Cheryl Espinosa-Jones, AN OCEAN BETWEEN THEM

Cheryl Espinosa-Jones, AN OCEAN BETWEEN THEM

Even before Cheryl Espinosa-Jones’ first wife died, she knew she wanted to become a therapist and grief counselor to help others process the struggles that they may be going through. Now with her successful podcast, Good Grief, and her book, An Ocean Between Them, Cheryl is continuously working towards healing others and herself.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Cheryl. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Cheryl Espinosa-Jones: I’m really happy to be here, Zibby. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course. You were so nice to have me on your podcast, which was such a heart-to-heart. I feel like you really get people to open up. Thank you for having me on. I’m delighted.

Cheryl: Absolutely. I just love those conversations so much. If you can talk about death, you can talk about anything, right?

Zibby: Yeah, you might as well start there. Death, ha, ha, ha, as we laugh. That’s part of grief, is finding the humor in the saddest of moments. There’s always time to bond over the funny and the crazy and the unexpected.

Cheryl: It’s so true. I like to tell people that I didn’t have a sense of humor before my wife was dying. She was sick for ten years. Time is everything. At a certain point, things became very funny, gallows humor, I don’t know, whatever you want to call it. People started laughing at my jokes, which I had never experienced before. I’ve retained some of that. She died twenty-five years ago. Life is funnier, which is paradoxical but true.

Zibby: Take me back to when you started writing. Tell me what happened with your wife. Give me your whole story. Where were you born?

Cheryl: I was born a mile from where I live at the moment in Oakland, California. However, I lived all over as a kid. My dad was a minister. It’s kind of like being in the military. We moved all over the place. That was probably my first grief experience. I didn’t realize it until later. Now people keep each other when they move. Then, it was just a hard stop. Then fast-forward, my next grief experience was probably coming out because people are not happy about it. I was happy about it, but other people weren’t. There’s a loss in that of feeling accepted. Again, I weathered that pretty well because I was so happy to realize who I was. There was a big relief in that. Then when I was about thirty-seven, my first wife was diagnosed with an extremely virulent cancer that, at the time, people were dying within six months or a year. It’s called multiple myeloma. It’s a blood cancer. In her case, she had a broken back, but it had taken a year and a half to diagnose. I like to tell this story just to get the word out. She was black. None of the doctors she went to, which were many, would X-ray her.

Zibby: Why?

Cheryl: A doctor later admitted that when a black person shows up with back pain, they assume that that person is malingering, which means making it up to get out of work.

Zibby: What?

Cheryl: We would’ve thought so, but then this doctor apologized and confirmed it. When people talk about the differential in healthcare, that’s an example. That one doctor who eventually said, “Oh, I’ll give her an X-ray. Whatever,” he X-rayed her back, and it was broken from this illness. That’s a parentheses, but it’s an important story to me just because of the lack of knowledge about what it means to be treated unfairly by healthcare. It’s such an extreme example, isn’t it?

Zibby: It’s horrific. I cannot even believe it. It’s just horrific. The pain that she must have been in at the time.

Cheryl: A lot of pain. She was a very physically stoic person. She could handle a lot. By the time it got diagnosed, she couldn’t work. She was really disabled. Anyway, then she lived for eight and a half years beyond her diagnosis, which was supposed to be six months to a year. At that same time, I was studying to be a therapist. The two are kind of inseparable. I’ve always called myself a grief counselor because the intersection of that experience with becoming a therapist, it can’t be separated. Then years and years of spending time in my office with one or two people, and I just started feeling like I wanted to do something bigger in the world. That’s a big thing, actually, being with one or two people and helping them navigate to whatever their future is going to be. I started feeling a little hemmed in. I thought, what should I do? Hmm, I should write a book. I’m a very erratic writer.

Zibby: Was this after your wife had passed away?

Cheryl: Oh, yeah, years and years after, for sure, I started having that thought. Two years afterwards, I met my second wife. That compelled me. I was raising kids. I like to say it can be really long, this thing of making something out of your grief.

Zibby: No rush.

Cheryl: No rush. I started playing around with writing a book. I’m an erratic writer, which means sometimes I write a lot and sometimes I write nothing. I’m not very disciplined. It’s usually, something really hits me and I’ve got to get it out. Mostly, I sing, actually, to deal with grief.

Zibby: Wow. Is this singing in the shower, or you belong to a singing group? What type of singing?

Cheryl: I belong to a singing group, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. In the year following my wife’s death, I sang every day by myself in my house. I had three or four songs I sang every single day. Then others would come in and out. I had to do it. I had to do it. Have you noticed in grief, whatever it is that you do to try to get through that, it becomes like, you must?

Zibby: Yes.

Cheryl: I’m sure you’ve heard that from other guests and maybe your own experience. That was one of my “I must’s” in that year, not writing. Maybe I dabbled a little. Then I started thinking, okay, the way that people put their message out in the world is, they write a book. Honestly, Zibby, I tried for two years to write this informed grief help book, and it just did not work. I was already doing the radio show. I thought, I’ll just talk about all my guests. It just came to nothing.

Zibby: That’s all right, as many books do.

Cheryl: Then at some moment, I had the thought, what if I just created characters that carried my message forward? I had never been one of those people who always thought they’d write a novel. I’d written a little fiction. I was thinking about this today before we came on. Probably, the heart of the fiction I’d written was wanting to understand something that I found very disturbing. The first short story I ever wrote that I can recall was about an abusive mother. I just had no way to understand that, and so I wrote a story to try to understand it. This idea of characters, once I had that thought — I tend to work from the gut up. I’ll have a feeling. Then my mind starts to click in after that. Maybe I want to write a fiction story that captures the ideas I’m trying to talk about. Once I had that thought, people started populating the story. I never thought it was true, what people say about novel writing. Your characters live in your head. I thought, they’re making that up, but it was very true for me. The characters in the book became very real to me, to the point where people say, oh, that must be your story, but it isn’t. It’s just that I know those people. I know who they are. I know why they did what they did.

That was a really interesting process, actually, to be interacting with these people who were basically made up. The idea, what my gear is — you probably know this from being on my show — is our losses are terrible and grievous, and then we grow. If we choose to take those steps through instead of around or over, then something comes out that’s transformational. I chose a rather extreme example, or it chose me. I don’t know. The two main characters are a mother and daughter who have been estranged for ten years. The reason is because the daughter is a lesbian. That is only partly a made-up story. It’s not my story, but it is many, many people’s story. They’ve been deeply rejected by the people that ought to support them no matter what. You’re a mom. I’m a mom. I would support my kids no matter what, but that is not always the case. The book became about how the mother transforms as a result of the daughter’s cancer. I chose cancer partly, or it chose me, because I know that world and because I’ve seen so many transformations in those times when something wakes you up to the fact that you don’t have time to be mean. You don’t have time to not do the work to repair things. That’s what the book’s about, the repair that they undergo. I’ve witnessed that process so many times as a therapist.

Zibby: In the book, it was super — sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off if I did.

Cheryl: That’s okay.

Zibby: I was just going to say the whole thing was so heartbreaking both from the point of view of the mom and Chloe who reflects back on how they were so attached for so long, the oldest daughter, the firstborn, and how she was just completely cut out. It wasn’t like, I’m not going to talk to you as often. This is like a — what’s the word from the feudal times when people were completely —

Cheryl: — Excommunicated.

Zibby: Yeah, right? That’s what I was thinking. Excommunicated, that’s literally what I was about to say. Then I was like, why am I even saying this word? How the mom would go about saying she only had three kids instead of four kids, that is a real inability to process some news.

Cheryl: Honestly, I’ve known so many people — of course, this was so relevant during the height of the AIDS crisis, so many people whose families said, “You’re dead to me,” literally. Some people came back around. Some people did not. The family that Chloe’s built, the community she’s built is really a family. That is also very common in the experience of me and many people. Your family is really your chosen family more than your birth family. In my particular family, my parents, after a short period of adjustment, were completely on board with me, which I feel very lucky about. They did a lot of work to try to change the environments they were in around these issues. Most people I know, not the case. It was a big, long distance for Sal to come. One of my editors got to the end of the book and communicated to me, “I hate Sal. She didn’t deserve forgiveness.” I was like, “Wait, you missed the point.” We have to be redeemed by our changes, don’t we? That’s the only way growth matters, is if we actually change and grow and were able to do better. I love Sal. I don’t know how you feel about her.

Zibby: I feel like Sal had some interpersonal issues. All her relationships were flawed, her sister. The people who have really big issues with all the people closest to them, that’s a red flag. What is going on with that person? Why? Why are they pushing everybody away? What’s going on deep down? Although, I did find it sort of redemptive in how she was open to counseling.

Cheryl: That’s complete desperation.

Zibby: Still, she didn’t have to go that way, counseling via the barista station or whatever. That was good. There were, slowly, changes. It’s hard to forgive when someone’s hurt someone else so much. It’s great that she could come around, but I see what your editor means. The pain that she caused Chloe and then for her to go on and get sick and not have her mom, that is a lot to put on someone, by choice really.

Cheryl: Yes. I feel as if — maybe this is a piece of it. I came out at seventeen. I’m sixty-seven. I have a long history with being part of that community. We either get bitter or we learn to forgive. That’s the truth. Chloe had done her work. She had done her work before her mom came back. You know that saying, a lack of forgiveness is taking poison and hoping the other person dies. Eventually, you can’t carry it around. I could give you so many examples where I’ve been the one to say — someone’s acting homophobic. Everyone else, all the heterosexual people around me are freaking out. I’m saying, you got to give them time. People grow at their own pace. Just keep showing up. Say your opinion, but don’t judge. They’re attached to what they think for reasons. Obviously, this last period of years has been very challenging in that regard because so much harm has been done. Carrying that viewpoint, sometimes there are moments when I don’t say that at all. We get to be angry. In the end, I hope it brings about change, not just, you’re off the list of humanity forever.

Zibby: When you do your shows and when you work with patients — do you still work with patients, by the way?

Cheryl: Oh, yes, a lot. It’s pandemic. Very busy. Yes.

Zibby: How do you maintain your own sense of equilibrium when all that emotion is coming at you? Sometimes I feel at the end of the day, if I’ve had even three or four back-to-back really emotional podcasts, by the time I open the door again, I’m like, I have to regroup here. I have to now go back to the other roles of my life. How do you do that switch?

Cheryl: That’s such a big and good question. I had the idea to be a therapist a long time before I became a therapist. The reason was that I knew instinctively I didn’t have a good enough boundary. People’s stories, people’s struggles were just going to sit with me and take me down. I did a lot of therapy myself because that was an issue in my life, not just in the possible future where I was a therapist. That was number one. Number two, while my wife was sick, we did a lot of work with how to sit with difficult emotional states. What that led to is I’m really, really good at letting a feeling come in, register it, and letting it go. It’s just a flow for me. That’s practice. That being said, I have to do stuff that keeps me emptied out. That’s been a little hard in pandemic because some of the things that I used to do to do that — for instance, I haven’t been in a room singing with other people for a year and a half, almost, a year ago at the beginning of March. We’ve continued to rehearse, but I can’t hear anyone else except the conductor. We’ve continued to create music, but in little boxes, each of us singing to ourselves, basically. That was one thing. Second thing, every year, I went to a workshop with a man named Francis Weller, fantastic grief worker. It was just an emptying out. Every year, I had that emptying out. I would meet with friends to talk about what we were going through. All these ways got interrupted, and so I kind of had to do it for myself. Okay, are things getting to be too much? I guess I need to go sit in a park somewhere. I had to come up with new ways. What is true is I know when I’m getting overloaded. I don’t know how you do what you do, Zibby. I read a book a week, almost, for my show because almost everyone has written a book. Sometimes that’s a lot. This thing where you have numerous interviews a day — then on the other hand, I have numerous clients a day. They didn’t all write books and I didn’t have to read them all.

Zibby: I try to mix in some picture books and cookbooks. I need to mix it up.

Cheryl: I relate to that because sometimes I’ll say, I really need a filmmaker this week. I really need a poet this week.

Zibby: A poet, poetry’s great.

Cheryl: People do all different things out of their grief experiences, not just write books. Although, that is a very, very common thing that people do, so a lot of book reading all in grief. Your reading is more various, I suppose.

Zibby: It is. Although, I actually just started Moms Don’t Have Time to Grieve. I should put you in touch with, Sherri Puzey is running that. We have a column, which you should write for, in Moms Don’t Have Time to Write, and Instagram account. She’s starting to do Instagram Lives, which all just makes me very happy. She’s had a lot of grief in her life, as many of us have. She’s doing a really great job. I’m going to put you guys in touch.

Cheryl: That was be fantastic. This time is strangely readymade for people who are already in the grief world. Now a huge number, many more people are listening. Many more people are saying, whoa, yeah, grief happens. How do we get through it? How do we stay well in this kind of circumstance? I’m not happy it happened, but I don’t want to go back to normal. I want to go back to better.

Zibby: Yes, that’s a beautiful way to put it.

Cheryl: Especially in that area of how we stay humane with each other around our challenges and how we love each other through it and all of those connective tissues, we do have that possibility at the moment to improve in that area, which, of course, is what my book’s about too. How do we connect despite our differences?

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Cheryl: My advice might be weird. I went to a book reading once. A quite well-known author in the lesbian world was reading. Then there was discussion. There were three authors. I knew her work the best of the three. Someone said, “What’s your writing process?” All three of them said, “I don’t have one. No, I don’t write every morning.” They were very unstructured. That was very relieving to me because the way this particular book got written was that it swam around in my head for a really long time, and then it suddenly spilled on the page. I had to keep writing. It was a very few number of weeks that got the — obviously, the edits took forever and years and whatever. The actual original book, really fast once it was ready inside of me. That’s my writing process. I’ve done a lot of blog posts and that sort of thing. It’s the same with that. Something hits me. It swims around for a little while. Then it just must be said. I don’t recommend that, necessarily, as the best way to write, but it’s just the way I am as a person. The most structured thing I do is show up at discrete times for my clients. Everything else is a little circular for me.

Zibby: That’s okay. That works for you.

Cheryl: Most of the time, it does. The thing is, feel compelled by what you want to say. I really felt compelled by somehow expressing this idea in a way that people could take in. Narrative story, for me, is the way. That’s what my radio show’s about. We all have our own way. The idea that there is a way, it’s really compelling to me.

Zibby: Cheryl, if people want to listen to your show, all the stuff, where do they find you?

Cheryl: The first thing to do is just put VoiceAmerica, all one word, comma, Cheryl Jones, or Good Grief in a search. There is an actual URL, but it’s easier to find it that way. People can remember. Good Grief, VoiceAmerica will get them there. My website, which is another way, is Both words are complete, not just one G, two Gs. Weathering Grief like in weathering the storm. Those are the best ways to find me.

Zibby: Excellent. Thank you, Cheryl. Thanks for coming on. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m sorry about your loss in the past and having to go through that illness. Like you said, more growth. We wouldn’t be here, I guess, if that hadn’t happened.

Cheryl: I wouldn’t have talked to you at all. Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for coming. Buh-bye.

Cheryl: Buh-bye.

Cheryl Espinosa-Jones, AN OCEAN BETWEEN THEM

AN OCEAN BETWEEN THEM by Cheryl Espinosa-Jones

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