The Help Desk: A griever's library

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

My husband died. It was a few years ago, so the shock is over and I'm used to the idea of living my life on my own — I keep busy and have lots of friends and hobbies.

But his library, I just can't face. He was a scholar, and his discipline was very narrow, so it's probably one of the best libraries on his subject in the world, some 400 volumes collected over his 50-year professional career.

A few of his colleagues have dropped hints, and I know I could sell the whole collection, or donate to a library (I've gotten nice sympathy notes from his undergraduate and graduate alma mater, and also the University where he spent his career).

But Cienna — this seems more him than anything else. More than the smell on his old sweater, or the memories. This is where he invested himself, what he truly loved. How can I just let it go?

And yet, how can I keep it? It's selfish for a single woman to keep such a resource hidden away. I go and dust them every few months, but I never read. What should I do?

Broken in Bellingham

Dear Broken,

You can’t rush grief. When my grandmother passed away, the chair she died in remained in our living room for seven years before we finally burned it. Conversely, when my dad died, I left his ashes in a dog crate in the back of my Subaru because I didn’t want him in my house or fucking up the upholstery in my car. I’m sure some people found the former display creepy and the latter callous; fortunately, most people are aware that telling another individual they’re grieving wrong pegs them lower than a snake’s butt in the animal kingdom of assholes.

It’s not selfish to want to preserve and cherish your husband’s life’s work. There’s nothing wrong with keeping his library for a few years or the rest of your life. If his colleagues would like to use it, and you feel comfortable giving them access to your house, you can work out a case-by-case agreement to let them visit his library in your home. If that doesn’t appeal to you right now, give yourself permission to leave it alone and maybe revisit the question again in a few years.

And if his colleagues are bold enough to continue to drop hints about the future of his collection, just politely mention you’ve been having very vivid dreams about burning their houses to the ground, house pets and all. I’ve found this is a great way to stop unwanted conversations in their tracks.