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New York Times Bestselling Author Laurie Halse Anderson Reveals the Lessons Grief Teaches Us

In her memoir, Shout, New York Times bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson turns away from her career as one of America’s most acclaimed authors of historical fiction and writes about being raped when she was 13. The experience transformed her adolescence and framed her emotional life well into adulthood.

I’ve known Laurie for a while now. We both went to Georgetown University, and since we met, I’ve always been impressed by her wit and generosity. I’m absolutely thrilled she agreed to talk with me about another deeply personal part of her life — the loss of her parents. In our Q&A, Laurie shares the lessons grief has taught her about living life to the fullest.

Allison: What one memento reminds you most of your mother? Your father?
Laurie: When my mother died ten years ago, her granddaughters each took a few items of her clothing. I kept some sweaters and donated the rest to a women’s shelter. I wear them when I’m missing her or coping with challenging situations. We’re getting ready to downsize and I’m pondering which one sweater I’ll take to the new house. It’s time to let the rest of them move on to someone who needs them more than I do.

My father died five years ago. He was a writer (as am I) and we both enjoyed office supply stores to an unhealthy degree. He left me a massive closet filled with envelopes, notepaper and pens. I suspect it will last me at least twenty years. Writing on the paper he gave me helps the words flow freely.

Allison: What is the most satisfying way you’ve developed for keeping the memory of your parents alive?
Laurie: I adore sharing stories about them with my kids and other relatives, especially centered on food. When we enjoy a great bagel topped with cream cheese, red onion, lox, capers and pepper, my father is among us. My mother liked dry martinis and fish chowder (though not at the same time), and she passed on recipes from generations before her, all seasoned with stories of her parents and grandparents.

Allison: Being proactive about remembering loved ones drives resilience and sparks happiness. Have you found this to be the case?
Laurie: Our culture usually teaches us to avoid pain. That avoidance is often at the root of unhealthy behaviors like substance abuse, self-harm, gambling, compulsive shopping and violent outbursts. It’s healthier to confront the pain, to feel deeply and mourn fully. I was a wreck when my parents died and it changed me forever. Now I am this next version of me, matured a bit, with an appreciation of death and understanding of loss. My happiness has deeper roots and very few things upset me.

Allison: What do you know now about keeping the memory of your mother and father alive that you didn’t know when the losses occurred?
Laurie: I took care of both of my parents (and my father-in-law) at the end of their lives and held them as they crossed over. Before their deaths, I simply could not imagine a world without them, though I knew it would exist, at least in theory. Back then the notion that I would be able to function AND focus on the good memories seemed impossible. But then it all unfolded exactly the way it was supposed to.

Allison: Loss is a great teacher. In what way have you derived greater joy and meaning from life following loss?
Laurie: I know this sounds weird, but Death feels like a friendly companion to me, one who gently reminds me every hour to pay attention to this moment, this sip of coffee, this embrace. Caring for my parents and father-in-law and witnessing their deaths was one of the greatest gifts they gave me. Now I know how to live.