Luke Russert, LOOK FOR ME THERE: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself

Luke Russert, LOOK FOR ME THERE: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself

Zibby is joined by Emmy Award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Luke Russert to discuss Look for Me There: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself, a rich and compelling travel memoir that transports the reader to the world’s most fascinating cities while also meditating on loss, grief, and a search for home. Luke describes the moment he decided to quit his prestigious NBC News reporting job to travel the world and what he learned about himself when he finally stopped following in his father’s footsteps. He shares stories from his travels, what it was like to lose his close friend and father in his twenties, and what he is up to now!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Luke. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Look for Me There: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself.

Luke Russert: Thank you so much. It’s a real pleasure to be on the pod.

Zibby: Thanks. I have to say I kind of devoured this book. I just read the whole thing. I was on a flight. It skipped the line. I really wanted to read it when I got it. I found it so interesting, your whole journey and writing about grief and your dad and where you went and how you handled everything. Even how you weren’t totally fixed by the end of it I thought was great. A lot of books are like, I went on this trip, and now everything’s fine. You’re not trying to say that. Anyway, I thought it was great.

Luke: I really appreciate it. It was a thrill when you put it on Instagram there. I had a geek-out moment. Thank you.

Zibby: Why don’t you explain for listeners a little bit more about what the memoir is about? I know from reading the book when you decided to do it, but maybe you could talk about that part of it, when you decided to turn all of your experiences into a book.

Luke: I’ll start at the beginning. In 2016, I left a successful career as an NBC News correspondent. I was covering Capitol Hill. I wasn’t totally fulfilled. Something was off. I had turned thirty. I was more conscientious of the light at the end of the tunnel. I thought thirty was old back then. It’s not now that I’m thirty-seven.

Zibby: Wait until you’re forty-six. Then you’ll feel like a baby.

Luke: Friends were settling down, getting married, getting mortgages. I had lost a friend at twenty-seven. My father had passed at fifty-eight. I was conscientious of time. I was feeling anxious. I didn’t necessarily know if this was my path in life or if it made me fulfilled. On paper, it looked great. I was on a first-name basis with the speaker of the house, the president of the United States. I had won an Emmy. I was doing really good work and following my father’s footsteps. The voices in my head — is this what you really want? — continue to get louder. I had a chance meeting with House Speaker John Boehner, of all people. I think he had noticed that I had been a little different in the last few years of covering the hill and just called me into his office one day totally unexpectedly and said, “What are you doing here?” I go, “That’s odd. You invited me into your office.” He goes, “No, what are you doing here?” I said, “I cover the hill.” He goes, “Yeah, but you could do this job in your sleep. Is this really what you want to do? I’ve seen people who are here until they’re fifty, sixty, seventy years old. Time’s a flat circle. They never really know why they were here or if they could’ve done anything else. You have an opportunity while you’re still young. If you want to go explore other areas of the world or even yourself, go out and do it.” It served as a catalyst for me to leave my job and then go travel. It was supposed to be six to nine months, maybe a year. It turned into a three-year journey over six continents and sixty-five-plus countries. What I realized throughout that journey was I was doing two things. One, I was looking for something. Ultimately, I figured out that that was acceptance from my father, Tim Russert, the late moderator at Meet the Press, that I had gone into a different path in life.

Then I was outrunning something. That was the grief of losing my father, which happened when I was twenty-two. I threw myself into legacy preservation. I threw myself into keeping his flame alive and never really got to know the inner depths of myself until I started traveling. The whole reason I was able to reach these conclusions was that I was going through a difficult period in 2018, and I had kept all these journals while I was traveling. It was never my intention to write a book. When I was going through a difficult period in 2018, I started to review the journals. Some of it was stream of consciousness. Other journals were very insightful. I came to the conclusion of, oh, my gosh, you have something here that you should explore further. Maybe it’s a book. Maybe it’s just travel essays. As I started to review it and write it out, I go, okay, I see what this is. This is something which would, A, give me purpose, but then B, I think there’s a lot of people that are struggling with grief and how to manage it and also just how to talk about a reset in their own lives and what that takes to do it. People had said to me when I left NBC, you’re so courageous for doing it. I never thought that. This is self-help. I have to. Through writing, I was able to go into places that I had been scared of before. I was able to be very vulnerable and was really able to be alone with my own thoughts, which ultimately made me a better person. As you say, in the ending, it’s still a work in progress. As it pertains to losing my dad, I’m much more at a place of acceptance and peace, which has made the rest of my life much, much easier to handle.

Zibby: Wow, that’s wonderful. I love when you said people said you were so courageous. I feel like people tell me or other people that they’re courageous when, yes, they think there’s something good about it, but they also kind of think maybe you’re crazy. Do you know what I mean? Oh, how courageous of you to put your inner emotions out there. Are they really thinking it’s courageous, or are they thinking, “I would never do that”?

Luke: It’s a probable combination of both. One of the things that’s been so inspiring is that a lot of folks have reached out to me and said, I’ve harbored these feelings, but I’ve never acted on them. I just needed that nudge. For me, that nudge was John Boehner, of all people. I think the nudges are out there if you’re willing to look for them and you’re willing to accept them. One of the things which is so fascinating in today’s world is that we’re so interconnected. There’s such an opportunity for a virtual wanderlust. You can travel to any country now through Instagram or through the internet. You can just be totally ingratiated in all these different cultures, if you want to, virtually. People, I also think, feel the pressure of society more than ever before to turn on your social media and say, oh, they got married. They’re having children. They got promoted. They got this. You kind of feel this pressure to perform. I know, at least, I did for a long time. It was hard to turn that off because I sort of felt, am I falling behind? Am I doing the wrong thing? You do have friends that look at you like you’re a little bit crazy. They are concerned. You said, no, I’m being honest. This is actually good for me. Please.

Zibby: I totally get it. I loved how you were going all through the world and this, that, or the other thing. Your mother was very supportive, especially at the beginning. Your mother is a journalist as well. Then you got to a point in the book where she was like, um, okay, so now what are we thinking?

Luke: The mother’s intuition. Part of the joy of traveling with my mother was — she was a Peace Corps volunteer in her early twenties when she graduated from Cal Berkeley. At that time, women were really faced with limited options after college. It was, be a nurse. Be a teacher. She said, “No, I want to go travel. I want to be adventurous.” Her father was like, “You can’t do that. I’m sorry.” She goes, “What if I joined the Peace Corps?” He goes, ” Okay. You can go help people.” She did it. She always saw travel as a way to measure herself against the world. It also developed a spirit of independence and toughness in her. She could handle any type of situation. My mother has always been very comfortable in uncertainty, as for many years, I was not. When I started to travel with her, I got to understand her separate from the role of mom, which was incredibly valuable. She was more the bad cop to my dad’s good cop growing up, more the disciplinarian. I didn’t understand until I traveled with her, the reason she had done that is because she thought that I was too privileged, too spoiled, lived in this bubble, needed to learn more about how the world really worked. Suddenly, all those lessons that I may have taken umbrage with as a younger man or as a kid, I go, oh, I see what she was doing. That made our relationship much better. There did come a point where she said, “What are you doing with your life? You’ve now been untethered for over a year and a half. You’ve done a ton of traveling. You really got to push yourself in a way to figure out what your purpose is and do something meaningful.” That’s when I begin to explore, all right, can I find this aha moment traveling? Unfortunately, it didn’t come. The aha moment actually came when I reviewed the journals later on in the journey and in the process. A mother’s intuition is almost automatically always correct to some degree.

Zibby: You had another funny moment where you ran into an ex-girlfriend of yours as you were traveling. It was one of those moments like in Sliding Doors where your life could’ve gone that way. Instead, it went this way. She was there with her new relationship. You were there by yourself. I feel like that was another one of these turning points in your journey of, what am I doing? Was that the right call? Not even, was it the right call? Just, what would that life have been like? Where is my life going? Another taking-stock moment. Tell me a little more about that.

Luke: I’m happy you asked about that because it’s one of, to me, the most prolific moments in the book. Ostensibly, what had happened was I went to the World Cup in Russia because it was one of the few times when I knew Russia would be open and relatively safe. That proved to be true. We see what’s happening there today. I also was like, this is the World Cup. This is soccer. This is the world coming together. There’ll be millions upon millions of people. This will be a great moment for me and perhaps serve as a capstone on my journey. I’m in Moscow. I’m walking around Red Square. I’m taking photos. It’s a very jovial environment for the World Cup. I see this woman kind of staring at me about a hundred yards away. It turned out to be someone who I had dated for about three years and had gotten close to marrying at one point. It was completely random. I had no idea that she was in the country. I hadn’t followed her on social media anymore, so I didn’t see it. We were still friendly enough. She was there with her husband. Recently married. He’s very good-looking, dapper, in-shape guy. I was a little pudgy at the time, and sweaty.

One of the reasons that we had broken up was because she had had this wanderlust and wanted to travel and was kind of iconoclastic and wanted to do things differently. I was very duty bound and very regimented. I’m working for NBC News in Washington, DC. I cover congress. I’m Tim Russert’s son. I have to live up to these ideals. Then when I saw her, I realized, wow, she got all the benefits of the wanderlust but then also the security that comes through a beautiful marriage. It was very instructive to me. I had pigeonholed myself to such a degree where I thought it was either one or the other and not accepting that there are people out there that can operate in both worlds or that you should at least be willing to try. For so long, I had not been willing to try because I was so defined by something, either by a legacy or my hometown, etc. When I saw that, it was illuminating, but it also put me into a difficult spot because it was a lot to take on this journey that was supposed to be a capstone and almost made it so that there were more questions without real answers. It’s interesting. I sent her a copy of the book. She liked it. That made me happy that she liked it. I was a little concerned. She was like, “This is good.” I was like, “All right, thank you.”

Zibby: I had a memoir come out almost a year ago. I debated — I did reference an ex quite a bit. I was like, should I send this to him? Should I let him know about it? I decided not to.

Luke: See, different strokes for different folks. It works out.

Zibby: I think that’s one of the things with writing about yourself and the characters in your life, is that those relationships continue on.

Luke: It’s so hard. I was very uncomfortable with that in the beginning, especially in the relationship with my mother because I had grown up in a family where everything was kept very close. Nothing leaves the dinner table. Everything is under the rug. Don’t be expressive. Don’t be emotive about it. Project this image of stability at all times. I came to the realization through the writing process, one, readers are very smart. Readers want honest work. I also realized that part of the cathartic process of writing is to get that off your chest and admit that you’re not perfect. That was really beneficial.

Zibby: Interesting. In addition to the loss of your father — I’m so sorry that that happened. The way that you wrote about it, oh, my gosh, it was just so heartbreaking, the suddenness of the whole thing and where you were and had just been with him. Not like anything makes it worse. Then the loss of your friend as well, can you talk a little bit more about that? That was so tragic. You had just been with your friend. I lost a friend at a young age as well. It changed my life irrevocably. Talk a little more about that loss.

Luke: It was very, obviously, difficult. It was a good friend of mine. His name was Corey Griffin. Now there is a beautiful foundation in the Boston area in his name, which has raised millions of dollars for underprivileged children. His legacy very much lives on in it, which is beautiful. They made some hats with his initials that I wore, pretty much, on all my travels. It was my way of carrying him with me. He was certainly the most adventurous of my friends. He was the one that, had he been around, I’m sure would’ve met up with me on some of these travels, and probably not married with the mortgage yet. Essentially, what happened is he came to visit me for a birthday dinner. We had a wonderful dinner together. I had to speak the next day at a charity fundraiser. He wanted to find a date for the event, so he ended up going out and sadly died in a tragic diving accident, a tradition in Nantucket where people jump into where the ferry comes. He had his wits about him and everything. It’s something that people have done for decades and decades and decades. Nothing bad has ever happened. He hit the water at a weird angle and ended up breaking his neck and dying. It was so difficult for me because I immediately began to replay everything that had happened with my father. It put me into that space where you feel so helpless.

In this case, because I had literally seen him a few hours before he passed away, it was completely surreal. Going through the hospital and just going through that whole process of death, I don’t think people necessarily know about, if you haven’t been through it a lot, there is this process where, “Oh, his family’s not here. You’re the closest thing to family. Can you identify this? Can you fill out this form?” etc., etc., etc. The gravity of it is so heavy. What did that for me in that moment was — it was a place of pain. In the morning right after he passed away, I was looking for signs. There was this beautiful sunrise. When my father had died, there had been rainbows. In this case, it was a very unique sunrise. I had never seen one like this before with these beautiful pinks going into the orange. He loved the color orange. It was just, okay, he’s all right. I realized you have to look for those signs because they can be very comforting. His passing was also a reminder that, hey, Corey only had twenty-seven years. He lived life to his fullest in every way imaginable. You might want to take note of that. It was something that, very much, I held close to me for a very long time to this day.

Zibby: I’m so sorry that that happened. Can you give me the PS after the book? What happens after the book? What are you up to now?

Luke: It’s a good question. I like storytelling. I did not know how this book was going to be received, to be honest with you. It’s been completely unexpected, the success that it’s had so far. It’s number four on The New York Times best-seller list. That was completely unexpected.

Zibby: So amazing.

Luke: I can tell you that I’m telling the truth because we actually ran out of books. It’s not like the publisher or Amazon had that much faith. All that being said, I like the storytelling space, whether that’s in a book or a podcast or long-form film, documentary film, something in that space. I think that it plays to what I’m passionate about. One of the things I learned about traveling the world is that the world really operates in nuance. Everyone tries to make things out to be black or white, but people really live in the gray. I find that fascinating. I think oftentimes, we come into a country or we come into people, even in our own cities and counties and states or whatever, and we project, things are like this. You’re like that. He’s like that. I’ve now, since I started traveling, looked at that and been like, no, there’s got to be a better way to explain certain things and cultures and people that is more nuanced. I think that space would be good for me.

Zibby: You have the best voice ever. I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times, but I had not heard your voice before. I think you should do something with that.

Luke: I am available on Audible too.

Zibby: There you go. You could just narrate other people’s books as a side hustle or something like that. Do you still keep a journal? Are you keeping one now?

Luke: I haven’t done the full long-form journaling, but one of the things I actually have on my website,, which is more the wanderlust, travel aspect of the whole journey, is if you can’t keep real long journals, just bullet points. Bullet points are incredibly helpful, and especially if you’re traveling. I did a lot of solo traveling. Most of the journey was solo traveling. Let’s say you’re traveling with other people. You have to have dinner with them, and breakfast. You don’t have time to escape to your journal. The best thing to do is put down your bullet points. Then take a bunch of pictures. I realized that the bullet points paired with a picture can really transport you back into that moment in time. It’s not as good as filling out five to ten pages of journaling. That’s still the best. In our instant-gratification, “we need everything fast now” world, get done what you can get done. The bullet points have been helpful. I’ve been doing that. It’s been nice. I can’t wait to get back to real journaling and put away my phone, but I’m not there yet. I still have to market the book a little bit.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Luke: There’s three things that I would say. Number one, just really be conscientious of time. Don’t rush things. Obviously, you might have to rush things for different reasons about what’s going in your life, whether financially or a contract or whatnot. It took me four years to write this overall, when I started from the beginning to the end. I needed every single day in that period. Especially if you’re dealing with your own emotions, you want to get it right. It’s okay to slow roll. When I was working at NBC, I had more creative, artistic friends. I would make fun of them for being so slow. I’d be like, you’re still working on that painting? You’re still writing your book? Oh, boy, did I eat those words. I would never do that again. The other thing that was really incredibly helpful to me was, chart your progress. What I did is every day, I would write on my calendar, this is what I did today. I may have not written a great chapter. I may have only written five hundred words that day. I may have only done some research that day. It was a wonderful reminder. I woke up in the morning where maybe I was a little anxious that I wasn’t moving quickly enough or something wasn’t finished, I could go back over the calendar and be like, no, you have been working. You’ve been doing something. You’ve been diligent. You’ve been really trying. I think that’s incredibly important. When you’re an author, there are people that think you’re crazy, even if you’re an established one. They look at you like, can they pull it off again? I got to become very friendly with Elin Hilderbrand, who lives in Nantucket. She’s a machine. She’ll tell you that. She’s great. Even Elin Hilderbrand worries at the kitchen table at night. Does she still have it? What does she have in her? She gave me really good advice, which was that you’ve got to tune that out and make yourself aware of your own progress. That was really, really helpful.

Zibby: That is great advice. She’s awesome. Luke, congratulations. After going through the whole journey with you knowing that this is where it ends up, with a book on the best-seller list, it’s such a cool thing to be on your shoulder and go from watching you, honestly, grow up — I’m not that much older than you. It’s really interesting to get to watch someone else work through it, take the time, process it, share it, and then get to this next milestone. It’s very rewarding as a reader and someone along for the ride.

Luke: That was one of my goals. I really was trying to make it like you were next to me on the journey as much as possible. A lot of people have responded to that. The notes I’ve been getting about folks either processing grief or just going through a reset in their own lives, it’s so gratifying. That’s the whole reason why you write. At least, it was for me. I love it. Thank you.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you so much. Wishing you all the best.

Luke: Thank you so much. Appreciate it. Thank you.

Zibby: Take care.

Luke Russert, LOOK FOR ME THERE: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself

LOOK FOR ME THERE: Grieving My Father, Finding Myself by Luke Russert

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