8 Funny Books About Grieving
Joanna Cantor, author of ‘Alternative Remedies for Loss,’ on finding grief and humor in fiction
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Grief isn’t funny. Or is it? Big, difficult life events like the death of someone we love make us realize how much we can’t control. But finding the darkly funny moments in the midst of tragedy seems to help us weather tough times.
In my experience, the state of heightened sensitivity that comes with loss can actually make us more aware of what’s funny and absurd about life. And that’s a good thing: by not losing our ability to laugh, we’re retaining a defining element of our humanity.
I thought a lot about the interplay between grief and humor while writing my debut novel, Alternative Remedies for Loss. Alternative Remedies is the story of a family coping (and sometimes not coping) after the matriarch dies. In literature, as in life, many of us crave the catharsis of laughter when the going gets heavy, and it felt true to me that the story of a mourning family could contain many comic moments. If you agree that grieving and humor go together like salty and sweet, check out these eight gems.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
It might be more accurate to say that Jami Attenberg’s most recent novel, constructed as a series of vignettes, is about avoiding grief. While Andrea Bern’s young niece is dying of a heart condition in New Hampshire, Andrea stays in New York City, postponing visits to her family. I bit my nails wondering if Andrea was going to pull it together for her family before it was too late, but her painfully honest observations about life as a single woman approaching 40 had me laughing from the opening pages.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
This graphic memoir, which was adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical, explores light dinner-table topics like death, sexual identity, and family secrets. But Bechdel and her siblings have a matter-of-fact relationship with death because they grew up helping out at the family-owned mortuary, and the freshness of the form beautifully complements the emotional complexity of the story.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Secret lovers of curmudgeons (like me!) will fall for the grumpy Ove, who has given up on life after his wife dies. When an unexpected friendship forms between him and his new neighbors, this darkly comedic Swedish novel, a runaway international bestseller, takes a turn for the heartwarming. The Swedish film adaptation is being remade in English, starring Tom Hanks, so if you want to say you read the book first, now’s your chance.
The Antiques by Kris D’Agostino
As a massive hurricane hits their family hometown of Hudson, New York, the Westfalls gather to plan their father’s memorial service. I love nothing more than a good, tangled family drama, and D’Agostino’s unsparing take on estranged siblings Charlie, Josef, and Armie makes this one both sharp and very funny.
Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett
I tend to be wary of child narrators, but ten-year-old Elvis Babbitt was the perfect blend of fresh and astute in Hartnett’s charming debut. After her mother drowns while sleepwalking, Elvis must contend with not only with her own grief and the mystery surrounding her mother’s death but also the dangerous sleepwalking habits of her older sister Lizzie, and her father, who is wearing her mother’s bathrobe and lipstick around the house to console himself.
Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
Okay, so it’s more a book about marriage than about grieving, but Heiny’s first novel is laugh-out-loud funny, and does contain an unexpected death, which Graham and his wife Audra, must process. This is a tale of two marriages, of the challenges of parenthood, and of knowing when to let go.
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
This slim delight of a novel is told in diary form over the course of a year when 30-year-old Ruth moves home after a breakup to help care for her father, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Ruth’s observations are astute and quietly hilarious, and Khong treads over heartbreak, betrayal, and loss with the lightest touch.
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
A writer grieving the suicide of her close friend and literary mentor inherits his 180-pound Great Dane, who is also in mourning. I found this brief, rich tale incredibly moving, but it’s also sprinkled with darkly comic observations about writing workshops and pet ownership.