Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss

Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss

by Jessica Handler

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Braving the Fire is the first book to provide a road map for the journey of writing honestly about grief and loss. Created specifically by and for the writer who has experienced illness, loss, or the death of a loved one, Braving the Fire takes the writers' perspective in exploring the challenges and rewards for the writer who has chosen, with courage and candor, to be the memory keeper. It will be useful to the memoirist just starting out, as well as those already in the throes of coming to terms with complicated emotions and the challenges of shaping a compelling, coherent true story.

Loosely organized around the familiar Kübler-Ross model of Five Stages of Grief, Braving the Fire uses these stages to help the reader and writer though the emotional and writing tasks before them, incorporating interviews and excerpts from other treasured writers who've done the same. Insightful contributions from Nick Flynn, Darin Strauss, Kathryn Rhett, Natasha Trethewey, and Neil White, among others, are skillfully blended with Handler's own approaches to facing grief a second time to be able to write about it. Each section also includes advice and wisdom from leading doctors and therapists about the physical experience of grieving. Each chapter ends with a selection of writing exercises that focus on the chapter content.

Handler is a compassionate guide who has braved the fire herself, and delivers practical and inspirational direction throughout.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250014634
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/10/2013
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 777,162
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

JESSICA HANDLER has written on the topic of writing through grief for The Writer magazine and Psychology Today online, and has been a featured speaker in grief and writing workshops. Her first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir has been named by the Georgia Center for the Book as one of the "Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read," and is one of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's "Eight Great Southern Books in 2009." She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Read an Excerpt

Braving the Fire

A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss

By Jessica Handler

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Jessica Handler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-01463-4



The Right to Write

When you write a memoir about a loss that has affected you, you're telling your story the way you see it. You're the main character, but the story isn't solely about you. Even though grief and loss are uniquely personal, others are involved in the story, perhaps affected by the same loss. Certainly other people have lost a loved one to cancer, been the victim of a crime, lost their job or their home, but your story, even if there are similarities with others, is yours alone. You perceive your loss as world changing, and for you, it is. However, as a writer facing your story of grief for the first time, you may doubt that you have the right to tell that story, especially if you feel it's like one that others have experienced. You might feel that since everyone will have significant loss in their life, what new or different perspective can you bring in your writing? Or you may be ready and eager to write, and even have the story planned thoroughly in your mind, but you worry that your story may hurt a loved one, cause people to think poorly about you, or even offend an authority figure in your life.

Your loss may not have made headlines the way a natural disaster, a war, or even a local crime might have. Your story may have only shaken you, or your family, or your neighborhood. If it did make headlines, you might feel that your perspective is less valuable. The newspapers wrote plenty, you say. What could I contribute? The story of a war, a disaster, or something as tragically common as cancer is so large that perhaps you think that your role in it doesn't matter.

But it does. You experienced a loss, and you want to write about it. At writing conferences and workshops, students have different goals in mind: some want to see their work published, but others would like to share their story only with their families and closest friends. No matter how they envision the outcome, they, like you, sometimes question their right to write. Even if these writers don't acknowledge it yet, they've found the time to attend a conference or workshop because somewhere inside of them pulses the sense that it's time to be among other writers. They're looking for a signal that will indicate for them how to start writing the stories that won't leave them alone. Sharing craft notes at the coffee station, they thumb through the program wishing they could sit in two lectures at once. There's so much to learn, and for many writers beginning memoirs of loss, being in the company of other writers is the first time they truly feel that they're not alone in their desire to write about the grief that has shaped them. Some may worry that writing about their grief could erase the grief itself as well as what they've lost entirely from their lives. For example, author Karen Salyer McElmurray writes in her memoir, Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother's Journey, that even though she is a writer, she at first turned away from writing about the loss of her son. In her memoir, she wonders, "If I ... truly write, will I come to the end of remembering, of grieving, and will there be nothing left?"

Picking up that pen or opening the document on your computer called "memoir" is the first step in no longer denying your right to write.

When Denial Becomes Permission to Write

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's first stage of grief, "Denial," is the time when the dying, for that is who the book was originally written about, don't yet believe that they are facing death. They may deny that a diagnosis is accurate, or that their lives are coming to an end. They're beginning the process of understanding what is happening to them. If you are writing about losing a loved one, or a beloved time, place, or way of life, you may find that you're in a kind of denial, too, rejecting the notion that you have the ability — or the right — to write about your loss. Denial holds you back from taking that first vital step toward shaping your story into one that you can really understand, that allows to you see not only what happened, but understand how your grief has forged the years that followed.

C. S. Lewis, author of the beloved fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as the classic grief memoir written after the death of his wife, A Grief Observed, compared the feeling of grief to feeling afraid. Trepidation, or fear, can be useful in beginning to write about grief, because that fear of going backward means that you recognize your desire to be honest.

This chapter will focus on ways that you can encourage yourself to take that first step and give yourself permission to put aside any denial that's holding you back from writing about your grief. You will learn ways to start putting those shattered pieces of memory and fact together to build your memoir's foundation. We will discuss how keeping a journal and writing loose thoughts and images as hot and bright as sparks can illuminate your story. We'll also examine how distance from your sorrow adds perspective to your writing and helps you to look directly and inquisitively at the difficult events that caused your grief.

Writing When You're Ready

Darin Strauss, author of three novels, wrote his memoir, Half a Life, more than twenty years after the car accident that is the central story in the memoir. Shortly before his high school graduation, Strauss was driving his father's car when he collided with a classmate on a bicycle. She died as a result of the accident. In his memoir, he tells the story of the accident and his life afterward, as well as his coming to terms with his guilt, sorrow, and growing up. Now that he's an adult, Strauss says that at eighteen, he couldn't have written the book; time had to pass before he was ready. Distance from the event that caused your grief can shed light that's necessary when you're writing about the tough stuff. What caused your grief is in the past, and your perspective has changed naturally as you've continued to survive.

Writing about grief forces you to face yourself. You may have positive and negative feelings about what happened or your role in it, you may feel shame or pride or both. You might literally want to go back to places that at one time you weren't ready to see again. You're doing these things that are both painful and rewarding as you bring back those parts of yourself that you may have thought had been eradicated by loss. Write when you're ready to, Strauss says.

Author Kathryn Rhett, editor of the anthology Survival Stories: Memoirs of Crisis, who also wrote about her daughter's birth in the memoir Near Breathing: A Memoir of a Difficult Birth, calls the act of writing through grief participation in a fellowship. I call it community. My mother calls it "the club"; one you may not want to belong to, but life experience has awarded you that merit badge.

In her memoir, Rhett writes of her unwilling entry into that fellowship, capturing on paper the moments after she has given birth and learned from her husband that their child is in the ICU. Her own ability to face what will be a touch and go situation (their daughter survives) begins here, with a moment of denial.

I was bleeding and bleeding, and kept changing the pad, hooking a new one onto the barbaric belt. Women used to have to wear these all the time, I thought, and what did they use before the belt was invented? Rags, I thought, rags, thinking of anything to keep from thinking.

In this excerpt from her memoir, Rhett writes of denial itself, "thinking of anything to keep from thinking" and of focusing on the fragmented and small personal details that are true for her in that moment, and of women throughout time.

Traveling along the road to writing honestly about what happened, you'll feel that you're both moving forward in your life and moving back in time as you look at your loss with a writer's purpose. You're not denying that the fire exists. Instead, you've taken hold of a pen, and with it, extend your hand toward what has already burned you once.

The Writers' Journal

One way to ease into memoir is to develop the journal-keeper's habit of capturing all kinds of raw materials like images, sounds, the sensation of textures, and ideas even when you're not at the keyboard or with pen in hand. Keep yourself in the world of your memoir by daydreaming when you can, and letting your creative mind wander. These raw materials are shards, too, and when you examine them, they add depth and breadth to what you might feel is a story too sad, big, or alternately too limited to write.

"Writing nonfiction," says Pulitzer Prize–nominated author Lee Martin, author of eight books including the memoirs Such a Life, Turning Bones, and From Our House, "begins with curiosity, contradiction, confusion. Then it has somewhere to go."

Whether or not you're someone who has kept journals before, go ahead and start one to accompany this book. No one but you will see it. This journal is where you will sift through the raw material and shattered glass that you will develop into your memoir. Beginning your memoir from a place of change or uncertainty gives you somewhere to start on the page, and lets you pose questions to yourself that your writing can try to answer.

Keeping a journal is where you can begin to explore those questions, including the ways that you've experienced denial, how you will grant yourself permission to revisit your grief and write about it, and what it feels like when your hand is over that personal fire. A journal is a safe place to argue with yourself, explore, question, grieve, and celebrate.

I've kept journals for almost as long as I could write. My very first journal was an inch-thick diary with a flimsy metal lock and key. The green vinyl cover has ONE YEAR DIARY stamped across the face in official-looking gold, a grown-up style that promised a place for serious record-keeping. On the first page, I wrote, "Wednesday, 1969," commemorating the unofficial launch of a writerly frame of mind.

I was a few months into being nine years old. That diary's short entries dip in and out of the minutiae of elementary school: being elected dues treasurer for my Scout troop, seeing The Beatles' movie Yellow Submarine (which I deemed "very funny"), and the dullness of a substitute teacher who never seemed to leave. On the surface, these don't seem to be notes for a future memoir, but they are short glimpses into my life as a child innately staking a claim to the everyday moments that helped my life move forward, even as deep grief gripped my home. The journal entries and the need to discover my role in my life are evidence of giving myself permission to write.

My journals mirror my life back to me, so that when I choose to, I can look closely at moments that have passed and start to understand what they mean. Even now, my journals function as a repository for loose ideas. (Of course, sometimes they're merely the closest blank sheet of paper to jot down a grocery list or sketch a quick picture, but these can be material for reflection, too.)

Your journals in their most raw state are for no one's eyes but your own, and they're merely one tool of many in writing your memoir. The journals can be cathartic, but don't mistake them for finished work. They're not intended to be the kind of writing that would engage another reader or do justice to your story. In your journal, catch the moments in life that won't leave you alone but you're not sure why. As you write your memoir, you'll find that it's important to come back often to those moments and examine how they figure into the puzzle that is your ongoing story.


Since I'm such a devoted keeper of journals, I was stunned to discover a big gap in a journal from the summer of 1992. I was thirty-two. The entry from that Fourth of July is about sitting with friends at a fireworks show and making whistles out of blades of grass. The next entry consists of two undated pages that start with, "Sarah died. This is the first time I have written that down."

The entry after that is dated November 13th — four months later. That entry reads, "I am just waiting for winter to be over." The obituary page from the August 15, 1992, Boston Globe and the stub of an airline ticket from Atlanta to Boston are folded into the journal's pages: the only physical remnants of a time of denial, a time before I was ready to write about my searing grief.

On August 13, 1992, my mother called to tell me that Sarah had died. My sister Sarah had been at home, recovering from yet another hospital stay to treat an infection. Her boyfriend found her when he came home from work; she had died during the day, in their bed. He called our mother. When she arrived at Sarah's apartment, just a few miles from her own, the ambulance had already arrived. I remember Mom's phone call, I remember calling the airline, then calling my boss late at night to take an emergency leave from work. I remember one of my closest friends coming over to sit with me until it was time to leave for the airport. And I wrote nothing.

A doctor might say I was experiencing a kind of shock, or that my journal pages from this life-changing time were so stunningly blank because I was in denial. I had known since childhood that Sarah, six years younger than me, lived with an illness that would someday take her life. Her illness was diagnosed when she was a year old, and at the time, she hadn't been expected to live past the age of three. As she grew up, Sarah knew this, too. And yet, when that day came, I couldn't tell the story of the moment that had leapt from the shadows. I couldn't put my grief into words, and didn't go back to my journals for months.

A dozen years later, as I began to write my memoir, those blank pages were stark evidence of how my sister's death disoriented me, first when it happened and then again when I tried to write about it later. I felt lost without the help of my earlier self reporting back from the front lines of the tragedy.

So, when I first tried to write a coherent retelling about my sisters' deaths and how my family changed, I wrote the story as fiction. I conflated two sisters into one, believing that the actual events as I had experienced them would overwhelm my readers and me. But when I started the story that way, it didn't sit right, so I turned them back into two people.

One day I argued with a friend who was critiquing my fiction. "The sisters' names are too similar," she told me. "You'll have to change the names if you want people to follow this story."

I knew when she said that what the real problem was. This wasn't going to work as fiction. It was a memoir: a true story.

"These were real people," I told my friend. "I want their story to be as accurate as possible, and I want to tell the truth about their real lives."

Telling their true story and mine meant that I would have to become brave enough to poke my hand back into an emotional fire that had already burned me badly. I would have to read my journals from that time, even those with gaps, and reexperience that sorrow up close. But in doing so, I knew that I would remember my sisters on the page the most honest and genuine way that I knew how. I gave myself permission to grieve all over again.

Opening Your Eyes and Ears When Your Journal's Not at Hand

When I asked author Abigail Thomas about writing through grief, she told me, "you have to be as honest as you can." Thomas, author of six books, including the highly regarded memoirs A Three Dog Life: A Memoir and Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life, says that a writer has to figure out what's prodding them about what they want to write. "If you're writing about loss, you've already got the subject," she says, but there are so many ways to approach the very large thing you want to say.

So where do you find your story in the overwhelming topic of loss? "You can't just attack the whole thing," she says. "You have to start with a small memory."

In her memoir, A Three Dog Life, which chronicles Thomas's life and marriage after her husband's traumatic brain injury, she writes a short scene about visiting the wool store where she buys her knitting yarn. She arrives there with a pen and paper. In a scene that takes up only about half a page, she establishes the central question of the memoir.

"I'm taking a poll," I say. "What is the one thing that stays stable in your life?"

Thomas asks this question of three people she already knows and a fourth she does not know.

At first glance, the scene is lighthearted and doesn't appear to directly address her loss. The action occurs in a place that's not by definition dramatic: no funeral, no hospital, no accident scene. A woman enters a store where she's a regular customer, carrying a notebook and a deceptively simple question. Instead of tackling her memoir's large subject in one gesture, Thomas writes a scene about a brief interaction that introduces the memoir's theme and brings readers comfortably into her story. Each of the four characters in the store has a different answer to her question. And the author? She doesn't have an answer. She has merely introduced a theme of the book — instability and change.


Excerpted from Braving the Fire by Jessica Handler. Copyright © 2013 Jessica Handler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Copyright Acknowledgments v

Acknowledgments x

Introduction: Transformed by Loss 1

1 Denial: The Right to Write 13

2 Anger: Writing the Worst and Best in Characters (Including Yourself) and Why There's No Plot Without Conflict 31

3 Bargaining: Your Memoir s Form 103

4 Depression: Taking Care of Yourself While You Write 164

5 Acceptance: Adding New Chapters to Your Life 190

6 Renewal: The Courage in the Last Page 209

Author's Note 231

Select Bibliography 233

Index 237

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