In American culture, traumatic events such as death, divorce or disease are often met with silence and stoicism. But two new books by Atlanta authors defy the cultural taboo surrounding loss: Kate Sweeney’s American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning, and Jessica Handler’s Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss.
American Afterlife assumes an anthropological lens. In interviews with entrepreneurs and philanthropists — such as funeral directors, tattoo artists, memorial photographers and obituary writers — Sweeney delves into the community of the death industry. She also interviews the aggrieved: a mother who constructs a roadside memorial for her daughter who died in a car accident; family members who bury their loved ones’ ashes at sea in man-made coral reef balls.
Braving the Fire serves as both an instructional guide for writing about grief and a memoir that chronicles how Handler’s writing about her own personal losses helped her to make sense of their impact on her life. She structures the book alongside the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief, and adds a sixth stage for writing, which she calls “renewal.”
At Alon’s Bakery & Market in Virginia Highlands, Sweeney and Handler sip coffees and split a chocolate truffle cake. Despite the dark subject at hand, the writers are upbeat and animated, peppering the conversation with everything from the cult following of Michael Lesy’s 1973 book Wisconsin Death Trip to the talented work of renowned obituary writer Kay Powell (formerly of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution) to their shared humanist beliefs, which are rooted in both books’ secular perspectives.
Pittsburgh native Sweeney moved to Atlanta after graduating from University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill in 2000. After a couple of years as a news reporter at WABE 90.1 FM, she enrolled in the Masters in Fine Arts program at UNC–Wilmington (where she wrote American Afterlife as her thesis). She now lives in East Atlanta and is a radio producer at WABE.
“As someone who had not yet experienced catastrophic personal loss, I realized I was on a mission to learn how people deal with it when it happens,” she said. “I’m still terrified of the prospect of losing the people I love — and of my own death. But I think I’ve learned — and I hope this is a lesson I remember — to try to let myself experience it fully when it does happen.”
Handler, a native Atlantan who now lives in Ormewood Park, knows death all too well. Her first book, a memoir entitled Invisible Sisters, chronicles her life as the sole surviving sister in a family of three daughters. Its positive reception (in 2009 Atlanta magazine named it Best Memoir) inspired Handler to begin teaching workshops for writing about grief.
“The memoir’s public life was the catalyst [for teaching workshops about loss]; it showed me how much more needed to happen.” This spring, she’s leading an online workshop called “Writing the Tough Stuff.”
Despite the authors’ ease with discussing loss, they believe that most people still have a hard time expressing how they feel during such times. “Because it’s sometimes so uncomfortable, unpleasant, awful . . . to talk about what’s difficult, we don’t want to do it,” says Handler. “Loss is often integrated with our very identity. We become ashamed of it.”
Sweeney connects the silence surrounding sickness, death and dying to its physical removal from the family home. “In the 1800s, people saw a lot more death than we do today. With the turn of the century came the advent of germ theory, and institutions like hospitals, funeral homes and nursing homes.”
Because illness moved out of the family home and to institutions where the body was prepared behind closed doors, “death became strange to us, as a people . . . by and large, we never see it.”
Reading and writing about loss is one way for grieving people to come to terms. “People write to preserve their memories, to keep track of a diminishing family tree, to catch hold of what they feel about a particular thing that happened,” says Handler. “If I didn’t write about my family, their lives and my life and my life with and without them, I wouldn’t be who I am.”
Adds Sweeney, “Death is monumental . . . and I think that [sharing] stories may be the closest we can get to understanding it.”
Though how people grieve has changed over the years, no medium has transformed the discussion of grief more than the Internet. Both writers reference Death Café, a website that organizes group-directed discussions about death, and has meet-ups in cities all over the country, including at the historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta.
“There is very good content about the grief experience [online],” says Handler. She cites Lisa Bonchek Adams’ personal blog about her experience with stage IV breast cancer, and writer Suleika Jaouad’s New York Times blog about her breast cancer diagnosis at age 22, her subsequent treatment and recovery.
Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, says Sweeney, help to “open the door” to discuss loss. “It may be that it’s easier to discuss something so difficult with people you can’t see, and don’t have to see in your day-to-day life. I’d venture to say that in an era when we might be expected to put on more of a brave public face while facing grief, these spaces may be more valuable than ever.”
But because blogs, message boards and social media can open up grieving people to criticism, Handler says, “you have to make judgments about what resonates with you and how you heal.” She thinks it’s important for someone new to Twitter, for example, to look carefully at profiles and first “do a gut-check about how they feel about that person’s affiliations and point of view.” Sweeney agrees: “People take liberties about what they will say . . . online versus what they say in person.”
Nevertheless, narratives about loss are the foundation for healing and a supportive community. Says Sweeney, “We have to figure this out as human beings, by sharing stories and showing others how we have coped.”
Adds Handler, “almost everyone has experience with a significant loss . . . We want and need to share our stories.”