It is late 1977 and the eighth graders at St. Catherine of Siena are enjoying a school dance. Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” is a popular song that year, but for one student it has a much deeper meaning. Kathleen Pfeiffer’s younger brother Gerry is battling brain cancer that would take his life the following year at age 11.

“That’s what people were saying to me,” Pfeiffer said Tuesday. “It had happened very suddenly, and I and my siblings, were trying to make sense of it. Even now, the questions linger.”

Pfeiffer, who is now an English professor at Oakland University in Michigan, recently won the 2018 Michigan Writers Cooperative Press Chapbook Competition for her memoir, Ink. The national competition is for unpublished chapbooks, or small paperbacks designed to be read in one sitting. The prize is publication.

Ink chronicles her memories of her brother, looking back at her younger self as she grappled with grief, loss, faith, and hope. It is available online through Amazon and her website kathywrites.com.

“I wrote this as a way to make meaning out of loss, and to take an experience of grief and turn it into an opportunity for growth and empowerment,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s also a story about particular times and particular places — what it’s like growing up in the late ’70s and going to college in the mid-’80s, and also what it’s like trying to forge a career as a writer and professor during the time I’m in now.”

A central theme in the book is religion, which was very important to her family. She and her siblings attended St. Catherine and St. Joseph High School, from which Pfeiffer graduated in 1982.

“We received so much support from people in our church, in the schools, there were days when they fed us,” Pfeiffer said.

Though her religion was a source of comfort, its teachings would be inadequate for her grief, she said, sometimes raising more questions rather than providing answers.

“The last time I saw my brother alive was on the day of my confirmation,” she said. “The ability of faith to offer comfort and support was present for us in families from church and school, but the questions lingered and the answers I couldn’t find in religion I looked for in literature and friendships as a way to make meaning of the loss. In a way, I’ve been telling this story for much of my life, but writing a book about it is a way to make it more substantial.”

Pfeiffer sees the book as an example of how people can use their past to bring new, more constructive, meaning to their present.

“You don’t have to be stuck in a story that no longer suits you,” she said. “It’s possible to construct a different story about your past as you go through life and to revise the meaning of your personal history in order to move forward.”