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Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Memory. Loss. | Writing About Grief | Sara Biren

 


When I was eight years old, my friend Jason died from injuries that occurred when a tree limb fell on the tent where he was sleeping with his sister. A storm had passed through their campsite at a state park. Just a month before, on Mother’s Day, we’d made our First Communion together. 

I did not want to go to Jason’s wake. I was sad and upset and terrified. The only other person I’d known who had died was my grandmother. I was three and remembered very little about that time. But my mother and Jason’s were good friends from church. In fact, his mom had been our CCD teacher and had prepared us for First Confession and First Communion. 

My family and I went to the wake on a hot, humid summer evening. I hung back, not wanting to walk up to the front where my friend lay motionless in a casket, wearing the suit he'd worn for First Communion. Mom told me I had to. 

“What do I do?” I asked.

“Kneel down and say a prayer for his soul,” she said.

“Which prayer?”

Jason’s mother had taught us so many different prayers that year but how could we have possibly known we’d need them for this?

“Whichever one feels right,” she said.

She walked up to the casket with me and placed a hand on my shoulder to gently push me forward. 

I remember the worn, faded velvet of the kneeler in front of the casket, a deep rose. I remember the rosary in his hands that were folded together as if in prayer. I remember that his skin looked waxy and artificial. I remember the sick feeling in my stomach, the tears leaking from my eyes, my shaky breaths as I knelt at my friend’s casket, closed my eyes, and began to pray: Hail Mary, full of grace…

Jason’s mother was a part of my life for the rest of my childhood and into my adulthood. A few months after I graduated from college, I had surgery and spent three days in the hospital recovering. She happened to be there, too, and came to visit me even though I wasn’t able to speak well. I don’t remember what we talked about.

Fast forward to another hot, humid, stormy summer night, 16 years later. I was two years out of college, working retail, living with a friend, and struggling to find my place in the world. I wanted to go to graduate school for creative writing but so many obstacles stood in my way. I’d decided to take a “sampler” class at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I was writing a story about a young woman who reflects on the death of her best friend and the relationship she continues to have with the friend’s mother. The story, called “Cat’s Cradle,” explores loss and grief and how, when someone we love dies and leaves this world physically, they are with us still.

By this time, I had experienced the death of many others: my remaining grandparents, an uncle, a stillborn niece, my friend Nicole who died when we were 16. “Cat’s Cradle” and the emotions of the narrator are, of course, influenced by my memories, my experiences with those losses.

The thing is, except for what I can find in the journals I kept over the years, my memories are hazy and were even then. In some cases, I remember the smallest, exact details, like those of Jason’s wake. Those details are still, all these years later, crystal clear. In other instances, I wonder if my memories have shifted or blurred. In “Cat’s Cradle,” the narrator receives a call from her friend's mother, which then causes her to to revisit the death of her friend, slipping back into her grief. I think I was inspired to start that story because Jason’s mother called me that night but I’m not certain. The lines of what is real and what is fiction have blurred but the feelings remain the same. 

That story was difficult to write. I recall reading it aloud to my classmates and then ducking out to a courtyard during the break to smoke a cigarette and cry. The instructors came outside to sit with me and hold my hand and hug me close. 

Years later, I would write The Last Thing You Said and explore the lives of two characters left behind: grieving, learning how to live without their best friend and sister, learning how to live with each other without her. My grief became their grief but in different ways. 

Writing about grief and loss is an intense, personal experience. The circumstances of your character’s grief might be worlds apart from your own but it’s impossible to write their grief without mining and drawing from your own. 

It’s going to hurt. There will be days when you can’t manage reading another journal entry filled with the memories and the pain of your sixteen-year-old self. There will be days when you can’t write another word, when you sit on your balcony and watch storm clouds move across the sky instead. Eventually, you'll go back to the story because the story needs to be told. For yourself, for others.

In the end, if the grief on the page rings true and fills you (and hopefully your reader) with both heartbreak and healing, you’ll know that you got it right. 


2 comments:

  1. Very moving. I've learned over the years that no two deaths affect me the same way. Some I move on from quickly, others like my mother who was also a writer, laid me flat for six years. Pieces of lives remembered after we lose someone can help make stories better and them live on.

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