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There is No Timeline to Grief
An interview with Katie Hawkins-Gaar
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Grief is disrespectful. It shows up unbidden. It interrupts dreams, work, joy. People say it’s messy and I get that, but mostly I think it’s uncontrollable — and that, plus the fact that it complicates the constant optimism, is what makes it so difficult for (Americans in particular) to handle.
One of my ongoing resolutions for the newsletter — and my writing in general — is to make more space for grief. I think that’s part of what I was trying to do with my Scribd collection on mothering during the pandemic: make space to revisit, but also to remind ourselves of all that we lost, all that’s still, in many cases, unmourned.
Earlier this year, we did a thread that was just a broad space to grieve. The internet’s a weird place to grieve, just generally, but also, in many cases — like that one — it can be deeply comforting, too. That’s how I feel reading Katie Hawkins-Gaar’s newsletter, My Sweet Dumb Brain. It’s about loss — she lost her husband, Jamie, in 2017, when he was 32 years old — but it’s about also dynamic, surprising and horrible and essential and mourning that loss, and building a life upon it. I loved her reflections here on how grief retextures love, and the way you think about work, and the even, ultimately, the way you treat yourself.
Can you talk about the process of writing through and around and within your grief for a public audience? What’s been scary, or gratifying, or challenging?
Writing and grief have always been intertwined for me. The morning after my husband Jamie died, I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I started to write. I opened up a Google Doc and began documenting most everything that happened in those early, hazy, grief-saturated days. I started writing for an entirely utilitarian purpose—because I was afraid of forgetting things. Of course, that didn’t happen. There’s so much from that time that I wish I could forget, but never will.
After a while, though, I started writing for entirely different reasons. I quickly discovered that documenting my grief was incredibly therapeutic. It was a way for me to take all of my tangled feelings and jumbled thoughts and make some sense of them. By putting words to the big, uncomfortable emotions I was experiencing, they became a little less intimidating.
Before long, I took parts of that Google Doc and turned them into Facebook posts and Instagram captions. I wanted to share publicly because grief is such a lonely experience, and I was hungry for connection. (And because, let’s be honest, I was tired of my social feeds only consisting of people sharing the highlights of their #bestlives while I was living the worst version of mine.)
It felt good to share, but also rebellious in a way. Despite the fact that pretty much everyone will experience grief in their lifetime, we rarely talk openly about it—at least here in the U.S. As I began to share about my grief, I heard from more and more people who said they felt less alone in their own struggles.
That was the encouragement I needed to keep going. In 2018, a year and a half after Jamie’s death, I started my newsletter, My Sweet Dumb Brain. I was tired of giving away my work for free to social media giants, and wanted to explore a wider variety of topics, like productivity culture, burnout, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
For the first year or so, my audience was made of friends, and friends of friends. Since then, it’s grown considerably. Now, thousands of strangers read about my life and innermost thoughts. It’s amazing! It’s also kind of bizarre and something I honestly try not to think too hard about. If I really considered how many people were reading my words, I’d think I’d struggle with major imposter syndrome and writer’s block each week.
I’m a big believer in the power of vulnerability, and I’ve tried to take a vulnerable and honest approach with everything I write about. That can be hard! There are times when I write about something that is stigmatized and misunderstood—not only grief, but things like being hospitalized for postpartum psychosis—and I’ve been terrified of the consequences. Would I receive mean comments? Miss out on future work opportunities? Pigeonhole myself?
For the most part, I haven’t experienced any of these things. This might be relative to my audience size, which isn’t massive, but the comments I do receive have been 95% lovely and supportive. And I’ve thankfully been able to continue to find freelance opportunities. My favorite thing is when I work with someone new who tells me, “I love your newsletter!” That feels like progress. It’s like, this person knows my grief story and mental health struggles and, still, they’re excited to work with me.
I’m just one person, but it feels good knowing that my writing is helping to reduce even a little bit of the stigma out there around grief and mental illness.
I know that whenever my piece on the great grief of my life gets circulating again, I get emails and DMs from people sharing their own grief stories, stories that bare glancing or significant overlap with my own. It’s a lot, and sometimes I have the wherewithal to respond, and sometimes I realize that what they really wanted to do was have an opportunity to write about the person they loved. What has been your strategy when it comes to the very real emotional labor of opening your inbox to others’ grief?
Hearing others' stories is a real privilege. And, at the same time, you’re right: it is emotional labor. Those stories can be triggering and they get heavy—especially when the person writing is looking for some advice or hope.
I wish I could share a brilliant strategy, but I’m afraid I don’t have one. Like you, sometimes I have the space to respond, and sometimes I don’t. I try to block off specific times each day to focus on email. I always aim to respond to messages in a timely manner, but I’ve also learned to give myself the grace to let some emails and comments sit in my inbox for a while. One thing I’ve learned about grief is that it doesn’t expire—and, more often than not, a reply that comes six months after a loss is more meaningful than the condolences that pour in six days afterwards.
One of the most helpful things I heard from someone in regards to my own loss was, “Oh, it’s been no time at all!” Grief advocate and psychotherapist Megan Devine told me that when I was interviewing her for a Fortune article. It was January 2020, nearly three years since my husband’s death. Three years! It seemed like anyone else would think it had been a long time. But Megan, who lost her own partner suddenly, knew differently. It was the kindest thing she could have said, and it’s stuck with me ever since.
I try to extend that same kindness to everyone who reaches out to me with their own grief stories. I remind them that there’s no timeline for grief, that everything they’re feeling is valid, and that—yes, the cliche is true—things will get easier with time. In the end, we all want to share our stories and remember the people we love most. Having people trust me with those remembrances is an honor, and it’s one I don’t take lightly.
You’ve written about how internalized capitalism and the compulsion to fill extra space with grief has snuck into your exercise habits and parenting — I’d like to hear more about how you thought of work and busy-ness in the aftermath of your husband’s death, and how you reflect on the relation between work and grief now.
After my husband died, my company granted me four weeks off from work. I would have liked to have taken longer for bereavement, but that wasn’t in the cards with the fast-paced, very public job I had at the time. Within a couple of weeks, I was back in my role as a journalism trainer and faculty member: hosting events, teaching sessions, writing articles, and mentoring journalists.
Part of me was thankful for the distraction of work—it gave me something meaningful to do in a time when most everything else felt meaningless—but I also quickly learned that the workplace was not a place to grieve. The all-consuming nature of my job made it nearly impossible to process what had happened. There were so many times, at the end of a busy work day, that I’d automatically grab my phone to text Jamie that I was coming home. And then it’d hit me, all over again. It was brutal.
After a couple of months, I requested a 12-week FMLA leave for bereavement. That time off was incredibly healing. It also opened my eyes to the fact that, in order to move forward in my life in a healthy way, I needed to make room for grief. I couldn’t push it away with work and other forms of busy-ness.
Over the next few months, there was a real tension between work work and grief work, especially as I started being more public about the realities of a major loss. That came to a head when my boss warned me that writing about grief would interfere with my professional career. I believed that I could do both things at once—grieve openly and be good at my job—but she didn’t see it that way (or, at least, she worried that other people wouldn’t see it that way). I knew then that if I had to choose between the two, I would choose grief.
So, I did. I put in my notice and left my job at the end of 2017. I had saved up enough money to take a year off from work and figure out what was next.
I thought my time off would be spent doing things like crying, traveling, and looking for a magical workplace that understood how to support employees when life got hard. Instead, I spent my time doing things like crying, traveling, and saying yes to things I didn’t have the time or room for before. I created a website for women and nonbinary journalists looking for mentors. I started my newsletter. I wrote for some big-name publications. By the end of the year, I realized that I could give freelancing a go.
I’ve now been a freelancer for nearly five years. There are just as many upsides as there are downsides to freelancing life, but the thing I like best is that I can work when and how I need to and don’t have to explain myself to anyone.
For better or worse, my natural inclination is to work, work, work, which means I have to challenge myself to rest. I build breaks, exercise, and other screen-free time into each day’s schedule, and I treat those breaks with the same respect as a meeting with a colleague. Despite the temptation to keep working, I also try to check in with how I’m feeling and catch myself if I’m using work as a way to ignore an uncomfortable thought or emotion. I have a post-it note from my partner on my desk that says, “I know it hurts, but the sadness is your friend.” It’s a good reminder.
In our capitalist-driven, work-at-all-costs society it seems almost valiant to keep working through pain and hardship. But that doesn’t serve us at all. By prioritizing working over things like grieving, we don’t allow ourselves to heal and set unrealistic, unhealthy examples for the people around us. It’s toxic, really. A recipe for burnout.
I know that not everyone has the option to take bereavement time or leave their jobs—there’s so much privilege in the choices I made!—but for those of us that do have those options, it’s in our best interest and the interest of the people around us to be brave and face the sadness. In the end, we’ll be a lot happier (and better workers!) if we did just that.
I find that American work ethic — when it comes to jobs, but also parenting and our bodies and so much more — is so austere, and focused on the fetishization of a specific sort of selfless martyrdom, and also fundamentally unkind. Unkind to ourselves, but ultimately unkind to the communities in which we live, the environment that surrounds us, the list goes on. One of the purposes of the newsletter has been to create a sort of praxis of kindness to yourself — what have you learned, and how do you feel it changing the way you practice kindness towards the outside world, from your close friends and community members to strangers on the street or on the internet?
My default, like a lot of people’s, unfortunately, is to be unkind to myself—to tell myself I can be doing more, unfavorably compare myself to others, and be critical of my shortcomings. Negative self-talk is something I’ve struggled with for most of my adolescent and adult life. So, when I started My Sweet Dumb Brain, being open about grief and anxiety and all the other hard things in life didn’t seem that revolutionary. What did seem bold was putting an emphasis on kindness. The tagline of my newsletter is “facing the ups and downs of life, all while being kind to yourself.”
You ask about how I extend that kindness to the outside world, and that’s a tough question because there isn’t a ton of outside world for me to interact with at the moment—at least compared to what my life looked like pre-pandemic and pre-parenthood (I gave birth in October 2020, at an especially anxiety-ridden time). That’s another reason I am so thankful for my newsletter. It started as a way to make grief feel less lonely, but, over time, has created a pathway to connectedness for people who feel increasingly disconnected—whether that’s due to COVID, parenthood, working remotely, caring for aging parents, or any other number of things.
Most of the feedback I receive from readers is in the form of gratitude, which is truly the loveliest thing. We all face all sorts of challenging situations and uncomfortable feelings at any given time, and in the midst of our own difficulties, it can be easy to forget that other people are struggling, too. By sharing my own challenges and giving myself grace in how I face those challenges, I hope I’m offering readers similar permission to be kind to themselves.
Each week when I sit down to write, I try to use kindness as a compass. I’m constantly reminding myself and my readers to take breaks, to celebrate the small things, and to treat ourselves with patience and understanding. The world can be a hard place to be, especially now, and there’s no reason we need to make it harder by beating up on ourselves. Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but that’s why my newsletter is named what it is: my sweet, dumb brain needs to hear these things over and over.
You can sign-up for her My Sweet Dumb Brain here, and follow Katie on Twitter here. And if you have ideas for other people I should interview — about grief, about anything — suggest away in the comments!
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