Rebecca Woolf, ALL OF THIS: A Memoir of Death and Desire

Rebecca Woolf, ALL OF THIS: A Memoir of Death and Desire

Zibby speaks to bestselling author Rebecca Woolf about her beautifully written and provocative book All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire, which tells the story of how her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer two weeks after she asked for a divorce and how she navigated feelings of grief and relief after he died. Rebecca shares the most intimate details of her story, from a marriage riddled with lies and infidelity to a widowhood marked by primal desire and sexual experimentation (all while raising four resilient children). She also shares her admiration of divorced women and describes the online community she built to provide resources and advice to women trying to end their marriages.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rebecca. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire.

Rebecca Woolf: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Of course, now I want to pronounce it differently because as it was said in the book, it’s more like, “You have to write all this, all of this.” It’s a different emphasis. Can you summarize the book a little bit? Then I’m going to dive in because I just absolutely loved it.

Rebecca: First of all, thank you so much. All of This is a book about my experience navigating my husband’s death. He found out he was terminally ill weeks after we had decided to split up. I was in a very unhappy marriage for years, finally was ready to leave my marriage, and then he was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer. As you can imagine, it was very complicated. I had come to a point in our relationship where I could barely even be in the same room with him. We weren’t speaking when he found out he was — he had stomach aches. I wouldn’t even take him to the ER because I was so done. I truly had so little love for him left that when he got sick, I was like, you’re on your own, man. Then he had called me from the hospital to tell me that he had cancer, that it was terminal, that it had already metastasized in his liver and lymph nodes. I got the call at four in the morning. My parents came up. I rushed to the hospital. I spent the last four months of his life with him. My experience navigating that was very complicated. I didn’t want to be with him anymore. I didn’t want him to die. I didn’t want my children not to have a father. For years, I was trying to figure out a way out of my marriage. I was miserable. I was trying to make it work. I had finally gotten to a point where I was going to be active in the ending of my marriage. Then he gets sick and dies. In the weeks and months that passed after his death, my feelings were complicated. I had grief. I was sad, but I also felt relief. I was free of my marriage. These were all feelings that I didn’t know how to metabolize because I didn’t have any examples of other women going through this, other people going through this. People were bringing me books about widowhood. There’s a lot of incredible books about grief and widowhood, none of which felt like my experience.

You mentioned the title before. The title came from my husband as he was dying saying, “You have to write about all this when I die.” In my head, originally, I wanted to tell the story of his death and my experience navigating that, but I wanted to do so through a filter that protected him, which was how I wrote all my life. I’ve been writing personal essay since my teens. I had a blog for many years called Girl’s Gone Child. I’ve written about my life for my whole life, but through a filter that protected everyone that I love, sometimes at my own expense, as we often do. For me, a lot of that had to do with the fact that he wasn’t here, but it was also, going through this experience made me realize how important the truth was. My entire marriage was built on lies. I cheated on him my whole marriage. The foundation of our relationship was built on this idea that I was okay with being a wife, which I wasn’t. I got pregnant really early. I was twenty-three. We barely knew each other. The foundation of our marriage and our whole relationship was just me trying to placate everyone and make everyone happy. After he died, I was like, you know what? I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m going to tell the truth. It felt urgent for me to tell the story that I didn’t have knowing that what my experience was could not be anomalous. I know a lot of women in unhappy marriages. I know a lot of people who are having affairs. I know a lot of people who were in my situation before my husband got sick. I know there are a lot of people who are going through or grieving complicated deaths with partners. It’s not all heartbreaking. There’s relief there. There’s freedom. All those feelings are so valid. With this book, I really wanted to not only validate my experience, but other people’s as well.

Zibby: Keep going. That was amazing. I loved it. There’s so much in the book, and your parenthood also and being a mom and how you became a mom and your relationship particularly with your older son and how the three of you became this unit. Then the three of you were there at the very end as well. You came full circle. You have that whole full circle theme that runs throughout. Even how you take ownership of your body again after — there’s a lot of physical stuff about you in the book too, not just sexual or sexuality stuff, but even just the inner shedding of this layer that you go into. It’s like this purging after the fact of your emotion. This prior life is sort of coming out from the inside out for you too. The way you wrote about it was just so engrossing and beautiful. I feel like, as a reader, I just went through the whole thing with you and feel that sense of, not relief, but new opportunity that was there and how you grabbed it. Talk more about that.

Rebecca: First of all, I think this book — I talked about this before. It took me a minute. It’s been out for a couple of months. It took me a minute to realize that this book is actually a love story. It’s a love story about me and Hal. It’s a love story about me and myself, me and my children. I think the concept of love stories, the idea of a love story, it’s supposed to look very specific where two people end up together. They’re in love. They are together forever, happily ever — all these things that we think of when we think of love stories. The reality is that most love is messy and complicated. There’s disdain and resentment. There’s pain. There’s pleasure. There’s blood and guts and death and sex and all of these things. I really feel like, for me, going through his death and this afterlife, I’ve fallen in love with myself, but also sort of fallen in love with my marriage from afar only because so much came out of that relationship. When you’re miserable in your marriage, it was hard for me at the time to really find the good in it. I was trying so hard in the end to find it. After I wrote this book, it was releasing Hal but also honoring the fact that we had this weird relationship that was totally mismatched. We didn’t make any sense, but there was love there. We had these four amazing kids.

While he was dying, I was basically bleeding nonstop. I had this period that wouldn’t end. I’m one of these people, and I think a lot of women are like this, where we keep things together on the outside, and then our bodies just are telling the story. I was incredibly stoic throughout his death making everything happen. I had to take care of a dying husband, four children, navigate all these things. I was completely on autopilot. My body was like, oh, no, you’re at war. I was bleeding the whole time he was dying. Especially at the end, my body was just completely falling apart. In the weeks and months after, I was still bleeding. I appreciate you bringing that up because I think a lot of people were like, why are you writing about your blood? For me, it was that shedding. It did feel like it was this very poetic physical experience, especially because on the outside I was just making it work. What do you have to do today? My body was like, . In the aftermath — we hadn’t had sex in years. I think a lot of people have that experience when they’re in an unhappy marriage. Really, the first thing I wanted to do after he died was have sex. It was more of a primal body reaction to being around someone when their life force leaves them, which I don’t think is specific to partners, probably more rare, actually. I know a lot of people who had that experience when they’ve lost parents or friends, this need to sort of feel your life force.

When you’re with someone and their life force leaves their body, there’s this, am I alive? How am I here? It’s this surreal thing that you even have a body. I became hyperaware of my body as his was shutting down, the fact that I had one, the fact that I had spent years feeling self-conscious about it, about my blood, about the way my body looked, about the way my body changed as I got older. When you’re around someone who dies really quickly and you see how fast your body goes from being a body to something else, I suddenly became so aware of all of it, of sensations and things that I felt and what was happening and different ways my body looked and felt and became so tactical and wanting to just touch people and be touched. I kind of went for it. Pretty soon after he died, I started having sex and dating and wanting to connect casually with people and have these connections that were all body, that were purely physical. Meanwhile, I was still bleeding, so that was a whole thing too. I had been self-conscious about my period in sexual situations forever. Getting to this point where I was like, “This is my body. I’m in it. This is what’s happening to it right now. This is where I’m at,” that was really liberating.

Zibby: I love the scene in the kitchen when you had gone on one date with a woman who made you that little certificate. “Congratulations.” You burst into tears. Then you put it on the fridge. Your daughter’s like, “Okay, so you’re pan now? That’s what’s going on here?” You’re like, “I don’t know. I think.” She’s like, “Yeah, that’s it. Okay, next.”

Rebecca: I think it’s interesting because a lot of people are — the first question I get about this book is, your kids, what do your kids think? You read the book. I talk very candidly with my children about everything. There’s nothing in this book that they’re not aware of. Maybe not the details of my periods. I don’t have a lot of shame or judgement for myself. We have this very open communication. As all this was happening and I was communicating with my children age appropriately, yeah, there were moments where I was like, I don’t know if I want to talk about this. My kids were like, it’s this. Blah. These things that I thought would be big deals to talk to them about ended up being like, yeah, whatever. You’re not special.

Zibby: I think your kids must be the coolest, after I read this book. They just must be the coolest kids ever. So many moments that you write about are the regular moments of parenting. I don’t want to overstress the parenting because that’s just one piece of this, but just that how crazy it is after loss that life goes on and that they’re still throwing Cheerios in the backseat. You still have to get them to theater camp and do all the pickups and deal with people who are being, like Barney or whoever you were referring to, well-intentioned other people whose responses are not aligned with how you feel. Your kids have to also.

Rebecca: It was interesting because the fourth anniversary of his death was this week, a few days ago. It was right before Halloween. My kids, they wanted to go to school the day after he died. They went to school that day. Everyone, of course, knows that they lost their dad. It’s an elephant in the room. I wanted to be there with them when they came into school just so that they felt like I was with them. It happened to be the Halloween parade when we went back to school. Everyone is in costumes. It’s like this death parade. It was an incredible time to die. Note to self, die right before Halloween. It feels like everyone understands how you’re feeling. Halloween is this wonderful grief party. We come back to school after he dies. Everyone’s in costume. My kids are in costume. Not that nothing has happened, but it’s this “show must go on” sort of thing. The surreality of standing on the sidelines after you’ve just spent four months in a hospital watching someone die and seeing these kids march down in their costumes, including mine, and waving, “Hi, Mom,” to me, it gives me so much peace to know that if I were to die tomorrow, that they would be okay too.

There’s this part of losing a spouse or being around children who’ve lost a parent young — of course, there’s grief. Of course, there’s trauma. You also realize how resilient children are, how we are. We’re supposed to lose each other. It’s in our bodies to know how to handle this. Death has been a part of life since forever. Watching the way children metabolize death and how they stay joyful and they stay sort of in the moment was really helpful for me navigating all the different feelings I was having and also giving myself permission to feel joy. My kids lost their dad a day before, and they could not be more excited to be marching in a parade. We look at adults, and if — I was sort of doing the same thing. I was in a parade of my own. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t still having all the feelings of sadness and anger and all the things that come up when someone dies. I also was in my own sort of parade. I think a lot of people feel like they have to be performative in their grief. They have to sort of bow their head and look sad for a year after somebody dies and hide their joy and hide their relief and hide their dating relationships because they don’t want people to judge them. Do we do that with children? No. We just need to be kinder to each other, adults.

Zibby: I totally agree. By the way, I now feel honored because I did notice the dates of everything happening. You also said how many things happened in fours related to this book. He was forty-four. He was in the hospital for four months. You have four kids. Now it’s been four years. I just feel like it’s this perfect — I don’t know.

Rebecca: Totally. It’s funny. I hadn’t even thought about that. You’re right. Four, that was the number. It’s four years. Crazy.

Zibby: Crazy. First of all, I’m so sorry. I should’ve said this from the start. I’m just so sorry this whole thing happened, that all of it happened. That’s so reductive because there’s just so many emotions around the entire thing. Do you mind if I just read a couple of my favorite lines?

Rebecca: Oh, my gosh, I’d be honored. I would be honored.

Zibby: There are so many that sometimes it takes me a minute to find them. Hold on one sec.

Rebecca: I appreciate it.

Zibby: There was this one passage towards the beginning, but I’m going to go towards the end too. Maybe this is going to take me too long. This is about when we find out people — “It happened like this. One day, he was fine. The next day, he was dying. We were barely speaking when his first symptoms appeared, our marriage in shambles, backs turned to each other in a big bed, enough to keep us from touching. You hear stories about this kind of thing happening all the time, you know, the one about the friend of a friend who was the epitome of health, and then one day… I have done this before countless times. Someone I knew at one point in my life gets sick or dies, and suddenly, I can’t believe we ever lost track of each other. I think of the time we were best friends for a summer or a weekend or during a school dance, someone I’m pretty sure I had English with. Immediately, there’s a flurry of texts with old high school friends. Can you believe so-and-so died so young? Remember when we all smoked cigs together when we were supposed to be running the mile? It’s just so tragic, isn’t it, so unbearably sad? Then I grieve as if we had never lost touch, marveling at the impossible distance, the time that came and went, and all that was lost in the years we didn’t connect, all the could-haves and the might-haves and the maybes. How easy it is to lose track of people, I think, how easy it is to lose people, how easy it is to lose.” It’s so good. So many people can relate. Everybody has that person. When you have that deep connection — are you crying? Are you okay?

Rebecca: No, I’m good.

Zibby: Here’s another one about your marriage. The way you wrote about your marriage and, frankly, all of the stuff that’s happened to you with men, I feel like this is a therapist’s sandbox, this book. It’s like, okay, let’s connect all these dots and see where we got from here to there.

Rebecca: I think it is all really connected, all of it. Again, with the title too, I’m able to better understand who I am as a woman because of my marriage. I’m better able to understand who I was as a wife because of my teens, because of my early — this really was a place for me to connect all of the different experiences and to understand how I got here. Sorry, go ahead.

Zibby: No, I want you to talk. You said, “In the beginning when we were both struggling equally, we were okay, and I guess I just assumed if we could make it with nothing, we would always be able to make it, just like our parents and our friends and all the many married people in our lives. If they could stay together for the kids, so could we. I was conditioned to believe that as a mother who placed her children’s worth above all else, I was doing them a favor. By martyring myself, I was giving my kids the ultimate gift, my happiness in exchange for theirs. Our marriage was a tourniquet I didn’t think we could live without. I had convinced myself that loss of circulation in my limbs was a small price to pay, that my options were to bleed out or lose the feeling in my legs. I had become proficient in the poetry of acceptance.” It’s amazing, the way you rethink all this thing, even how you were discussing — I’ve never read someone making death into a rainbow of sorts. You said, “Somewhere over the rainbow. Red, the color of urine. Orange, the color of eyeballs. Yellow, the color of skin. Green, the color of vomit. Blue, the color of bruising. Purple, the color of feet so swollen they crack like eggs.”

Rebecca: This is what this book is about, but this is also sort of where I’m at right now in my life in terms of perspective. There is beauty in all of it. There’s pain in all of it. We’re so binary. We have no imagination when it comes to having conversations about any of this stuff, about sex, about death, about love. Love lives over here. Hate lives over here. We create these contradictions where there aren’t any. Everything is connected. It’s all mixed up. So is grief. My experience was not normal at all. Yet people were treating me like it was. They’re not anymore because I wrote this book about it. I hear every day from people who are either like, “Oh, my god, this is my story too,” or people are like, “I don’t understand you,” which is fine. There are a lot of us. This is not just me. The fact that this is not a common story is a problem because there’s nothing wrong with the parade. There’s nothing wrong with having all of the feelings. In fact, we do ourselves such a disservice by just basically performing where we feel like we need to perform and hiding where we feel like we need to hide. We do it all day long. We do it as mothers. We do it as wives. We do it as daughters. We don’t allow ourselves to have the full experience and to have all the different feelings. It’s all complicated. Everything is valid. The rainbow of death, it’s beautiful and painful. So is marriage. So is motherhood and just being a person. It’s all hard. Giving ourselves permission to feel and to exist without shame for the feelings that we have while we’re existing, that’s my goal. That’s what I want for me. It’s what I want for my children. It’s what I want for everyone. It’s really what I tried to articulate in this book.

Zibby: Amazing. Some of these are maybe too graphic, so I’m going to skip. I’m going to save this for some of the people to read. Oh, my gosh, the bar mitzvah too. Sorry, I’m skimming through it. I wanted to find the place where you said that the most brave women you knew are divorced. Hold on, let me see if I can find that line, or we can discuss that.

Rebecca: I think it’s in the third — I don’t know.

Zibby: I’ll just summarize. You have a lot to say about infidelity and what being in the wrong marriage can do to you and how sometimes the people who end up cheating are the ones trying to escape something that’s deeply wrong or unsatisfying or whatever and feel they are completely trapped. Interestingly, Hal’s final words were that he felt trapped himself, when you were actually the one who was feeling trapped for so long. Then you have a line — maybe I responded in particular because I am divorced. I have four kids. You said that, some of the most brave women I know are divorced, not just widowed. Talk about that.

Rebecca: I said the bravest women I know aren’t widows. They’re divorced. It’s true. The end of my marriage, obviously, was passive. I didn’t leave. He did. I wanted to. I had plans to. I’d finally told him that I was going to, but I didn’t. There’s a part of me that’s like, would I have? Yes, I would’ve. I was at the point where I had no choice, but maybe I wouldn’t have. I don’t know. Maybe I would still be married. There was a lot that I went through when he died where I felt like if I couldn’t leave my marriage — now I really realize there was no reason why I shouldn’t. How many women like me aren’t leaving their marriages? How many women like me are wanting to do this and can’t do it? There’s a lot. It’s hard. It’s really hard. I know because I wanted a divorce for the majority of my marriage and wouldn’t leave. When I hear about women leaving, when I hear about women who were able to do what I could not, I’m in awe. I’m truly in awe because I wrestled with that so hard. I think of myself as being such a tough, strong, modern woman. It was paralyzing for me, all of the things. I didn’t have it modeled to me. There’s no divorce in my family. It was overwhelming to me. I have a large community of single-mom friends now, all of whom left their marriages, all of them. It was all the women who left, every single one. They’re all amazing to me. I just think women are amazing.

Because I didn’t leave my marriage, I also feel like I really want to help other women who can’t. A few months back, I started this — it became this huge thing. It started just as a simple question to women knowing that so many women had reached out to me saying, I wish I could leave my husband, and I can’t. I reached out to my community on Instagram. I said, those of you who’ve left your marriages, do you have any advice to give for people who are trying to do the same? I got hundreds of responses. Then it just completely blew up. There was women volunteering to do pro bono work. I’m in Portland. I can help you. It became this whole thing where I was hooking people up from different states with different — then women were meeting each other and finding each other. If you check my Instagram Stories, it’s called How I Left. There’s ten of them: How I Left, 1; How I Left, 2. There’s stories from women. Most of them are anonymous. I cropped their names out for everyone’s safety, but stories of how they left, advice for women trying to leave, people volunteering their services. It was incredible. This was several months ago. I’ve had people sporadically reaching out to me saying, hey, just so you know, my divorce just finalized. I would not have left if I didn’t have the resources that those stories presented.

On the other side of a miserable marriage — I’m sure you can relate to this too. When you’re on the other side of that and you’re like, oh, my god, I’m alive and I’m here, and I walk into my home and I’m not dreading it, there are so many things that I didn’t even realize I was suffering from or through that I don’t have to worry — my house feels safe. All these things that I didn’t know were possible. I didn’t even know how bad it was until it was over. I just want that for everybody because we all deserve that. We deserve to be happy. We deserve to feel alive. Whether that comes because of a death or a divorce or anything, we don’t know. It’s cliché. Life is short. We only have one body. That body is aging every day. I don’t know how much longer mine’s going to work. I hope it works for a long time. Also, I don’t take for granted, my health. I know how fast it can change. I don’t want to not be joyful and in my power in my body and pleasured and all these things. I won’t anymore.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Thank you so much. I feel like there’s so much more to discuss. I had eight thousand things I wanted to talk to you about. This is one of those books that I wouldn’t even put down walking from room to room. Could not put this book down. So good. I really, really loved it. I love the way you write. As I said, I wish that Zibby Books had published this book. It’s so good. I hope I get to meet you at some point. Are you still based in LA?

Rebecca: Same. Yeah, let me know when you come out. I would love to meet.

Zibby: Awesome. Congratulations. I’m sorry it took us a while to talk about it.

Rebecca: No, I’m so honored to be here. Thank you so much.

Zibby: It was so great. Congratulations.

Rebecca: Thank you. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Rebecca: Bye.

Rebecca Woolf, ALL OF THIS: A Memoir of Death and Desire

ALL OF THIS: A Memoir of Death and Desire by Rebecca Woolf

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