call, waiting for a response. […] I had a moment of crystal clarity that with all of this searching, I was trying to respond.”
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
Following her father’s suicide, Jessa-Lynn Morton inherits his failing taxidermy business and ever-growing debt. She has a rude awakening when she spots the stuffed animals in the shop’s window posed in kinky positions at the hands of her mother, whose overwhelming grief is finally coming to a head. Jessa does everything to push her feelings aside, refusing to vocalize her pain, instead self-medicating with alcohol while desperately hiding her feelings for her brother Milo’s ex-wife. But this emotional suppression only lasts so long once her mother gets the opportunity to display her erotic taxidermy art publicly. This is a messy, whirlwind of a novel that shows the harshest, ugliest sides of grief, and the sheer power of vulnerability. Mostly Dead Things shows us that no one truly grieves alone, that isolating ourselves in our pain keeps us from holding onto the people who understand our hurt the most.
Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, mere days after talking with him via Zoom, Adichie learns that her father has died from complications of kidney failure. The news is paralyzing, and because the Nigerian airports are closed, she is unable to reunite with her family in Abba. As she recounts her father’s life—his courting of her mother, his accomplishments as a renowned professor at the University of Nigeria, the impact of the Biafran war, the pride he held for her—she reveals how much he was adored by the community, his family, and daughter. But how do you put the shock of all-consuming grief into words? Adichie writes, “Grief is a cruel kind of education. […] You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language.” Her incredibly visceral writing makes the agony, pain, anger, guilt, and confusion so palpably real, like you’re experiencing the hurt with her, directly by her side. Reading Notes on Grief I thought, this is that exact feeling. This is that pain right on the page.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
A departure from the other books in this list is “family tragicomic” Fun Home by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In this graphic memoir, Bechdel recalls her adolescence in a pristine Victorian house renovated by her father, a volatile man she struggled to connect with. When she comes out to her parents as a lesbian in the form of a letter, she learns that her father had affairs with men. This stuns Bechdel, and things become more complicated when her father dies weeks later after being hit by a truck, which she determines to be suicide and the “effect” of her coming out. In Fun Home, she desires to be truly seen by her father, a man who cannot truly live authentically himself, and seeks out this connection again through the page as she reflects on her childhood and his death. This heart-wrenching, beautifully illustrated book is considered a classic in the sapphic community for good reason.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
A novel entirely in verse, Clap When You Land merges the stories of two long-lost sisters, Camino and Yahaira Rios, whose worlds shatter when their father dies in a plane crash. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic with her Tía, a curandera, and dreams of going to Columbia University to become a doctor. With her father gone and reality crushing her like a stone, her aspirations feel impossibly out of reach. In New York, Yahaira is a champion chess player, who abruptly stops competing when she discovers a marriage certificate in her father’s office and learns he had another wife. After the crash, Yahaira shoulders her grief alone as her mother crumbles, not knowing how much longer she can hold onto her father’s secret. After an impulsive Facebook friend request, Camino and Yahaira discover each other for the first time. The novel’s preciseness in verbage and space allows the girls’ overwhelming emotions to be explored to the fullest extent, with all the weight required, even as they feel isolated within their own worlds.
A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung
A few weeks after sending her parents a manuscript of her debut memoir All You Can Ever Know, Chung’s father dies from complications with diabetes and kidney disease. At a book festival over nine months later, she receives a call: her mother has ovarian cancer. As her mother’s condition worsens, Chung grapples with facing her mother’s death without her father by her side. Growing up in Southern Oregon as a Korean-American adoptee to white parents, Chung describes the isolation of being the only Asian child in a classroom and the desire to seek out belonging elsewhere. But being miles away from her parents fosters guilt, especially after her father passes and her mother receives her diagnosis. A heart-wrenching exploration of “grieving under capitalism,” this memoir portrays the agony of losing someone as a result of the nation’s costly and inadequate healthcare system.
H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
After the death of her photojournalist father, MacDonald makes a shift in her life and decides to train a young goshawk, a wildly misunderstood species of bird that faced near extinction hundreds of years ago. As she revisits T.H. White’s misguided 1951 book The Goshawk, MacDonald sees her own experience mirroring the author’s: the fear of making a vital mistake and risk the hawk loathing you, the projection of the child-self as the headstrong hawk and the adult-self as its empathetic and patient teacher. In this gripping, unflinching love letter to birds and falconry, MacDonald writes, “Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solidarity, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk.”