Hello! And happy pub day to my dear friend, the writer and grief advocate Marisa Renee Lee. Her first book, Grief Is Love: Living with Loss, is so needed right now. Marisa rethinks grief—an overwhelming and often misunderstood emotion—while offering a guide on moving through it. In our Q&A, below, we talked about grief in all its forms and the privilege of being able to process it.
PS: New Yorkers, Marisa will be in conversation with Brooke Shields(!) on April 21. Registration is required; more details here.
Looking for other titles to add to your summer reading list? Check out these author Q&As: Life lessons from Kamala Harris / The rom-com with the best #meetcute / Why fashion matters (even if it’s “just” jeans and a tee)
* * *
Around Mother’s Day 2020, I came across an essay Marisa Renee Lee wrote for Glamour titled, “I Lost My Mom 12 Years Ago. And No, I'll Never ‘Get Over’ It.”
“I want my mom,” the piece began. “I just want to lay my head in her lap, let her rub my back, and take a break.”
YES. THIS! I thought to myself, overcome with a kind of exhausted relief. At that point my mom had been gone for almost 16 years, and someone had finally put into words what I was feeling. After I shared it in my newsletter at the time, Marisa was kind enough to slide into my DMs to thank me. “Oh gosh, thank YOU for writing such a beautiful piece,” I responded. “It’s so comforting to read your words.”
Today the world has been blessed with an entire book of those comforting words. Grief Is Love: Living with Loss is one part cathartic memoir, one part emotional guide from a super-smart, empathetic, cry-and-then-scream-into-the-void friend. Marisa traces her life, from college at Harvard to jobs on Wall Street and Barack Obama’s White House, and how her grief evolved from losing her mother in her 20s to her miscarriage in her 30s. Throughout the book, she offers permission to readers—an invitation even—to wade into the depths of grief, to recognize it for what it is at its core: love. I get teary just typing that! That’s what it is, isn’t it? It’s love.
I’ve been lucky enough to call Marisa a friend throughout her book-writing process and was eager for a chance to discuss the finished product with her. On our recent Zoom, we talked about why she wanted to write this book, how she learned to name her own feelings around grief, and what it means to grieve as a Black woman. Our conversation is below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
(Scroll down for details on how to win a copy of Grief Is Love!)
Marisa Renee Lee: I decided in August 2008, about six months after my mom died, that I was going to write a book about grief that would not be super-depressing. I felt like there were all of these ideas and assumptions out in the world—especially almost 14 years ago at that time—about death and loss. It was: Someone dies, you have the funeral, you maybe take a couple weeks off of work and then you just go back to life. You move on, and it’s all good. And here I was, six months after her death, and I felt like that was bullshit.
I wanted to do what I could to make sure that other people don’t have both the overwhelming pain and the shock. And then the shame, because you’re not doing it the way that you believe that you’re supposed to do it. I wanted to remove those barriers for other people.
In the summer of 2020, after we lost our pregnancy, I realized not only did we not have a plan for how to build our family—and we didn’t have the baby—I also didn’t have my mom to help me and support me. I was like, “Oh shit. I’m not over [her death].” And I realized if I wasn’t over it at 12 years, I was probably never going to get over it, right? And I then decided that you’re not supposed to. And that’s what the book became about.
I wanted to make it more than just my story, so I partnered with a bereavement professor and researcher, Dr. Christy Denckla, and had her undergird all of my assumptions and beliefs about grief and loss, and how we live with loss, with actual research. And it turns out you’re not supposed to get over it.
MRL: I want people to feel like there’s nothing wrong with them if they’re still sad, if they’re struggling, and it’s been weeks, months, years—because that’s just the way it works.
When you have the experience of sharing unconditional love, and a close intimate relationship with another person, it leaves a permanent imprint on your brain. The love doesn’t die when your person dies; that doesn’t end. But what does end is the ability for your mother or brother or whoever to act on those feelings toward you.
The pain of grief is the pain of unrequited, unconditional love. That love is still there. You still love your mom. I still love my mom. That is never going to change for either one of us. But they’re not here to tell us what to do around [baby] teething or how to think about choosing schools for your kid or how to even just deal with getting older ourselves.
We think of love as this very positive, cheerful, generous, big, expansive thing—but there is also pain and grief. And I had to get at what is the love part of it? And how does that help explain the pain part of it? Because the pain is real too.
MRL: I tried really hard to commit early on in the process to just being honest. I have found when I’m writing—whether it’s for social media or an article for Vogue—when I write the truest thing, even if it sounds weird or feels uncomfortable, that is always the thing that people respond the most strongly to.
In addition to the pandemic raging outside, and as a result of the pregnancy loss and my underlying health conditions, I was pretty sick while I was writing the book. I was having these just horrible, crushing headaches that were tied to a hormonal imbalance. I found that I was definitely making myself sicker by being anxious and super-emotional about the headaches—grinding my teeth even.
I met with a hypnotherapist via Zoom, and during one of the sessions she went deeper and asked: “What are you feeling?” And all of a sudden I was like, “I am fucking mad!” And she asked her therapist-y guiding questions, and I realized I wasn’t mad at my mom. I was mad that she wasn’t here to help me with the health stuff. I was mad that she wasn’t there to comfort me for the pregnancy loss. I was mad that she left me with my father and my sister, whom I love very much.
I had these feelings that it turns out are very common for bereaved children, a feeling of abandonment, which I didn’t acknowledge until this past summer. And when you don’t acknowledge your feelings, they turn into bigger problems. And that feeling of abandonment then became rage, which was just sitting in my body and weighing me down.
And then there was also obviously guilt: “How dare I be mad at this woman who gave so much to me, to the rest of our family, to our friends, and then suffered all of this time and then died. That’s the person I'm going to be mad at?” But then I stopped to think about it, and it made perfect sense. The people we are most likely going to be super-mad at, disappointed by, upset with are the people we’re closest to. It’s going to be your spouse, your parent, your child. They are the people who are capable of causing you the most pain, whether it’s intentional or not.
MRL: Until I got deep into writing the book, I didn't really think about all of the ways in which race and gender played into how I grieved—when I grieved, where I grieved, what I felt comfortable doing, saying, sharing.
It stemmed mostly from examining the difference between how I handled the pregnancy loss versus how I handled my mother’s death. After I shared about infertility on Instagram, Facebook, and in articles, I got a lot of credit for being vulnerable. And it always made me feel uncomfortable—not the sharing itself, but the commentary on vulnerability.
One of the first things that I wrote about [for the book]—before I got into chapter structure and all of that stuff—was vulnerability. We tend to give a lot of credit to people who look good being vulnerable. Yes, I’m a Black woman, but I am also Ivy League educated, worked on Wall Street, in the White House, happily married, own my own home, own my own business. I have all of the things in this country where we tend to worship both whiteness and capitalism. I’ve checked all the boxes. I’ve got all the credentials. And I even, frankly, look in a way that makes it easier. I’m relatively lighter skinned, I’m thin, and people say I’m pretty.
And then I started like, “Okay, so, what does that mean for grief?” If we believe that grief requires some degree of vulnerability, openness, and the opportunity to just fall apart a little bit, then healing requires all of these other things: care and intention and thoughtfulness.
How do we create space for people to grieve who don’t look good being vulnerable because they’ve already been made truly vulnerable by society? And then what do we need to do to ensure that the resources that healing requires aren’t a privilege? That’s where I was like, “Oh, that’s why I feel uncomfortable with people applauding my vulnerability.” Because yes, it’s still hard to share the details of these painful things. But it’s not as hard as it would be if I didn’t have all of these other things already going for me.
I just think it’s really important to take a step back and acknowledge that not everyone is given the same opportunity to grieve and not everyone is given the same opportunity to heal. The grief that families are experiencing who have LGBTQ kids in Texas or in Florida, or the grief of these mothers in Ukraine writing contact information with permanent marker on their kids’ backs. Those people are not actually getting to grieve. Grieving is a hopeful future luxury for these people, because they’re not safe.
Maybe that is the next book, because I just feel there’s so much there around [one’s] sense of safety, and what it really means, and the implications for things like grief, mental health, physical health, joy. If you’re not safe, you can’t have all of those things. It’s impossible.
MRL: Grief can capture lots of different, challenging life experiences. Like when the world suddenly shut down because of the pandemic. There was grief in that, even if you didn’t know a single person who died and you never got COVID. It was grieving the loss of your routine, the loss of normalcy, the loss of relationships, the loss of the social. There were so many things. A marriage ending is another big form of grief. Even just a big move sometimes—those moments can be full of grief. Acknowledging things that you love that are no longer part of your life, no matter what they are, is the biggest part of the process, I think.
One of the lines in the book is, “The only way through is through.” And that actually was inspired by someone on my team who recently went through a divorce. She’s like, “It sucks, but you have to just go through it.” There’s no way to speed up hard feelings.
MRL: I think everybody should read this, too. And I think they should give it to people who are either actively grieving themselves or who are trying to support a griever. Because I think one of the things that I’m dealing with right now is being in the support role. It’s really hard. Grief is overwhelming. It’s unpredictable. It is generally unmanageable, and it makes life hard. So I think it’s important both for grievers and support people in particular.
Click on the Instagram post below to enter to win one of two copies I am giving away!
* * *
Have a wonderful week, friends.
* * *