Braving the Fire
Give yourself permission to put the great losses of your life into words
“Writing about truly painful subjects like death, illness, divorce, war — anything that deeply changes your life — is as brave as holding a hand over a flame that’s already burned you once.”
That’s from author Jessica Handler, who knows what she’s talking about. Death and loss has been part of her life from a very young age, and as an adult she wrote a memoir to both chronicle and process her story.
The memoir, Invisible Sisters, is framed around a core story of Handler’s life: by the time she was thirty-two, she was the only one of three sisters still alive. Her younger sister Susie died of leukemia when Susie was eight and Jessica ten. Her sister Sarah, four at that time, died of a rare blood disorder at the age of 27. By the time Handler was nine she’d spent so much time in doctor’s offices and hospitals she was introducing herself as “the well sibling.”
I met Jessica Handler when I attended a full-day workshop she led on Writing Through Grief in spring of 2013. It was just a little over six months since my mom died at the culmination of a two-year ordeal with stage 4 colon cancer.
There was a lot I was still processing, so I was grateful for Handler’s care with us during the workshop. Guided writing exercises let me feel supported in tentatively holding my hand closer to the flame of that loss — which, as most losses are, was intertwined with others. Then more analytical exercises such as making a timeline and thinking about structure and research let me pull it back again.
The workshop was based on Handler’s then-forthcoming book Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss, released later that year. It’s geared towards people who want to write a book-publishable version of their story, but you don’t have to be an aspiring published author to still be inspired by it.
Take my dad, for instance.
Here’s something about my dad: Even though he’s an engineer by training and temperament, and my mom was the one with the English degree, when they sent out their annual Christmas letter, Dad was the one who wrote it. (Mom preferred editing.)
When they set up a Caring Bridge site to keep friends and family apprised of my mother’s condition, Dad also wrote most of the updates. After she died, he continued writing on the site for a year afterwards, documenting his own grief journey through all the things a surviving spouse has to encounter in the first year without their partner, as well as reflecting on his own background. But he was uncomfortable continuing to write there after the one-year anniversary, since that wasn’t really what Caring Bridge was set up for.
I ordered a copy of Braving the Fire for him when I ordered my own, and after he read it, my father — at the age of 77 — started a Wordpress blog. He called it 55 Years Together, in honor of the number of years he and my mom had been a couple.
Here’s another thing you need to know about my dad: nothing in his background would lead you to believe this is a man inclined to write about his feelings and post them on the Internet.
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He was a child of the tail end of the Depression. He has two engineering degrees and was an industrial engineer in the power industry for the majority of his working life. He’s a Lutheran. His parents were of Scandinavian and Welsh descent, and his father worked as a civil servant at a maximum security prison in Dannemora, in upstate New York.
Yet, there it was — my father in his seventies writing about the pain of deciding what to do with my mother’s clothes, musing on newfound insights about his own parents decades after their deaths, finally understanding some of the disconnects between himself and my mother over those 55 years together, and marking the grief that comes from the loss of a childhood friend.
All this to say, you don’t need to be a professional writer to benefit from putting your losses into words.
The first chapter of Braving the Fire — which is loosely structured around Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief — is titled Denial. Handler writes that denial often manifests itself as holding us back from taking the first step toward shaping our story of loss. It shows up as impostor syndrome, or in feeling that our story isn’t important enough, or dramatic enough, to write about. After all, everyone experiences grief — what makes us so different?
But that’s precisely the point. Everyone experiences grief, so your story is part of a universal expression of our common humanity.
These days there is so much for us to grieve about, both privately and as a society: at least 6.3 million COVID-19 deaths globally, 1 million of those in the US alone; dire climate change consequences; the war in Ukraine; the rise of misinformation, disinformation, and outright falsehoods that spread faster than the facts. Not to mention mass shootings and the rise in anti-Asian and anti-trans violence. It goes on and on.
Which is why, when I recently reconnected with Jessica Handler, we hit on the idea of hosting an online event to revisit the discussion she started in her book, as it has never seemed so relevant. We’re calling it Braving the Fire Revisited: A Conversation with Jessica Handler, on June 16, 2022, 7 pm Eastern/4 pm Pacific.
We’ll talk about how the pandemic and current world situation has impacted how we talk and write about grief and loss, how grief writing has changed (and not changed) in the years since the book’s release, what Handler is reading and writing now — and there might even be a short writing exercise.
The event is free and will be recorded for anyone who can’t make it live. You can find the link and more information on my website, or just register below.
I hope you’ll be able to join us. I promise it will be a rich discussion with one of my favorite people.
In the meantime, give yourself permission to hold your hand a little closer to that flame. When I talked with my dad, now in his eighties, about his blog recently, he said, “Wordpress has been a powerful source of expressing myself — it’s great. I still get a little teared up when I re-read some of those posts.”
Now that’s what I call brave.
What I’m reading
No surprise, I’ve been rereading Jessica Handler’s books this past month. I hope you’ll get a chance to check them out as well.
As usual, you can find all my recommended books at my Bookshop site, which includes the following lists:
So there you have it, my friends. I hope this issue of Be Your Own Hero gave you something to think about. Have you struggled to put words to the losses in your life? If so, what has held you back? Let me know in the comments, and I hope you’ll be able to join me and Jessica Handler on June 16th.
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