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Gaining From Loss V: Marisa Renee Lee #142

Warwick Fairfax

November 29, 2022

This week, we talk with Marisa Renee Lee, a former official in the Obama White House and a regular contributor to Glamour, Vogue and The Atlantic. She discusses at length the struggles she endured after her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, then battled and succumbed to breast cancer when Marisa was just 25 years old. She set that emotional journey between the covers of her book, GRIEF IS LOVE: LIVING WITH LOSS. In it, she offers a roadmap for readers to help them navigate the complexities of sadness and joy that accompany not just the loss of a loved one, but the loss of anything you love.

Highlights

  • Marisa’s “ordinary* early life  (4:10) 
  • The day everything changed (4:53)
  • Navigating her emotional struggles as she grew up (6:53)
  • The complexities of grieving her mother’s illness (8:58)
  • An even more devastating diagnosis (13:20)
  • Recognizing how culture treats grieving people wrong … and working through it (21:57)
  • The inspiration for the title of her book (28:20)
  • Grief never blots out love (32:19)
  • Grief is not a linear journey (39:32)
  • The importance of grace (45:52)
  • Gaining joy from loss (51:49)
  • Marisa’s word of hope for listeners (58:46)

Transcript

Gary Schneeberger:

Hi, friends. Here at Beyond The Crucible, we often get a chance to dive into some of the hardest moments of someone’s life, everything from facing loss to trying to find your purpose in life.

This summer, we’ve been working extremely hard to pull together a full e-course, our first, filled with more than three hours of lessons learned on how you can find and fully embrace Second Act Significance. To gain access to this course, visit secondactsignificance.com. That’s secondactsignificance.com.

Now, here’s today’s podcast episode.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Welcome to Beyond The Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

When we took my mom off treatment, I wrote her a letter. And I promised her that I supported her decision and I was going to be just fine. We were the ones having honest conversations about the fact that her time was limited, and what did she want, where did she want to die, what did she want for her funeral? We had that kind of relationship and I felt like I needed her to know that I was going to be okay.

And I made the mistake, as a younger person, thinking that okay meant going back to work, going back to life and just going back to being who I consider myself to be. But what I didn’t realize is the moment you lose someone you love, like someone who you consider to be one of yours, whether it’s a parent or a spouse or a child or a best friend, you stop being the same person that you were before.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

So, what does okay look like after you’ve been through a devastating loss? How does the new person you become in the aftermath of that loss go on living even as you go on grieving?

Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger, co-host of the show. This week, Warwick and I talk with the final guest in our special fall series, Gaining from Loss. She’s Marisa Renee Lee, a former official in the Obama White House and a regular contributor to Glamour, Vogue, and The Atlantic. She discusses, in length, the struggle she’s endured since her mother succumbed to breast cancer when Marisa was just 25 years old. She set that emotional journey between the covers of her book, Grief is Love: Living with Loss.

In it, she offers a roadmap for readers to help them navigate the complexities of sadness and joy that accompany, not just the loss of a loved one, but the loss of anything one loves. And the first healing step on that journey, she says, is giving ourselves permission to grieve even as we continue to love who or what we are grieving.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Well, Marisa, again, thank you so much for being here. I just loved reading your book, Grief is Love, which was full of just so much profound wisdom. Anybody that’s had loss, which is so many people, it is just raw, it’s honest, it’s impactful, and we’ll obviously get into this book quite a bit.

But I’d love just to start, from what understand, you grew up in New York State, I think maybe upstate New York. Now you’re in the Hudson Valley now, maybe that vicinity, I’m not sure, but talk a bit about your upbringing and obviously your mom and dad. And before we get to the loss, it’s all intertwined, but what was life like for Marisa growing up?

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Thanks so much for having me. It’s always a little embarrassing listening to your bio being read. I try not to cringe. But thank you. Thank you both for inviting me on today.

Childhood honestly, was pretty, I would say ordinary and unremarkable. I had two parents who loved me very much and also loved each other, a little sister who drove me crazy, lots of friends. Both my parents were very active in my school life and in our community, from coaching basketball to serving on the PTA, being a Sunday school teacher. That was our life. Mom and dad both worked, but they were very clear that their work was all about providing the best possible life for me and my little sister. And it was really lovely and fun. Until one day, everything changed.

I was 13 and it was probably right around this time of year actually. And one day, my mom got really sick and she just never got better. And it would take years and lots of misdiagnoses, but ultimately, by the time I was 16, doctors discovered permanent damage in her brain that was caused by Multiple Sclerosis. So, it was a long journey to that diagnosis.

And my life at home, our family life, went from a very carefree, fun, sort of average existence to one that was much more stressful, and at times, overwhelming and disorienting. With a parent who went from being very able-bodied, and active, and involved to being disabled and in and out of the hospital, and sometimes bedridden or in a wheelchair. So, that was a really big challenge for me as a young person.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So, everybody grows up differently. I mean, some people grow up in an environment where they don’t know happiness. They know tragedy, maybe dysfunctional family, just a really hard upbringing. But it seems like there’s two parts to your life.

One is before age 13 and after age 13. Obviously, when your mother died, when you’re 25, there’s another separation in the timeline. But talk about, at times, can you even remember what life was like pre-13? Because it just probably seems like a couple centuries ago. But it felt like there was a time, as you say, when life maybe not perfect, but was pretty good.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And it went from pretty good to, I don’t know if it was awful, but just really painful. It was just this dichotomy.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah. No, you’re absolutely right. And it’s funny because, in my mind, and I should talk to my dad about this, I don’t know if this is actually exactly how it happened. But I remember my parents going to New York City for their wedding anniversary and that’s November 1st. And then I remember my mom, soon after that, becoming a different person and a different parent and a sick person. And I think the biggest thing that changed was I went from this very carefree existence and that’s what childhood is supposed to be, right? To becoming a mini adult overnight, it felt like.

And I don’t have any regrets for the time I spent as a teenager or a young adult helping to care for my mom and helping to care for our family. But it was a really big shift from what I knew before then. And it was hard. And it was also the ’90s, so nobody was talking to me about my feelings. Nobody was suggesting that I go to therapy because it’s complicated and challenging having a sick parent.

It was more, okay, this is the situation and we’re all going to do the best we can. And we love each other, and we’ll do what we can to support each other, and just keep moving forward. That was my parents’ attitude, that was my attitude, my sister’s attitude. And that’s what we did. But it was really hard.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So, talk about that period when you have the diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, and later on, obviously, breast cancer. And it felt like it just got worse. I mean, it didn’t get easier, you know?

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

I mean, one major illness is enough, but more, I mean, it’s hard to understand. But just talk about those years because it felt like you didn’t have a normal childhood, normal high school or teenage years. You were sort of robbed, in a sense, of that.

So, probably one stage of grief is, is the person I thought I would be and the person my friends were, I wasn’t. So talk about just, and I think you were one of the primary caretakers, caregivers. So just talk about those teenage years, which seems radically different than the teenage years of your friends, I’m guessing?

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah, it was. So, it’s interesting. In order to write a book, that is at least partially based on your life experiences, you have to unpack a lot of shit. You really have to get at what is the truth, what was I really feeling, what was I really experiencing then? And what do I feel now? And work through a lot of that. Grief is Love required a lot of time in therapy.

And one of the things that I realized as an adult was that there was definitely a feeling of resentment. I didn’t want to admit, when I was younger, how hard it was or how burdensome it was or how frustrating it was at times to have to play that role in my family and to have a sick parent, because the last thing that I wanted to do was make things harder for my mom, or frankly, for my dad either.

But in particular, I could see that she was in pain and still very much, every single day, trying to be a present, supportive parent to us. It didn’t matter how sick she was, she was still going to find a way to get things together for our birthdays, to make sure that Thanksgiving and Christmas were special, to let us have whatever parties and gatherings we wanted to have with our friends when we were younger.

It didn’t matter how much pain she was in or what she endured, she continued to keep that focus on us. And as a result, I wanted to do everything I could to make her life easier. And so, for me, that meant doubling down on being best in class with academics, and extracurriculars, and everything at school. And trying to create as many normal teenage childhood experiences as possible, so she didn’t feel like her illness was having a negative impact on me.

It was exhausting and it had long-term health, mental and physical health, implications for me. Not talking about all of these complicated feelings. When you ignore your emotions, they don’t go away. They manifest in other ways. And so for me, from the time I was probably around 14, 15, until today, I’m almost 40 years old, I’ve had all sorts of stomach problems. And I know that it started with mom gets sick with some mystery illness that nobody can figure out and the stress that put on me as a 13-year old.

I always say, whenever I have a chance to talk to people about my childhood and adolescence, I hope that young people hear about Grief is Love and hear my story, and find ways to get the support they need if they’re struggling with either a sick parent or the loss of a parent, because it’s really hard.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

We call this series Gaining from Loss, and for you to find the gains that were attached to that loss, those losses that you experienced, you had to do the soul work, as Warwick calls it, to get through and really dig in. And your book really helped you to do that.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah, a hundred percent. It was a really hard book to write. Like I said, there was a lot of therapy, there were a lot of tissues and there was definitely some chocolate and some bourbon involved. But at the end of the day, I feel like the process of putting Grief is Love together was absolutely a healing experience for me.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Hm.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

And that is something that I’m grateful for. I don’t know if I would have done all of this healing, all this soul work, as you just called it, if not for the book.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

That is profound. I want to get to the main loss of your mother and the book. But I think one of the things that you are saying is there was this dichotomy as you were dealing with the grief of your mother’s illness. You were not letting it defeat you. You were being a strong, young woman. You were getting great grades, you would end up getting into Harvard College, which is obviously extremely impressive. And later on, as we’ve heard, you served in the Obama administration, worked in finance. You were not letting this defeat you. You are plowing through, pushing ahead, which is wonderful. It’s an amazing thing.

But yet, at the same time, there was the other dichotomy of not letting yourself deal with the loss of the dream of who your mother was and your childhood. And you talk about this a lot in this book about this misnomer, that if I admit weakness or grief, I’m a weak person. Therefore, I’m a strong person, I will not let this defy me or defeat me. I’m plowing ahead.

So, there was some good in the sense that it’s great to be in, from my perspective, driven to succeed, to achieve. I think that’s wonderful. But there was the good and the bad. So, talk about this almost yin-yang thing, as you were dealing with this.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah. I mean, I really believed that if I was honest about what I was feeling, that I would just be taken down by these feelings, and just end up in this super depressed and overwhelmed space that I would never come out of. So instead, I just tried to just bury them, just swallow them, shove them down and ignore them, which doesn’t work. And in my case, manifested in both physical and longer-term mental health consequences.

I still struggle with anxiety from time to time. And I also bring that back to when my mom got sick and my childhood and my adolescence. And one of the things that I lift up in Grief is Love, that I think is really important for people to understand, especially overachievers who just want to keep plowing through the hard things. The only thing that makes difficult and challenging emotions easier to deal with is acknowledgement.

Naming our feelings is what reduces their power over us. And I think we often assume the reverse. And that’s not just me saying that, that is actual research on the brain and emotion and healing. So if you are going through it right now, whether it’s grief or something similar, and you’re like, “Oh, I can’t bring myself to even acknowledge it because that’ll make it worse,” that’s actually what makes it a little bit better.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So, how old was your mother? How old were you when she passed? So, just talk about that because you were going through grieving up until that point and you thought life was tough, it got exponentially tougher, the grief probably got exponentially worse after. And it probably seemed pretty bad before. So, just talk about what happened and the impact it had on you.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah. So, it’s funny you ask the age piece because I get really hung up on that. Because when my mom first got sick, I was only 13, she was only 37. And as a almost 40-year old, that feels crazy to me now. And then, when she was diagnosed with the cancer, I was 22 and she would’ve been 42, which was, is officially up here, that’s younger than my husband is now.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Hm.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

And then when she passed away, I had just turned 25 and she had just turned 49. And so, it blows my mind sometimes thinking about how young she was when all of these things happened to her.

But as I was graduating from college, my mom had been having a bad, probably, let’s call it three to six months, where she was in and out of the hospital a bunch, constantly going to the doctors. She’s in a lot of pain and she wasn’t a complainer. So, I knew that there was something wrong. My dad knew, my mom knew. We believed her, but a lot of doctors said that, basically, they thought it was in her head.

My grandmother had just passed away quite suddenly that fall. And folks thought that this was just kind of an emotional response that was manifesting in physical ways. She continued to seek out different doctors and support, and eventually ended up being seen by an orthopedic surgeon, thinking there was something wrong with her bones because nobody could figure it out. And the guy that she saw was actually also a family friend. So, he was really listening to her and very committed to uncovering what was going on.

And he found lesions on her spine. And he said and I will never forget this because I then saw him at a friend’s graduation party a few weeks later. He said that was the worst day in his entire career. To be with someone that he knew on some level, so knew that she’d already been sick for all of this time and had gotten the runaround from all of these other doctors, and he found cancer at the bones. And had to tell her that, on top of the MS. He said it’s a moment he will never forget.

And so, after the cancer was identified in her bones, we did follow up appointments with oncologists and learned that it was stage four breast cancer that had migrated throughout her skeletal system. And this was the week I was graduating from Harvard. And so, I went from doctor’s office in upstate New York back to Cambridge, did all of the end of school year, senior week fun festivities, with just a cloud of grief and stress hanging over my head. And then I decided to spend a year at home with my mom and dad, just kind of helping them figure out how to navigate this very complicated diagnosis, or set of diagnoses, and health situation.

About two and a half, three years later, we took her off of treatment for both diseases, because at that point the cancer was in her brain. She was having problems with her lungs, her body had just had enough. And so, we made the decision together as a family. And then, a few weeks after we made the decision, we thought we had six months, a year, or something like that.

But six weeks later, we were hanging out in the living room. She was having a bad day, but she’d had so many bad days in the course of my life with her, that it didn’t really didn’t register that day was going to be the bad day, you know? And she and I shared a joke, and then she collapsed, and was gone a few hours later.

And leading up to her death, again, my type A, Harvard, Wall Street brain was like, I’m going to make the spreadsheets. I got my lists. I’m going to do everything I can to prepare myself, to prepare her, our family, for her to die. And I thought that because I was so organized around her death, that would make the grief easier on the other side. And it just wasn’t true. I mean, it knocked me on my ass and I didn’t understand why. And I spent months berating myself for having so many feelings about an ordinary occurrence.

We’re all going to lose our parents someday, right? That’s what I would tell myself. It’s really not that big of a deal that your mom died, which is crazy. And it was awful. Until one day, and I don’t know what shifted for me, I wish I could remember it, but I honestly don’t know. But it was one day, six months after she passed away, I wrote in my journal, “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Where the problem sits is in how our culture treats people who are grieving and how we talk about and describe grief and loss. Because what you see on TV and in the movies, where somebody dies, everybody puts on black and goes to the funeral, and then everybody goes back to life a few days or a week or so later, that’s bullshit. That’s not how it works.

And so, I wrote to myself and I said, “I’m going to write a book about grief that’s not going to be super sad and depressing, that will tell the truth about what grief really is, and that will be a New York Times bestseller.”

So, we’re still waiting on the New York Times, but I think I checked the other few boxes okay.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

67% is good.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Right?

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Yeah. No, you sure did. So talk about that. I mean, life is pretty tough beforehand. And you’re driven, Harvard, Wall Street. You’ve got the spreadsheets. And people might think, and you write about this in the book, Marisa is a great, she’s that strong, black woman. She’s driven, she’s like a role model for other women, maybe other black women. She’s doing it all. I mean, she is not letting anything defeat her. And there was this, I don’t know if there was subconscious expectation within yourself.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Oh, yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

But on the one hand, you had had this appearance of, boy, Marisa is intelligent, she’s impressive, she’s driven, she’s somebody you admire, she’s an amazing person, which is great for people to think that. That’s not bad, that’s awesome. But yet inside, and you write about having trouble sleeping, taking all sorts of stuff to try, inside you were breaking apart. I think you’d write about being in stairwells of hospitals where they know to leave you alone.

So talk about, there was the public Marisa, but then there’s the private, internal, that people didn’t know that was there. So, just talk about the overwhelming, almost tsunami, tidal wave of grief, that hit you that other people probably didn’t really see.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah. When we took my mom off treatment, I wrote her a letter. And I promised her that I supported her decision and I was going to be just fine. We were the ones having honest conversations about the fact that her time was limited, and what did she want, where did she want to die, what did she want for her funeral? We had that kind of relationship and I felt like I needed her to know that I was going to be okay.

And I made the mistake, as a younger person, thinking that okay meant going back to work, going back to life and just going back to being who I consider myself to be. But what I didn’t realize is the moment you lose someone you love, someone who you consider to be one of yours, whether it’s a parent or a spouse or a child or a best friend, you stop being the same person that you were before.

I didn’t understand that at 5:37 PM on February 28th, when my mom died, that there was a part of me, for better or worse, that died with her. And now, what I needed to do to be okay was figure out who am I in this world without this woman who was both my mom, but also she was someone who I had oriented my life around to some extent since I was 13 years old. So, there was a lot of my identity tied up in her as well.

And because I thought that the grief would be easier, because I was prepared and organized, because I believed that I was strong and I’d already been through a bunch in life. And so, I didn’t think it would be as hard as it was going to be. And then, because I promised her I would be fine, but didn’t really know what that meant, I forced myself to go back to work two weeks after we buried her, to continue running a non-profit on the side while I worked on Wall Street during the height of the financial crisis. To try to be okay, even though I very much was not okay.

And because I had all of these messed up ideas about grief and loss, and who I was, and what I was meant to do, I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone else just how bad it was. But literally, every day, I was able to get myself up, get myself dressed. Sometimes it was hard, and only on three or four hours sleep, but I could get myself ready for work, get on the subway. But the second that I started to leave the subway stop at Wall Street in New York City, and climb the stairs to head to my office, I would start having a debilitating panic attack.

I could make it to the basement of the investment bank where I worked. And that’s where I would spend the first, I don’t know, 45 minutes, hour. I truly don’t know how much time I’ve spent down there. And there was one friend who knew about my morning routine, the only other woman in the entire banking department. And she would come down whenever I emailed her, when I was starting to put myself back together, and she would bring me a Xanax from my desk, a cookie and a soy latte.

And that was my routine for months. And I just was like, “Oh, I guess this is what it’s supposed to be.” I don’t really know what else to do. I’m not asking for help. That’s what I did until it stopped. And so, I think it’s really important when you’re dealing with grief, or some other deeply challenging emotion or experience, to give yourself permission to just be with the feelings and to find your way through it. And to ask for help. Because you can’t do this stuff on your own.

Healing is a very individual experience and your grief is very much yours alone. But that doesn’t mean you have to do it all alone. And as supportive as my community of friends and family were at that time, I just didn’t feel comfortable opening up to how bad it was because I thought that was wrong.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

I mean, that’s so profound and so sad, but so real for everybody that’s been through grief. I want to kind of pivot because you’re talking about some of the themes in your book. And I love the title of your book, Grief is Love. Just talk about what you mean by that because there’s some profound truth.

And before I let you answer that question, one of the sad and good things about tragedy is you can learn profound wisdom. It’s not a wisdom that you want. You don’t want to learn wisdom this way.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Mm-hmm.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It’s like, please, can you give it to me some other way? For whatever reason, the way the universe, God, however you view it, not everybody does, but there’s the opportunity to learn profound wisdom through tragedy. And you certainly have, from my perspective. Whether you wanted to or not, you have. So, talk about Grief is Love because there’s a profound concept behind that title.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah. So for me, the title and the whole experience of writing the book was actually born from another loss. After years of infertility, and IVF, and egg donors, and doing literally everything in my power to get pregnant and sustain a pregnancy, including letting an acupuncturist electrocute my uterus, my husband and I lost the pregnancy a few weeks later. And I am a practical and progressive woman. So it wasn’t even for me about the pregnancy itself, but it was more about the hope for our future life as parents, and the hope that we held for that child, having that taken away.

And this was at the end of a years long process. This was the last chance, the last opportunity, this is where everybody was placing their bet and it didn’t work out. And when it didn’t work out, I was both devastated that it didn’t work out. I was also physically very sick from the fact that it didn’t work out. And all I wanted was my mom. And at that point, she’d been dead for almost 12 years.

And I realized then, I was like, I’m definitely not over this. I never really understood what that whole getting over it thing meant, but I was like, I’m clearly not over it. I wish my mom were here to help me figure out what to do, to help me feel better, to take care of me. And she’s not and it sucks.

And then, a couple months after that loss, when I was still dealing with both the physical and the emotional consequences, we all found ourselves living in the midst of a pandemic. And the only thing I could do was just write my way through it. And as I realized that there’s no point in trying to get over it, and what you actually have to do is learn to live with your losses, I sort of understand that that is true because of the love that we share with people.

If somebody dies, who you have no connection to you at all, you are probably going to feel bad or maybe feel bad for their family. You’re going to feel a little something if you are a person with some degree of empathy, right? But it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to continue to come up for you, that you’re going to have to continually deal with. Whereas, when you lose someone who you share an unconditional love relationship with, your brain is forced to figure out what it looks like to exist in the world without them. And as a part of that, you need to reconcile all of this love that you shared with someone who’s no longer here. And it’s like, what does that look like? How does that work?

And I finally realized that the pain that we feel is because, fundamentally, that grief is inextricably connected to the love that you share with someone. And what I realized is love is both feeling and action. And I started thinking about this a lot as I became a new mom, when I was wrapping up this book. And it’s like, okay, if love is both feeling and action, we grieve because these people that we love so much, that we shared so much of our life with, are no longer here because they can no longer act on that love.

And that hurts, that sucks, especially when other losses take place or things happen in life where you really want them there. But I think you can continue to both feel their love for you and continue to hold love for them.

Just because my mom’s not here, I’m not going to forget about her. They’re always going to be things that make me think about her, that make me miss her, or where I’m forced to acknowledge the absence. And so for me, fundamentally, I came out with, oh yeah, grief is just another form of love. And unfortunately, it’s often a painful form of love.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

One of the things that you state, and there’s so many profound statements, truths that you say. One that really struck me in particular is you say, “Grief, like love, is also limitless,” which means we have to find a way to live with it. The profound truth is not like, okay, I’m a strong person. I’ll take three to six months and then we’ll be done. I’m going to find a way through it. And obviously, we’re very different.

Both my parents, well my mother was extremely driven in a lot of ways, so I have some of her perseverance. But left to my own devices, I’d have a little bit of that mentality, is that I’m a strong-willed person, with perseverance. I’m pretty, if not very-well, aware of my feelings, faults, all the rest. I’m pretty self-aware. Okay, I have the intelligence like Oxford, Harvard Business School, I have the capacity, the intelligence, and the emotional understanding. I have what I need. Let’s power through this, let’s make it go away.

Because talking about it does help, no question. But it’s not like it makes it go away.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It makes it easy to live with. It’s so profound that it’s limitless. It doesn’t go away. I mean, maybe it’s obvious, but to me that’s a revelation for most people that go through grief. It’s like, oh really? Oh, you mean it’s okay to have days when something triggers me?

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yep.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And I lost my dad who was in his late eighties when he died, as I was from marriage number three. And my dad died in early ’87, that’s like 30 plus years ago. I still miss him. I will have dreams occasionally where he’s in it.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

I’ve been looking for the right time to say this to you, Marisa. My mother passed away in 1994 and she was only 63, which now that I’m 57-

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

That’s young.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

I can put only in front of 63, I couldn’t then.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yes.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

But that was 28 years ago. Working on the preparation for this show, studying your story and the insights that you’ve gained about how grief doesn’t end, just like love doesn’t end. You may be able to tell, if anybody is watching this on YouTube or you see a clip, you’ve been around for 140 episodes. You know, listener, that I like to wear hats. I’m a little fancy in terms of, but I also like to wear rings a lot. The problem is I can’t wear rings on the show because they clack on my microphone.

But today, right before we got on this call, I have behind me a bookcase. This is going somewhere, trust me.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

I trust you.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

I have behind me a bookcase and I have things stored in there. And one of the things I have stored in there is what you’ll see here on my finger. That is a dollar bill that was folded into a ring and it was folded into a ring more than almost 40 years ago by my mother.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Oh.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

And as I was preparing this area to go with this show, to interview you, I was hit with a wave of grief. We talked to another guest last week about grief doesn’t come necessarily in a linear process. They’re waves and they can come when you don’t expect them. And I was hit with this wave of grief about missing my mom. And I thought, you know what, I’m talking to Marisa Renee Lee today about the loss of her mother. I’m going to bring my mom with me to this episode.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

I love it.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

There you go.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

And that grief that I felt in that loss, and I’m not going to lie and say that every day I think about her, I don’t. Weeks, months can go by where I don’t. But in that moment, I did. In that moment, the love washed over me just as the grief washed over me, and I thought, I’m going to honor her in this way. And I just want to thank you for both being honest about your grief experience and the lessons that you’ve learned, but then also inspiring me to bring mom to the show today.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

I love it. I love it. Gary, I brought my mom too. I realize, you guys, you probably can’t see this, but there’s our picture-

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Oh, wow.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Our last Christmas. Yeah, I’m with you.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow. You know what? And thank you for sharing that, Gary. I mean, what I love about what you’re saying, and you talk about this in the early chapters, is just the permission to grieve your way. Everybody’s different.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yes. Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Everybody processes grief differently. And we often think that we need to be caring for others. You spend a good part of your life, you know, it’s not about me, it’s about others. And you write later about you’ve got to actually care for yourself. A lot of studies these days say, like in the airplane, you’ve got young kids, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.” If you can’t care for yourself, and this is in the later chapters, you won’t be able to care in your case for your husband and your son, or you won’t be a good friend or anything.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

That’s true.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

If you care for other people, you should care for yourself. So that’s, in the way, the chapters. But I love just this permission to grieve. It’s not weakness to say, “Hey, I’m not doing well.” It’s actually to me-

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

It’s human.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It’s human. To me, it’s a sign of strength, it’s a sign of courage. It’s being brave enough to say, “I’m not okay.” It’s not weakness, it’s profound strength.

Talk about some of these lessons that listeners can hopefully understand. Grieve your way.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

You have permission to grieve. It’s not weakness, it’s courage, to actually grieve and find a safe place, safe person, where you can say, “Hey, you know what? I’m not doing okay. I’m just doing terrible.”

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah. I think in American, and generally in western culture, we glorify all things positive. Like, I’m good. I’m okay. Turn your lemons into lemonade, blah blah, blah. But if you look at the research, as human beings, we are born with, I’m not going to remember off the top of my head, but five or six innate emotions. And half of them are things that we have come to judge and categorize as negative.

And it’s like, how can it actually be negative if we were all born to feel these different things and to feel in this way sometimes? It’s normal to be sad. And I’ll tell you, being the parent of a baby right now has been a great reminder of the fullness of the human experience and the full spectrum of emotions that we should all be expected to experience. I’m sick of this sort of pull yourself up by your emotional bootstraps mentality. And instead, I want to see people giving themselves permission to just be human, to have a hard time, to have a bad day, to not feel like your best, most perfect Instagram-worthy self 24/7.

It’s just not real. You can’t live like that. And so, I wanted dig into a bunch of those themes in the book. But just to go back to what you said, a few things. Permission to grieve felt really important to me, because when I sat down to write the second version of this book, because the first version was one that I knew wasn’t right, and I realized one day that it wasn’t right because it focused too much on grief and less on healing.

I wanted to write a book that got at what has enabled me to live this full, hot pink, joyful life in the midst of multiple significant losses. And one of the first ingredients, and it was the first chapter in the book and also the longest chapter in the book, is permission. I finally had to stop trying to live up to either my own warped expectations, or other people’s expectations around my personal emotional wellbeing, and give myself permission to feel however I feel each day about my mom, about the pregnancy loss.

When I was writing the book, there was also a lot of grief around going through the adoption process. That was just a really hard, stressful thing. So, once I started giving myself permission, it felt a lot easier to identify what are the things that can help me through this difficult time. Whether it’s talking about and giving some voice to my feelings, or I find writing to be very therapeutic, or going to a counselor, or just going for a walk, or doing a meditation.

I felt like I couldn’t get at the what’s going to help me get through the really hard moments without first giving myself permission to feel and acknowledge the hard moments. And then one of the other things that I want to make sure people understand, we talked about how grief is limitless, how there is no timeline. And one of the things that I find a lot of people get really stuck on around grief is the idea of the five stages of grief.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, brilliant woman, brilliant writer, researcher, but she herself makes very clear that that book and her five stages, that wasn’t written for you or me, or for you, Gary. That was written for people who were dying themselves. And so, we have taken this dated framework, that wasn’t even supposed to apply to bereaved people, and we have applied it to bereaved people in a way that I think, in more cases than not, causes harm.

Because when you hear something like stages, you think that there are these sequential steps, like AA, or the developmental milestones that we look for in our little children, that you’re supposed to go through in this very ordered way. And when that doesn’t happen, you’re like, “Oh, I messed up. Now I feel like shit and it turns out I’m grieving wrong.” No, that’s not true. That’s just absolutely not true.

So no timelines, no stages. Please give yourself permission. And I think that, while I’m very much opposed to the whole taking lemons and turning them into lemonade, I do think that grief and joy can exist simultaneously. If you are honest and open about what you’re experiencing, I think that does sometimes create space for joy. And I’m not talking about the overwhelming sense of happiness that maybe you had on your wedding day, or when your child was born or whatever. But even just a moment where you know, you look outside and the sun is shining and you feel a little bit better for 90 seconds.

And so, I want to make sure that people honor the fullness of their experience, which can include some joy or some laughter, even when you’re deep in grief.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

There’s a lot of wisdom here. I mean, just a couple of the thoughts. Being vulnerable for a purpose, so to speak, or just expressing the fact you’re not doing well. One of the things you obviously write about, certainly by implication, is you have to choose wisely. There can be some family members, who we love very dearly, who want to fix us. And they’ll be like, “Oh. Thanks so much for sharing, Marisa. You need to do X. Do counseling.”

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Counseling is not bad, but it’s like, “Here’s a five point plan how to help.”

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Or another common one is the like, “But you have this and you have this and you have that. So, don’t be sad, don’t be whatever.”

 

Warwick Fairfax:

You have a wonderful husband and a baby.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah, yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

You should be full of joy.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

You should be fine.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

You should do meaningful-

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So, you want to find people that, not just a safe place, but a wise place. The safe and wise people will sit there and listen. They might say I’m sorry, they will be very short on answers and long on listening and empathy. And not everybody’s wired that way. And if that’s family member, that’s great. If it’s not, nothing against family.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

But find people that will listen and not try and fix you, right?

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah. Figure out who your crew is. Who are the two people, maybe three, who you can text when you’re going through it, who aren’t going to jump to solutions and are just going to meet you with compassion and empathy.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Indeed. You talk also about grace, grace for yourself and grace for others. And that’s not easy. I know, you write in the book about a very good friend, I think in college, who was playing for the Irish women’s soccer team, and had a big match. And it’s like, she’s thinking, “This is one of the highlights of my career.” You’re thinking, “This is my best friend, you need to be here.”

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And it took a while to get through that one, in different perspectives. But just having grace for you, for others, and forgiveness, that’s important. Grace for yourself and other people. And if people talk about agree to disagree, but some people have, you might think, “Well, I would never do that. If I was on X soccer team, I’d drop it in a heartbeat.” And you might think, “Well, I feel that’s wrong.”

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It may or may not be. But talk a bit about grace for yourself and grace for others, because it’s easy for anger to just multiply, and start getting angry at other people rightly or wrongly.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah. I think when you’re hurting, it is hard to leave room for other people’s imperfections of any kind. And when you’re hurting, and you have expectations around how people in your life are supposed to support you and then they don’t, it’s really hard. And I think in some instances, frankly, proper boundaries may make most sense. If it’s someone who’s not interested in apologizing, or trying to meet you halfway and show you the care and love and support that you need, you probably just need to put up some boundaries and go find a different friend or family member to support you.

But when people are on your team and really want to be there for you, and bearing in mind the understanding that, as far as I can tell at this point, grief doesn’t go away. So, you want to keep people in your life who really want to be there for you for the long haul because it’s going to keep coming up. You’re going to continue to be triggered by it. I just think it’s really important to be willing to forgive and to extend grace because we’re all human and most days we’re all doing the best we can.

And then, I think it’s equally important for you to extend grace to yourself. When you are grieving, grief takes over your body and your mind. And I’m not just saying that. There is scientific research that shows the direct impact that grief has on your brain. And that impact makes it hard for you to do the things that you’ve become accustomed to do, or in some cases, for you to do things the way that you’re used to doing them because you’re not yourself when grief has taken over.

I just think that grace, it really is a two-way street and I want people to think about grace as a key ingredient in living with loss.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

That’s so well said. I know, as we are getting to the summary stage, a number of things you’ve said that are so profound is you don’t get over loss, you don’t get over typically grief. At least not from my perspective. You learn to balance grief and love, and living with grief, and living with your family and career. It’s all different strands in the same stream, if you will. It’s just part of life. There will be things that trigger you. Whether it’s, my case, a loss of a family business, a loss of my dad, loss of my mother.

There will be things that come up and it could be simple as, I remember years ago, it’s probably not a great example. But when my kids were small, they know I grew up obviously very wealthy. And when we had Christmas trees, we had staff to put stuff up, the Christmas ornaments up. Sounds kind of bizarre. And I remember my kids were small, and they said, “Well, daddy, that’s so sad that you didn’t do it as a family.” And when they said that, I was just struck by a wave of grief and loss. Because it’s like, you know what? You’re right. I would’ve loved to grow up in a family where you’re doing it.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Most people take that for granted. Now that was part of, gosh, I guess I grew up different. In some ways, there’s a loss of what others had, the simple Christmases rather than the stuff. That’s a small example. But there will be things that trigger us, for some reason, out of the blue. And that’s just part of life.

And what you’re saying, and I want listeners to hear this, don’t expect to get over loss. You might learn to live with it better, I don’t know. But you learn to live with it. Does that make sense?

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

100 percent.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Because sometimes people think if I read the right books, have the right counselor, and you talk about this, if I just found the right counselor, he or she could really flip the switch and I would be, “Praise God, I’m healed. No grief, that’s awesome.”

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

I mean, unfortunately, I just don’t think that’s how… You know, I’m almost 15 years into my journey following the loss of my mom. And the research that I looked at about, not just how grief impacts your brain, but also how love imprints on your brain. You are never going to forget about your father or about the fact that you know had this family business that is no longer a family business. You’re never going to forget about those things.

And because they stay stored, and because you’re never going to forget, there are always going to be moments, some joyful, some painful, that trigger you. It’s just baked into who you are. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

This is a perfect time to listen to the captain, who’s just turned on the fasten seatbelt sign, indicating that we have begun our descent to end this very fascinating and helpful discussion, and this cap on our series, Gaining from Loss.

I want to do a couple things, Marisa, before I let Warwick ask the last question. First thing, very important, how can listeners find you and find out more about you online? Where can they get their hands on your book and learn more about what it is that you do?

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

So, you can buy Grief is Love pretty much anywhere books are sold. Amazon, Target, local book sellers, Barnes & Noble, et cetera. You can find me, I’m Marisa Renee Lee on all social platforms and that’s also my website. So please, please do follow along on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera. And I hope that you will consider buying the book.

It’s not perfect. I don’t know that there is a perfect book on grief, but I’m really trying to normalize the experience of grief and loss for people, and ensure that everyone has access to the things they need to heal from loss.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

And that’s a perfect segue into the second thing I want to do here, because as I’ve said a couple of times, this is the last episode with a guest of our series Gaining from Loss. And there’s something that I found, that you wrote for Vogue Magazine last October, called How I Learned to Find Joy During Times of Grief.

And the sentence that you have, that sort of sets up the five areas that you talk about, I think is a great capstone for this series. Because you say this, “As I’ve worked to manage my grief over the years, here’s how I’ve learned to cultivate joy.”

I would edit that a little bit, at the end of this series, for the context of this series to say, “As I’ve worked to manage my loss over the years, here’s how I’ve learned to,” I’ll take out cultivate joy and with your permission, slide in, “create gain from the loss.”

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yes.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

But here are the five things, and I want to do this. I’ve never done this before, but you’ve got the kind of mind I think is going to make this work out really well. I want to play this as sort of a fast money on a game show thing, where I’m going to tell you, I’m going to say, “Here’s the first point that you said about this idea of how you manage grief over the years to find joy.”

You have five points, and I don’t want you to have to dive too deeply into it, but the first couple thoughts that come to your head when I say, “Here’s the first thing you wrote that you do that.” And the first thing that you wrote to cultivate joy, through grief and through loss, the first thing you wrote is, identify what you need and take it. Couple sentences on what you meant by that.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yes, yes. Honestly, this gets back to what Warwick was saying about feelings. Figure out what you’re feeling and then figure out what you need in order to access joy. It may be that today is just a day for you to sit with some sad feelings and let them wash over you so that tomorrow can be more joyful. Or it may be something more specific, like going to counseling. But whatever it is, figure it out and take it because you deserve to be happy.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Excellent. Point one wrapped. Point two, set boundaries and stick to them. Couple sentences on that.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah, this is a big one. I think especially with the approaching holiday season here in the States. I think it’s really important, if you are having a hard time to not force yourself into a bunch of shoulds, for lack of a more technical term, like, “Oh, I should do this work thing. I should go to that event. I should celebrate Thanksgiving in this kind of a way, even though I’m pretty sure it’s going to make me feel like shit.” So, get rid of the shoulds and set boundaries around what you are and aren’t comfortable doing while you’re grieving.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

The third point is going to sound like, we’ve culled it from Crucible Leadership, Beyond the Crucible texts, because Warwick uses this exact phrase, it’s in the new e-course that we’ve created. And your third point is to identify an accountability partner. What do you mean by that?

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Oh, yeah. That’s super important. So I don’t know about the two of you, but I am really good at being hard on myself. And also, sometimes, not so great at doing the things that I know I need to do to care for myself. I preach about it, I talk about it all the time, but it’s hard to put into practice when you have a full-time job, a new house, and a new baby.

And so, I have a couple of girlfriends who we hold each other accountable, to do the things that we know we need to do to, in order to pour into our families and pour into our work. And so, figure out who in your crew you can link up with and just be text buddies around, what are you doing for yourself today? What are your plans for the weekend? How are you making sure that you’re getting the rest and the care that you need?

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Three-fifths of the way through, the fourth point of how you live with joy after loss is celebrate something, period. Anything. Talk about that.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

So, my mom was a big celebrations person, so I’m all about celebrating wins even if they’re teeny tiny ones. So, if you’re having a hard time and today you manage to both get out bed and brush your teeth, feel free to celebrate that. It’s okay. Give yourself a pat on the back.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Awesome. And one of the things that you may celebrate, because I picked this up in some of the research, you love the Godfather, so do I.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Oh, I do love-

 

Gary Schneeberger:

If we ever meet, we have to watch, eat some cannoli and watch The Godfather. Here’s your last point. And I love this point, not only for your story, Lisa. I’m sorry, Lisa.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

That’s my mother’s name.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

I’m going to back up. Well, okay, I’m not going to back up. I’m just going to say-

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah, it’s okay.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Marisa. Wow. Hello, Dr. Freud. That is fast.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

That’s awesome. I mean-

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

She came to visit. Yeah.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Well, because I’m talking about her, right?

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

And that’s the fifth point. The fifth point here is, and I love this for your story and for our series, your fifth point is Be a Lisa.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yeah. So for me, Be a Lisa is all about giving back. And there is research that points to, when we are in service of others, it usually does help our own mental and emotional wellbeing. So when I say Be a Lisa, I mean find something you can do for somebody else.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Excellent. Warwick, I’ll let you have the last couple of questions. But that sounds a little bit like what we say at Beyond the Crucible, live a life of significance, a life on purpose dedicated to serving others, right?

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Just as we kind of sum up here, I love as you talk about the legacy of your mother and living her legacy in a sense. And I also love just the way that you’ve managed to use the loss to help so many. And I’ve found, in my own way, and I’m sure you are finding this, as you write about the pain and people say, “Marisa, what you’ve written really helped me,” it doesn’t make the grief go away, but maybe it makes it a couple degrees more manageable.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It’s sort of drops of grace to a person that maybe feel like they’re wandering through the desert and looking for an oasis.

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Absolutely.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

I’ve found that it’s not necessarily a reason to do it, but it’s a byproduct. So, just as we summarize here, I often like to ask, what’s sort of a word of hope that you would give people? Because maybe today is somebody’s worst day, or worst year, worst decade. What’s a message of hope that you would give to that person?

 

Marisa Renee Lee:

Well, it’s funny that you use the word hope because I would say, “Choose hope.” Keep believing that there is something better than the worst pain of grief. Because there is. And while we know the grief doesn’t go away, it’s not the devastating on-the-floor-of-an-investment-bank panic attack situation, that it was 15 years ago.

Now, it’s more subtle and less overwhelming. And I have managed to create a big, full, joyful life in the absence of my mother while also creating space for her. But I think you can only do that if you are committed to hope and if you really believe that there is something better than the worst pain that you experience when you lose someone you love.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

That sound you’ve heard, listener, is the plane on the ground. That Marisa has landed the plane, and we’ve landed this series, Gaining from Loss. So, thank you, Marisa Renee Lee. Thank you, listeners, for being with us. Warwick and I will be back next week with a wrap up of all the things we’ve learned. See you then.