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A Review of “The Dead Wife’s Handbook”: Moving through grief with the aid of fiction


The book The Dead Wife’s Handbook by Hannah Beckerman is sitting on a vanity with perfume bottles and a plant in the background.

I bought this book in the first few months after arriving in Switzerland at the giant English bookshop, that used to be located on the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich. I was so intrigued by the idea of a dead person narrating a book. The dead couldn’t talk. I tried to read the first chapter of the book several times and each time I would cry, at times, almost uncontrollably. At the time, I had just recently lost my father and the longing and pain that Hannah Beckerman’s novel brought up was too much for me to handle.

Flash-forward to 2020, where I am no master of my grief, however, I will say that my grief and I have become more acquainted. We are like reluctant housemates that fight over the T.V. remote arguing over if we watch re-runs of my father’s death or the cooking channel.

I write this review with the recent pain of losing another dear human to cancer. My heart breaks for a life lost, and I cannot help but think of her family and the pain they are going through. I know the pain they are experiencing because it lives in my head without paying rent and breaks my heart all over again.

When Rachel dies suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition, her family’s life is turned upside-down. Although this is the usual grief narrative you read. Beckerman’s novel is narrated by Rachel, the dead wife, and she grieves alongside her unknowing family.

Rachel watches from afar as her family and friends struggle to put themselves back together. The layers and different types of grief create a patchwork of guilt, sorrow, anger, heartbreak, and acceptance. Rachel is never able to reach out to her family, it isn’t a Casper the friendly ghost situation in this novel. Rather, the reader watches two sides unable to speak to each other, struggle with what it means to love, to have lost, and to have let go.

The concept of the stages of grief as most people know today was not actually designed for the living. Instead, they were written for patients with terminal illnesses who were struggling to let go of their earthly body and world. The stages of grief were never actually meant for the living because a dead person will eventually stop grieving (or at least we assume so) when they die. Yet, grief for those left behind is a manifestation of love for the person that is gone. A love, that can never go away, which means neither can the grief.

Beckerman uses the stages of grief in its intended way, through Rachel – the already deceased. Rachel struggles with seeing her husband become a single parent, her mother become childless, and her daughter become motherless. She struggles with anger, jealousy, and rage as Max, her widowed husband, moves on with another woman, Eve.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve or mourn the loss of life and the things that will never be. Grief will come out as anger, lethargy, sleeplessness, fear, anxiety, hopelessness, nostalgia, pain, jealousy, love, and melancholia… Not to mention everything in between.

The Dead Wife’s Handbook is not easy to read. I found myself tearing up and I often needed time away from the book because of how moving it was. Yet I am glad that I was able to sit with my grief and in those moments understand and explore grief through fiction.

If you have grief in your heart, I ask you to be kind to yourself. Lord knows I could take my own advice on that more often.

Hannah Beckerman has outdone herself with this book. What fiction have you read that helped you with your grief? As always, share the reading love.

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