Jill Smolowe didn’t set out to become a grief counselor.
She was a journalist, writing first about foreign affairs for Time and Newsweek and later about crime for People. Her career was chugging along. She married a guy named Joe. They adopted a child. It was a good life, filled with love, family, humor, friends and interesting work.
Then the picture changed.
4 Funerals in 17 Months
Smolowe’s mother, husband, mother-in-law and sister all died in the space of 17 months; unwittingly, the journalist had become a grief expert. It was a painful education. A dear friend, Smolowe says, sums it up this way: “It’s like you got a Ph.D. in death.”
Losing her mother-in-law, then her husband to leukemia at age 66, then her sister to colon cancer at age 51, then her mother at age 80 was terrible. The loss was magnified by the feeling that she wasn’t doing it right. She wasn’t going through the five stages of grief made famous by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And she certainly wasn’t doing anything in any particular order.
Smolowe was sad, yes, but that didn’t mean she wanted to wallow in it. She grew weary of the mono-focus on her loss. Sometimes, well-meaning concern felt like another demand on her already-depleted time and energy.
And even though she was sad, exhausted and hopeless at times, she was — much to her surprise — OK. Smolowe also noticed that her grief felt different depending on the relationship. Saying goodbye to her mother was a communal experience, shared with siblings; her husband’s death was a private affair.
“It’s not an experience I wish on anybody,” Smolowe says, “but being in so many different positions was very illuminating.”
So illuminating that Smolowe eventually cut back her hours at People to become a certified “transition coach.”
Now Smolowe, 58 and remarried, helps people move through loss of all kinds — death, friendships gone sour, divorce.
Five years later, she still misses Joe daily. She also still has a good life. Her new memoir, Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief, aims to shed new light on what grieving looks like. People are more resilient than we think, Smolowe says. “Resilience is the norm.”
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Next Avenue: Let’s start with the title, a play on the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. How did the book get its name?
Smolowe: I thought I was going to call it The Good Goodbye, but I love that movie and it seemed to fit. It telegraphs the sorrow of ending and the joy of new beginnings. It was also very important for me to get the word ‘resilience’ on the cover.
After reading your intro, I thought Bereavement Sucks Big Time would make a good title.
[Laughs.] That would work, too.
Do you see any correlations between the book and the movie beyond the title?
You lost four loved ones — mother-in-law, husband, sister, mother — in a year and a half. That sounds devastating.
When my husband was diagnosed with leukemia, that was a divider of time.
How did you experience grief?
Very much in waves. There was the shock with Joe. There was the sadness.
Wait, what about the stages of grief?
That cycle has been debunked by researchers. It was never intended for the bereaved; it was for the dying. I experienced not one stage of that cycle. Sadness comes in waves. People oscillate. We’ve become locked in this five-stage notion.
What’s the most surprising discovery you made about yourself? About grief? About love?
The day after Joe was diagnosed, I took myself for a run. I thought, If Joe doesn’t live I’ll have to reimagine my whole life. I thought if he fell out of the picture, the whole picture would collapse. Then he actually died, and I realized I don’t have to reimagine my whole life. It never collapsed. It evolved.
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Where does resiliency come from?
By going through so much sorrow, I also began to be mindful of all the things in my life that are good. It kicked off a profound sense of gratitude — It was like, ‘I haven’t lost everything. There are still so many good things in my life.’
Where did you find strength?
The blanket of concern comforted me and it comforted Joe.
I kept thinking about divorce while I was reading the book.
A very dear friend, one day she calls and says, ‘My husband just told me he wants a divorce.’ I remember thinking, ‘I have it easier.’ With divorce, people either don’t know or they don’t get it. I have a brother who went through a divorce and I talked to him every night for two years. That kind of loss is really profound.
When my mother-in-law died, I felt a sense of relief. I always chalked it up to pre-grieving her death.
Grief is personal. I have had a lot of grief in my life, but I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to lose a child.
Do you think journalists are wired differently than other people? We’re trained to compartmentalize, be objective, look at all sides of a situation. Does that make us more resilient?
I don’t know. I know journalists who are disasters.
Have you gotten any flack for writing this book?
I do anticipate that there will be people who misunderstand and will think, ‘She didn’t love her husband.’ One thing I’ve learned with other books is to let it go.
What do you do differently now when you know someone who’s dealing with loss?
There’s a moment in the book when a friend said to me, ‘How are you?' And I said, ‘No one talks to me about George Bush anymore.’ I didn’t always want to talk about Joe, or my sister. I wanted to talk about George Bush. No one would let me be a citizen or a reader or a journalist anymore.
Is that why you wrote the book?
I simply wanted to open a window and enlarge people’s assumptions about the grief experience. My main message is: ‘Do it your way.’
What’s the one piece of advice you give everyone?
People ask me, ‘What should I say?’ I tell them, ‘Take your cues from the person who’s grieving. Listen to what they’re saying. Step in. If you look, it’s right there in front of you.’