Meghan Riordan Jarvis, END OF THE HOUR: A Therapist's Memoir

Meghan Riordan Jarvis, END OF THE HOUR: A Therapist's Memoir

Zibby Books author alert! Zibby interviews esteemed trauma therapist Meghan Riordan Jarvis about her poignant and vulnerable new memoir, END OF THE HOUR. The two discuss their shared experiences with loss and the supportive community they found through a book club. Meghan’s book stems from her own profound grief after losing her father to cancer and her mother unexpectedly two years later. The conversation also touches on Meghan’s professional perspective on grief, and she reveals how writing this memoir became a therapeutic process for her.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Meghan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your memoir, End of the Hour.

Meghan Riordan Jarvis: I am so excited to be here. It’s a super surreal thing that you are in your library interviewing me right now. I just can’t believe it.

Zibby: It’s so amazing. Tell everybody the whole history of, and I’ll chime in, of how we met and how this book is in the world.

Meghan: I was on a podcast the other day. They were like, “Tell us how you got your book deal.” I was like, don’t you want to know how I met my husband? That was much more straightforward. I was reading the book Inheritance by Dani Shapiro. That is where it started. A friend of mine that I went to high school with — I posted it and was like, “I think this is the best book I’ve ever read.” A friend of mine said, “That author is coming to this new book club that I just became a part of. You can come.” I had just gone up to Kripalu to see Dani Shapiro. I was like, “I’m definitely coming.” Then I Zoom in to what I assumed was going to be hundreds of people. I think there were twenty of us. Here you are. We talk about the book for twenty minutes. Then Dani Shapiro comes in and talks to the twenty or thirty of us. I was like, what is this group? At that point, I was still really grieving. I was still in really early grief. The level of conversation, it reminded me of safer times when I was in high school and people were really interested in having intellectual conversation. Back then, we were reading, essentially, a memoir a week. I just ordered the whole stack and was like, one o’clock on Tuesdays, I have to be at the book club. It was this incredible community of people who — a memoir is essentially a grief story, from my perspective. If you’re bothering to tell your story, it’s because something deeply difficult happened. I was just really moved by the books.

I’m a trauma therapist specializing in grief and loss, so I also really was engaged in the books. Then you had this unbelievable tragedy happen in your family where your mother-in-law died and your grandmother-in-law. Then you and I had this conversation about resources and connection. You really graciously invited me to that funeral, which was on Zoom, and there was my cousin, Bill McCormick. I’m texting him. I’m like, “What are you doing at this funeral?” He’s like, “What are you doing at this funeral?” At that time, it was during COVID. I was in a house in Montana because my family was traveling, but I was still making, every Tuesday, book club. He was like, “Zibby and my wife have been best friends since camp or grade school.” I was like, of course, that’s exactly how it is. Then you and I would meet in the Zoom room and also text and talk and share resources. I’d say, “Have you seen this book?” I remember connecting you to Hope Edelman because I got really obsessed with a book she was reading. It just was this network of extraordinary people who cared about each other, kind of knew each other’s got stories, got to know authors, were rooting for each other. I have chills when I’m talking about it. It’s hard to explain what this book club was for me. Then I started really writing. I was talking about how I was writing. We had just come back. We came back from our four/five-month-long trip. I was really writing about the grief story that becomes my memoir.

You sent me an email. The email said, “Do you think you have a memoir in you?” It came across at five in the evening. My husband was cooking. I was like, “Hey babe, can you come here?” I showed it to him. I was like, “What do you think this means?” He was like, “Um, I think it means what the words say.” I was like, “What? She wants –” Then you explained that you had some plans and that you were maybe going to do an imprint. All of that didn’t immediately happen. Instead, in lieu of, I worked on my memoir with your support in this fellowship that you put together with Carolyn Murnick, this extraordinary editor who helped me. That is what happened. Then the minute Carolyn and I said, this is a book — it was not a book in the beginning. In the beginning, it was a bunch of, almost, journal entries. God love that woman. She worked very hard to teach me how to write a book. The minute we said, this is a book — she called me. She was like, “You did it. It’s a book.” Then two days later, I was in the UK. You were like, “Hey, do you have a minute?” I was like, uh, oh, I’m either in trouble or — . You called and said, “We want to buy your book.” By that time, I knew that you were starting — you were like, “Shh, don’t tell anyone, but I’m going to do this myself.” I was like, this woman is such a badass. A lot of my friends, they’re like, “How do you get this all done?” I’m like, “You should meet my publisher, Zibby Owens. She moves at a clip even faster than mine.” I really understood your passion. I really understood what you were trying to do.

I was in this little fellowship of other writers who were writing their extraordinary stories at the same time. We were meeting once a month and sharing writing. What I said on a different podcast recently is there just was not one single moment where when I was carrying this story that I didn’t feel really supported by a deep bench of people. I understand from other people who are writing memoir, which is such a hard process, that that isn’t always the case. Really, it can feel very alone. You can get really in your head and feel self-conscious. I just never had that. I had, from the very beginning, tell us more of your story, maybe with fewer words and more guidance. Our story, to me, it’s the most extraordinary universe passing me a teacup when I most needed it and just changed my life completely. Totally changed my life. I don’t even have the same day job anymore that I had when I started. I think you said to me — I don’t know that you understood how fresh in my grief I really was when we first meet. Again, we can talk about the memoir. I had been really ill from it. To have this structure — that’s something that we talk about in grief and loss. Structure is really important. Tuesday was the one hour, but I also had to get in bed and read the books. I needed to be able to talk about it. I love our story. It’s a meet cute. Would take an hour to tell just in the beginning of a movie.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I know. I’ve been trying to explain it. Meghan, I feel such pride. I’m so excited for you. I feel like a parent watching a kid in the big play at the end of the year. You’re beaming knowing that they’re singing so well. You’re like, oh, my gosh. I don’t sing like that, but I can watch and see something that I helped have a little piece in. Look at what they do. It’s the greatest feeling. I’m just so excited for you. Tell listeners, now that they know all about us, tell us about the book, about the grief. I did not know you were so fresh in grief when we first met. I didn’t know. Some of the timeline of all of it was sort of hazy in my mind. I’m like, oh, my gosh, all that we went through. Then you lost the friend who was in the group with us. That too happened.

Meghan: I should say that. Christine Shim, who was a friend of mine from where I went to high school who invited me into the group, died by suicide. You were the first person I called when that happened. The two of us were on the phone — I had rented a little house in Baltimore to work on some chapters for the memoir. A friend called. She and I, at that point, were also running — it still exists — a book club with my friends from high school. I put in the acknowledgments, I just hope she can see what she gave me and what she created by putting us together. I know. It’s life and death all the time everywhere.

Zibby: It’s Suicide Prevention Month right now. We’re talking. It’s just all crazy. This is the universe.

Meghan: It is. It is.

Zibby: Okay, your story, please.

Meghan: Yes. The memoir, the book that I wrote is the story — I work as a trauma therapist. I specialize in grief and loss. I have for twenty years, largely because that is the part of therapy that is the most compelling to me and I’m really good at. I’m trained in all kinds of complicated treatments, not just, come in and tell me your problems, but come in and let’s do some actual work to move energy through your body. I experienced the death of a teenager. My family and I were on a beach. A sixteen-year-old went into the water and didn’t come out, who was beloved by everyone in my town. I, in my own experience with therapy, came to understand that that was a formative event. I did a lot of therapy around that childhood trauma that mostly went unacknowledged in the mid-eighties because that’s what we thought we were supposed to do. Don’t talk about bad things around kids. In 2016, my dad was diagnosed with small cell cancer when he was seventy-nine. I understood — I worked in hospitals; I had doctors as friends — that small cell cancer is a death sentence. I sat down with my husband. I had a pretty complicated relationship with my dad, but I was like, “I do not want to look back on this year and regret anything, so I would like to go to just be with him as much as possible.”

The first part of the book is really about that, my experience of just tending and being a part of my dad’s death, participating in it. The image that I use for this, it’s like sipping little cups of grief over a year’s time. He died basically a year to his diagnosis, as we expected that he would. I was there when he died. Part of the book is the taking stock and also the inanity, the crazy things that happen that you have to attend to when someone’s dying and when they have to have medical support and intervention and those things. Then two years later, which is relevant because there’s lots of statistics that when one partner dies, another partner dies two years later — most famously, the Queen of England died almost two years after Prince Philip died. There’s a lot of data on that. I was on vacation with my mom. She and I had gone to Maine for a week together first, which was pretty extraordinary. We didn’t always travel, but my husband had taken our kids to the UK, where he’s from. I called my mom and said, “Why don’t we do something together?” She was still really deep in grief. Although, I don’t think I fully appreciated that until I experienced the death of her. I went to her house on Cape Cod after our trip to Maine for our annual one-month “use my parents for their beach house” month. She was ill. We knew she was ill, but we did not know she was dying. She went to sleep one night and did not wake up.

My experience of that, which I write about in the book, is I was driving to Boston to pick up my godson. It was really early in the morning because I wanted to get him before all the traffic. I was driving to Boston. I had this sensation which I remembered from being pregnant of real pressure in my pelvis. Then it felt like my water broke. Then this has happened to me a few times in my life. I could see the sentence almost like a meme. She died. Then I just knew she died. I texted my husband, who was just waking up and doing some work at the house, and said, “Have you seen my mom?” It’s like I could predict everything he was going to text and say. I just knew. He said, “No. Maybe she went to church.” I was like, “That’s insane. She wasn’t eating. She wouldn’t have gotten dressed and gone to church.” Then I started driving. Then he called and told me. He wanted me to pull over. I had four kids in the back of my minivan. There’s this moment that I talk about. It’s really important to me — when you’re writing a memoir, there are a million things you could say. It’s hard because there’s other people there, and so you want to tell your story without accidentally adjacent telling their story but not minimizing their experience. I was in Boston, so those crazy cloverleaf exits where you go in a circle for four minutes before you come out the other side. I was in a broken-down parking lot where there was an off-brand Dairy Queen. That’s where I pulled the car over. The kids were playing Pokémon in the car. Thank god. I just left it idling and walked around the other side. My husband told me she died. I was an hour and about twenty minutes away from my house.

There was this moment that I understand clinically because people have told me about this moment so many times where your whole before life is collapsing into the pavement. You’re never going to see it again. You have no idea how you’re going to move forward. Buddhists talk about being in the present moment. That’s all there was, was the present moment. There was this present moment and then the next moment after this and then the next moment after that. I chose in that moment to sort of pack up the notion that my mother had died and really attend to the fact that I had four kids in the car that I needed to get safely where they needed to get. I knew I would be able to do that because I worked as an emergency clinician. I knew what it took to zip into that part of me, but I never really zipped out. About a month after my mom died but starting just minutes — I would say it started in that parking lot, but really, starting just minutes after her funeral, in my body, I could feel myself developing PTSD. Again, it’s like when someone describes something to you in a book. I describe France. It has mountains. It’s beautiful. There’s really good, creamy butter. When you go to France, you’re like, oh, this is what they meant. After spending literal hundreds of hours with clients saying, it felt like this, I had this whole metacognition of, oh, my god, I know what this is.

I still probably had two or three weeks where I was like, but I’m a clinician. I can take care of this myself. The truth is, when your mind and body kind of corrupt like that, it doesn’t matter what you’ve learned. There is no doing it by yourself. The whole purpose is you are not safe inside the vessel that is your body. For me, what was happening — I rushed with the kids to my mom’s body. I prayed over it after she died, even though that’s not my ritual. It was her ritual, and really, without thinking that that might do me damage. For those weeks, what was happening, in the beginning, it was when there was a pause, but eventually, it was all the time, I was just seeing flashes of the image of her dead body. I just had this deep and profound guilt of, it is my fault. I knew she was sick. My mom was five feet tall. I’m 5’8″. She weighed a hundred pounds. I do not. She was formidable. She did not want my help while she was ill. She didn’t want me to talk to her about it. We ended up sort of fighting about it. The consequence of me not being more assertive is something that I still wonder about and live with now. I feel like it’s important to say that PTSD still exists. I still have days where I see those images and think those things. There’s more distance. Before, it was like a close talker right in front of my face. I couldn’t see behind it. Now I can get it to sort of sit next to me on the couch. Because I’m a clinician and I work with really complicated cases — grief generally resolves on its own. It has its own physical — I remember you texting me and being like, “My brain is so foggy.” I was like, “Yeah, let me tell you the neuroscience behind that.” That is a real thing that happens. I don’t know why we don’t just teach that like we would a health class, but that’s real. I knew about all of those things. I knew as my symptoms were getting worse that I was headed in the wrong direction.

I was lucky to have a relationship with a treatment center and other clinicians to make one phone call and them say, “We’ll see you on Monday.” I checked myself into the same facility that I had sent probably twenty or thirty patients. I’ve sent another ten since then, this world-class facility in Tennessee where I had been before and done some training before and really trusted. Then I was there. A typical stay is probably four weeks, maybe a little longer. I went for three weeks because I didn’t need all the core class education. I just sat while a therapist used the exact same interventions that I’m trained in, and so I had a lot of hope and belief that it could work. Then I was really lucky to have it work, to be able to come back. Coming back, again, we’re sort of full circle, I was still really shaky. My relationships were really shaky. My friendships were really shaky. I didn’t feel like myself. It was four years ago. I still don’t feel like that self. I’m not the person I was before all of this.

The writing became the therapy, honestly. I didn’t want to do talk therapy, so I was writing. It started out as letters to my mom. I called her Mimi. Every day, I’d be like, “Dear Mimi, here’s what I would have told you on the phone.” I talked to her most days. Oh, that makes me emotional. I know. I would just write and write all the things, all the little details that I would have told her on the phone. Then it became more like writing, like a thread and then a point. My mom was an incredible reader. We wrote her obituary. My favorite line in the obituary is that she read every nonfiction book in the Cotuit library, where she was from. One of the things that’s just so deeply surreal — I had this moment at Alisha Fernandez Miranda’s event at The Strand where her parents were there. They were looking at her with this adoration. I said to her mom afterwards, “Please don’t take this the wrong way. That was so good for me because I will have that moment, but not with my parents.”

Zibby: Oh, Meghan, I’m so sorry.

Meghan: It’s okay. My dad was a publisher. The famous bookstore company down here, Politics and Prose, is an incredible bookstore that is run by incredible people. When my dad was dying — I wrote an article about this. I went in. My dad liked true crime and biography. I can’t bear either of those books. I just can’t. I had an eight-minute-old baby, and he was asking me if I had read Gore Vidal’s new memoir. I was like, old man, please stop. No. I went into Politics and Prose and said, “My dad is dying, but he can still read. Could you guys just pick out books?” Every week, I would pull up, put my flashers on in traffic during rush hour, run in, find Aaron. He would say, “Which of these books do you want me to send him?” Books are such a family shared value, but I didn’t really love memoir. My job is a hard job, so I read a lot of books that were like, an English lass inherits a garden from her grandmother. There’s a surly gardener who lives next door. I love those books. Those were the books that I used to read. My mom was like, “Why would you read things that aren’t true when you could learn from actual people or hear real stories?” Now I rarely read novels. I mostly only read memoir. It is a wild thing to think they never got to see this part of my life unfold because they would’ve really enjoyed it. They made a lot of sacrifices to make sure that I was well educated. They made a lot of sacrifices in general. We have just incredible experiences in bookstores and libraries. I know you’re good friends with the Rabbi Steve Leder. He said to me once, “Look at the world through their eyes for them.” I do that a lot. I do. I’m like, Mom, look.

Zibby: I’m so overwhelmed. This is so beautiful and so sad and so real. You’re amazing. The story is amazing. The book is amazing, but way more important than the book is you, the person, how you connect with people, how you talk to people about your experience, how many people even this conversation is probably helping right now. You’re amazing.

Meghan: You are the sweetest. This has all just been really meaningful for me. I just can’t imagine where I would be in my life without all of those pieces that grew. In trauma, we talk about traumatic growth. The trauma is the event. The traumatized is the meaning that is negative. Then there is this unbelievable — as you begin to regulate and live again, you get to plant seeds in that burned-down field. I just can’t believe what my life has grown and given me since then. I wish they were here to see it. My dad, oh, my god — I published an article about grief and loss in the MIT Sloan business magazine, which I know you know. I’m not joking, my siblings and I — I have five siblings. We were texting each other. Dad would be standing outside the post office having photocopied this at Kinko’s and would be handing it out to people. He would’ve had it tattooed on his chest. They’re not here to see it. I can imagine how they would have reacted. I do sort of feel like, maybe they do see it. Maybe I see it for them.

Zibby: There are a lot of unknowns. I know that you know so much as a total expert in this field. There is still so much about souls and the universe — I know this sounds so hokey, but we don’t know. I like to believe that too. I was really, really close to my grandmother. She was the one who was so supportive of my own writing. I had the same thing when my memoir was coming out. I was like, I can’t believe she didn’t live to see this. She is the one who would call me every time and say, “What are you writing? Are you writing? Don’t give up. Are you still writing?” Now finally, I got this book done, and she wasn’t there. I remember talking to my husband about it and just crying. This is just what happens in life, right?

Meghan: It is what happens in life.

Zibby: People that we want to see it, but maybe — I don’t know. I don’t know why it happens this way. Maybe there’s no rhyme or reason. I like to believe that on some level in some universe that they know, and they are happy.

Meghan: It’s funny because, again, Steve Leder talks about, what’s your legacy? What would you want your legacy to be? I had some of those conversations with my dad. I think I intuitively have a better sense with my mom. First of all, I don’t think my mom would’ve loved — people are like, did you dedicate your book to your mom? She would’ve been so proud of you. I don’t think so. I don’t think she would’ve loved me writing a book that was so deeply emotionally open. She was old-school. Why do you need to talk your problems with everyone listening? Also, I do not think she would’ve loved it that I got so sick on account of her death. I do think she would have loved to see my Library of Congress number on the inside of my book. We did a retreat with you where we learned about, how does The New York Times Best Seller list work? The idea that I couldn’t call her and be like, Mom, I have to tell you this — I know she didn’t know. Those things, I feel like my curiosity and my interest and my ability to pivot into writing and reading really is a legacy of theirs. It really is. There were books all over my house. There are books all over my house now. I know that’s not the case for everybody. My dad used to do this thing, which I’ve now learned lots of dads do, he used to cut articles out of the Financial Times, The New York Times, and just put my name on it and circle some — I didn’t even always know what he wanted, but it was a way of communicating. We didn’t sit and have a deep conversation. It was his way of saying, I know you because I think you would like this article. He would send me books. I would send him books. I do sort of feel like as a parent and as a person, I think they would’ve liked this legacy maybe better than handing down a house or china dishes, neither of which we kept.

The idea of, writing matters, and your story matters, and that it’s a thread to connect to people — one thing I didn’t know to expect is how gracious and accepting — again, back to that word of community — writers are, particularly memoir writers. There could be, maybe, some competition about publishing. I’m sure that exists. Although, because I wasn’t in that place, I didn’t feel that. Memoir writers, nobody can steal and take your story. Nobody can write in your voice. I remember talking to the poet Maggie Smith when her memoir first came out. I was like, “I used to really love you, Maggie, but now I hate you because I’ve just never read anything more beautiful, and now I want to stop writing.” She said, “That’s absurd. That’s so absurd. Your story is the only story that can’t be told by anyone but you, in your voice, in your words.” I just didn’t know to expect that. I didn’t understand that that kind of rooting for each other and being delighted for each other and being touched and moved by each other was part of what I was entering into. I’ve been a solo practitioner for a long time, me in my office. I call someone when there’s a problem. I don’t know what to do with this patient. They say, try this. That was kind of the extent of it. What books have done in my life is — I came to a different retreat to support a different author who was nervous talking. I was like, not a problem, let me get a plane ticket. That is a gift that I totally needed and didn’t understand how much I needed it. It still happens. The Zibby authors have a WhatsApp thread. Right now, we’re planning to do karaoke at the Miami retreat with Alisha because she’s an incredible singer.

When people talk about writing, what you often hear is that it’s a really solo project and that people kind of go into the woods alone. They get into this space alone. That hasn’t been my experience either. Just from the very beginning, I had people reading my pages and commenting on my pages and encouraging. I started to tell you before we started recording that just this week, I finished doing the audiobook. I have to tell you, I was dreading this. First of all, finding three days in my — I was like, three days, I have to spend three days in a sound booth. It just seemed like it was going to be hard and tedious. A couple of things. One is I got a piece of advice in one of our Zibby Classes to read the work out loud, that reading it out loud actually helps. I have read my book probably six times all the way through out loud, but reading it out loud, this was the first time I experienced an audience hearing it. Lisa, who was the producer, and Carter, who was the tech, they were crying at times. They were laughing at times. It was so validating and moving for me. I found myself choking up in the story at places that I haven’t. Maybe I choked up when I wrote them. Even just that, I felt like, give me your phone numbers. We need to stay friends forever. We did this intimate, important — you helped me in this experience. My phonebook, my iPhone, really does have probably fifty new entries in the past few years, new friends that are a part of this community. I didn’t know to expect that either.

Zibby: This is amazing. This is so amazing. We’re already out of time. Thank you so much. I could literally do a sixteen-hour podcast with you. We will have to continue this just to chat because I love hearing all of what happened from your perspective and how great it is now. My heart is just so full. I’m so excited for you. I’m so excited for all the people who are going to be helped by everything you have to offer in so many ways.

Meghan: I am so grateful. I’ve said this to you before. You are a literal fairy godmother. You’re like, here, here’s a princess dress and all the materials and resources. I know how excited you are. I just know how genuine that is. I have felt that from the very beginning. That kind of vote of confidence when you’re trying to do something completely new and hard at the age of forty-nine is so unbelievably needed. I explode with gratitude all the time. Really, I just can’t believe we did a podcast, the podcast that I listen to all the time. That I am going to hear my own voice, it is just bonkers, this whole thing. I’m so grateful.

Zibby: Me too. Bye, Meghan.

Meghan: Bye, Zibby.

END OF THE HOUR: A Therapist’s Memoir by Meghan Riordan Jarvis

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