I believe that reading sad books nurtures compassion and teaches us how to grieve.
My grandmother died when I was nine. She was a cinnamon-toast, hot-chocolate, old-movies-at-midnight kind of grandmother. Losing her cast my family into a deep well of sadness, and we grieved silently and alone, each to ourselves. But grief was familiar to me, because I had read sad books. They were the instruments and charts that helped me navigate that wide, dark sea.
By the time my grandmother died, I had already lost Charlotte, the wise spider who saves her friend Wilbur from becoming bacon. I cried at the suffering of Black Beauty, and I worried that Lassie would never find her way home. When my grandmother died, sadness and grief were familiar to me. I was not frightened by their sudden reality, because I had known sorrow before. Sure, this was my grandmother, not a spider or a horse or a dog; still, I knew about the finality of death and had wept the suffocating tears that only loss can inspire. I knew that I could walk into that dark valley and emerge whole into the light that waited for me.
My son recently read “Old Yeller.” When I warned him that it was a REALLY SAD book, he rolled his eyes in the universal gesture of put-upon middle-school boys and said, “Yeah, I know, Mom. The dog dies.” But late one night, he called me to the bottom of the stairs. He was sitting on the top step, shoulders heaving, the open book at his feet. “Oh, Mom,” he wept, “he just shot the dog.” Gathering him into my arms, my own eyes filled. His heart had broken over the brave yellow dog, and I could not comfort hin. I prayed for something profound to say that would mark the moment, but in the end, I just sat beside his bed and read the last chapter out loud. He couldn’t see the words through his tears.
When we finished, I told my son that I was terribly proud of him, proud that he had loved Old Yeller and proud that he had cried. I told him that I could see the man, the father, he would become, and that he would remember this night and tuck it away for a time when his own little boy read such a story.
In my heart, I knew that he had begun to do what I had done as a child — trying on grief and taking its measure. If we read sad books, we have the chance to rehearse for the reality of sorrow when it comes. If we are lucky, those first losses will never mean an empty place at the dinner table, Christmas presents never opened, a vigil at the bedside. Sad books bless us by making us cry; in their pages we find power and the grace to accept our own mortality.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.