Author Jennifer Katz of SUNY Geneseo: 5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change

An Interview With Pirie Jones Grossman

Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

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Just say no. When the world has fallen apart, we have less energy. Sometimes, it’s a major feat even to get through the day. You may need to turn down requests from people who don’t know or care that that you’re in a whole new terrible place. As a friend advised, “Say that you’d love to but you can’t. Don’t say more than that.” It’s been magical advice.

The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.

Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.

How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?

In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Katz.

Jenny, author of The Good Widow, is an adoptive mom and a stepmom living in Western NY. Trained as a clinical psychologist, Jenny is a Professor of Psychology at SUNY Geneseo. She teaches about gender, sexuality, and helping relationships, and in her free time, she loves reading, yoga, musical theater, and broccoli.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was born and raised outside of Ft. Lauderdale. As a child, most of my time was spent reading books; I was a serious student who loved school and learning. I danced ballet until high school, and then switched to acting in plays and singing in a quartet. My Italian Jewish family was traditional in many ways, especially in terms of gender roles. My dad worked full time and was often absent; my mom cared for us largely on her own. Having a twin brother taught me about gendered inequality. As a tween, my brother had a newspaper route that he struggled to complete on time. To help him out, Mom asked me to do half of the job. She offered to pay me, out of her own pocket, half of what the company paid my brother. My parents divorced when I was 15. Dad moved out, and Mom worked nights and slept elsewhere during the day. During my last two years of high school, my siblings and I lived mostly on our own.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Pema Chodron offers so many wonderful quotes–- it’s hard to pick just one! Ok.“The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart.” I love the idea that the universe continually provides us with whatever we need, even if we don’t know what that might be. I also love the idea that the challenges we face teach us to become more compassionate, more able to relate to others who might be facing similar challenges. There’s nothing like being with other people who can relate, people who really get it, who KNOW.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Hmmm. Id say — impatience, luck, and love. Impatience probably has helped me most. Once I’ve decided on a goal, I’m eager to arrive there, and so my tendency is to work, work, work towards the end. But luck and love also were essential. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to receive financial support, particularly from my father; his generosity allowed me to complete my undergraduate and graduate degrees with very few loans. My mother also helped with loans, for which I’m very grateful. And I’ve also been incredibly lucky to receive emotional support from many family members, dear friends who are “chosen family,” and of course, my beloved husband — their love has helped me through many difficult times, allowing me to work towards achieving goals.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?

In August 2018, one Monday morning, my husband of 18 years died suddenly. He was 57 years old, and I was 45. I was in a meeting at a coffee shop when he sent a text: “May be having heart attack. Called 911. Ambulance on the way.” My phone was off. By the time I received the message, it was too late. I raced to the hospital with our daughter to be with him, but he had already died.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

Initially, I was terrified for my husband — was he afraid and alone? I dropped our 15-year-old daughter off at the emergency room to go be with him while I parked. But they wouldn’t tell her anything without an adult. Later, after they told us the news, my fear receded. The worst thing that could possibly happen had already happened. Instead, there were questions like, “Why go on?” Fear gave way to regret, shock, and a vast gaping emptiness.

How did you react in the short term?

For the first three or so months, I acted in extremely practical, task-oriented ways. We planned the memorial service where I gave a eulogy. I made endless phone calls, cancelling his credit cards and magazine subscriptions. A new semester of teaching began about two weeks after my husband died. After catching myself pretending he was on a work trip, I realized that I was denying reality and removed my wedding ring. Family and friends objected, reassuring me “you don’t have to do that!” But I did.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?

Once the reality of his death settled in, I fell apart. Some of my coping was problematic. I ate as little as possible. And although it was nearly impossible to sleep, I refused any type of medication, even melatonin. I felt perpetually tense and restless. Healthier coping strategies included exercise, yoga, decluttering the house, time with friends, and writing. I joined several grief support groups, saw a therapist, and also visited a psychic medium. Probably the best coping strategy involved talking to other widows who were also living with loss. Their support and their stories gave me hope.

Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?

After my husband’s sudden and unexpected death, I lost any sense of predictability. The whole world, including my own mind, felt alien. Unexpectedly, some tasks were impossible. I cancelled my husband’s drugstore prescriptions without incident, but literally couldn’t fill out the form to deposit the life insurance check. People would ask me if I was okay to run a meeting, or drive somewhere, and I’d say yes while wondering, is that true? Can I? With time and experience without him, life felt less unpredictable, less tenuous. I learned to expect the unexpected and to stay mindful, in the present moment. During our second Christimas after the loss of my husband, our kids and I were driving around, laughing, looking to buy a tree to decorate. It was amazing to realize that we were having fun! I realized that when I stopped telling myself stories like “we’ll never enjoy a holiday again,” it became possible to find moments of joy, despite the ongoing grief.

Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?

As strange as it might sound, beginning to date was a necessary part of grieving. Meeting new people who were also single adults helped me accept the reality of a new life that I didn’t want. Although being widowed was profoundly lonely, I wasn’t looking for love, intimacy, or even companionship. Instead, I wanted to redefine myself and to practice having acceptable casual conversations that didn’t involve the phrase “my dead husband.” Dating was awkward. But it also gave me opportunities to talk to other adults also living lives that they didn’t want. It allowed me to interact with people who had never known me as a happily married woman and helped me think about myself in a new way, as a single adult woman. And perhaps most importantly, dating allowed me to search for my late husband, a search that, although irrational and fruitless, I needed to pursue. Over time, as my searching repeatedly failed, I gradually let go of the hope of finding him. I gradually learned to accept the unacceptable fact that he’s truly gone from this world.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

Oh, yes. Many, many generous and wonderful people helped me, some of whom I wrote about in my book. Here, I’ll focus on two in particular. First, although she was grieving the loss of her big brother, my sister-in-law Lisa consistently celebrated birthdays and Thanksgivings with us. Lisa also encouraged me to publish my writings about grief. I’m so grateful to her! Second, days after my husband’s death, Mary, a woman whom I’d never before met, sent me an email saying she was the sister of my work colleague. She said that they had heard that my husband died, that her own husband died years ago, and she asked if I’d like get together? YES! Talking with her was incredibly healing, and she’s now a close friend.

Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?

Well, living without my husband won’t ever be a positive situation, but I’ve learned that happiness is still possible. Happiness, tinged with sorrow, feels bittersweet. He’s not here with us to celebrate holidays or our daughter’s graduation, which is sad. At the same time, he’s spared terrible news about accidents or illness, which is a relief. He should be here. He’s not. The world is a darker place. Yet, also, there’s still light.

What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?

A yoga teacher once suggested: we have all that we need within ourselves. Sometimes we get cloudy and we lose sight of what is within us. In the same way, on a day with clouds or fog, our view of the sun is blocked. Although we’ve lost sight of the sun, our perception doesn’t change reality. The sun is there. Even while hidden from view, we can remind ourselves that, at some point, we’ll see the sun again. Weather patterns are also created, internally. Our nervous systems storm with swirling thoughts as tidal waves of emotions build, crest, and crash. Thoughts and emotions are always transient, possibly important, possibly not. We can accept these just as they are. Just as we are. We can breathe and be. Nothing must be done. All I need is already here.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Just say no. When the world has fallen apart, we have less energy. Sometimes, it’s a major feat even to get through the day. You may need to turn down requests from people who don’t know or care that that you’re in a whole new terrible place. As a friend advised, “Say that you’d love to but you can’t. Don’t say more than that.” It’s been magical advice.

2. Journal writing. Writing allowed me to name and experience the conflicting feelings that unexpectedly ambushed me. After I fell apart, it helped to find words to describe this strange new world.

I had to find the words for what was happening in my mind, my relationships, and my life. Writing helps us make sense of our lives anytime there’s chaos or confusion. Writing can give us a sense of control and can allow us to release inner emotional turmoil.

3. Join a support group. Find and talk to other people who KNOW. They’ve been there, too, and even if they’ve not been precisely in the same place, the outlines are similar. They are us. We talk, and we listen. We pass tissues and pat the arm of the person whose speech is swallowed by tears. There are hugs. There is recognition, acceptance, connection, and compassion. Together, we can heal.

4. Give back. After your heart has been broken, it’s both a privilege and a relief to focus wholly on someone else’s pain. I volunteer as a talkline counselor, and as someone actively grieving, I welcome the opportunity to receive, to hear, and to bear witness. I receive and embrace expressions of pain: the despair, the guilt, the lack of self-recognition, the confusion, the injustice. These painful feelings are familiar. They are true. The world can be an unbearable place. To get through it, all we have is each other.

5. Give love. Tend and befriend is a stress response that involves developing warm relationships with others. It includes meeting new people and relating to others in caring, meaningful ways. Reach out, as your authentic self. Try to be with others, really seeing who they are and hearing what they say. The love you give will return to you.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

A movement to bring good to others would promote greater caring and less cynicism. All of us have or will have experienced loss and other types of hardship, and in those moments, people need compassion, not criticism, judgment, or blame. There’s no one right way to grieve, or heal, or to live. We’re all doing the best that we can.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)

That’s tough — so many people come to mind! I’d be honored to talk with other widows who have written books to help others on their journeys, such as Sheryl Sandberg, author of Option B, Leslie Gray Streeter, author of Black Widow, or Catherine Tidd, author of Confessions of a Mediocre Widow.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I maintain a blog on my website, https://thegoodwidow.com/

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Thank you! It’s been a real pleasure.

About The Interviewer: Pirie Jones Grossman is a certified Life Coach, TedX Speaker, influencer, best selling author and co-founder and co-host of the podcast, “Own Your Throne”. She has shared the stage with speakers such as Deepak Chopra, Elisabeth Gilbert, Marianne Williamson, Kris Carr, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. She coaches women on focusing on self esteem, and helping women reignite the second chapter of their lives!

She’s a writer for Thrive Global and Huffington Post. She’s a former TV host for E! Entertainment Television, Fox Television, NBC, CBS and ABC. She was Co-Chair for the Special Olympics International World Winter Games in Idaho and spoke at the UN on behalf of Special Olympics. She is the founder of the “Love is Louder” Brain Health Summit with Suicide survivor, Kevin Hines, focusing on teenage depression and suicide. She gave a TedX talk about, “How To Heal A Community from Suicide.”

Pirie has her Masters in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica, California. She is a Sun Valley Wellness Institute Board member and lives in Sun Valley, Idaho with her two teenagers where she has a private Life Empowerment coaching practice.

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Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

TedX Speaker, Influencer, Bestselling Author and former TV host for E! Entertainment Television, Fox Television, NBC, CBS and ABC.