This is what grief looks like

A memoir that makes space for the things we find hard to talk about.

It's 2020, Chloe is now 31 years old. She sits on a stool, barefoot, legs dangling above the ground. Her book The Girls has just been published and a group of booklovers gather to hear her in conversation with fellow author Joshua Lobb at the local bookstore in Thirroul. The book, her memoir, sits on a trolley between them. Her parents sit among the group gathered.

That Sunday in 2005, the family's Pajero carrying Chloe's father and two younger sisters, veered off the road, collided with an oncoming car and burst into flames on the side of the highway. Chloe's sisters, Carlie and Lisa passed away. Their father, pulled from the car just in time, woke in hospital to the horrifying news.

This is what grief looks like.


Chloe Higgins and sisters as children

Left to right: Lisa, Chloe and Carlie Higgins.

Chloe Higgins studied Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong (UOW) and is now an author, writing coach and the Artistic Director of the Wollongong Writers Festival.

Her memoir, The Girls, published in August 2019, is a coming-of-age story of sorts. It is a raw and honest account of Chloe's life from age 17, when the accident happened, through to age 31, present day. The book weaves between past and present memories, exploring themes of family, grief and sexuality.

Her parents sit off to the side at the author's talk. Her mother has short blonde hair and leans forward, looking toward her daughter with pride, joining the conversation from time to time. She holds a tissue in one hand, her chin in the other. Her father, white haired and holding back tears, leans his elbows on the arms of his chair, looking down as he fidgets with the edge of his t-shirt.

The crowd is quiet and contemplative during a reading from the first chapter. Tears are wiped, wine is sipped and laughter hovers momentarily when Chloe asks Joshua "Did you bring me a hanky this time?"

The Girls won the People's Choice Award at the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards in 2020 and was shortlisted for the State Library of New South Wales' National Biography Award. "An exacting act of detonation, The Girls bares a talented writer's foundations at the same time as it raises the spirit of survival," reads Kate Holden's cover quote.


Chloe Higgins and Joshua Lobb at Collins Bookseller's in Thirroul (photo by Paul Jones).

A few days after her writer's talk at Collins Booksellers in Thirroul, we meet again at UOW's Wollongong campus. It's O-week and the campus is bustling. She walks cautiously, her bare feet dodging fallen gumnuts. She has a confidence in her posture as we search for somewhere quiet to sit.

"I miss being an undergraduate" she says, looking at a group of new students sitting on the grass beneath the shade of a tree. She wears a white cotton dress and a straw hat, her eyes shaded beneath a heavy set of sunglasses. She's easy to be with, a comfortable and calm presence. 

To explain the book, she says "the central line of inquiry is: how do I hold a healthy relationship together with my parents within the context of our shared trauma? How do I look after my mental health in the contemporary time and how do I look after their mental health at the same time?" All questions she is still in the midst of finding answers to.

For most, this situation is hard to imagine. How do you come through something so severe, so traumatic? Chloe's writing has helped a lot. "Writing is everything to me. It shapes my whole life. Almost all the good in my life comes from writing."

For many, writing is a form of therapy. A lot of people undertake cognitive journaling, allowing them to become an observer of their own thoughts and address potentially harmful patterns.

A famous book The Artist's Way: A course in discovering and recovering your creative self, also encourages its readers to write daily in order to guard themselves against both internal and external negativity. Chloe was given this book during her adolescence and still adheres to its daily writing practice.

Chloe Higgins (photo by Paul Jones).

"I have so much social anxiety and so much fear around how other people perceive me. But writing is this place where I don't feel like I have to carry that burden… I don't really care what people are going to think when I'm writing."

For Chloe, this memoir has been a way of finding herself, "it's been a way of writing myself into authenticity. Like the more I write, the more I see. When I'm out in the world moving amongst people, my identity feels so in flux, like I have whiplash. Whereas when I put it on the page, it feels like it becomes solid."

She admits, "in some ways the book is still a curated version of my life… it can never capture all of us, right?"

But for the reader, this is not obvious. The pages bleed grief, frustration, fear, intrigue, intimacy and angst in their rawest form. The retelling of events is so uncontrived, so diary-like, it's easy to fall into and scoop up as if it's your own. Dancing through her experiments and crying, shaking, through the trauma, this book shows you what grief looks like and makes space for the things we find hard to talk about.

What do we know about grief? Before we've experienced grief, it seems to sit kind of awkwardly off to the side, within the confines of the grieving widow by the window.

In the Western world, grief has long been thought of as a purely psychological condition. Director of UOW's Northfields Psychology Clinic Mark Donovan explains grief theory in this context.

Mark Donovan portrait

Mark Donovan, Director of UOW's Northfields Psychology Clinic (photo by Paul Jones).

"There's an old theory about the normal cycle of grief that has sort of stood the test of time, by a woman called Elisabeth kübler-Ross" he says.

"Although the theory isn't exactly true for everyone… some things happen in different orders et cetera. But generally, people are likely to cycle through grief in this way."


Phases of grief curve

"Within this theory we see grief as a timeline, right? The first stage after the point of loss, is when most people are in denial - 'it's too much…it's not real'.

"Once the reality sets in we can feel extremely angry. Why did this happen? This is not fair!

"After that, our mind might try to recreate reality by playing out different 'if only' and 'what if' scenarios.

"It is when our mind has the realisation that 'this is real' that we descend into sadness 'what's the point in life?'

"Time is seen as the great healer, for good reason. How long it will take depends on the nature of the loss and the attributes of the person, but eventually there is acceptance, a place of finding meaning again in life."

Mark also discussed the impact of grief and trauma on memory and behaviour.

"At any moment, there are apparently 11,000 pieces of information coming at us as human beings, per second. In the end, we encode only the things that have personal meaning to us for one reason or another. Memory relies on what is encoded - so memory is just fragments. It's not like a video" he explains.

"If we think of the mind as a cupboard, you've placed your memories in there, your towels here, your sheets there, but when we experience trauma it is like someone comes in and messes it all up. In the early stages of grief and trauma, everything is all messed up. You're in a state of disarray."

"By the time you're coming through grief, things start to be ordered, back into their places. Until your mind can make sense of what has happened and order it neatly in the cupboard, trauma and grief can fall out of the cupboard at any time. That's when you find yourself crying on a busy train" he concludes.

What interests Chloe in her book is the idea that "grief stains the body", an exploration into grief being a physical experience on top of a psychological one. She's interested in the interconnectedness between mind and body and how our nervous system is impacted by trauma.


A familiar and yet heavier than usual theme of the book lies in the relationships Chloe has with her parents. The tensions of familial commitments and differing personalities travel alongside Chloe's personal journey of self-discovery and experimentation.

The depth and severity of her story sits upon a somewhat dull and restrained suburban backdrop and the constraints of an intimate but tedious relationship with her mother.

"I often feel like a bad person, and that my relationship with my mother proves it." Her mother's extroverted personality can grind on her, and Chloe's introverted nature confuses her mother.

As for her father, Chloe's attitude is gentler. She speaks of the ways he's coping, or not. And the ways she knows how to help him - whether he wants that kind of help or not is never up to her.

 Chloe Higgins and family

From left to right: Carlie, Chloe, Maurice, Lisa and Rhonda Higgins.

The true spirit of the book, and perhaps of Chloe herself, is found in the importance she places on the relationships she maintains with her parents. Seeing them there at her writer's talk made that all the clearer. This is a story of family and all the things they move through. Surviving, together.

We leave the author's talk, the sound of a conversation between her mum and a friend trailing off. "Why isn't she wearing shoes?" asks the friend. "Oh, that's just Chloe, she's got to be different!" says her mum.

When Chloe was told about this funny little snippet of conversation overheard, she said "oh, you should interview my mum too - she would love that!"


The Girls is available at all good book stores as well as online.

Lifeline: 13 11 14 and; the Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 and; beyondblue: 1300 22 4636 and