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.

Megan Devine is a clinical mental health therapist and teacher for people wanting to access their own inner core, exploring creativity and the cultivation of inner space.

In 2009, Megan was witness to the accidental death by drowning of her partner, Matt—strong, fit, healthy and not yet 40. Her life was shaken. “When sudden death erupted into my life, all my professional experience felt meaningless. I spent many sleepless nights looking for someone else to help me here, to offer me something. Good words, true help, was hard to find.”

In response, Megan created the website Refuge in Grief, a way for Megan to provide to others what was so hard to find in her own life after her own world exploded. It was, as Megan writes, “like an act of reversal magic.”

With Refuge in Grief, Megan offers support services including her audio guidebook, When Everything is Not Okay, designed to help you navigate difficult passages.

LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Hi, Megan. By now I feel like I know you even though we haven’t met (yet.) You are a remarkable individual!

I certainly know your tireless devotion to helping others heal their grief. As one of some fifty-something participants in your recent Writing Your Grief online course, I was a recipient of your gorgeous and insightful daily writing prompts. I saw your daily comments on the writing by others. I marveled at your eloquence, sensitivity and boundless energy. Every day’s prompts resonated deeply. Every comment you made did so, too.

So my first question for our readers involved your beginning. How did you come to be a muse of the grieving? How did that become your passion?


MEGAN DEVINE (Refuge in Grief): I love that you call me the muse of the grieving! I’m not sure it’s a title I would’ve chosen for myself, but it kind of fits, doesn’t it? I think what I do, what I mostly do here in the world, is make space for grieving people to tell the truth about their lives, about what this pain is like for them – both the grief, and the love behind it. I don’t know that I inspire that truth-telling, but I do make space for it.

I was a therapist before Matt died. I’d been in private practice for several years, and worked as a clinical ghostwriter. And I hated it. I wanted so badly to get out of that profession, out of that work. Sitting in a chair, day after day, listening to very real problems, very real pain, was wearing on me. I started having headaches all the time, developed some other stress related neurological things. I was burned out – largely from sitting still all day. I needed to move. I always said I’d keep listening to people, but I wanted to be out in the sun while I did it.

Just a few days before he died, Matt and I were talking about my transition out of the therapy world. He was going to take over primary financial support of our family so I could explore what I wanted to do next. Three days before he drowned, I said, “I just don’t want to work in the pain business anymore.”

I quit the day he died.

I tried for three years to not become a grief therapist. I worked on farms. I trained as a cheese-maker. I resented any suggestion that I turn back around and become a therapist again. But you know – I am who I am. I am what I am. The available support for sudden death – traumatic death, out of order death – was so horrible when I was first widowed. I didn’t want anyone coming into this grief world after me to be as alone as I was, as alone as I felt. I knew my words could be useful. I knew I could help. I sat down at my kitchen table, strapped on my cheap little headset, and started dictating what became my audio book, Everything is Not Okay.

And that was the start of everything.


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): You counsel many who are in the depths of grief. How has that helped you with your own loss(es)? How has that pained you? Does helping others sometimes feel like it’s too hard? What do you do then?


MEGAN DEVINE (Refuge in Grief): A new friend asked me if my work kept me tethered to my own grief. He wondered if I was, in some way, staying in it by staying with others in their grief. But you know – I don’t know what else I would do. In a lot of ways, being with others in their pain has pushed mine to the side. I draw on my experience, I speak out of my own experience, but doing this work turns the focus away from me.

In a way, I actually don’t have time for my own grief. Being with yourself that way, it takes – space. Unstructured time, the space to slow down and drop in. I miss that. I wonder if I’ve done myself a dis-service, at times, becoming so present to others’ pain that I have little time for my own.

I’m in the thick of pain, others’ pain, pretty much all day every day. It becomes – normal, this stunning fire-hose of grief and love. I don’t know how any of us survive what we are forced to survive. I’m accustomed to statistical anomalies – the things that shouldn’t happen, but they do. But there are still times the reality of what happened, his death, who I was in the years soon after, what I’m doing now – it smashes into me. That he was here, and then disappeared, that our whole life evaporated, I still don’t understand.

Another part of this is knowing that whatever I do to help grieving people, it’s never going to be enough. I’m not so far out from my own early days that I’ve forgotten how useless words are. I know none of this can be fixed. What’s hard, or what feels hard, is trying to be useful without straying over into fixing things. Does that make sense? I never want to forget what those early days are like. I never want to not feel it, viscerally, physically, in myself: it was the most real, most stripped down, intense, horrifying, beautiful, hideous, connected, abandoned time in my life, and I always want to be connected to that. So little from the outside world can withstand that space, and it’s a space where companionship is most needed.


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): I ask because the main character in “Tears and Tequila” is grieving for the loss of her whole family when (by accident) she becomes the leader of a grief group of widows/widowers her own age. Although she is initially allergic to being their leader, over time she discovers that helping them helps her heal, too.

I’m wondering if/how you are similar to Joey, the fictional character I created?


MEGAN DEVINE (Refuge in Grief): Allergic to being their leader–yes. I definitely get that. There’s this – oh boy, look what I get to do now! I get to turn my pain around and make it useful! There’s also that sort of impostor syndrome thing, right? Where you feel like – are you looking at me? Are you holding me up as your role model? Because I’m not sure that’s the most awesome idea.


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sorrow of the many grievers you muse and mentor? Or do you draw strength from them? If overwhelmed, how do you find relief from the pain?


MEGAN DEVINE (Refuge in Grief): I get seriously overwhelmed. Out-of order deaths, violent crimes, accidents, illnesses, stillbirth–these things may be statistically uncommon, but they’re everywhere. It’s easy to be worn down by it, just so much pain in this world. And that there’s beauty, too–that isn’t always enough. Sometimes there just isn’t anything big enough to contain all the pain, mine, or anyone else’s. And. I need there to be an “and.” There is something beautiful and powerful inside all that pain, in creating a space for that pain to be heard and acknowledged. There is something beautiful and powerful in knowing that this is something I can do, something I can create and provide in the face of all that pain, beside all that pain.

Finding relief, for myself, well – that’s tricky. A lot of what was “relief” in my life before Matt drowned just isn’t available to me anymore: being out on the water, being held by the water – I simply can’t do that anymore. That’s something people on the outside of grief don’t realize: you lose a lot more than your person. You lose whole swaths of what was nourishment, whole planets of support. For this life now, I look for places that can receive the pain I witness every day: places that can take this for me, because I am not meant to carry it all. For my own sanity, restoration, nourishment – making myself turn away from the screen, go out and find people to play with – cook, drive around, explore things. That’s all stuff I need to do more of. Give myself a chance to turn away, to look for the unbroken places.

And you have this in your Memory Palace, right? Both of those things I mention above – a place that can hold all the pain, a place to contain and receive it, and a place for your own restoration and nourishment. I love what you wrote during the writing course about the DNA of grief being passed down in your family line. Do you see the Memory Palace as part of your own restoration?


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): I am writing this from Paris, where our light-filled apartment in the Marais is awash with the sound of children laughing and playing. I heard them first thing this morning. Then I took a walk and discovered we’re next door to an elementary school that looks like it’s been there for centuries. And I saw this sign:

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“From 1942-1944 more than 11,000 children were deported from France by the Nazis, with the active participation of French government of Vichy, and killed in the death camps because they were born Jewish. More than 500 of those children lived in the 3rd Arrondissement. A number of them attended this school.

We will never forget them.”

I, too, will never forget. I’ll never forget the story of my parents’ families, killed in the Holocaust. I can never forget because grief is in my DNA. It was firmly lodged in my mother’s body and soul when she was pregnant with me, only 4 years after learning she’d lost her entire family in the camps.

Grief colored my childhood in our house of silent mourning. Where the photograph of the saddest old couple in the world stood on my mother’s dressing table. So she could gaze at it. Every day. Only I didn’t know who the people in it were. “Don’t ask Mommy about that photo,” my older brother said when I was 4. “Why not?” I asked. “Because she’ll cry.” So I never learned, then, that it was the last photo of my grandparents before they were sent to Auschwitz.

Tears and Tequila co-author Linda Schreyer

Tears and Tequila co-author Linda Schreyer

It was one of countless stories my mother didn’t tell me when I was a child. But oh, how I needed to hear those stories. I needed them to make sense of the unspoken mystery in our house, to reach into my loneliness and keep me company in the dark. Instead, the silent mystery loomed – ever- larger and amorphous- until I was old enough to move out and (so I thought) move on.

But I never outgrew my childhood need to know the stories of the people my mother had lost. Those parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. All those long-dead people. That large family I would never know.

Eventually, my mother would tell me her stories. When I was an adult, with a family of my own. By then the stories were just stories to me. Not the lifeboat I needed as a child.

My mother became an artist who painted her way out of the Holocaust. In painting after painting she told her story, pouring it out in color and light. Then she died, 7 years years ago, and left all of her art to me. I built a studio in my backyard. I called it the Memory Palace, built to house and display her art. Or so I thought.

Every time I went out there I felt the comforting power of her presence. I heard the unspoken stories in her paintings. And over time I began to tell them. To others. To myself. Until the untold stories from my childhood took root inside of me. Where they now live. And so the place I built to hold onto the memory of my mother has ended up becoming my place. A sacred place where the stories I longed to hear are finally being told. By me. It’s the place where I write my own stories, surrounded my mother’s art in which past generations, once lost to me, now hold me in their embrace.

So Megan, what’s ahead for you? Do you see a day when you might move on from this subject or does it continue to inspire and heal you–as a human being and a writer?


MEGAN DEVINE (Refuge in Grief): What’s ahead for the next year or so: The 30 day writing course will keep on going (a new session opens roughly every 6 weeks), and a second round of it, with all new prompts, should be out in the last part of 2014. I’m developing a few more courses for people wanting to explore and express their grief in words and through art. What’s so cool about all of this, the things I’ve created, and the things yet to come, is the community that forms. I forget what it’s really like out there in the real world. I spend so much time talking with colleagues who think as I do. And then I open a new course, and people stream in, saying “this is the first place I’ve been able to tell the truth about all this.” Anything I can do to make grieving people feel welcome, honored, validated in their true experience – that’s what I want to create, to keep creating. The connections that people make inside my courses really make a difference. Finding your people doesn’t make grief better, but it does make it different.

I’ve got several really neat collaborative projects in the works, including a retreat for those of us who work in the “heavy heart” professions, and some in-person writing retreats focused on grief. Look for a couple new books out in 2015, and a re-launch of my original audio-book, Everything is Not Okay. There’s always more to be done.

And will I ever move on from this subject? I love that question. Honestly – I have no idea, and I’m okay with that. This is the work that is here for me to do. I couldn’t have seen this on my horizon ten years ago, so I’m well aware that life will do whatever it wants. I have no idea what this life might be for me, what it will ask of me. I’ll do this until it seems like it’s done. This is where I’m useful. This is where I feel right.

LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Megan, thank you for your exquisite answers. And thank you for your thoughtful questions, too.


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