Dina Gachman, SO SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS: How I Learned to Live with Grief, and Other Grave Concerns

Dina Gachman, SO SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS: How I Learned to Live with Grief, and Other Grave Concerns

Zibby is joined by author and journalist Dina Gachman to discuss her compassionate and compelling new essay collection, So Sorry for Your Loss: How I Learned to Live with Grief, and Other Grave Concerns. Dina describes the grief she felt after losing her mother and sister only two years apart and what it was like to put her experience on paper. She also talks about her sister’s alcoholism, her go-to grief books, and her writing journey (from blogging for a lamp store to ghostwriting celebrity books). Finally, she shares her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dina. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss So Sorry for Your Loss: How I Learned to Live with Grief, and Other Grave Concerns.

Dina Gachman: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. First of all, I know I shouldn’t say I’m sorry for your loss. Hence the title. Your writing about your mom and your sister was so poignant and beautiful. I am sorry. I am in the kingdom of the fellow grief people, so just to give you the secret handshake on that from the start. You can feel the love so vibrantly through the story, really, really feel it. Thank you for writing about it.

Dina: Thank you for saying that. I’m sorry you’re in this kingdom. It’s not fun. No one wants to be here. That was one of the reasons I wanted to write the book. I feel like there’s so many of us out there, obviously. You do kind of have that secret handshake with people when you realize that they have deep grief in their life. There’s amazing grief books. I felt like maybe with our story, there’s something else to add to that shelf.

Zibby: Yes. Actually, can I read a quote? You wrote something about this specifically.

Dina: Sure.

Zibby: You wrote about it in the beginning in the context of your friend Rachel, whose brother had passed away. You reconnected with her on a different level. You said, “Grief isn’t a language you learn slowly. There is no Duolingo for this. When it happens, it’s as if a secret linguistic portal rips open, and suddenly, there you are with an entirely new way of communicating and existing in the world. You have a psychic secret handshake with others who have gone through painful loss. I’m not as scared to ask Rachel questions anymore because I know that grief isn’t something you should wrap up and store away like a fragile glass figurine. It will and should become part of you, maybe even a tough, unbreakable part of you, but that realization did not happen on day one. On day one, I tried to tuck my feelings away because I had a wedding shower to go to.”

Dina: Yes, I did. Perfect occasion when you — that was when I found out my mom was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. It was right before the shower that my husband’s coworkers were throwing. That was a tough getting-ready moment for me. It was one of those moments where I’m like, okay, I could just not go. I’m sure they’d understand. Life kind of moves on. That’s what most people that live with grief understand. There’s showers to go to and kids to take care of. You have to just kind of go along with it. Before I had deep grief, I did not know how to talk to my friend Rachel or anybody else. I was super tongue-tied. It made me feel so intimidated. Part of the people I wanted to reach with the book, too, are people that maybe don’t have deep grief in life but feel really intimidated or scared to trigger somebody. It can be intimidating. That’s why it’s called So Sorry for Your Loss. That’s what everyone says. Once I had this come into my life, it became much easier to talk to Rachel or anybody about grief.

Zibby: I appreciate your little cheat sheets for people who might not know how to talk about it, words you should say, words you shouldn’t say. Even though this is a very, very personal memoir, you spin it around to give some actionable tips for anybody who’s perusing. Maybe back up for a minute and tell listeners a little bit about the story and what happened with your mom and your sister and why you decided to turn it into a book, exactly. I know we were just talking about it.

Dina: The book is rooted in my experiences of — my mom was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in 2015. She died in 2018. Then my little sister Jackie suffered from alcoholism for years and years. She died of alcoholism about two years after my mom. It was very much the feeling, when my sister died, of, I can’t believe we’re doing this again. We were just emerging, sort of, from all the grief of my mom. Then this happened. It was two very profound losses back to back. I didn’t really write much about grief until about a year after my mom died. I wrote an essay for The New York Times about our — we used to watch Hollywood red carpets. That’s how we bonded. It was an essay about, after she died, it was red carpet season, and so I was grappling with, do I watch? Do I not watch? It sounds frivolous, but it was very serious to me. I was like, is it going to destroy me? Is it insulting if I don’t watch? All those things. The essay was about me watching and that becoming kind of a way for us to still bond even though she’s not here. It was a weird feeling of, oh, my god, I’m in The New York Times, but I wish I didn’t have to write this.

The book was a little bit that way too. I didn’t think about writing a book until a couple months after Jackie died. I think it was because — when my mom died, I read amazing grief books. There are so many amazing ones. When Jackie died, somebody sent me a book of quotes, Zen quotes. I kept just putting it down almost out of anger at night. I was like, I don’t want to be soothed. I don’t want to read about babbling brooks. I want to be angry. The summer after she died — she died March 1st. Early that summer, I thought, you know what, maybe I can write this book. It was kind of that Toni Morrison thing of, if there’s a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written, go write it. It was that feeling. I wanted to do part memoir, part reporting because I love reporting. I wanted humor in there because levity is very helpful when you’re dealing with these things. It was early that summer that I thought, maybe I can add to the shelf.

Zibby: Wow. Does writing help you process? I feel like writing always helps me so much. I realize what I’m thinking when I’m writing it down, even though it was obviously just circulating. Did you feel like getting through this whole process was therapeutic, in a way, as well?

Dina: It’s funny. There’s that question of, is it cathartic? I don’t think of it as cathartic, but I think of it as, it definitely helped me process even just what grief is. One of my reasons — I wanted to learn more about grief. I’m not an expert. I haven’t studied this and researched this for years. I’m just an everyday person who lives with it. The journalist in me was like, if I’m going to live with this thing, let me just face it down. Let me just get in the ring and wrestle with it. I loved interviewing people for the book. There’s a chapter on parents who lost children, which I was very scared to write. I almost cut it. Thankfully, my editor was like, “No, no, no. You need to keep this in.” I was really scared to talk to parents. It’s the most intimidating thing. I’m so glad it’s in there because I learned the most from them. Seeing how they move through the world with their grief, it made the process really meaningful for me. It was tough, for sure. There were a lot of days of crying and just going to watch my dog leap around to calm down. I think the process helped me sort of come to terms with grief, honestly, just by looking at it, if that makes sense.

Zibby: Of course. Actually, you exposed me to a few new things about grief that I didn’t know. I love your use of — what did you call it? GIEA, grief-induced emotional avalanche. “The unpredictable pathway through grief fraught with choices you don’t want to make, full of firsts that result in a condition called this: grief-induced emotional avalanche. It’s a close cousin of heartsarnes.” Is that how you pronounce it?

Dina: I think it’s heartsarnes. It’s an old English word.

Zibby: “Additional symptoms include dizziness, confusion, anger, deep sighs, and maybe a few tears. I have yet to find a cure for GIEA, so I recommend supportive care, which may include taking a sick day to indulge in a good cry, online shopping for things you don’t need but that bring you joy — overpriced scented candles work wonders for me — a Bridgerton binge, a fast run, or a loving nap, whatever you need to do to get you through it, and you will get through it.”

Dina: That’s the thing. It does feel like an avalanche sometimes. That was one of the things about grief that really surprised me, is the physicality of it at the beginning. It, thankfully, gets better. It feels like an avalanche of all the feelings. It’s confusion. It’s anger. You’re tired. I’m sure you know. It’s everything. You just have to get through those moments, really.

Zibby: As you wrote about, the triggers can be — one that is not talked about enough is when you see someone who looks just like the person in the midst of an ordinary moment. It just stops you in your tracks.

Dina: It does. My sister always dyed her hair any bright shade of red you can imagine, so copper, burgundy. To this day, when I see someone at a park or just see someone with any bright shade of red, really, my heart actually stops. It forces me to just pause for a second. It’s a really strange sensation. I don’t think it’ll ever go away, actually.

Zibby: You write about seeing your sister at one point in her throes of alcoholism and actually not saying hello. Can you talk about that scene?

Dina: My sister’s throughout the book, but there’s that one chapter specifically about her. It was probably the hardest to write. Like I said, my sister suffered for years. I didn’t write about her at all. It was too hard. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand the grief you feel when someone’s still alive. I knew I wanted to start that chapter with that story because it was something I was ashamed of and that I didn’t tell a lot of people. What happened was we were living in New York at the same time. She was in Queens. I was in Brooklyn. I worked in Manhattan. It had been a really tough couple months. She would flake on lunches and flake on dinners and wouldn’t answer. Anyone who’s loved someone who has alcoholism or substance abuse issues probably understands that feeling of anxiety. Why are they not calling me? I was just a mess. I was walking to work. I see her in the distance walking down 5th Avenue, which is crazy, if anyone’s been to New York, that I would see her. We didn’t even live near each other. I didn’t say anything. I just stopped. I just let her walk by. It makes me sad to even think about it. I’m walking into work to wait tables all night. I was so upset that we hadn’t seen each other that I thought if I say something, it could trigger me. I’m going to go into work and be a mess. I just let her pass by. It did, it haunted me for years. I never told her about that. Then I put it in the book because I think it’s an example of how hard those relationships can be and how complicated they can be. There’s this term, ambiguous loss, that I talk about in the book. We know that grief isn’t triggered by a death. It’s triggered by either a substance abuse issue, dementia, a mental health issue where you’re grieving them when they’re here. Learning about that was very helpful to me. That moment was one of many tough ones with her. I feel like it illustrated our relationship when she was drinking, not when she was sober.

Zibby: Then her loss itself, you write about some of the circumstances of it and even the anger of when you were confronting somebody who had seen her last and being like, okay, what is going on here? Sometimes you can’t have the answers. Somehow, knowing the answers seems so important, even though it doesn’t change the outcome. You had to go on a search of why the police did not contact you. What took them so long? How do you feel now? Do you feel like you have some closure on that whole situation?

Dina: That’s a good question. I’ll always wonder. Just to explain for people who haven’t read it — I think this happens with a lot of people who have substance abuse issues. They usually die alone. My sister was in a hotel, which I hate, alone in Colorado. She hadn’t lived there that long. I was in California. My parents were in Texas. The police, at first, said they found her, but they didn’t say she died. We were like, okay, they found her. She’ll get back into detox. Then it was hours later that they said that she was not alive. Then I went down a rabbit hole of what happened. Who was with her? You just ask all these questions. With my mom, we sat there every day of hospice. We held her hand. I knew exactly what happened, probably too much information. With Jackie, it’s a mystery. I don’t ever want to see that hotel room, but I will always imagine it. In that sense, I don’t think there’s closure. There’s closure in the sense that I’m not making the calls anymore. I’m not asking people what happened. I just accept the fact that she died in that hotel room. I’m not ever really going to know exactly what her last day was like. I do accept that part of it.

Zibby: How is your dad? I found myself having such affection for your dad and your other siblings. You really introduce us to not just the ones you’ve lost, but your whole family. You’re all a character. Obviously, you’re this close-knit group. I kind of wished I had more, even — this just sounds creepy — video footage of the younger years where you’re all scampering about happy. I had this idyllic view of what it must have been like as you were all growing up and super close in this perfect family.

Dina: That’s hilarious. Basically, my parents had four daughters, so there was a lot of us. My dad, he’s so funny. He’s doing okay. He’s been through a lot, obviously. My parents were together since they were sixteen. This was the love of his life, and then losing his child. He is amazing. My dad went straight into grief therapy. He goes to his grief groups. I’m very proud of him. There was a moment we were worried when Jackie died where he said, “I don’t think I’m going to get through this one,” which is very scary to hear your remaining parent say. I was really scared that his personality would change or he’d retreat, but he has not done that. He still works. He golfs. He goes on dates, which is a whole other saga. He’s doing well. He is changed. He has his moments of sadness, but we’re very open about it. In the book, I talk about, that’s been very helpful for us. I interviewed my dad throughout the book, which brought us even closer. I would literally call him in the middle of workday and be like, “Can you tell me about this horrible moment?” He’s doing okay. He, thankfully, has all the grief groups and all of that that give him a purpose. He likes to share his story and hear other people’s, as weird as that sounds.

Zibby: That does not sound weird. When you mentioned other grief books that you turned to, what were some of your go-tos? What were the most helpful for you?

Dina: Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, which is kind of the go-to. I got that after my mom died. I waited about six months to read it. I thought it was beautiful.

Zibby: You said it was like all one big quote. The whole book was like one big quote.

Dina: I know, the whole thing. I’m like, I should underline this whole thing. I think I only underlined one thing. The whole thing, I thought it was really beautiful. I think the one I underlined, it was — I don’t want to butcher it. It was like, there are no faints traces about dead, no pencil marks. I just felt like, okay, that makes a whole lot of sense to me. I loved that. More recently, I read Rob Delaney’s book, A Heart That Works, which is very tough. I loved it because I loved that he was so angry, rightly so, but also so funny. I thought that book was really beautiful. I read C.S. Lewis’s book. There was a lot out there that helped, but the Zen quotes, I wasn’t there for that at that moment.

Zibby: Can you take me back to your professional life and your writing life from the beginning and how you ended up in book form but also all your journalism and all of that?

Dina: Sure. I always wanted to write since probably elementary school. I think I stapled pages together and wrote a book about a horse or something a long time ago. That was always the thing. My first paid writing job was — I went to UCLA, so I wrote for the Daily Bruin as an entertainment reporter. A friend of mine was like, “We need someone.” I was like, I guess I could go to a roundtable with Sean Connery. I’m nineteen years old. It was a little bit intimidating. I did that. It took me a lot of years. I focused on movie, TV, entertainment writing for a long time. I also waited many tables and had a lot of grunt jobs, like blogging for a lamp store, you name it. It took me a while to get to the point where I could say, okay, I am a full-time writer. Journalism was always there. Always had other jobs. Then around 2010, I was laid off from a film job. I was like, I’m going to go full force here. I started blogging about being laid off. That ended up being my first book, Brokenomics. Then I just got more and more into reporting, which I love. Now what I do is I’m a ghostwriter for celebrities. That is kind of the base. Then that allows me to pitch. I write for The New York Times and Texas Monthly and Teen Vogue and all these places that I just adore writing for. It gives me a lot of freedom to just say, this is interesting to me. Let me pitch it. Let me see if I can write about women who race lawn mowers or some guy in the desert secretly growing yucca. It’s pretty cool. I feel very lucky to be here now that I can write about whatever piques my interest as long as an editor says yes. That’s important.

Zibby: Can you share, or is it confidential, the celebrities you write for?

Dina: Yeah, I can share some of them. Chrishell Stause from Selling Sunset and Shep Rose. It’s a lot of reality. Shep Rose, Vanessa Lachey, who’s a sweetie. They’re all actually really sweet. I’m not just saying that. Who else can I say? I think that’s all I can say.

Zibby: I read her book.

Dina: Did you really?

Zibby: She was going to come on the podcast. Then scheduling, blah, blah, blah. I don’t know what happened, but I had already read it.

Dina: She’s a sweetie. Then there’s two that I’m working on now, but I can’t say. I like it. I think it’s an interesting process. It’s fun for me to have somebody come in and be like — they’re usually very intimidated by the book process, so I kind of hold their hand through the whole thing. It’s interesting.

Zibby: Amazing. Meanwhile, all this loss and all this writing and everything — you have your son Cole, who you write about. It’s not like you’re just in your own single-minded path. You’ve got your mothering through the whole thing. We have this podcast and social media thing called “Moms Don’t Have Time to Grieve.” It feels like it can be very hard to find the space to have the emotions. Not like you have to have one theory of parenting through loss, but how did it end up? Did you have a view on what you were trying to do, sharing versus not sharing?

Dina: First of all, I love “Moms Don’t Have Time to Grieve.” I think that’s perfectly said because we don’t often. I write about this in the book. During my mom’s hospice, I was very lucky because my husband had my son. I could take ten days off work. I was really scared that I was not going to be able to be a mom to him. I just felt like, I’m so depleted. This was in throes of it. In the throes of it, I was so depleted. I was scared that I wouldn’t even want to hold him. He was thirteen months old. It was kind of frightening. Luckily, when they came, I was all about him. He helped me. He gave me something to love and focus on and gave back a lot of love. Then it’s been interesting. Now he’s five and a half. I’ve watched him sort of grapple with death. My mom’s gone. My sister’s gone. I try to be honest with him. I’ve talked to people about what to say, what not to say. You’re not supposed to say, they’re flying in the clouds. You’re supposed to say, they died. You can still say they’re with you all the time or whatever you want. It’s been really interesting going through it with him because he asks me questions.

“What happened?” He called her Cece. “What happened to Cece? Where is she?” I’ll try to say, “Well, she died, but she’s always with us.” Then he’ll start saying, “What’s a soul?” I’m like, that is beyond my — I don’t know how to explain this, kid. We talk about it as much as he’ll bring it up. I try to be honest with him. It is sweet. I found a way to keep my mom and sister alive. That’s one thing I learned in grief. Your relationship doesn’t end with the person, not in a woo-woo kind of way. You can keep them in your life. You can talk to them. You can have rituals. One way I keep them in my life is I tell Cole stories all the time. I’m like, “Cece loved this. Jackie did this.” That’s a way for him to know them a little bit. One thing I told him is my mom and grandmother would always say, don’t leave the house with chipped nail polish. That was their thing, their little Texas thing. Now when he sees me have chipped nail polish, which is a lot — can’t seem to keep it on. He’ll say, “Cece wouldn’t like that.” I’m like, that’s so sweet. He kind of knows a bit of her personality. One thing I learned is telling a lot of stories is helpful for both you and the kid. You can feel connected. Then they can understand them a little bit. That’s been helpful for us.

Zibby: We have little signs for people in our lives that we’ve lost for the kids. It sounds woo-woo, but I do kind of believe in all of that. My husband’s mother died from COVID even though she was really healthy and young and everything. Today is actually one of my kid’s birthday. It was raining. Then the sun started coming out. Her sign is rainbows. I was like, “Oh, the weather is like this because Treats is trying to come out and wish you happy birthday.” My husband started crying when I said that.

Dina: That’s so sweet.

Zibby: I was like, I didn’t mean in a .

Dina: That’s sweet. I believe in that too, for sure. If I see a butterfly, I’m like, it’s Cece. It’s just nice to have those little moments, for whatever that is for you. I think it’s sweet. I’m sorry about your mother-in-law.

Zibby: That’s okay. It keeps people you love top of mind for the kids too in a way that’s very tangible. Aside from your two ghostwriting projects that are coming up, what else are you up to? What are you excited about? How do you feel now that this is in the world?

Dina: It’s funny. The day it came out was a strange feeling. I talked to Wendi Aarons, my friend, about this because she had a memoir come out in the fall. You’re prepared for it. Then it goes in the world, and it’s like, whoa. My family’s life, our whole life’s out there. It’s been a great couple months. It comes out in the UK, actually, next week, which is pretty exciting. It’s been amazing having it out there, getting messages from people that are so touching saying how the book has helped them, which is just very meaningful for me. I’m continuing to write and pitch articles. I’m working on something for Texas Monthly I’m really excited about that has to do with grief. Then I’m thinking about book three. I’m brainstorming what that would be. It’s kind of based off, I wrote a — I don’t know if you know Mother Tongue magazine. I wrote something that’s in their spring issue about my great-aunt. Basically, I uncovered a family secret that my great-aunt burned down her ex-husband’s house because he was abusive in the forties. She did it three times. She was this little badass. Then you would never know it because it was a family secret. She just got married and had a kid and kept it hidden. It’s loosely based on her story, but it would still be nonfiction. That’s what I’m tinkering around with.

Zibby: Awesome. Do you have advice for aspiring authors?

Dina: Let’s see. I think one that you hear a lot is, keep at it, which is very true. For me, one of the things that’s been very helpful through this career, which can have so many ups and downs — like I said, it took me a lot of waiting tables to get here. I would say be very open-minded and versatile about the kind of writing you’ll do. Along the way, I wrote comic books, which I never in a million years thought I would do. Like I said, I blogged for a lamp store, which was not glamorous, but whatever. I’ve worked in film and TV. I’ve done different kinds of journalism. Now there’s branded content. There’s so much to be open to. I would not be too limiting about, okay, I want to be a novelist. I’m only writing fiction short stories. If you want to be a writer, I would just try and be versatile. I think that would be my advice.

Zibby: Love it. Amazing. Great. Dina, thank you. Thank you for sharing. I will not be able to watch any Academy Award shows from now on without thinking about you and your mom. I will be thinking of you.

Dina: Thank you. Thanks for having me. I love the podcast. It’s been really fun.

Zibby: Good. Look forward to meeting you in Austin.

Dina: Yes, I can’t wait. Thank you.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Dina: Bye.

SO SORRY FOR YOUR LOSS: How I Learned to Live with Grief, and Other Grave Concerns by Dina Gachman

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