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artist emily mcdowell reveals the deeply personal reasons she launched her empathy cards collection, what spurred her relationship with Sheryl Sandberg’s OptionB team, and the one memento that reminds her most of a very dear friend

Pinch me! I am super excited to share my latest Q&A with you – a conversation with the incomparable Emily McDowell. Don’t know her name? I can nearly guarantee you know her artwork – fun, whimsical, and often sassy and irreverent. Slate named her Empathy Cards, a line of greeting cards crafted to help family and friends connect around illness and loss, one of the top designs making the world a better place. And no, I’m not getting paid to say any of this!

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Claire Bidwell Smith Shares the Everyday Ways She Honors Her Parents

Claire Bidwell Smith is an author and grief therapist based in California. Her latest book, Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, is an important exploration of how grief and anxiety are so commonly intertwined. Claire approaches each chapter from a raw, intimate vantage point: her parents were each diagnosed with cancer when she was 14, and by the time she was 25, they were both gone. Along the way and later, she developed severe, life-altering panic attacks.

Claire says she felt life was wholly out of her control. An only child, she felt alone and afraid and turned to alcohol to calm her anxiety. She eventually took leave from college. For our Q & A, Claire discusses the strategies that helped her heal, including keeping her parents’ memories alive. (Spoiler Alert! There’s a section in Anxiety called, “Allison Gilbert’s Suggestions for Keeping Memories Alive.) Claire also asked me to share a personal experience with anxiety following the loss of my mother and father. (Hint: My son was a new driver and missed his curfew by a few minutes. How did I react? Not well.)

Read my far-reaching Q & A with Claire here.

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Author and Poet Meghan O’Rourke on Living Life in Honor of Her Mother

Award-winning author, editor, literary critic, and poet Meghan O’Rourke‘s work has appeared in Slate, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publicationsWhile pursuing her extraordinary career, O’Rourke was faced with traveling back and forth from home to care for her mother, who died at age 55 of metastatic colorectal cancer. My mother also died young (57), and also from cancer (ovarian). And similar to Meghan, I was a journalist (working as a television news producer) while helping to care for my mom in her final days.

After Meghan’s mother passed away, she found solace writing her poetry collections, Once and Sun in Days (to be published in paperback this fall), and her gripping memoir, The Long Goodbye. She is currently working on a nonfiction book about chronic illness.

In our interview, Meghan discusses the many ways she keeps her mother’s memory alive, including safeguarding a lock of her hair. I’m thrilled Meghan joined me for this revealing Q & A.

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Jon Stewart on Grief, Resilience, and Supporting Those Who Serve Others

Jon Stewart’s father passed away several years ago. But the former The Daily Show host’s personal experience with loss is not what prompted our discussion for my grief & resilience blog. Jon and I were in Arlington, Virginia to join Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and founder of TAPS, Bonnie Carroll, for the launch of the TAPS Institute for Hope and Healing. Also with us were authors Hope Edelman, Claire Bidwell Smith, and Rebecca Soffer. Read more about this pioneering organization and its new Institute here.

Jon is a staunch supporter of service members, veterans, and military families. He is also a tireless advocate for first responders and is credited with being a driving force behind getting Congress to pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

The Zadroga Act provides health care and financial support for 9/11 first responders. These men and women breathed in toxic dust and smoke during the massive cleanup at Ground Zero. According to John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, more than 7,000 first responders have developed cancer (as certified by the government) and nearly 2,000 have died.

Jon has spoken at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and USO events and he’s visited with troops overseas. Most impressively, he’s used his singular platform to hold America accountable for the care of those who have served and suffered.

Our conversation was intimate and far-reaching. He also spoke with WTOP radio and Connecting Vets about the significance of the new Institute. Below is an edited compilation of the most important portions of these discussions.

Allison: Why have you chosen to talk so openly about grief and resilience?
Jon: Grief and illness are really isolating when they occur. Unfortunately, when people go through tough times many choose not to reach out for help or don’t know what to do. There’s so much confusion. Individuals may even wonder if they’re grieving the “right” way. [Note: there is no “right” way to grieve that works for everyone.] And while everybody experiences loss, too few know how to grieve so they can hold tight to their loved one’s memory while making the best of the time they still have in front of them. (You can learn 85 strategies for honoring and remembering family and friends by reading my book, Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.) Sadly, this is one of those fields where TAPS has an incredible wealth of experience and compassion.

Allison: What inspired you to lend your voice to the launch of TAPS Institute for Hope and Healing?
Jon: I’ve done a bunch of work with the USO and military families at Walter Reed and Fisher House. I’d become aware of TAPS through that. Yet even amongst injured or ill veterans, there is a separate area for Gold Star families or other military families who have experienced loss. There’s a divide, even within communities that have each other’s backs in an enormous way – and there’s no community better than the veterans’ community with each other. But man, grief is still this really strange area, this taboo that I think is really tough for people to think about. And Bonnie, to her great credit, used her loss as a springboard to be there for others who are in that same situation. It’s incredible what she’s been able to build.

Allison: I’m sure you get asked to lend your voice to many charities. Why first responders and the military?
Jon: I’m drawn to supporting people who give of themselves so selflessly. It’s an unusual individual who, when you hear the sounds of trouble, actually moves towards it, rather than away from it. I’m generally in the “I just have to be faster than the least fastest person’ category.

I’m also struck by the stoicism within these communities. Members of the military and their families don’t often reach out for help when they need it. And I think too often we depend on them, and yet when the time comes for them to depend on us, we’re not there for them. So I try to help push along the idea that the least we can do for them is repay their service and selflessness with support.

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Joyce Maynard on Losing Her Husband and How Grief Has Made Her More Resilient

New York Times bestselling author Joyce Maynard lost her husband in 2016. Their love affair was rapturous. Yet shortly after their one-year wedding anniversary, Jim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died 19 months later.

Joyce captures this emotional upheaval in her latest book, The Best of Us, a work she dove into the night Jim died. In our interview, Joyce reveals how she celebrates and honors Jim’s memory and how grief has made her more resilient. I’m honored Joyce took the time to speak with me while on her nationwide book tour.

For more on The Best of Us (and wonderful photos of Joyce and Jim), watch this video.

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Rachel Thomas, President of LeanIn.Org and OptionB.Org, Discusses Sheryl Sandberg, Helping Grieving Friends During the Holidays, and #OptionBThere

What an honor it is for me to feature this conversation with Rachel Thomas, President of LeanIn.Org and OptionB.Org. Rachel works side by side with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on these two groundbreaking, sweeping initiatives. Ever since I heard about OptionB (the online community) and Option B (the book, co-written by Sandberg with bestselling author and psychologist Adam Grant), I’ve been awestruck by Sandberg’s indefatigable commitment to empower and lift individuals up. In particular, I’m deeply moved by her readiness to harness personal loss (her husband died suddenly while they were on vacation in 2015) into a global movement helping those who are grieving and suffering other forms of life-altering adversity. I’m proud to have written this piece for the launch of OptionB, as well as this post on my blog.

OptionB.org has just launched a new initiative, #OptionBThere. The program is the first of its kind. The goal of #OptionBThere is to help individuals be there for friends and family facing setbacks of any kind this holiday season. Rachel says the program has helped her personally.

“I’ve often worried about offering support in the wrong way,” she admits. “Getting this campaign off the ground has been a real eye opener for me. Even if my words are clumsy, I realize now I don’t have to be perfect. I feel freer to offer support because I don’t worry about getting it wrong. I just have to acknowledge what would otherwise be the elephant in the room.”

I’m so thrilled Rachel joined me for this Q & A on my grief & resilience blog. Oh, and did I mention we went to Georgetown University together?!

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Julia Scheeres on the Loss of Her Brother and the Healing Power of One Very Special Stuffed Animal

November 18 marks the anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre.  In 1978, Jim Jones orchestrated the deaths of more than 900 people, all Americans.  The individuals who built Jonestown, the Peoples Temple settlement in Guyana, went to South America in search of a better life. But over time they were held against their will as Jones urged them to commit “revolutionary suicide.” He denied them access to the outside world and eventually, food, sleep, and any dream of escape.

The tragedy was first considered a mass suicide.  But author Julia Scheeres, in her gripping book, A Thousand Lives, reports that the children living in Jonestown were given no choice and that many adults felt pressured to take their own lives and didn’t do so voluntarily.

Julia came to this book from a rather unique vantage point. When she and her adopted brother, David, were teenagers, they were sent to a Christian boarding school. In Jesus Land, her memoir about the experience, Julia recounts the abuse they suffered in the name of religion.

A few years after Julia and her brother were released from the school, David was killed in a car accident. Her journey finding resilience after this unimaginable loss is illuminating and inspiring. I’m so honored Julia joined me for this Q &A on my grief and resilience blog. …Continue Reading

Dani Shapiro on Loss, Religion, and Honoring Her Father Through Writing

As I sit down to write this blog, it’s odd for me to admit that I don’t remember when I met Dani Shapiro. I just know I’ve admired her work for a very long time. Her writing is provocative and elegant. There are few authors I admire more.

Dani is the bestselling author of numerous books, including Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion. She’s been a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday. Her most recent book, Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, has received significant attention and praise. Cheryl Strayed has said she was “absorbed by Hourglass and consoled by it too.” I’m honored Dani joined me for this discussion on my grief and resilience blog.

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Robin Romm Discusses the Loss of Her Mother and How Writing and Having a Baby Keeps Her Memory Alive

I’ve had a writer’s crush on Robin Romm ever since I read her scorching memoir, The Mercy Papers. The book is about the last three weeks of her mother’s life. It is unsentimental and raw, ricocheting furiously between anger, sadness, love, and humor. I’m always asked to recommend books on mother loss. The Mercy Papers continually tops my list.

Robin has just published another work and it’s altogether different. It’s called Double Bind: Women on Ambition. Featuring essays written by writers, actors, professors, and CEOs, the anthology explores the complicated relationship women have with professional striving.

In our conversation about grief and resilience, Robin returns to the subject of loss and reveals the most satisfying and empowering way she keeps her mother’s memory alive.

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Benilde Little on Her Mother’s Death, How Gladys Knight Helps Her Remember, and Why Cooking One Specific Recipe Makes Her So Happy

Benilde Little and I met years ago in Montclair, New Jersey. We belonged to a local writers’ group and our friendship grew from many shared relationships and interests. Our sons also brought us together. They’re about the same age and both play a lot of baseball. I’m also a huge fan of her work.

Benilde is the bestselling author of the novels Good Hair, The Itch, Acting Out, and Who Does She Think She Is? Most recently, she published her fearless memoir, Welcome to My Breakdown. This stirring book reveals the death of Benilde’s mother and the agonizing, nearly paralyzing, depression it caused her. Benilde’s writing ultimately explores how she dug her way through this heartbreaking time to become a better wife, mother, and friend. Her transformation is an outstanding example of the many ways adversity helps us bounce forward, as Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant tell us in Option B. I’m thrilled Benilde agreed to be part of my grief and resilience blog.

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