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Writing Through Grief

by Anne McCurry
Author of Letters to Sara: The Agony of Adult Sibling Loss
[Order Letters to Sara from Amazon.com]
[Other Books About Grief]

Getting through a long, cold, dreary winter in upstate New York seemed impossible after losing my sister, Sara, to breast cancer. She had been my hero and best friend, and I was having a terrible time with her death. Her husband’s surprising behavior – a total absence of grief and an immediate search for a new woman – added terrible hurt to terrible loss. I felt as if I were drowning in a river of grief, anger, despair, confusion, denial that Sara could really be gone and guilt that I was alive while she was dead.

In short, I was a mess.

I have a wonderful psychotherapist who has helped me through Sara’s illness and death and beyond. She knew I’d done some writing in the past – magazine articles and one book published on subjects ranging from animals to Alzheimer’s disease to adoption – and after Sara’s death she kept gently suggesting that I write about losing Sara. I resisted; what would I say, where would I begin? It was too overwhelming to even consider. Friends, concerned about me, also urged me to write about losing my sister. I told them I couldn’t possibly, that I didn’t have the energy. That was true; my grief was paralyzing.

Oddly enough, it was my brother-in-law’s behavior that was the catalyst for me to begin writing. I became so angry and bewildered by his actions that I felt I’d explode if I couldn’t “talk it over” with Sara. She was the one I’d turned to all my life for wise advice and counsel when I was upset, to calm me down and explain things to me. But now she wasn’t here. Out of desperation, I sat down at my computer one day and began to write letters to Sara. It felt good. I did it day after day for months and poured out everything that was in my mind and in my heart. At the same time I was writing the letters, I researched all aspects of grief to reassure myself that the pain I was feeling was within the realm of normalcy, and I also researched personality disorders to try to understand my brother-in-law’s behavior. I incorporated what I was learning into the letters.

What I’d needed more than anything else after Sara died was to hear about other adults who had lost much-loved siblings – what they were thinking and feeling and how they were handling their grief. And there I hit a blank wall. I found all sorts of books and information about every other kind of loss, but almost nothing about losing an adult sister or brother. After writing a number of my letters to Sara, I happened upon a quote attributed to author Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That was the first time I’d thought of having the letters published as a book. I figured that if I'd searched in vain for a book about the pain of losing a beloved sister or brother, it stood to reason that others might be searching for help and understanding in this situation too.

The whole process of writing about losing Sara and the events surrounding her death was invaluable. I feel as though it saved my life. I would absolutely encourage others to write about their losses, for many reasons: it’s cathartic, of course; it might help others who feel very alone in the intensity of their grief; it memorializes the lost loved one; and putting the story and your feelings down in black-and-white helps put things in perspective and enables you to work through them better. At least it did for me. The letters I wrote to Sara and the research I did gave me a focus, a way to figure things out, to integrate what had happened into my being.

Was everything resolved, did I work through all my grief and anger by writing about it? No. I still have a long way to go. But it was definitely a good start on the road to some sort of acceptance and healing and renewal.

And I have the strongest feeling that Sara is pleased that I told her story.


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