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  • Writer's pictureDonna Norman Carbone

When Reality Meets Fiction

I don’t believe in accidents. I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe everything happens precisely the way it’s meant to. My sister passed away unexpectedly just one month ago. My debut novel, All That is Sacred, comes out two months from yesterday: June 6th. It’s not lost on me that, in my case, the reality of the loss of my sister and the subject matter of my novel are essentially the same.

When I began writing All That is Sacred, it was on the heels of the unexpected and devastating loss of my childhood friend, Donna, just fifteen years ago. Out of my grief from that loss, I wrote to work through the pain, to reexamine my beliefs in my faith and the afterlife, to celebrate my friendship. What started as a micro-memoir morphed into a full-blown fiction that I would write and revise over the course of seven years. The rawness of my grief had subsided which allowed me to distance myself from the subject matter letting me to lean into the fictional aspect of the story. The essence of the novel touches upon my belief that those who move on to the afterlife communicate with us and we receive their messages if we are open to them and we listen. The fundamental message of the novel is that love, in any form, transcends life and death.

My sister and my personalities have always been very different. She was a quiet, gentle soul, wholly introverted, kind and spontaneously giving. I have always been vocal, assertive, I straddle between introvert and extravert, enjoying time by myself but always up for a party or social gathering, and I measure every single thing I do before acting upon it. However, we have always shared our talents and our beliefs. She was a singer/songwriter and an artist (mostly of paintings and mosaics). I am a writer. She was my first audience, always willing to stop and listen when I said, “Deb, can I read this to you?” and I was hers.

She was amongst my strongest supporters when I told her I’d (finally) be publishing my novel. She could relate to the amount of work one puts into an art form and how difficult for which it is to find an audience. My sister celebrated with me and shared my good news with everyone she knew. “My sister is going to be a published author,” she’d say. She was already lining up opportunities for book clubs and signings. I looked forward to having her by my side as I launched my first novel because she’d been right there with me–struggling artist, struggling writer–she knew my journey more than most.

With three months to go until my launch date, Deb passed away in her sleep, quietly and peacefully, the way she had lived her whole life. She was only 55 years old. She was my little sister. We had so much ahead, so much to do and share, and, like the flame of a candle, her life had been snuffed out.

In All That is Sacred, it’s a whole year until Lynn’s friends come together to find healing by working through the past. Lynn, the character who dies, brings them together through her powers from the afterlife. For me–the friend, the writer–it had been seven years to process the loss of my friend in order to create a story to honor her, providing me with time to grieve, time to process, time to recognize the lessons and heal.

For an entire week following the traumatic news of my sister’s death, my immediate family (all twenty-five of us), gathered at my house from morning to night, leaning on one another, crying, reminiscing, laughing at some of the funny memories, completing the necessary tasks after a loved one has passed. I do believe my sister has sent me some “signs” that she’s with me, mostly through music. Others in my family have had similar experiences. We cherish them so much. I’m trying to allow myself the grace to feel all the emotions that come from grief.

During that week, a friend of mine said, “I’ve been thinking about you and the subject of your book.” Two polar experiences married in the same sentence because they were eerily similar. To which, I silently replied, “So have I.” The weight of my reality and the irony of the subject matter of my book had not escaped me. Most of my thoughts go something like this: How can I find it in me to celebrate this? From where do I muster the strength and resolve to actively market my book? How do I talk about this book without feeling (and reacting to the feeling) the rawness of my sister’s passing?

Loss is loss, and all three of these hit so close to home, almost interchangeable: chosen sister, fictional sister, biological sister–all of whom died too soon. What is it with the timing of this book’s release and my sister’s passing that I’m supposed to learn? From the first loss, I know the answer to this question will not be given to me on a certain timeline or when I want it. It will come on its own time, when the grieving has subsided, and warm memories replace the pain, when I gain perspective.

If there’s anything I can take away, now, from the chosen sisters in All That is Sacred is that Lynn provided them with strength. So, I believe Deb will provide for me. She’ll be by my side through this whole experience; though I won’t see her, I’ll feel her unconditional and unwavering spirit moving me forward.

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