Today’s podcast is about grief, and in it I talk to Marisa Renee Lee, the author of Grief Is Love. I came to her work after my mom died, when a friend texted me an interview Marisa had done about the book. “I haven’t finished this interview,” she wrote, “but I’ve already bought the book and you should too.”
I did buy the book and have bought it for many others since then, and Marisa has become a real friend. She’s the rare kind of person who sees what you need before you need it, whether that’s a text message or a box of bourbon-laced chocolates. In this conversation we talk — as people who like evidence, but also as friends and fellow grievers — about grief and parenting.
Grief can mean a lot of different things, from the loss of a loved one to the loss of a much-wanted pregnancy or marriage. It’s a heavy topic for the holidays, but this can also be a tough time when you’re dealing with loss. I hope this helps, even a little.
To spark your interest, here are three highlights from the conversation:
How can you be there for your kid while you’re grieving?
So, as some of the people listening to this know, my mom died in June of 2022 and she was sick for about 18 months before that. And I will say, for most of that time, I was really doing. I like to be doing; that’s my approach. I like to control the situation with spreadsheets and doing things, and even when things got very hard at the end — when it was very clear there was just nothing to be doing — it almost felt like there was still just logistics and not space for the grief.
And here’s the moment that was the worst for me. She had assigned me the organization of a celebration of life for her — and she was very clear she didn’t want a funeral, she wanted a celebration of life. So we organized this and I brought all the kids, and we had people talk and give speeches. And I couldn’t keep it together. I mean, it was much harder than the day she died. I was just completely overwhelmed, sobbing, just unable to really function.
And then my 8-year-old is also sitting there and he’s also crying. And I could not be there for him. So I come into this with the question: In the moment in which grief is just overwhelming, how can we be there for our kids?
Marisa Renee Lee:
Yeah, it’s hard. I think we typically conceive of being there for our kids as taking care of them. That’s our job, right? We’re moms. But I’ve been thinking lately, it’s also really important to be an example for our kids. And I think showing a child that it’s okay to fall apart and be a bit of a mess and have a lot of really big, heavy feelings about the loss of a parent — I think that is another way to be there for a child. I want my son to grow up with different framing than what I had as a child around feelings and emotions and what is and isn’t acceptable, because at the end of the day, we are all going to go through this at some point. And so letting your son know, I have to deal with my feelings and they’re really big and overwhelming and hard, and that is a normal, okay thing — I think that’s important too.
How do you talk to kids about hard things, like death?
I reached out to a dear friend who is a clinical psychologist at UCLA and spends a lot of time helping people prepare for end of life and having these kinds of conversations. And I said, “How do we do this well? How much do you tell kids?” And so, one of the big things she reminded me of, and I’m sure you’ll agree: children are very perceptive. I think they are more perceptive than adults usually give them credit for. And she said, when we aren’t honest about our feelings and our emotions and when we don’t give them context for what we’re going through, that can be scary for them. And they often will start to make up their own narratives about why mommy seems sad or why mommy seems more angry or frustrated or whatever it is than usual.
And those stories that they tend to come up with typically center themselves. And so when we aren’t honest with our kids about our feelings, they may start to run off with a narrative like, oh, mommy’s upset that I did this thing wrong or that I didn’t do well at school, whatever it is. That has absolutely nothing to do with what you’re actually feeling. And so being honest with kids is really important.
The advice that I got about this, which I think is very much along these lines, is: be honest, but don’t over-explain. So have a kind of age-appropriate script, which is going to be different for bigger kids and younger kids; give it to them and then expect some follow-up. And I think one of the things people often find very surprising is if you tell your kids something like “Grandma has cancer and the doctors are going to help her, but this is very serious,” often your kid will just be like, “Okay,” and then go back to their iPad. And it’s so hard not to be like, “I’m sorry, did you not hear? Let me repeat.” But then you just let it go, and two days later in the car, all of a sudden they’ll be like, “By the way, can I ask some really detailed questions?” So kids are just processing this stuff in a little bit of a different timescale sometimes.
How do you parent when grief feels all-consuming?
One of the things I talk about a lot in Grief Is Love and in almost every interview that I give is, it’s really hard to grieve well without help. Everyone needs some form of either paid or free help, whether it’s having the spouse be the one to give the speech or having the neighbor pick up the kids from soccer or going to see a therapist — whatever it is for you. I just want to say to people: don’t try to do this all by yourself, because it’s basically impossible. I think it is especially impossible to do completely on your own when there’s also kids involved, because it’s just more complicated.
And I think that there are these moments when you just cannot. You cannot be there for your kids. You cannot pick them up from school. It’s too heavy, and that is when you need help.
Yeah. And don’t feel guilty about asking for help. I always like to frame the help as thinking about how you feel when you’re able to do something nice for someone else in need. It’s okay for you to ask others for the same things that you would be willing to do for them. So don’t feel bad about it, because nothing that’s hard in this world is ever accomplished alone. I don’t care if we’re talking about grieving the loss of a parent and balancing work and kids and marriage and everything else at the same time, or starting a super-successful business. Don’t be committed to this American ideology of independence that is mostly a farce.
This transcript was automatically generated and may contain small errors.
Today’s podcast is about grief. The holidays are a complicated time for grief. On the one hand, they are a time of joy and celebration and tradition and fun.
And on the other hand, if you have lost someone, whether it’s just recently, whether it’s last year, whether it’s five years ago, the memories that come with those traditions can be a reminder of who’s not there. I lost my mom about 18 months ago, and when we do Christmas, when we do presents, when we do the Swedish Santa, when I make meatballs, I think about her. I make the meatballs that she finally gave me the recipe to after I begged for it. And I think about her when I make them and how I wish she were around to tell me whether I’m using enough egg.
And when we’re having those thoughts, it’s hard to do all the other things. And as parents, we can be in a moment grieving for something that we’ve lost and also trying to give our kids the holiday that they most want, the holiday that we think that they deserve. And it just becomes a little overwhelming. I think when it is overwhelming, that is when we want to reach for our friends and when we want to reach for people who we know will understand those feelings. And for me, one of those people is my guest today, Marisa Renee Lee, who has become a friend over the past few years and who has an amazing book written about grief, about losing her mom, about struggles with miscarriage. The book is called Grief Is Love, and it’s the best thing that I read after my mom passed. And she and I are going to talk today about managing grief and managing your own grief when you’re parenting, and talk about the things that are hard and talk about how we can find joy in those moments also, because the memories are not just sad, they’re also memories of the wonderful things that we had.
So I hope that if you need this episode today, it helps you and I hope if you don’t need it right now, that you’ll save it for a time that maybe you will. After the break, my conversation with Marisa Renee Lee.
Marisa, I’m delighted to have you join me. Can I ask you to introduce yourself?
The reality is that none of us are getting through life without grief, even if it’s not that grief. It is something. So that’s the data point to start with. This conversation is relevant to a hundred percent of parents and also people. But what I want to do today is talk about your work, talk about the book. I want to talk about some specific questions that I get from parents in particular, but I actually want to start the conversation with where we are coming to this conversation from. And so I don’t know, I was going to ask you to start, but I would love you to talk a little bit about where you come into this conversation, particularly around the parenting piece.
I didn’t know what to do with all of that grief when my mom died. I was sort of an adult, but not really, and I decided to just ignore it and try to will it away, that did not work. And so about six months after she passed away, I decided I was going to find a way to live with this pain and without my mom and that someday I would write a book about it. Fast-forward 11 years later, after dealing with infertility for some time with my husband, we finally found ourselves pregnant. We were overjoyed until we lost the pregnancy. And this happened a few months before, I think everyone found themselves in a moment of grief. It’s known as the pandemic. And so I found myself living in the pandemic with a husband who was working on the front lines, navigating personal grief and sort of global grief, and I decided I needed to write about it.
All of my usual good and bad coping mechanisms had been taken away. And so I started writing and that led to the book Grief Is Love that came out in 2022. And along the way, if you can believe it, I found myself smack in the middle of grief again this time as a parent. My husband and I were very lucky. We adopted a baby boy in the summer of 2021 and a few months after his adoption and a few weeks before my book on grief was set to come out, we learned that my husband’s mother was battling stage 4 breast cancer. Yes, the exact same thing that my mom died from, as a new mom getting ready to launch her first book. And so that is the space that I am in right now, that my family and I have been in at this point for about a year and a half just navigating this state of anticipatory grief with a baby who then became a toddler. And it’s been really, really difficult. So that is my story. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, which I will share some of today, and I’ve learned a lot, both things that are grounded in research as well as things from my experiences. So I’m glad I’ll get to share some of that with you all today.
She wanted six months later. So we organized this and I brought all the kids and we had people talk and give speeches like a few people, four close friends, and we’re sitting there in a place called the New Haven Lawn Club. And I couldn’t keep it together. I mean, it was much harder than the day she died. I was just completely overwhelmed, sobbing, just unable to really function. And then my eight-year-old is also sitting there and he’s also crying. And I could not be there for him. The person who was there for him was his cousin, and that was sweet and wonderful, but I just couldn’t be there for him. And for me, that was where I come into this with is the question of in the moment in which grief is just overwhelming and there are some of them, how can we be there for our kids?
And those stories that they tend to come up with typically center themselves. And so when aren’t honest with our kids about our feelings, they may start to run off with a narrative like, oh, mommy’s upset that I did this thing wrong or that I didn’t do well at school, whatever it is. That has absolutely nothing to do with what you’re actually feeling. And so being honest with kids is really important. And I have to share a personal story where I was honest, but I made a mistake because Dr. Cleary had another piece of advice here. So I have been very honest with Bennett, telling him about my mom. He says, Grandma Lisa, he knows, like this is a necklace made from some of Grandma Lisa’s jewelry. Sorry, I realize it’s a podcast. So nobody saw that. But he has contacts where there’s pictures in the house. He knows Grandma Lisa died. Recently, a close family friend, someone who I love dear and who I’d talked to Bennett about, died as well.
And before she died, she had cancer, and we have a bedtime routine where he says prayers for people. And he was saying prayers for this woman, TTPT. And one day he decided he wanted to say prayers for TTPT. She had died that day. And so I said, “TTPT died.” What I did not explain… And my son is almost two, I gave him no context for what it means to have died. And so now I’m in this really hilarious and inappropriate space with my kid where he will randomly just declare that so-and-so has died. And these are people that are very much alive. The other day he said, “Daddy died.” I’m like, “Daddy’s in the kitchen. Daddy did not die.” So now I’m having to backtrack the… And it’s not that I shouldn’t have been honest, but according to the expert, Dr. Lizzie Cleary, she is amazing. She says, you also have to give very clear explanations when you’re honest.
And she said, in the case of Emily’s mom, for instance, you would say something to your kids like Grandma had cancer. Cancer is when bad cells take over good cells in your body. This is where Grandma’s cancer was, this kind of cancer, it’s not very common. It usually happens with older people. People are usually around this age when they die, so that they have just more clarity around what is happening. And it seems graphic and uncomfortable to me to go into that level of detail with a child, but if you don’t, they make up their own stories and we don’t want them to do that.
And so after our pregnancy loss, I have 11 roommates from college, and it turned out each one was assigned a month where they had to send something to Matt and I. And I didn’t know this until looking back, I was like, “Wow, you guys did a really good job.” And they’re like, “Oh, yeah, there was a spreadsheet. That was organized.” I was like, “Okay.” And right before Christmas that year, someone sent me these awesome black Santa Claus earrings, and it was pick me and also very closely tied to my relationship with my mom. And so thinking of those things that are just going to make someone smile or make their life a little bit easier when they’re in the thick of grief, I think really does make a difference.
The complete experience of being human includes some grief, whether it is the loss of a person or the loss of something else that you hoped came to pass that just didn’t. And teaching kids how to deal with that and how to hold compassion for themselves. And also how to hold two conflicting emotions, giving your kids’ room. I remember you saying your daughter borrowed what was your mother’s jacket and found a $20 bill and a lipstick in the pocket, and you’re laughing because it’s hilarious. And also it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to hold both. And so I think modeling that for our kids and encouraging them to do that is really important.
So the book is, Grief Is Love. It is the book I send to everybody who is going through this, I’d recommend to everybody. It really helped me and I’m really grateful to you for writing it.