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“Excuse Me, Is There a Loss Section?” Readers’ Advisory to the Grieving and Bereaved

by Nicolette Warisse Sosulski on December 8, 2017

NICOLETTE WARISSE SOSULSKI is the Business and Reference Librarian at Portage (MI) District Library and a staff chat reference librarian for QuestionPoint 24/7 Reference Services. Contact Nicolette at librista@gmail.com. Nicolette is currently reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

They come up to the desk and, for the most part, they do not look particularly sad. Most of them look tired–very tired. I look over or approach and ask if I can help them, and as they edge closer to the desk, sometimes dropping their voices at the same time, they ask:

“Do you have books for when somebody has died?”
“Do you have books for people who have lost somebody?”
“Where are your loss books?”
“Do you have a grief book section?”
This has happened often enough that I have developed a sort of protocol for what to ask and how to assist bereaved patrons.

Initial Steps

“I am very sorry for your loss.” This is the only first step to take. I look them in the eye and, with all the sincerity I can convey, show sympathy for their loss. Because, of course, I am sorry. Loss is a terrible, ubiquitous thing that comes to everybody at some time or other. We who have experienced it may hurt again in solidarity. Next, I make sure a colleague covers the desk before leading the patron to the 100s and 200s—the colleague can deal with whatever else comes up. My personal rule is not to juggle these patrons. They are sharing something very personal with a stranger, and they do not need to get interrupted by print jobs.

“I want to get you what is best for you. Was this sudden?” This question never comes off as nosy because I have expressed sympathy and am taking them to a more private space. It’s an important question. Approximately one-third of the bereaved patrons I have advised have been survivors of a child or sibling who committed suicide or was a victim of an overdose. Books dealing with these kinds of deaths (located in the 362s) address feelings of anger toward the deceased, or guilt at not being able to prevent the death, that these bereaved often experience. Survivors of someone who died of a lingering illness, or something less violent or unexpected, usually tend to experience a different range of emotions catered to by the main section of grief books that are found in the 170s. Asking if something was sudden gives the bereaved person an opening to disclose what they need to without my having to pry. It floods out, sometimes with painful details. At that point, I am very glad for the tissues I will have surreptitiously tucked inside my sleeve. They apologize for breaking down, and I say that this is understandable and they need not apologize. I ask them if they need a minute before continuing.

“Are you [or the person that the book is for] active in a church? If you do not mind saying, what group or denomination?” I do not make religious assumptions, but some books are written from a specific perspective, which can be helpful if the reader matches up with that belief system. This will vary within your patron base’s demographic. For most of my patrons, who are some flavor of Christian, I can mix Kubler-Ross or a psychology-based self-help book with something more faith-based. Although asking this question ensures I won’t have given an atheist something that calls on their trust in God to get them through their grief, keep in mind that a reader’s and book’s faiths do not have to match exactly. One lady asked for Christian book recommendations for people scared God has abandoned them. I handed her When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Though it is not Christian, it is written by a religious leader and based in Job, in both Christian and Jewish scriptures. She took the book, saying she trusted me—as it turns out, she became a bit of a Rabbi Kushner fan and, over time, checked out every single one of his books.

“This book helped me when I lost my daughter.” Some would say that we should not inject personal experiences with a book into the conversation, that this is making it about us and not the patrons. They have a point in that what helped me may not help them; however, in times of great misfortune, many people feel tense and isolated. They may even view people—who are not mortally ill, who have not lost a child, who have not been divorced—almost as enemies. Everybody who looks happy or rested looks like an adversary. But with that one sentence of personal loss, people’s shoulders relax because they are in the presence of somebody who “gets it.” The Rabbi Kushner fan trusted me because I shared something that showed I could empathize with her. This has established a relationship of trust between us, and she has come back to me for books on depression.

Offer Support

Pick out more books than they probably need and tell them that they can check them all out or offer to find them a table to browse through the stack. If they seem frail, as can be the case with the recently bereaved, personally carry the stack to the table. Sometimes I recommend the books myself, while other times I consult a bibliography (see end of article) from our local hospice organization, where the grief counselors prepared a list of titles that their clients have found helpful in different loss scenarios. Do some research on what groups, organizations, or resources in the area can offer grief support and have the information—this is simply a good practice for meaningful community engagement.

Often the patron comments that the grief has not really hit yet. Instead of merely telling them that everything will be fine, I tell them the truth: sometimes, on special occasions, or when there are no more details to take care of, loss really settles in. At this point, I give them information about the grief support group that meets monthly in the library and assure them that they can call me or anybody at the desk for help. We at the library want to help them.

I then turn to them and ask another personal question: “Are you having trouble sleeping?” Sometimes, after something terrible happens, you’ll wake up in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep, even though you’re exhausted. Often, they nod in agreement. I clarify that I am wondering if they want something silly or escapist—a trashy novel, a silly movie, or a TV series to binge watch—rather than alternating between views of the clock and the ceiling. They may not be interested, but it is good to ask. Having developed a connection earlier, you can direct those who are interested away from sweet love stories (for widows and widowers) or child-centered fiction (for parents).

Final Touches

Check them out and walk with them. I tell them I hope things get better, that we are here if there is anything we can do, and how to track me down. “Again, I am so sorry.” Let them know they are not alone.


I have experience manning a crisis hotline and being a dorm counselor and have often thought that an introductory social work course is a great elective to take while pursuing an MLIS. If a staff member has a similar background, consider designating them as the go-to resource for such matters, or approaching a hospice care or other grief organization for an in-service for public service staff.

Resources for Further Information

Whole Person Librarianship: Fostering Empathy in Challenging Times. Webjunction webinar.

A List of Suggested Books and Resources for Those on a Journey of Grief, courtesy of Hospice Care of Southwest Michigan

General Grief and Loss

Understanding Your Grief: 10 Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart. Wolfelt, Alan.
The Understanding Your Grief Journal-Exploring the Ten Essential Touchstones. Wolfelt, Alan.
Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing after Loss. Schweibert, Pat.
Understanding Grief: Helping Yourself Heal. Wolfelt, Alan.
Don’t Let Death Ruin Your Life: A Practical Guide to Regaining Happiness after the Death of a Loved One.  Brooke, Jill.
Living When a Loved One Has Died. Grollman, Earl.
Liberating Losses: When Death Brings Relief. Elison, Jennifer.
Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief. Hickman, Martha Whitmore.

Adults Grieving the Death of a Parent

When Parents Die: A Guide for Adults. Myers, Edward.
The Orphaned Adult. Levy, Alexander.
Healing the Adult Child’s Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Parent Dies. Wolfelt, Alan.
Death Benefits. Safer, Jeanne.
Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent. Schuurman, Donna.

Children Grieving a Loss through Death

Approximately Ages 5 and under

I Miss You: A First Look at Death. Thomas, Pat.
Tough Boris. Fox, Mem.
When Dinosaurs Die. Brown, Marc.
The Invisible String. Karst, Patricia.

Ages 6-12

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. Mellonie, Bryan and Ingpen, Robert.
Healing your Grieving Heart for Kids: 100 Practical Ideas. Wolfelt, Alan.
What Does That Mean: A Dictionary of Death, Dying and Grief Terms for Grieving Children and Those Who Love Them. Smith, Harold Ivans and Johnson, Joy.
When Dinosaurs Die. Brown, Marc.
The Invisible String. Karst, Patricia.

Teens Grieving a Loss through Death

Healing Your Grieving Heart for Teens: 100 Practical Ideas. Wolfelt, Alan.
When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving and Healing. Gootman, Marilyn.
Grief Girl. Vincent, Erin

Resources for Adults Who Care about Children and Teens

Healing a Child’s Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas for Families, Friends, and Caregivers. Wolfelt, Alan.
What Does That Mean: A Dictionary of Death, Dying and Grief Terms for Grieving Children and Those Who Love Them. Smith, Harold Ivans and Johnson, Joy.
Helping the Grieving Student: A Guide for Teachers. The Dougy Center.
Healing a Teen’s Heart: 100 Practical Ideas for Families, Friends, and Caregivers. Wolfelt, Alan.
Help Me Say Goodbye. Silverman, Janis (activity book).
When Someone Very Special Dies. Heegaard, Marge (activity 

Traumatic Loss including Suicide, Homicide, Accidental or Sudden Death

Understanding Your Suicide Grief: Ten Essential TouchstonesWolfelt, Alan.
Slamming Open the Door. Poems by Bonanno, Kathleen Sheeder.
Healing Your Traumatized Heart: 100 Practical Ideas After Someone You Love Dies a Sudden, Violent Death. Wolfelt, Alan.

Adults Grieving the Death of a Child

Healing a Parent’s Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Child Dies. Wolfelt, Alan.
A Broken Heart Still Beats. Semel, Mary.
Making Toast. Rosenblatt, Roger.

Adults Grieving the Death of a Spouse or Partner

Loving Grief. Bennett, Paul.
The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion, Joan.
Widow to Widow. Ginsburg, Genevieve Davis.

Adults Grieving the Death of a Sibling

Healing the Adult Sibling’s Grieving Heart: 100 Ideas after Your Brother or Sister Dies. Wolfelt, Alan.

Spiritual Resources

Getting to the Other Side of Grief: Overcoming the Loss of a Spouse. Zonnebelt-Smeenge, Susan.
A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss. Sittser, Jerry.
A Grief Observed. Lewis, C.S.
The Next Place. Hanson, Warren.

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