The loss of a loved one can wreak havoc on the closest of families. There doesn’t seem to be a formula that can predict which families will survive a tragedy and which families will break apart as a result. In her painfully honest and touching memoir, _Invisible Sisters, _Jessica Handler revisits the heartbreaking losses of not one, but two of her sisters: Susie (from leukemia at age eight) and Sarah (from a rare blood disorder in early adulthood).
Survivors’ guilt is a term that describes the feeling that arises when one pulls through an unimaginable situation while others do not. Whether it be victims of genocide, natural or man-made disasters, or plane crashes, the survivors are left to ponder “why them and not me?” Handler writes about the burden she carried of being the “well sibling” in a family that slowly foundered under the weight of sorrow and tragedy.
She describes her father, a union lawyer and activist who found it easier to help those less fortunate, but was helpless when it came to rescuing his own family. Her mother’s focus was to keep moving forward and hold the family together at any cost: chairing the PTA, saving newspapers for fundraising drives, and chauffeuring Jessica to piano, clarinet, and ballet lessons all the while navigating an endless round of doctor’s appointments. After Susie is hospitalized (again), she writes about the death of her parents’ marriage in spare but moving terms: “That night while I slept, my parents began the slow and terrible turning away from one another that erodes families facing the death of a child. My father became heart. My mother became mind.”
By the end of Invisible Sisters Handler has journeyed back into the past to revisit the journals she kept as a teenager and has also gained access to the voluminous medical records that charted the course of her sisters’ illnesses. Her bravery in revisiting her family’s story and her decision to choose life over the memories and images of the past that continue to haunt her to this day is inspiring.