Welcome to TEARS AND TEQUILA TALKS, our ongoing discussion series with an amazing group of writers, experts, and influencers on the topic of loss, recovery and personal growth. Hosted by Tears and Tequila co-authors Linda Schreyer and Jo-Ann Lautman.

Abigail Carter and her husband Arron married in 1990 and lived an exciting life in cities around the world before settling in Montclair, NJ where they were happily raising two young children. Everything changed on September 11, when Arron called from the World Trade Center where he was attending a trade show to tell Abigail that “a bomb had gone off.” She never spoke with Arron again.

With that horrifying day, so began what Carter calls, her “unintentional life,”—a six-year journey that included intense grieving, deep reflection, and finally, a completely unexpected new life direction for herself and her children.

In 2008, Abby wrote The Alchemy of Loss, a beautiful memoir of her transformative journey through grief, and has recently published a new novel, Remember the Moon, which she describes as “a story of redemption, of growing spiritually on both sides of the great divide, of healing from grief and loss and of moving through the unimaginable and the power of love.” She is also the founder of Writer.ly, an online marketplace of independent publishing services.

LINDA SCHREYER (TEARS & TEQUILA): Abby, thank you so much for being with us as part of the Tears and Tequila Talks series. On behalf of myself and my co-author, Jo-Ann Lautman, we’re thrilled to be talking with you.

I would like to start with the idea of an “unintentional life.” What has that phrase come to mean for you, exactly?


Abigail Carter

Abigail Carter

ABIGAIL CARTER: I was a young mother, happily married, was about to have my third interview for my dream job (web director for Museum of Modern Art’s kid’s website) and things seemed wonderful. Life was ticking along just as I expected it to. I knew where I was going, or so I thought. Instead life was thrown into chaos and I had to learn, *really* learn who I was again.

I was stripped bare emotionally, and had to live day-to-day on nothing more than my instincts (and wine), and so all the pleasantries and conventions and binds that I had placed on myself fell away. They didn’t make sense anymore. I had to go to parties by myself, I learned to listen to my music instead of my husband’s favorites, I had to learn how to start the lawn mower, just basic stuff, but doing these things forced me to discover my strength, to trust myself more, to not be stopped from doing things out of my own fear. I had no choice, I had to do these things. It was a true test of strength and the crazy thing was that as a result, I am a WAY more resilient person.

I take a lot more risks in my life than I used to and I am open to any and all new ideas, books, religions, people. Sometimes I make decisions that don’t make logical sense, but that *feel* right. I ask more questions and try to learn other people’s stories and thereby learn from their experiences. I stopping having expectations of how things were going to turn out, and just let things happen as they will.


It’s not always perfect, but it’s very freeing. But really, the most freeing thing of all is I lost my fear of death. In my mind, dying means I will see Arron again and how lovely will that be? The amazing thing about losing your fear of death is that anything suddenly seems possible. And that is my unintentional life. Anything is possible.


LINDA SCHREYER: The life you’re leading now involves happy children, wonderful family experiences, a successful writing career, and an empowered self—by any measure, a positive outcome to your grief experience. But this life came at the expense of a life you were forced to let go. What advice do you have for those who have gone through a loss and are facing a new life, but who may be experiencing feelings of guilt?


ABIGAIL CARTER: Haha. My life is not as perfect as you make it out to be. As a family we still deal with all kinds of issues that come up, and I often wonder if they came up as issues because of the grief or they are just part of everyday life, it’s hard to separate. We still have sad moments sometimes. That doesn’t go away. Last year when my daughter graduated high school and went off to college, I had a pretty hard time. Indeed lots of positive stuff has resulted from my loss, but it’s not a cakewalk. Just wanted to set the record straight there.

Almost every widow or widower that I talk to has feelings of guilt that they have a new life, often one that was better than the life they had with their loved one, and feel guilty that their loved one had to die for such a life to exist. Survivor’s guilt of a sort. What I tell them is to think of how proud their loved one would be of what they have made of their lives. If the tables were turned I know I would sure want Arron to live his life to the fullest. I think a big part of living this unintentional life is throwing away guilt. All it does is bind us up in a negative way. It does not serve us well.


Tears and Tequila co-author Linda Schreyer

Tears and Tequila co-author Linda Schreyer

LINDA SCHREYER: I love your answers about living an “unintentional life.” Like so many others, I can completely relate to that. Although I didn’t lose my husband like you did, I found myself living in Los Angeles several decades ago, the mother of two small children, moving from the deep quiet of our house on 5 acres in the Hudson River Valley to a city I never planned to live in and didn’t like. When, shortly thereafter, my husband and I got divorced, and shared custody of our kids, I found myself 3,000 miles from my home, family, all my friends, my business partner and my heart.

Unlike you, my “unintentional life” was not the result of a tragedy. It did not have the momentous quality of loss that yours did. But my own unintentional life did require me to dig deep and find out who I was, in a city far from my home, where I knew nobody except my ex-husband and my kids. As you say, “It was a true test of my strength and the crazy thing was that as a result, I am a WAY more resilient person.”

I thank you for saying that so eloquently. And while I never want to minimize the enormity of your loss, I wanted to let you know that I, like so many others, relate. And I, too, ultimately found an unexpected life direction for my children and myself.

In our book, TEARS AND TEQUILA, the main character is a 32-year-old woman who has just moved to LA, having lost her whole family, leaving her whole life behind. When she is accidentally thrown into leading a Grief Group of people her own age, she resists it like the plague, but eventually settles into leading it. Somewhere along the way she begins to heal her own losses.

So here’s my question: How do you think that working with others who are grieving can help you to heal your own losses?


ABIGAIL CARTER: First Linda, I am glad my words resonated with you. I do think that so many of us (all of us, eventually) will have some sort of test of strength. I always figure you have two choices in your response to such challenges, one negative, one positive. As hard as it was, I was determined to choose the positive path. It didn’t always seem positive, because anger, sadness and every other emotion gets mingled in there too, but overall, the end result I think has been positive. But I do think it’s a choice.

OK, now your question. Well, helping others who are grieving does help you realize how far you have come in your own grief journey. You realize you have all this wisdom built up and to share it is a profound experience, because it takes you out of self-centric grieving (yes, early grieving is all about YOU!) and it opens you to a larger realm where you begin to see the personal growth that grief offers to all of us. You begin to see what a universal experience grief is.

To share that wisdom is incredibly cathartic, probably the most healing act a grieving person can take on. You do have to be careful however that you are emotionally ready to take it on, because helping others will force you to face aspects of your own grief that you may not have dealt with yet and will have to go through as a result. The same self care needs to be taken by both the helper and the helpee (is that a word?), but if you have awareness of this, then hopefully you will be better able to recognize when you need to step away from helping others and care again for yourself. It’s all a big balancing act.


Tears and Tequila co-author Jo-Ann Lautman

Tears and Tequila co-author Jo-Ann Lautman

LINDA SCHREYER: So true. I know that Tears and Tequila co-author JO-ANN LAUTMAN would agree one hundred percent as well–she’s the founder of OUR HOUSE, one of the first major grief support centers in the United States here in Los Angeles. Her stories about her experiences at OUR HOUSE, for both those working through a loss and those guiding them through the process, were great inspiration for our fictional characters.

I’m going to shift gears now. Through reading your blog I discovered you live in the children’s author Betty MacDonald‘s house on Vashon Island. How cool is that!? I grew up reading every book I could get my hands on in the NY Public Library on Amsterdam Ave and 82nd Street. As it happens, I devoured The Egg and I and the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series. I love that you’re researching Betty MacDonald as you renovate her house and spoke of writing a memoir titled, The House and I.

With that in mind, how do you think our writing lives reflect our personal lives? Where does your inspiration come from?


ABIGAIL CARTER: Yes, Betty’s house was one of those magical things that arrived in my life, perhaps because I was open to the idea, but also because I think I was still in magical-thinking grief-land, so I saw the opportunity as divine intervention of some kind.

That’s the cool thing about grief – you become sort of like an improv actor who is trained to always answer bids with a “yes.” It’s kind of a cool way to live, though I have learned there needs to be a balance, or it can get a little exhausting.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle author Betty MacDonald on Vashon Island

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle author Betty MacDonald on Vashon Island

I think grief teaches you to be open to opportunities, to notice them when they arrive and to say yes to them. Betty’s house was that for me. It made no logical sense at the time for me to buy a second house (I don’t live in the house full-time, but hope to someday), but I went ahead anyway. It turned out to not be the soundest of financial decision, but the amount of joy, healing and inspiration the house has provided to so many people while it has been under my tenure is astonishing. I donate the house to auctions to raise money for a variety of non-profits, to grief groups for healing retreats, to writing friends who need a retreat or a place to unplug for a while. I wouldn’t trade that for a zillion dollars.

OK, but I haven’t really answered your question. Writing helped me to heal from my grief. I was not a writer before my loss, it just became an expression for me and kind of went further than I ever would have imagined. And now writing has become my life. I blog about my adventures with grief and life, I wrote a novel told from the perspective of a dead husband (who’s in therapy in the afterlife) as a way of imagining what life might be like for Arron in the afterworld. I figured those afterlife people would have their hands full with him and that it might make a kind of funny part of the story. It was really fun to have that freedom. So inspiration from me, as much as I hate to say it, still kind of comes from death, and grief and the amazing lessons on life that arise from them, and thus there is a very fine line between my writing life and my real one. I just try to pass on the lessons I have learned on my journey in hopes they might speak to and help others.


Linda Schreyer_Memory Palace2Linda Schreyer_Memory PalaceLINDA SCHREYER: After my mother (an artist) died in 2006 she left me all of her art. I ended up moving it all to LA. We built a studio in our backyard to house and display it (see photos.)

The studio, hung with paintings by my mother, became the place where I write and teach. It has been dubbed “The Temple of Creativity.” I call it a “Memory Palace.”
Every time I walk the path to the studio and the wind chimes ring, I imagine my mother is saying hello to me. Every time I enter the studio I feel her everywhere.

Maybe for you it was the Betty MacDonald house, but have you ever found a physical manifestation of Arron (like the studio) that comforts you? And how do you manage to keep that place alive while in a happy new relationship? (You see – I’ve been reading your writing!)


ABIGAIL CARTER: Linda, I love your Memory Palace! It’s so beautiful.

What a wonderful way to honor your mother and have a place to be with her. After Arron died, I had no body to bury or ashes to sprinkle and after a while I realized every single 9/11 memorial was making me angry because they weren’t really about Arron or our family, but about ALL the victims and ALL the world’s reaction to the event, so I created my own memorial – a mosaic tiled birdbath (you can see pictures of it on my Alchemy of Loss website .

Abby with her mosaic-tiled birdbath.

Abby with her mosaic-tiled birdbath.

Alas, I didn’t really know what I was doing with the mosaic tiling, so it’s sort of falling apart and can’t be left outside as I intended, but it sits in my office as a reminder.

I would say the place I like to think of him being at is the house on Vashon. With my boyfriend Jim (not married… yet :)), we clear land, do house projects, etc.–all stuff I know Arron would have loved doing, so I think I feel him there more than anywhere. Of course, I see Arron in my children on a daily basis, so I guess you could say, I commune with him in a number of ways.

Now a question for you, about Tears and Tequila: Having also written a fictional novel about grief and loss (Remember The Moon), one of the harder things I found to write were the scenes of true grieving because they brought me back to that place that was so hard. So much of the novel wound up being almost memoir. Perhaps that’s because I was drawing on my first book, which was memoir.

I wonder if you had a similar experience writing Tears and Tequila? How much of your own experiences got woven into the story?

And related to that, do you think fiction about grief is as powerful a vehicle for discussing grief as memoir is? Is it possible to authentically capture the emotion of grief in fiction?


LINDA SCHREYER: Thanks for your comments on the “Memory Palace.” I’m sitting in it right now, surrounded by my mother’s paintings as I write this. Very comforting.

I was touched that you “feel” Arron when you do projects at your house on Vashon Island. Not only do I also love the birdbath you made in memory of Arron – I was moved by the quote on it.

You ask great questions, Abby. Tears and Tequila has multiple storylines. It’s about a half-dozen young widows and widowers healing from grief. It’s also about the main character, Joey, who’s lost her whole family before coming to LA in search of a new life.


I relate to each and every character in the novel. Although I’m not a widow I know loss intimately and to write with authenticity I had to feel their pain and loss as my own. To do that, I had to reach into my own pain and grief.


As for weaving my own experiences into Tears and Tequila, as a child of Holocaust survivors, I grew up in a house of silent mourning. Nobody talked about what had happened to my grandparents. All I knew was a photo on my mother’s dresser of the saddest looking people in the world (her parents, as it turned out) and the edict given by my older brother: “Don’t ask Mommy about our grandparents. She’ll cry….”

In writing Tears and Tequila, I wrote about the way unspoken grief can find a voice. The healing of those characters led to my own healing. So, yes indeed, I think fiction can be as powerful a vehicle for discussing grief as memoir. Actually, for me, it’s easier to write a novel about grief than it is to write a memoir about my own. Something about the distance makes it more accessible to me. Just as painful, but easier (for me) to do it with characters.

Case in point: I loved writing all of the characters, but there was one character whom I particularly loved writing–a character that I based on my mother, Greta. I loved being with her, so it was difficult for my narrator and for me when something happens to her later in the book. I cried as I wrote that section, as I cried throughout writing the novel. But in the end, my tears were cathartic.

So, yes, I think fiction about grief is as powerful a vehicle for discussing grief as memoir is. I believe in the power of stories. And so far, although it’s early days, readers have commented that they felt the characters’ pain as their own.

As for your last question – Is it possible to authentically capture the emotion of grief in fiction? I sure hope so. That’s what I try very hard to do. I guess we’ll see what readers think. As a child I gravitated towards all kinds of stories, especially those about loss. I’ve had powerful experiences with grief in fiction ever since I read Black Beauty, Charlotte’s Web, The Yearling, and other emotionally wrenching stories. Those are some of the most important books of my youth.

My next novel, The Goldsmith’s Daughter, is also (big surprise) about loss. It’s the fictional recounting of my mother growing up as a child in Vienna, 1920′s, where she became her father’s “little partner” (he was a fabulous master goldsmith) from the age of 5, designing for him by the age of 12, only to leave her family behind at a train station in 1938 (at the age of 21) and lose them all to concentration camps before coming to America, where she became a painter.

If you’re thinking, “she’s obsessed with her mother,” Abby, you’re right. But as I continue to explore the same “fictional” themes–love, loss, renewal and healing–I continue to get a deeper understanding of them.

Abby, I’ve truly loved the back-and-forth of our communication. I’m reading The Alchemy of Loss. You’re reading Tears and Tequila. It’s fantastic to be in conversation with a kindred spirit and terrific writer. And great to articulate these thoughts.

Thanks so much for joining us for our Tears and Tequila Talks!


ABIGAIL CARTER: And thank you for your questions as well, Linda, and for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful online discussion series. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.


Tears Talks_Abigail Carter_Span

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