By Jessica Handler
By the time I was thirty-two years old, I was the only one of three sisters still alive. This is the simplest way to explain my own story of grief. But there’s so much more to say; that my sister Susie, eight years old when I was ten, died of leukemia and that my sister Sarah, four at the time, lived another twenty-three years with a rare and fatal blood disorder, knowing that she would die young, too. Our lives were normal, middle-class American kids’ lives, except for those times when they weren’t. At nine, I identified myself to doctors as “the well sibling.” I had already formed an identity shaped by impending loss.
When Sarah was a young adult, she spoke casually for the first time about something we had never said aloud; that after her death, I would be the only one left. It would be up to me to remember my sisters and our lives together.
Of course I would not forget her; she was my little sister. But telling her story after she was gone seemed too daunting a task. And telling my own story as the survivor? I didn’t yet understand how I would approach that. First, I would have to understand who I became when I was, in her words, “the only one left” of three sisters. Time would wear away our connections to friends and extended family, and some day, no one would know who my sisters had been. The responsibility was clear. Capturing our lives and holding them for myself, our friends, family, and perhaps people who never knew us would fall to me.
Sarah wanted to be remembered. I know this because she told me. Susie would have said the same thing. But when I wrote my memoir, Invisible Sisters, it was more than a memento mori, a reminder of mortality. I wrote it to tell my family’s story, the good parts and the bad; to capture my youthful terror in waking late at night and hearing my father bundle Susie out of bed and rush her to the hospital for what would be the last time, or my joy in giggling with Sarah over our teenaged secrets. I also wrote Invisible Sisters to help myself understand the girl I had been and the woman I became. Writing was my search to remember myself as much as it was to remember my sisters.
My grief is bigger than a single event. Yours may be, too. It wasn’t until after Sarah died that I decided I was ready to visit Susie’s grave. I hadn’t seen it in more than two decades, and this second death had to come before I felt ready to confront the first. Grief had spread across our family like ripples on a pond: our father had never fully recovered from Susie’s death, our parents’ marriage broke apart, and before I was out of my teens, I left home. I fought my jagged memories of the day Susie was buried, but I knew that if I was going to move forward, I would have to confront what I’d left behind.
Time had surrounded the cemetery with strip malls and a freeway. I walked the still-beautiful, green, manicured grounds, heading to the gentle slope where long ago I had sat in a folding chair at Susie’s funeral. But when I got to the spot, there was no marker at all, just a mossy patch in the grass: one more heartbreak. The cemetery director told me that no marker had ever been purchased. Because I was by then older than my father had been the day he bought this grave, I understood that he had been too stunned to buy a marker that day or on the one-year anniversary of her death, traditionally the date in Judaism for placing a gravestone. My mother, too, had been consumed by the loss, and poured her energy into keeping the remaining family’s lives moving forward.
So I did what they were unable to do. I bought a gravestone. Susie’s grave now has a bronze plate with her name, her birth and death dates, and a Jewish blessing. With time, I had come see that while my sister’s unmarked grave was tragic in its own way. It was the story of this neglected grave that fascinated me. I wanted to know more about this family – my family – who had lost one child and knew they would lose another, and couldn’t permit themselves to look backward for fear of never going forward again.
Looking back, I began to see that my parents’ inability to face their grief and complete their middle daughter’s memorial was similar to the first stage in Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous “Five Stages of Grief.” – “Denial.”
Loss transforms the stories that we expected of our lives. We are no longer who we used to be, and our lives no longer work entirely as planned. Two weeks after my friends Genevieve and Ari’s third child was born, their oldest child, Michaela, five years old and disabled since birth, died unexpectedly in her sleep. They were bereft, and one of the many challenges they faced after Michaela’s death was learning to see themselves as the parents of two beloved typical children. Their lives were suddenly absent the requirements of their special-needs daughter, who first shaped their identities as parents. Genevieve, a journalist, changed her computer password to reflect her dead daughter’s name. “Writing her name and seeing it in print is proof of her existence,” she told me.
Almost all memoirs are ultimately about identity; who we once were, and who we have become. Grief is a fire that’s burned you once, maybe even more than once. In order to write about it, though, you have to hold your hand over that fire again. Our characters – and in memoir, they are us – are looking for a way to become who they must be now.
“What surprised me,” Genevieve remembers about her daughter’s death, “was how quickly the world went from real to unreal. Everything seemed like I was looking through fractured glass.”
What strikes me most about Genevieve’s metaphor of fractured glass is the idea that what we can see through those shards are the small moments, the details that don’t at first seem to fit together to form a whole. But it’s those details, even as broken pieces, that you put together to create a story that’s about your unique experience of loss. Anyone can tell you that they’re heartbroken or sad, and they would be telling the truth. But what if that “fractured glass” meant writing about getting the leash down from the hook by the back door and walking your dog for the last time, or the way your mother’s car keys feel in your pocket the day you told her she could no longer drive? These are the small details that demonstrate great emotions. A remarkable example is the way in which Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, his extraordinary memoir of almost total paralysis after a stroke that resulted in “locked-in syndrome.” Unable to speak or move, he painstakingly dictated the realities of living in his frozen body with a still-vital mind by blinking his eye as a physical therapist pointed at a letter board. He wrote his entire memoir that way, letter by letter. The well-chosen details on the page in Bauby’s story reflects this method; his words are precise, his memories are lush and exact. No word is wasted in his uncompromising story.
Nearly everyone wants insight into what will happen when they encounter great loss. As writers, we are compelled to put our stories to paper. We fear that grief might wreck us. We want clues about the ways in which we might change, and we want reassurance that when the trouble calms, we will fare well. We also want assurance that the people and places we loved will not be forgotten, because we know that one day we won’t be here to speak for them. We want reassurance that our own struggles won’t be ignored.
Where will you start your own story of loss? At first the story might seem obvious – it’s about what happened. But within that story, with its traditional beginning, middle, and end, there’s another story. That story is the personal one, built from those small details in shattered glass that you may not remember right away. Your own story of loss will build connections that may surprise you on the page and in your daily life. And the most surprising part is discovering the story of yourself.
(This excerpt was originally published by St. Martins/Griffin 2013, and it is reprinted with permission. Learn more about the book here.)
Jessica Handler is the author of Invisible Sisters: A Memoir and Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing about Grief and Loss. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte (N.C.) and a B.S. in communication from Emerson College in Boston. Her essays and features have appeared on NPR, in Tin House, Drunken Boat, Full Grown People, Brevity, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and More Magazine. She tweets @jessicahandler. Visit her online at www.jessicahandler.com