Marisa Renee Lee, GRIEF IS LOVE

Marisa Renee Lee, GRIEF IS LOVE

Zibby is joined by author and grief advocate Marisa Renee Lee to talk about her debut memoir, Grief Is Love, which she wrote to help process her mother’s death. Marisa shares what her life looked like before she worked through her grief, how her miscarriage helped her realize she hadn’t fully recovered from the loss of her mom, and the number one kindness she hopes listeners will extend to those in their lives who may be grieving. The two also discuss how Marisa manages her mental health now and where this book fits into her bigger life plans.


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

Marisa Renee Lee: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited for this chat.

Zibby: Me too. I feel like it’s so long overdue. I don’t know why it’s been one of those things. Anyway, I’m delighted it’s finally here.

Marisa: Yay. You have obviously been busy with your books. I’ve been busy with my book. I’m glad we’re finally sitting down. This will be great.

Zibby: Me too. I hate to say I feel like I know you because so many people say that to me and I’m like, okay, but I feel like I know you because of your story and how open you were about your loss of your mom and the challenges that you went through and all the other pieces of your life. I feel like you didn’t just talk about the grief, but it was where the grief fit in the context of everything else you were going through, where you were in your life, and just going back and forth to when you actually lost your mom and where you were today. Oh, my gosh, it was really wonderful and immersive and helpful. Why don’t you tell listeners a little more about it? Then I have 18,000 passages dogeared to read. I’ll just read a couple of quotes that I thought were awesome.

Marisa: This book was many, many years in the making. I lost my mom in February of 2008. I knew she was going to die. She had MS. She had stage four breast cancer. I was not going to live in a fantasy about what was going to happen. I did what I do with most things. I created a strategy. I had spreadsheets. I had lists. I was going to do whatever I could to help her transition out of this life and to prepare myself for her to not be around anymore. I thought that all of the reading and the research and my lists and conversations were going to be enough to make the grieving process and living with loss, not easy, but manageable. Then it actually happened. It was like I got run over by a truck. I was so devasted but also just deeply disoriented. I had built my life anchored to this woman who had been sick since I was thirteen years old. All of a sudden, that was taken away. Obviously, she wasn’t around to be my mom in the way that I was familiar with anymore. I also experienced a lot of disappointment in myself, and shame, because it was so hard. I was embarrassed by my grief. Then finally, one day after months of beating myself up and kind of gaslighting my experiences, I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore. I wrote in my journal in August of 2008, “I am going to write a book about grief that is going to help people understand what grief actually is. It’s not going to be sad and depressing. It’s going to be a New York Times best-seller.”

So far, we’ve checked two out of the three boxes. Still waiting on The Times. I don’t know where they are. It took the loss of a pregnancy in 2019 to finally push me into writing this book. If you had asked me before Matt and I lost our pregnancy, how I was doing with my mom’s death, if I was over it, if I had moved on, so to speak, I would’ve said, yeah, I’m pretty good. I have a great life. I love my husband. Great work, whatever. I think I’m okay. Then the day that I had to deal with the physical consequences of miscarriage, I will never forget just being curled up in a ball on our bathroom floor trying to fit myself onto the bathmat, too sick to even really have feelings. All I wanted in that moment was my mom. That continued to be the case for weeks and months as I processed and as Matt and I worked through our grief both separately and together. I realized then that, no, I’m not over it. You know what? Fuck getting over it. What does that even mean? How am I going to get over the fact that I had this woman as my mom, with me for the first twenty-five years of my life, and she’s not here anymore? It’s not like I’m going to forget she existed. That led to an article I wrote for Glamour Mother’s Day weekend, 2020, which was, I’m not over it. I’m never going to get over it. I don’t care what anybody thinks. I’m just going to figure out how to live my life honoring the loss of my mom. It went viral. That then led to the book deal and the book that you’re now holding. It was definitely a process many years in the making. I’m just really grateful that it all came together, as hard as it was to write.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I have now written “F getting over it” on this thing. I love that.

Marisa: Sorry.

Zibby: No. We have this little swag line that I never promote, so nobody knows it exists. I have a couple quotes from authors. I wanted to put that . Grief is Love. F getting over it. Living with Loss. It’s amazing. In fact, perhaps your next essay or something title. I just love it. By the way, I am so sorry for all that you went through with your mom and the miscarriage and everything. How many weeks along were you, by the way?

Marisa: It was very early. It was only the first few weeks. Just being the practical person who I am who’s also a very pro-choice woman, I started out by feeling embarrassed for being so sad. Then I realized — this is the thing about grief in general, whether it is the physical loss of a person or maybe a divorce or a serious illness that you’re dealing with. It is about the loss of the expectations that you had for your life to go in a certain way. The grief that I felt, it wasn’t about the pregnancy itself. It was about what I had planned for my life as a mom with this child and all of the hope and love and everything that we poured into it. Then to have it not work out, it was just too much. Then also, as a type A person, I literally did everything you could imagine to create this life. Then, nothing. I had a really hard time just wrapping my mind around the fact that sometimes in life, effort does not align to outcome. We just have to be okay with that.

Zibby: We don’t have to be okay with it, but we have to learn how to move on after it happens. It’s true, especially in the child arena. The only thing that makes me feel better after all the journey is saying that it’s not in my hands. There’s some bigger — I don’t know what, but I can’t force it. Things didn’t necessarily happen in the timetable I was interested in for my own childrearing experience, which I’m sure many women relate to. It’s all fine now, but it’s not how I wanted it at the time. Just saying, who I am to think that it’s all up to me, this creating human life?

Marisa: It would be nice, but no.

Zibby: It would be nice. I know. I am equally type A. I’m type A+. Everything has to be so — by the way, when I asked how far along you were, it’s because I feel like, did I miss it in the book? Did she not mention it in the book? I felt like I wasn’t sure. Not that it matters. It doesn’t matter if it’s a day. I was just contextualizing the image of you on the floor in the ball.

Marisa: It was so horrible.

Zibby: It’s gutting. It’s just terrible and gut-wrenching. It’s great for you to talk about it because so many women do not talk about it, and your mom too. The scene — I’m not going to read the whole thing. When your mom did pass away, that scene itself, the way you wrote about it, I literally sat in my bed later and felt almost the PTSD from the experience just as a reader from it because of your reaction. It’s so clear. Now I look at the book cover, and I think of that scene.

Marisa: Oh, man. It was a hard one to write.

Zibby: I’ll just read this excerpt from it. You said, “Because of my size, I had to use my entire body to hold her up, my arms wrapped around her, and in the shock of that moment, I still didn’t think that was the moment. Then she started to seize. I felt her body shake so violently in my arms that I could no longer hold her. I laid her body on the floor. My life changed in that moment. Something inside me broke. It’s a piece of me that I no longer expect to get back.”

Marisa: It was awful and crazy. That is one of the moments that, before writing this book, most people didn’t know the details of that day. Getting to a place where you feel comfortable sharing those details about — you know, you’ve written a memoir about your life and the hardest, worst moments and things that have happened to you. It’s tough. That book required a lot of therapy.

Zibby: I bet.

Marisa: A lot of therapy and a lot of me just crying on the floor of this office.

Zibby: Are you glad? Do you feel better now?

Marisa: I am. Let me tell you something that a friend said to me when I was writing the book. She’s a teacher. She’s brilliant and amazing. I was just really deep in it. Writing a book about grief in the middle of a global pandemic, there were so many things about it that were challenging. I was complaining about how hard it was. She said, “The thing that you have to remember is the things that are really hard in life also have the power to be some of the most transformative experiences that we have. You get to decide what the transformation is.” In that moment, I was like, oh, my god, first of all, I’m so glad you’re my friend. I’m going to make sure that the transformation is, overall, a positive one, that I learn things about myself and take this book writing process also as an opportunity to do more of my own healing. That’s what I did. I feel like I am a healthier person emotionally today as a result. I think I’ve developed more compassion and empathy both for myself and for other people as a part of putting the book together. It’s been positive.

Zibby: I could feel you almost forgiving yourself. You were like, in the time, this is how I handled everything. Now I see why. I wish I had known.

Marisa: Yes, a hundred percent.

Zibby: It’s amazing. When I went through grief for the first big time when I lost my best friend, so many people called me, I remember, in the months after and were like, “Enough now. Get back to life. This has gone on too long,” type of thing. For years, I felt like, what was wrong with the people telling me that? I can’t believe those people betrayed me. Then the more I learned about grief and everything, there is such a thing as prolonged grief. This is normal. It’s also normal for people not to know that if they haven’t experienced it. I loved this type A, how you said, “I built meticulous spreadsheets.” This is to prepare for your mother’s loss. “I built meticulous spreadsheets and to-do lists. I made friends with the local undertaker. I told my father to increase my mother’s life insurance policy.” Then you go on to say, “I had even preemptively built a notification email list for my friends to inform my broader social group when she died. I was as prepared as they come and completely delusional. I built a plan with a lot of help that ensured my mother died on her terms and had a badass funeral. I was ready, but I wasn’t.”

Marisa: That was me in my early twenties thinking I could project manage death and grief. It turns out you can’t. I am all for people, if they have time, preparing for the logistics around death. Yes, do that, for sure. There’s truly nothing that can prepare you for the shock that comes when someone who’s yours, your best friend, your spouse, your parent — it’s life-changing. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Zibby: Yes. I also feel like this book does such a good job of what it’s like at work when you are grieving. You mentioned several times about — you had this big job on Wall Street and blah, blah, blah. This passage was really great too. Sorry to keep quoting. I could do this the whole time.

Marisa: It makes me happy.

Zibby: You said, “My grief had become too much to bear as I finally came to understand that crying alone in churches and bathrooms during my lunch breaks wasn’t working. I was silently carrying grief everywhere with me, and it wasn’t manageable. My grief went back and forth to work with me. It was chugging along on the back end of every deadline, whispered to me while in important client meetings, and sat beside me as I laughed along at drinks with my coworkers at happy hours. I wasn’t keeping on at my own expense.”

Marisa: A hundred percent. I don’t think it ended up making it into the book, but I was back at work two weeks after we buried my mom. That felt like an appropriate adult way to go about things. I could manage somehow, no matter how little sleep I got, to get myself out of bed, showered, dressed, out the house every morning. Then there was something about climbing the stars to leave the subway on Wall Street to walk the two blocks to my office. Every time I started to leave the subway, that is the moment when it hit me, as I’m walking toward — I worked at Brown Brothers Harriman at the time, big building on Broadway down there. I realized, oh, my god, life is going on, but she’s not in it. I would start having these debilitating panic attacks. I could manage to get in the door, get in the elevator, take it down to the basement. They had a training center in the basement at the time. I would hide down there every morning for months having these horrible panic attacks. When I would start to come out of it, I would email my girlfriend who sat next to me. Of course, the only other girl on the banking platform. She would bring me a latte, a Xanax from my desk drawer, and a cookie. That is literally how I started my workday for months as though it was nothing. I’d redo my makeup in the bathroom downstairs, come up, and still be within five minutes of our normal start time for the workday. It was insane. Besides my girlfriend, Alexa, I didn’t tell people that that’s how I was living. I was just like, this is weird. I thought this wasn’t going to be that bad. It was crazy. There was a lot of self-forgiveness that I had to do and just a lot of wrapping my mind around how hard that period of time was.

Zibby: That’s a soul-crushing image to think of you like that, to think of the people who are going through that now who don’t know that other people have done it. That’s why your book has to find all the right people. Then the same thing with the pregnancy. You said, “As the classic Black female striver who had actually climbed her way to success and made my family proud by attending a good school, working on Wall Street and in the White House and marrying a wonderful man, I had convinced myself I could have and do it all, maybe not all at once, but as long as I worked hard, I would ultimately get what I wanted in life. Why shouldn’t I? I did everything in my power to ensure this pregnancy came to pass. I felt I had earned that baby. I felt entitled to that baby. I had a very specific set of plans for myself as a mother. I believed in my bones that I was meant to be a mom. I had worked so hard to bring that life into the world. Then I was left with a failure, and yet another year would pass without my child.” Then you went on. You said, “I didn’t have a backup plan. It was once again the loss of my identity, plus the loss of physical health. It was a grief like no other.” I’m sorry. Now I’m just like, let me rub the hardest days of your life in your face in this beautiful summer day.

Marisa: No, it’s okay. This is what I do. It was brutal. There is something about pregnancy loss — I texted one of my girlfriends who’s been through it a bunch. I just felt like such a failure. If I’m being honest, failure hadn’t been a big part of my life up until that point. I was the hardworking, overachiever kid who did all the things in high school and went to Harvard and then helped take care of her dying mom while working on Wall Street and then went to work for Barack Obama and then and then and then. For me to have something that I really believed was meant to be mine and that I knew I worked hard to get and then to have it not work out, I was confused. I couldn’t understand what happened. I was confused and depressed. I just felt like the biggest failure in the world.

Zibby: I feel terrible. I totally get it. I totally understand. If only that’s the way it worked. You also wrote later how you were not thinking about extending grace to anyone two days after your mother died and how grief also affects friendships.

Marisa: You know.

Zibby: I know. I know. The people who really show up sometimes are the ones you don’t expect. You’ll never forget. The ones maybe you thought you could count on and then maybe you can’t — like so much in life, not to be woo-woo or hokey or whatever, but often, people’s reactions have so much more to say about who they are than anything going on with you, whether it’s death, divorce, anything. People’s reactions, they’re like a litmus test. It’s almost the best way — you should just go around being like, I’m getting a divorce. Then you will find out right away what’s going on with your friends’ marriages. It’s similar with loss. It’s a mirror in a way.

Marisa: It’s true. I was obviously really young when my mom died, so I was the first in my friend group to have to go through something like that and to have to try and navigate it. Yet people stepped up for me in so many amazing ways. I get the question in pretty much every interview, what do I do if someone I care about is grieving? I don’t know what to say.

Zibby: I’m not going to ask you.

Marisa: Well, I’m going to tell everybody anyway because it’s so important to me. I know you’re going to agree with me. First of all, if somebody just lost someone that is one of their most important in the world, pretty much nothing you say is going to make them feel better because the devastation is that deep. People need to stop getting hung up on the, what do I say? There’s a chance you might say something stupid. It’s not the end of the world. What matters the most, I believe, is doing something. Someone has just had the worst thing in their life happen to them. They need help. They need practical help. They need help that might cheer them up down the road. Figure out what you can do for them, whether it’s sending a thoughtful gift or dropping off a meal or committing to picking their kids up from summer camp. Whatever it is, do something. Like you said, you never forget those people who stepped up and really supported you when you were going through it. That’s always my thing to everybody. Figure out something useful to do, and just do it. Don’t ask, what can I do for you? What do you need? They don’t know. They’re too sad.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s so true. I think food is always good.

Marisa: Same.

Zibby: When we got back from when my husband lost his mom, a friend of his, a friend of ours now, not only had food, but had it delivered from a local restaurant, party food style, those giant aluminum cases.

Marisa: Catering-type stuff.

Zibby: There were only three of us. It was Kyle, his sister, and me. She sent us food for a hundred people. We ate it for weeks. Not weeks. I’ll never forget that, that we came home, and we didn’t have to think about food. She had it all there.

Marisa: Ready to go.

Zibby: Yes, the little things. It’s the little things. You’re like, wow.

Marisa: It’s huge.

Zibby: His partners at work, every day for a week sent us another thing of food from Goldbelly.

Marisa: That stuff makes a difference. One of my favorite gifts that I’ve received in grief times came after we lost our pregnancy. One of my girlfriends, same one that would rescue me with the Xanax every morning at work, she sent a box of gourmet cheeses from Murray’s Cheese Shop in the West Village because it’s one of my favorite places on earth. Technically, impractical, but she knew I wasn’t going to be up for big meals. I could snack on cheese and crackers all day long and cry. Just do something, people, please.

Zibby: Because of that woman who did that for me, the next friend I had who lost someone, I just did an Uber Eats. I was like, I’m just getting them a whole meal. I’m not preparing a casserole. I’m like, if you are home, expect this delivery. Don’t write me back.

Marisa: That’s exactly the way to do it.

Zibby: Tell me also about your business. You were talking about moving. You’re moving cities. You’re promoting a book. You’re running a business.

Marisa: I run a small consulting firm that primarily focuses on strategy, operations, and some partnerships work mostly for philanthropists, so big foundations, some nonprofits. Then I do some private sector clients, but it’s mostly philanthropy and political organizations, folks in the social sector, essentially, leveraging all the things I did in the White House to help people run and grow organizations. It’s busy. I have that full-time job. Then, you know, promoting a book is a full-time job, and then an eleven-month-old. It’s been a time over here.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Is there anything you do that helps you feel more sane?

Marisa: Yes. One thing I have started doing, just checking in on my emotional health. Every night when I get into bed, I just ask myself, what are you feeling? How are you feeling? Is there anything you need that maybe you can incorporate in your day tomorrow to make life a little bit less crazy? I’m also looking at my Peloton bike right now. I’m a big fitness person. I’ve been trying to write pretty much every day, not for anybody else, but just processing, getting things out, figuring out what I might want to do for the next book, figuring out mom stuff that I’m still learning and trying to work through. Those are some of my big ones.

Zibby: I look at my Peloton bike too.

Marisa: I’m going to look for you. I’m going to add you. I’ll invite you to one of my workouts. I’m totally addicted.

Zibby: No, then you’ll see that it’s been way too long that I — I have no excuse, none. It’s just terrible. I will ask what advice you have for aspiring authors.

Marisa: If you believe that you have a story to tell, start writing. It’s a really hard — you’ve highlighted this a bit. It’s a really hard industry to navigate as a newcomer. I feel like there have been a lot of pieces out about how hard it is and how hard it is specifically to sell a book and to really get the traction you need for a book to be “successful.” I just want to encourage people, if you really believe that you have a story that needs to be shared, to start working on it. See what happens. See where it goes. If you’re not ready to write the whole thing — it took me over a decade to put this book together. In the meantime, I wrote shorter pieces about grief and infertility and loss. Put yourself out there. If you don’t start, you’re never going to finish. I’m all about just getting writing and seeing where it takes you.

Zibby: This gave me such a good idea. When you said that you still haven’t gotten on the best-seller list — I’ve been thinking about that this whole conversation. I’m like, what is it that — it’s almost impossible to get on The New York Times best-seller list. I would like to see, of all the people who listen to the podcast or in the Moms Don’t Have Time To universe in some way — I would like to have my own best-seller list, but have some way of tracking it. Then it’s not everyone in the world. It’s in this select group of people who really love to read or whatever.

Marisa: Yes, I love that. You know, the whole New York Times things is very opaque. No one can give you a straight answer of exactly how it works or anything. I am grateful that people seem to be enjoying the book and that it’s helping people because that’s what I wrote it for. The New York Times will have to wait for the next book, I guess.

Zibby: They’ll be waiting, or we’ll have a new best-seller list. Marisa, thank you so much. Thanks for the chat.

Marisa: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Thanks for being so open and sharing and allowing others to connect with you.

Marisa: Of course. Thank you.

Zibby: Bye. Take care.

Marisa: Bye.

GRIEF IS LOVE by Marisa Renee Lee

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