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What Looks Like Bravery

An Epic Journey Through Loss to Love

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About The Book

A true story about the ways loss can transform us into the people we want to become.

“What Looks Like Bravery is a gorgeous, tender, and beautiful book. I'm in tears with the happy-sad truth and beauty of it. Laurel is a magnificent writer.” —Cheryl Strayed, New York Times bestselling author of Wild

Laurel Braitman spent her childhood learning from her dad how to out-fish grown men, keep bees, and fix carburetors. Diagnosed young with terminal cancer, he raced against the clock to leave her the skills she’d need to survive without him. This was one legacy. Another was relentless perfectionism and the belief that bravery meant never acknowledging your own fear.

By her mid-thirties Laurel is a ship about to splinter on the rocks, having learned the hard way that no achievement can protect her from pain or remove the guilt and regret her dad’s death leaves her with. So, she determines to explore her troubled internal wilderness by way of some big exterior ones—Northern New Mexico, Western Alaska, her Tinder App. She finds help from a wise birder in the Bering Sea, a few dozen grieving kids, and a succession of smart teachers who convince her that you cannot be brave if you’re not scared. Along the way, she faces a wildfire that threatens everyone and everything she cares about and is forced by life to say another wrenching goodbye long before she wants to. This time she may not be ready, but she’s prepared. Joy in the wake of loss, she learns, isn’t possible despite the hardest things that happen to us, but because of the meaning we forge from them.

Reading Group Guide

1. Laurel Braitman’s What Looks Like Bravery focuses on learning from experiences of loss and grief to make space for love and joy in your life. What initially drew you to this book?

2. How did your ideas of navigating grief and loss change over the course of reading What Looks Like Bravery? What themes or insights have stayed with you?

3. What lessons did Laurel learn from her father that contributed to her later strength and resilience in the face of more losses? What did she learn from her father that served her less well?

4. Throughout the book, how does Laurel use ambition, achievement, and the drive for success to avoid her more difficult feelings? Have you experienced this in your own life?

5. In the beginning of the book, Laurel’s father tells her that he is going to die and that “it’s probably going to be soon” (p. 30), before setting out to prepare her and her brother to survive without him. How did you feel after reading these impactful lines? How do you think Laurel’s dad’s preparation for his death inspired the themes and lessons of the book? Did that leave you with questions about how you might prepare for your own death or about people you’ve lost in the past?

6. Laurel initially feels shame when trying to communicate with Josh when they first meet, but in time, she sets boundaries and becomes more comfortable talking to him openly about their relationship. What helped Laurel to move forward without the shame and fear of disappointment? Who was she afraid of disappointing? What allowed Laurel to feel safe with Josh?

7. On page 182, Laurel mentions that “keeping the guilt” is what makes a part of us “die too.” What does Laurel mean by this? How might someone use this idea to face unexpected loss and the resulting grief?

8. When it comes to children playing and re-enacting moments of loss, Laurel writes that “if play was research then it was an essential kind” and that it would be “practice for the day we might be able to rescue the people who need us most, even if it’s ourselves.” (pg. 110) What might have brought Laurel to this conclusion?

9. What does “the parallel world” symbolize? (p. 229)

10. Earlier in the book, Laurel mentions that “nothing was harder than feeling the depths of [her] own heartbreak” (p. 101), but towards the end of the book, Laurel comes to accept loss to make room for love. What event or events ultimately helped Laurel come to this conclusion? What role does acceptance play in living with grief?

11. On page 251, Laurel writes that hope is “a trickster that transforms itself all the time,” but that hope is a powerful force in the face of illness. What do you think Laurel means by this statement? How has hope functioned for you in the face of the unknown? And how did your understanding of hope change after reading this section?

12. In your own words, what makes What Looks Like Bravery different from other books on grief, loss, and death? What event or lesson would you share with a friend?

13. Bravery is a significant theme throughout the book. For some time, Laurel thinks it’s one thing, but by the end of the book, she believes it’s something else altogether. Which moments or people in Laurel’s life embody the term “bravery” the most? How so?

14. How did your feelings or understanding about medical aid-in-dying change as you were reading the book?

15. How does Laurel’s handling of grief change during the events at the end of the book?

16. Many events in life can sometimes feel “happy-sad” or sometimes it can feel like the world offers us two or more conflicting feelings at once. How might your approach to bittersweet events change after reading this book?​

About The Author

Photograph © Lauren Tabak

Laurel Braitman is the New York Times bestselling author of Animal Madness. She has a PhD from MIT in the history and anthropology of science and is the Director of the Writing and Storytelling Program at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street JournalThe GuardianWired, and a variety of other publications. She lives between rural Alaska and her family’s citrus and avocado ranch in Southern California. She can be reached at LaurelBraitman.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 14, 2023)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501158506

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Raves and Reviews

“Evocative and clear-eyed . . . Just as Eat Pray Love and Wild inspired millions, this book will send countless readers on a different—yet no less life-changing or profound—pilgrimage, as it did for me.” —Samin Nosrat, New York Times bestselling author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

"What Looks Like Bravery is a gorgeous, tender and beautiful book. I'm in tears with the happy-sad truth and beauty of it. Laurel is a magnificent writer.” —Cheryl Strayed, New York Times bestselling author of Wild

"I freaking love this book. It’s about so many things, but mostly love and loss, and how you can’t let fear keep you from experiencing all the love – and pain and joy – in this glorious, heart-breaking, unpredictable world." — Jeannette Walls, New York Times bestselling author of The Glass Castle, The Silver Star, and Half Broke Horses

“The best kind of breathless, propulsive, rollicking human story—it will surprise you, inspire you, break your heart, and make you laugh out loud. To say this book is impossible to put down is cliché, but true: I tore through it in one sitting. It’s a life-changing lesson in healing from loss and trauma and a master class in resilience. It couldn’t have come at a better time. —Rebecca Skloot, New York Times bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“A gripping, luminous story. Braitman teaches us how to stay open to life and love in a world we can’t control, a world in which loss is inevitable but where hope springs eternal. It’s a revelatory tale about using your past to create your own beautiful future. A must-read.” —Lucy Kalanithi, MD, Stanford School of Medicine and widow of Dr. Paul Kalanithi, author of When Breath Becomes Air

“Beautiful. Laurel proves to us that home is something you carry inside of you and, in it, there is room for every feeling—the great, the bad, and the cheeky. This book will tear you apart and then put you back together again—and it will feel so good.” —BJ Miller, MD, author of A Beginner’s Guide to the End

“Gripping and gorgeous, this memoir is drawn from wisdom that only comes from life-altering loss. With breathtaking candor, Braitman sits us down by the campfire and shares a story that is relatable in its humanity but filled with the unexpected details that make for a riveting, mesmerizing tale. It made me understand my own childhood in a whole new way. What Looks Like Bravery is deeply, surprisingly healing.” —Kevin Kwan, New York Times bestselling author of Crazy Rich Asians

"Read this survivor tale. Braitman transforms a free-fall, into a soaring triumph. It’s a little slutty, a lot brilliant, and you may notice the falcon that was always there, waiting for you to look up." — Jillian Lauren, New York Times bestselling author of Some Girls, Pretty, All You Ever Wanted and more

"After a spell of world traveling, earning a doctorate, racking up honors and achievements, and, most of all, enduring the ordinary griefs of life, the author prevail[s]. One of her closing realizations is worth the cover price alone: 'There is no such thing as happily ever after. There is only happily sad or sadly happy.' An affecting investigation of loss, sorrow, and the search for meaning."Kirkus Reviews

"An inspiring memoir...Her prose is shot through with rigor and intellectual curiosity, resulting in a candid study of one woman’s long path to emotional peace. This is perfect for anyone looking to heal a broken heart." Publishers Weekly

"Readers struggling with grief will identify strongly with Braitman’s story."Booklist

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