Help. You need help, whether that’s from friends, family, a partner or a colleague, nobody can heal or grieve alone. Yes, the internal work is lonely, but it’s important to have people who will listen, check in on you, ask “what is your grief like today,” as my friend Sarah did.
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 Emily Rapp Black
Emily Rapp Black is the bestselling author of Poster Child: A Memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World, and Sanctuary. Her newest memoir, and Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg, is due out on June 15. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California-Riverside and in the UCR School of Medicine. Find her at www.emilyrappblack.com and www.circeconsulting.net.
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 grew up in rural Wyoming, a place with wide open blue skies and a lot of wind. My father was a Lutheran minister, so I grew up in an intergenerational community. My mom worked as a school nurse, and we spent a lot of time outside: skiing, hiking, and exploring. I was born with a congenital birth defect and my left foot was amputated when I was four years old. Much of my childhood was spent in the hospital, at leg fittings, and, eventually, learning to ski in the adaptive ski program at Winter Park in Colorado. I was an avid reader, and have always believed that story frames experience, alters it, and has the power to eventually transform it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I dwell in possibility” — Emily Dickinson.
This has served me well. When you grow up with a non-normative body, with (at the time) no real role models to help you determine what your life might be like and look like, you have to think in terms of what might be. You have to be a dreamer, and you have to be creative. Luckily, I was both of those things, and I still am! What I love about this quote is that it reminds me to be curious, which serves me every time I sit down at the computer, hoping to write something that I hope other people will read in order to feel less lonely. I believe that writing is an act of service, and that if a writer does her job, she can allow others to dwell in their own sense of possibility, in whatever profession she might choose.
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.
Curiosity. I can’t remember a time in my life when I felt bored. I’ve always found the world endlessly fascinating, even the smallest, most mundane things.
Diligence. I have a very strong worth ethic, and I have a great deal of capacity to do many things at once.
Discipline. As an athlete with a disability, and like any athlete, I don’t always want to show up for my workouts, but I have a plan and I follow it anyway. The same is true for writing or editing. I don’t wait to be in the mood or for the muse to strike, I sit down and do the work.
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?
Like many people, I’ve had several dramatic losses, but the most gutting was the loss of my son Ronan, at age three, to a very rare and incurable condition called Tay-Sachs disease. Although I had been tested for the disease while pregnant, I carry a very rare mutation not detected by the traditional test. On the day of his diagnosis, the world dropped out from beneath me, and has never been the same since. The two-and-half years between his diagnosis and his death were the most difficult, profound, wrenching, and intense years of my life. I wrote furiously, many of my primary relationships permanently shifted, and I accessed a quality of empathy that I had never experienced before. I felt — quite literally — cracked open.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
Being told that my son had a disease that had no treatment and no cure, and that he would die within a series of years after suffering greatly — that was the scariest part. And I was no stranger to trauma, but it was, in fact, my worst fear realized.
How did you react in the short term?
I wet my pants, screamed and cried, and felt like I was going to die.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?
I wrote. That’s what saved me. That and the extraordinary support of my parents and my network of friends.
Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
I think healing is a process, and that there’s never a defined ending point. That doesn’t mean you carry the same weight and grief all the time, every moment, for the rest of your life, but you learn to navigate the changing landscape of grief. It’s no longer driving the bus off a cliff; you are more in charge. Healing, for me, has meant learning how to live with that experience inside of me, but not the only one I’m having.
Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
I wrote. Framing chaos, even if it’s only partial, is the creative act that helped me survive. Literally.
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?
My friend and writing partner, Lisa Glatt, used to call me and listen to what was going on, and she would simply say, over and over again, “AWFUL.” She didn’t offer platitudes, or dopey solutions, she just acknowledged what I was feeling. She still does that for me, as she is also someone who lives with a disability, which has its challenges, and I love being able to call her and just have that one word shouted back to me as confirmation that it’s hard: AWFUL!! Everyone needs an “awful” friend!
Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?
I wrote a book that went on to become a bestseller and touch many people’s lives; in particular, many parents who felt miserable and unseen and alone. I began teaching a class for women writing through child loss, and that has been the best work of my life, in many respects. I’ve lived all but four years of my life with a disability, and I watched my child die. I am able to bear witness to people who are grieving, struggling, or in pain, without judgment and without freaking out. As my friend Lucy likes to say, I am “unshockable.” I take that as a massive compliment. My friends know that if life is serving up some difficult challenges, I will show up without judgment.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?
That I was a better writer than I had thought. And I wrote without worrying if anyone would like what I wrote or like me. I wrote because it was keeping me alive, and so I wrote how I had always wanted to write, and I found joy in that creative act when there was very little joy to be had.
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.
Help. You need help, whether that’s from friends, family, a partner or a colleague, nobody can heal or grieve alone. Yes, the internal work is lonely, but it’s important to have people who will listen, check in on you, ask “what is your grief like today,” as my friend Sarah did; or send you food, as many of my friends did; or set up a blog that I could pour my writing into, as my friend Weber did; or a stranger who befriends you not as a grief voyeur, but because some element of your experience spoke to them, as my friend Cynthia did after reading a piece I wrote in the New York Times. You need help, and you need to learn how to ask for it.
Humor. In my child loss group, we laugh at things that aren’t funny, and there’s a wonderful comedic shorthand to our interactions. Laughing changes your brain chemistry. Laugh or die is a phrase for a reason! People who have been through difficult circumstances are often the funniest people you know. They understand that you can only know joy and lightness when you’ve been through a tough, dark crucible.
Art. I’ve just finished writing a book about the writer Frida Kahlo, who was also an amputee, and who also wrote despite her many painful operations or personal circumstances in her body or in her life. Pain was not her muse, because pain is simply pain, but the creation of art acts like a balm for sadness and despair. It is work for the sake of the work. It is a way of kicking back against hardship by creating beauty, order, and meaning. If you’re not a writer or another kind of artist, you can read, look at art, listen to music, explore how other people have translated the most painful moments into those that are the most profound.
Change. I think of this as emotional spring cleaning. At some point, you may need to discard some of the items a loved one left behind that are no longer accompanying your grief in a useful way. After my son died in the house where we’d been living together, I never spent another night there. I took a new job. I decided to have another child. It wasn’t about moving on or forgetting about him or what we’d shared, it was about simply moving — in any direction at all.
Movement. Literally. Breaking a sweat or stretching or whatever way you can use your body puts you inside your body in a way that feels healing, just by the fact that you are in it, in motion, not in statis. It also connects you to life: your beating heart, your labored breath, the way your body feels. When I’m having my most difficult days, I get on my Peloton or I do Pilates or I pick up some heavy weights. Movement, for me, acts as meditation, a re-wiring of the circuitry in all the systems of the body.
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?
I would love the disability experience and disabled bodies to receive more fair and accurate representation in culture — in particular, in television and the movies. So often a movie ends with a person choosing death over living with a disability, and this is damaging and misleading. Life with a disability is complicated, but it doesn’t make that life void of value, love, or happiness. We are simply people living ordinary lives in extraordinary bodies. I also hope someday there will be a cure for Tay-Sachs, so that no other child has to suffer from it, and no parent has to suffer the loss of their child.
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. 🙂
Margaret Atwood! She’s a literary and intellectual legend, in every respect.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!