**Excerpted with permission from Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler. St. Martins Press/Griffin, 2014.
“I don’t know yet” was my sister Sarah’s de facto motto. She didn’t know when a set of lab tests would come back or what new information they might show. The unpredictable nature of her illness kept her from ever being sure she could attend a class, go to a movie with friends, or if a minor discomfort meant something greater. In a larger sense, our whole family didn’t know yet what would happen to any of us. Write whatever you like in those early brain-spark sessions, and as you do, remind yourself that you don’t know yet what shape your story will take.
TIP: Perhaps no one asked you or encouraged you to tell your story. Go ahead now and give yourself permission: invite yourself to tell your story. Just as there is no “right” way to grieve, there is no “right” way to remember. Your memories are your own. Writing your story is just that – your story.
If your story matters to you, then that’s more than enough reason to write. Writing from your perspective is your privilege. Writing through your grief and loss allows you to claim the way the things happened for you. If you write with honesty and attention to character, imagery, plot, and theme, your memoir will resonate with your family, your friends, and if you choose to write for a wider readership, your story will matter to people you don’t yet know.
Early in the process of writing my memoir about my sisters, our mother gave me a box of Sarah’s journals, calendars, and school notebooks. Mom wanted me to have all the material I might need to tell our family’s story. I had lost my two sisters, and she had lost her two youngest daughters. Our stories were similar, but they were profoundly different.
“I have Sarah’s writing,” Mom told me. My husband helped her carry in a battered cardboard crate. The box was piled high with folders and notebooks. Although my mother is traditionally organized down to the last file folder and rubber band, this box wasn’t labeled with her usual black marker pen and taped-on index cards. The box wasn’t labeled at all.
The crate lurked on the floor of my writing room for more than a month while I debated with myself. I wasn’t sure that I had the right to read the contents or if I even wanted to. Sarah’s diaries, yearbooks, creative writing assignments from high school, her entrance essay for college, and submissions for a writing workshop she was ultimately too sick to attend would have put me in close touch with her most intimate thoughts. Her words would tell me in her voice exactly what had been on her mind and in her heart.
I couldn’t deny that I had the rare opportunity to see into my beloved sister’s heart and mind. She was no longer here to answer my questions in person, and I missed her terribly. Maybe the answers would be on those pages, in her deliberate, rounded, cursive handwriting, but I couldn’t shake the mental image of my little sister not-so-playfully slapping my hand and laughing, telling me, “that’s private!” She wouldn’t have let me read her diaries if she were alive.
Ultimately, I read her death certificate and a few writing-class essays, knowing that those items had already been seen by others; the death certificate by the Suffolk County, Massachusetts medical examiner, the essays by writing teachers and classmates. But I chose to respect Sarah’s personal diaries by not reading them. I put the box in my attic, because the story I wanted to write was the story of the sister who survived. That is my story. My sisters lives and deaths are central to who I am. Their illnesses and deaths shaped our family, and that was what shaped my memoir’s plot.
Permission to write meant not reading Sarah’s diaries, and not pretending to see the world through Susie’s eyes. Permission meant agreeing with myself that this would be my story, told the way I saw it.
Jessica Handler (Tips for Writing About Loss) is the author of two books of non-fiction, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss and the memoir Invisible Sisters. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and her essays and features have appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Full Grown People, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. Jessica lives in Atlanta, but frequently travels to teach workshops and give readings. She is techsavvy—tweeting @jessicahandler and ready to Skype with book groups, bloggers and journalists. Learn more at JessicaHandler.com.
Read an interview with Jessica here.