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Four Funerals and a Wedding: Jill Smolowe on Resiliency

Sometimes grief brings us to a new resiliency that we can share with others.

When we are in the throes of grief, we often look for solace from those who are closest to us, family and friends.  But sometimes even those whom we might depend up for support are unable to do so. For many, this could mean despair.  For Jill Smolowe, it meant moving forward and translating what she learned about grief into resiliency, which she shares in her most recent book: Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief .

Known for her prolific writing and award winning articles, Smolowe has worked for Time magazine and Newsweek. Currently she is a senior editor with People magazine. 

What follows is an interview in her words:

You suffered the loss of your husband, sister, mother and mother-in-law in a short time, yet you were able to move on with your life. Did that surprise you?

Initially, yes, it surprised me a lot. I had so many images in my head of what grief looked like, images that came from films, memoirs and television shows. I anticipated a day when I would crawl into bed, pull the sheet over my head and sink into despair, even depression. Yet that day never arrived. Neither did any of the so-called five stages of grief that Baby Boomers were raised on. I was still waiting for the anger and the denial stages when clinical psychologist George Bonanno published The Other Side of Sadness.  [A book which pointed out that the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross involved observations about the dying, not the bereaved] 

Instead, bereavement research of the last two decades point out three groups: people who are overwhelmed by grief for more than 18 months; those who return to normal life within 18 months; and those who return to normal functioning within six months or even days. This last group, labeled “resilient,” is by far the largest group. “Four Funerals and a Wedding” aims to put a face on this silent majority.

You write about a “cultural script” the surrounds grieving. What do you mean by that, and how did it affect your grieving process? 

When you are newly widowed, people cleave to a one-size-fits-all script that assumes the only topic you could possibly want to talk about is your sorrow. The repetitive refrain of “How are you” is well-meaning, but it gets tired fast.

People also assume you must be a basket case, a message they convey with worried facial expression and cautious tones, as if you might break. I was functioning better than I anticipated, and didn’t find this sort of well-intended concern helpful. My sorrow wasn’t something I felt inclined to share; it was too personal and too specific to the intimate relationship I’d shared with my husband, Joe, for 28 years. No one could fill the huge hole that was his absence.

Instead, what I most needed from friends was conversation and activity that would remind me of the many other aspects of my life that remained wonderful. I was never more than minutes from my sorrow. Anytime I could think about something other than my pain for even a few minutes, was replenishing.

What advice can you offer to people who want to help someone who is grieving?

Rather than rushing at a grieving person with preconceived ideas about what they must be feeling and what they must need to hear, stand back a bit. Listen, watch, and make yourself available, without agenda.

 “If you say, ‘How are you?’ and the answer comes back, ‘Good. What’s been happening with your son’s soccer team?’ that’s a signal to change the channel. If you provide mourners with some space, over time they will feel less hemmed in by your expectations, and more comfortable expressing what they actually need.

One good question is, “What are you most concerned about?” If they tell you they’re worried about getting their dog walked or figuring out how to access files on their late spouse’s computer, they’ve handed you a task that is truly useful.

You speculate that the years of care-giving that preceded your husband’s death helped you to cope with your grief. How was this so?

The attention that gets trained on a new widow is similar to the interest that gets stirred when there is a dire diagnosis. While caring for Joe through his long hospitalizations for chemo and a stem cell transplant, I both became attuned to the coping mechanisms that worked best for me and learned how to communicate that information to my friends.

What I most needed was for people to talk about their lives and to engage those parts of me -- as reader, writer, carpooler, news hound --  that were not connected to being the wife-of-a-sick-man. After Joe died, those same coping strategies proved helpful. Also key was how Joe and I navigated his illness. At the time of his leukemia diagnosis, the early battles of our marriage, which concerned when to start a family, were in the distant past. For years we’d been in a wonderful place in our marriage and in the co-parenting of our daughter. The demands of illness and a hospital regimen introduced an even deeper level of intimacy. I’ve never felt my priorities so clear or my hours so well spent as when we were quarantined in the hospital, striving to get him well.

I have never loved so generously; I have never felt so cherished. Joe and I not only lived in the moment; we lived in the same moment, blood count to blood count. The love and appreciation that we both expressed during those hospitalizations, which extended intermittently over two and a half years, provides comfort now that he’s gone. 

You’re now remarried. What were your thoughts when you first met your new husband?

At the time, both my sister and mother were in irreversible decline. I knew I eventually wanted to find someone with whom to share my life, but I wasn’t looking for that anytime soon. I just wanted to feel a measure of hope that there could be happiness for me up the road. So, expecting nothing beyond distraction, I ventured into online dating. Ten days on, I heard from a widower who’d lost his wife of 38 years two months before I lost Joe. Our connection was immediate, not only because we understood each other’s grief, but because we were experiencing our grief in a similar way.

As we got to know each other, we also began to understand that it is possible to be happy and sad at the same time. Bob and I continue to respect and make room for each other’s grief, and I imagine we always will. Five years after losing our respective spouses, I still love and miss Joe; Bob still loves and misses Leslie. We both feel that’s as it should be.

You now work as a grief and transition coach. At what point do you think coaching can help someone who is dealing with grief?

There is only one broad comment I feel comfortable making about grief: while loss is universal, grief is personal. In “Four Funerals and a Wedding” I offer my personal story not as a template but rather as an alternate picture of how grief unfolds for many people.

My intent is to expand awareness about the emotional repertoire that attends grief so that those who are mourning won’t feel so constricted by others’ expectations, and those who want to provide help have a broader palette from which to draw. Each grieving person has to find his or her own way. For those who want to begin envisioning the next chapter in their lives but feel held back by either their own or other people’s assumptions, coaching can be very useful for identifying goals, then designing steps to move in that direction. 

For more information about Jill Smolowe and her books, please go to www.jillsmolowe.com

Rita Watson is an Associate Fellow at Yale's Ezra Stiles College and a columnist for The Providence Journal.

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