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Supporting Widows and Widowers on Valentine’s Day

Not too long ago, I featured a Q & A on my blog with New York Times bestselling author Joyce Maynard. We discussed the death of her husband, the isolation she felt afterward, and ultimately, how she grew from the experience, feeling more joy than she ever thought possible. We never spoke about Valentine’s Day, but I’ve learned over time this holiday is particularly charged for widows and widowers, just as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are often so challenging for individuals, like me, who’ve lost their parents.

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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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How to Make Sense of Life’s Highs and Lows

The last several days have been a whirlwind of emotion for my family. My beloved father-in-law passed away within the same week my son was heading out to prom and graduating from high school.

The juxtaposition of such highs and lows was remarkable but hardly unusual. Perhaps you’ve had to navigate such emotionally complicated terrain, too. My husband and I decided the only way to move through this time was to address each experience completely yet separately, giving ourselves permission to be wholly invested in each one. This allowed us to be fully present at my father-in-law’s funeral, keeping thoughts of Jake’s end-of-year celebrations at bay. And the next day, switching gears, we were able to rejoice in Jake’s big moment, while keeping our sadness – and Jake’s too — in check. …Continue Reading

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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This Is Us and the Importance of Preserving Family Memories

If you’re a This Is Us fan like me, it will likely come as no surprise I’m still thinking about the episode that aired after the Super Bowl. Quick recap: viewers learned exactly how Milo Ventimiglia’s character, Jack, died.

The episode shows how the Pearson family remembers Jack’s death on Super Bowl Sunday 20 years before. The characters reminisce in various ways: Randall celebrates his father’s memory by having a party and making a big deal of the day (Jack loved the Super Bowl), Rebecca, Jack’s wife, prepares his favorite lasagna, while Kate, his daughter, watches a home movie of her and her father.

What struck me most, however, was the near catastrophe that happened when Kate’s VCR made a terrifying whirring sound while she viewed the tape. She’d been enjoying the video when the machine sputtered and stopped playing. Her husband attempts to fix it, but the VHS tape seems beyond repair. Kate starts crying at the possibility these images are gone forever. That video is her only copy. The couple rush to get the tape fixed, and luckily, it’s salvaged and uploaded to the Cloud.

The Great VHS Scare is a reminder that our most important memories are just one crisis away from being eternally lost. After my father died (my second parent to pass away), I started digitizing our family’s 35mm slides, 8mm film reels, and yes, VHS tapes. I began slowly at first. After several years of starting and stopping, proceeding and then being distracted by work, my children, life!, I’ve now uploaded most of these images and feel secure they’re safeguarded for my children and future generations.

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What One Mom Learned After the Death of Her Son

This piece was written in partnership with Nisha Zenoff.

Not too long ago I came across The Unspeakable Loss: How Do You Live After a Child Dies?, a thoughtful and necessary book by Nisha Zenoff. The heart of the book is not the death of Zenoff’s 17-year-old son Victor who was killed in a hiking accident; rather, it’s the urgent set of universal questions such as the ones below that Zenoff poses and then answers summarily for her readers:

  • “Will my tears ever stop?”
  • “Who am I now without my child?”
  • “How can I help my other children cope?”
  • “Will my marriage survive?”

The structure of The Unspeakable Loss is what makes the book such essential reading. Each Q & A is a quick and satisfying read and every section provides a soothing Band-Aid of support and information. Zenoff’s warm and welcoming approach acknowledges the outsize pain of losing a child, yet offers the kind of opportunity that gives permission to other bereaved parents to embrace life, love, and joy again.

For Zenoff, the decision to move forward involves honoring Victor’s love of the outdoors. She and her husband sprinkled his ashes along a dirt trail in the woods. Zenoff’s daughter named one of her daughters Victoria, in honor of her brother. Opportunities for remembering like these are just the types of meaningful strategies I share in Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.

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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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Why Writing About Grief Is An Uplifting Experience

You might assume I’d be the last person you’d want to meet at a cocktail party. And, really, who’d blame you? I’ve written four books about grief and loss, and yet I’ve been told, quite lovingly, I’m really fun to be around. My husband has often said that if he had to sum me up in one word he’d choose, “passionate.” I really like that description. You might even call me bubbly.

Each book I’ve written is the result of successfully pushing through an unwanted experience and using that moment for something more powerful than anger and self-pity. …Continue Reading