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.

Judy Brizendine is a blogger, speaker, and author of the book, Stunned by Grief: Remapping Your Life When Loss Changes Everything.

In 1998, Judy’s husband of twenty-nine years died suddenly on a mountain bike ride, and her grief journey changed her life, perspective, and career. As Judy explains, she was completely unprepared for this sudden change in her life, and the pain and confusion that came with it.

In 2006, she focused her attention on writing, along with a desire and commitment to use her life experiences to make a real, personal difference in the lives of people who face similar challenges.

Judy’s books, Stunned by Grief and Stunned by Grief Journal, gently guide you through the chaos and confusion of grief in a realistic, revealing, personal, and practical way. Through her own experiences and growth, Judy embodies the idea that “out of your deepest pain comes your greatest gift.” You can find out more about Judy at her website, StunnedByGrief.com

LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Welcome Judy, to Tears and Tequila Talks. We’re so glad to host you here. I want to start with your book. “Stunned” is the word that you use to frame your personal story of dealing with the loss and the sudden change in your life. Tell us about that key turning point, and the initial period following the death of your husband.


Judy Brizendine

Judy Brizendine

JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): I’m so happy to be here and to have the opportunity to ‘talk’ with you and Jo-Ann!

You asked about the initial period following my husband’s death, and ‘stunned’ is really the most accurate and telling word I can use to describe how I felt. John’s death blindsided me – and it seemed as though everything in my life instantly changed. I didn’t know it was even possible to experience such deep emotional pain. And I was totally unprepared for the effects of grief. I didn’t expect to feel so isolated and alone. We had been together for so long that when there was no longer a ‘we,’ I struggled with who ‘I’ was. My self-confidence was shaken. My emotions were all over the map. And no one around me really understood what I was going through because they hadn’t been there.

To the outside world, I probably appeared to be just fine. I went back to work after a week because there was really no one else to step in for me. Going back to work so soon was probably a blessing in disguise because it forced me to function and to be around people. Otherwise, I’m afraid I would have withdrawn too much.

The key turning point didn’t come until a little less than three years down the road. The second year after my husband’s death was more difficult than the first. I think I was still in something of an emotional fog the first year – on some level not really believing that what had happened was true, but realizing that life was completely different. Two decisions stand out in my mind, and I believe they helped me to keep going when I wasn’t sure that I could. And, believe me, there were many more ups and downs!

Early on, I decided that I would not allow his death to make me bitter or resentful, and that I would do whatever I needed to do to work through my grief in a positive way so this tragedy would not control the rest of my life. I finally reached the key turning point when I grew tired of the pain, and I knew that I wanted to really live again! Everything wasn’t all better then – and there were still lots of hurdles and adjustments — but I was on the road to living again.


JO-ANN LAUTMAN (Tears and Tequila): How long did your “stunned” period last, and what did you do during that period to get through it? Did you reach out to friends or join a grief group? Or just work through it alone?


JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): My ‘stunned’ period lasted a little less than three years. I was very fortunate to have a strong support system in place before my husband died. We had been in a very close small group at our church for about eight years, and I also joined a grief group about eight months after John died. The grief group was a truly a lifeline! Finally, there were people who really understood!! And it was okay to cry. Our daughter lived nearby and she was a constant support. I really don’t know what I would have done without her. She also attended the grief group with me and continued on with a few of us who met for months after the ten-week group ended. Most of our family lived in Kentucky, and while we stayed in very close contact, they couldn’t be right here with me.

I read lots of grief books because I had to figure out what was going on with me! At times, I felt as though a stranger was living in my body, someone I hardly recognized. I needed to understand what was happening to me and what to do because everything was so unsettling. None of my friends had lost a spouse, so they had no way of really understanding. They loved me and were supportive, but I felt I was on my own. My Christian faith gave me great comfort and strength, and I’m not sure I could have made it through otherwise. Prayer, reading God’s Word, journaling, participating in a grief group, and reading were the ways I worked through my grief. Talking helped, too. And giving myself times to allow the emotions to flow. When I needed to cry, I cried! And of course, sometimes I cried when I didn’t want to – but that’s just the nature of grief. You can’t keep all of those emotions bottled up inside.

I didn’t know what to expect with grief, but I can tell you that it lasted longer and was much more intense than I could have imagined. I didn’t realize I would have to rebuild my life from the ground up.


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): A major message in your book is the idea that not only will emerge from the period of grief and confusion, but that there is an opportunity for growth and real change. In our Tears and Tequila Talks conversations, I have been fascinated with the stories of reinvention, new pathways and careers, and new life missions that came after a loss such as yours. Can you talk about the changes to your life that came out of your experiences?


JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): I was very blessed to find love again and remarry a wonderful man. I married a widower whose wife died after a long illness, and the two of us led grief-support workshops together for a time. The grief-support groups were really where the seeds of my books began, and I don’t think I would have written either book if it had not been for those groups. The books are filled with insights that emerged through the groups and the wide-ranging experiences of the participants.

Back then, I was still working as an interior designer and had no idea that I would ever do anything else. I had wanted to be a designer since I was a teenager! However, as time went by, my heart began to change. A different life purpose and a new mission started to develop. What I had been through had changed me in pretty dramatic ways. There had to be a purpose in the pain. My husband completely believed in and supported my career change and writing the books. The ironic thing is that I resigned from my position, stepped away from a passionate desire to be a designer, and never regretted my decision! I didn’t feel as though I had given up one thing to do another.

Grief had been a real struggle for me, partly because I knew nothing about it. I’ve come to learn that many others fall into that category. Grief is an unknown for many (if not most) until they come face to face with it. I want to make a difference in people’s lives, to somehow try and make their struggle a little less difficult. To shine a light on the subject. To bring hope. Attitude is really important, and attitude is a choice. There’s opportunity for growth and real change, if you choose to look and be open.


Tears and Tequila co-authors Linda Schreyer and Jo-Ann Lautman

Tears and Tequila co-authors Linda Schreyer and Jo-Ann Lautman

JO-ANN LAUTMAN (Tears and Tequila): I’m interested to learn more about the process you had to go through—and now teach others about—of moving from the paralysis that accompanies feeling powerless or a life victim, to embracing the possibility a vibrant life ahead. In other words, when did you decide you could thrive?


JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): Before I could actually envision a new life for myself, and a long time before I was able to picture someone in my life besides my late husband, I knew I didn’t want to be single forever. I held onto the hope that a fulfilling life would be part of my future. I very much believe that if we’re still here there’s a reason, and God has something for us to do. I wanted to find out what that meant for me. I think a great deal of the paralysis that goes along with loss is related to fear, and it’s important to do something, even if you can only take small, slow steps at first! Each little triumph builds your confidence that you can make it through the bigger stuff.
I like to picture hope as a gene that God programmed into our DNA, a voice deep within that nudges us, “Get up, take another step, you can do this!” – when we wonder if we have the strength or courage to go on. Hope kept urging me to keep going. I believe God can work all things together for good, and I wanted to see what was ahead.

Deciding I could thrive was a process—it surely didn’t happen overnight. First, I had to learn to be comfortable with myself again, and I pushed to step outside of my comfort zone – physically, socially, and even within myself. After a period of reflection and stepping away I started reaching out again, developing a new social life, taking some classes, working out, going places alone, and trying new things. As I worked through the grief, I was able to slowly release the past and embrace the possibilities for the future. Finally being able to think about (and envision) a future for myself was a huge step forward.

We’re generally in such a rush to get through things, but it’s important to give yourself the time you need to step back and process those deep feelings. Working through the grief after my husband died was by far the most difficult experience I’ve been through, yet it also brought about one of the most positive impacts on my life so far.


JO-ANN LAUTMAN (Tears and Tequila): How about those people who are dealing with grief and loss while their friend, spouse or loved one is still alive, but dying? It’s not like a Hollywood movie, where everything is warm, loving, and comforting. The reality can be very different, very frightening and harsh. Do you think the issue of grief is different when you have time to prepare?


JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): I think grief is only different in these situations in the sense that someone is likely already grieving before their loved one dies. My husband’s late wife battled cancer for twenty years. They were married for about fifteen of those years. Her cancer went into remission, but then came back more fiercely than ever. He had grieved for years before she died, so his grief after she died progressed more quickly than mine, for instance, when my husband died unexpectedly. A friend just went through a progressive illness with her husband, and before he died, she had come to terms with the fact that it was time for him to let go. She knew he would never get better. I know she misses him deeply, and I’m sure she is grieving as she goes through the process of adapting to life without him, but I know she started grieving before he died.

There’s a process one has to go through regardless of the timetable. I think when you reduce grief to its very basic elements, it’s about dealing with the pain and adjusting to the changes your loss brought about. Of course, the grieving process is more complex than that, but everything connected to it can pretty much fall into those two categories. Loss always brings change, and adapting to what that means in one’s life is not easy. The changes are widespread. They affect all parts of your life. And we usually want things to be the way they were before – which is impossible. So we struggle to accept, adjust, and move forward with our lives.

I think when you have time to prepare, your loss may not be quite as shocking as one that comes suddenly – and you may be further along in your grieving process when it happens – but you still have to work through it. As you mentioned, too, the reality can be harsh and frightening. If that’s the case, you’ll have additional thoughts and mental pictures and feelings to deal with. I had never been with anyone when they died until my dad, and the reality was not what I expected. It was not like a Hollywood movie, and those mental pictures troubled me for a while.


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): I have written for television and movies and am fascinated with film’s fascination with the subject matter of loss. Movies like Steel Magnolias or Terms of Endearment, Ordinary People, Ghost, even the Disney movie, Up. Loss is a poignant element of each of these films, but what makes all them so powerful to me, is the message that there is a life of discovery and new opportunities ahead. How has that realization affected your work, and you personally?


JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): In two words, I’d say dramatically and significantly!! This message you mentioned has changed my life and work. It’s changed my career. It’s changed the way I look at the future. It’s changed my expectations. At this point, I’m really not sure what lies ahead, or the exact direction I’ll be taking in the future – but I’m wide open to new opportunities and possibilities!

I know that I want to help people who face loss realize there is hope for the future and a path through grief! It’s wonderful to see people’s lives turned around and excited about the future again – people who have been transformed from a place of despair to one of hope.


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): So many of the lessons of your book apply to anyone who is going through a sudden change—like divorce, or loss of a job, or a child leaving the home or some other sudden change in life. Do you see overlap in your work with grief with others who are navigating other life passages?


JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): Definitely! Of course sudden changes and different kinds of losses bring unique adjustments and emotions for each person. However, in a general sense, grief is grief. When all is said and done, we still have to work our way through the pain; accept and adjust to our new reality; release (not forget) the person or the loss; open our hearts again to life; and embrace the future, along with new hopes and dreams. The lessons and the process are basically the same.

I’ve heard from people who have faced painful issues in life other than death, and they’ve shared with me how the book has helped them. One of the most poignant messages was from a divorced mom who told me not only how much my book had helped her, but how the journal had touched her little nine year old boy’s heart!


JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): Linda and Jo-Ann, I loved your book and the rich characters you developed. Are there certain people in Tears and Tequila that you relate to the most? How have your personal experiences influenced the characters or story lines you developed in the book?


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): I related to every single character in the book. Even the villainness, Heidi! When I created Joey, the main character, I wasn’t aware that she was a combination of myself, Jo-Ann and someone else entirely. It was only later that I understood that. I only knew that I felt deeply about every single thing she did. As I did about every other character. Like Joey, I moved to LA from NY, knowing nobody. Like Daniel, I made a deathbed promise to my mother (to take care of her art. He promises to take care of Oasis.) Like Heidi, I’ve experience irrational jealousy… although I never sought the kind of revenge she does. I have experienced great grief, like the grief group. Like Demetrios, I talk to all my plants.

When I write fiction, I ‘see’ the characters as I’m writing them. I ‘hear’ their lines as they ‘tell’ them to me. After a while I forget that it’s a make-believe world, it’s so real to me.

Berta, the older woman/artist at Oasis, where the grief group meets, is based on my mother, an artist who died 7 years ago. Since I wrote Tears and Tequila in the studio we built in our backyard, to house and display the colorful paintings she left to me, I was always surrounded by her art.

Every time Berta had a line to say I felt like my mother was speaking to me. This morning, on a TV interview, the interviewer suggested that perhaps my mother was helping me to write the novel. Perhaps she’s right!


JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): Jo-Ann, OUR HOUSE sounds like an absolutely amazing place that is helping countless people, no doubt, in life-changing ways. I so admire the work you are doing and the sanctuary and resources you have developed to support people who are grieving. What led you to take on such a project?


JO-ANN LAUTMAN (Tears and Tequila): Yes, OUR HOUSE is truly amazing. I’m so proud of what is has become over the years, and the amazing work that happens there.

My work was first focused on young widowed people, aged 20-40. What I found is that most people tend to think that anyone in this age group has to deal with this issue, that people in this age group actually die. But it was a group that needed extra attention because of the misperception that their youth would help somehow mitigate the pain. I would hear remarks from older widows and widowers in other groups like, “You’re young enough that you’ll be able to marry again,” or “You’ll be able to find a new dad or mom for your kids,” can be especially hurtful to young widows or widowers. From that experience I realized that younger widowed people needed their own groups, their issues were different, finances, living situations and the threatening feeing amongst their peer group. Our House was first created for those younger people.


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Judy, I have a question about your career path. What was it about this experience that made you decide that this was more than just a passage, that this was a calling and a career–a subject that you felt you could take further and help others who would come along after you?


JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): Sometimes you just know that you know that you know! I started to become restless (and discontented) with my career. As passionate as I had always been about a career in design, slowly my heart began to change. Maybe part of what was going on was simply that I was getting older and the idea of significance grew stronger. What I’d been through had been powerful, and I knew I had learned valuable lessons that could benefit other people. I had seen firsthand the devastation that grief can bring into someone’s life, and witnessed miracles taking place as folks started to understand about grief and realize what is involved in healing. I saw hopeless people find hope again. I saw broken hearts find love again. And I saw people whose lives had been uprooted and shattered discover they could live a meaningful life again. Like many people who have been through this experience that changed their lives, I want to make a difference wherever I can to help others.

Grief is still something of a taboo subject in our culture. People don’t want to learn about it or talk about it until they’re in a position where they need help and don’t have any idea what to do. Sometimes people are grieving and they don’t even know it! They don’t necessarily associate losses apart from death with grief – so they can be feeling the effects of grief and not connect the dots. The grief goes unresolved, and that creates more problems.

I try to shine a light on grief and talk about it whenever possible. I want to bring hope to folks who are grieving and feel powerless. And if I can help to make someone else’s journey easier because of anything I’ve learned, that’s my goal. Writing the books was a huge first step.

Getting the word out, changing the way folks see grief, broadcasting hope—those things are ongoing!

And importantly, from my experiences and conversations with others, I’ve learned that a great many people would say that grief has left an unmistakable, positive mark on their lives. In that regard, what is the most significant effect grief has had on your lives?


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Well, by the time I was born, my parents had lost their entire families to the Holocaust. I grew up in a house of silent mourning. Nobody ever talked about what had happened…. until I was in my forties. So I guess I could say that grief is in my DNA. And I guess I could say unspoken grief had a profound influence on my life. To grow up in a household in (silent) mourning, a (sensitive) child can feel that something is very wrong. But it’s elusive. Something is lurking in the shadows and you don’t know its name.

That was how I grew up. Underneath the mysterious weight of something I couldn’t name.

I didn’t fully understand grief until my 19-year-old daughter became seriously ill and we thought we’d lose her. We didn’t lose her… although I lost my dream of protecting my children from great harm. When my mother died, 8 years later, I went to the depths of despair. When I cleaned out her NY apartment and painting studio I sobbed so hard I was afraid that I couldn’t stop. At some point I realized I came from generations of great Motherloss: my mother was only 20 when she said goodbye to her mother in Vienna, never to see her again. Her mother lost her mother at a young age, too.

I was still sobbing when I closed the door to the apartment where I’d visited (and stayed) for 30 years. But before I did that I left a bouquet of my mother’s favorite flowers (lilacs) and thanked the light switches for giving her light; thanked the walls for enclosing her safely; thanked the floors for bearing her weight.

It was a kind of meditation. A completely unexpected one.

I’d like to say it helped but it didn’t.

It took a long, long time before I realized the elephant was no longer sitting on my chest. Building a ‘Memory Palace’ in my backyard helped. My mother’s paintings are on every wall. It’s where I write. And every time I pass the wind chimes that ring out – gently or loudly – I know it’s my mother saying hello. That’s helped with my own experience and resilience.

Judy, to what do you attribute your resilience? Obviously, your faith sustains you but are there other tools you’ve relied upon to get you through your husband’s untimely death?


JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): My family has been a huge influence all through my life. We’re a close-knit group, and I was truly blessed to grow up with lots of relatives around. We’ve always been very supportive of one another – and I’ve always known they’re there for me, and I’m there for them, no matter what. Even though we’re now spread out across the country, I still feel the power of that bond, and it’s a huge source of strength and comfort.

My parents were great role models in many ways, but one thing they showed me was a persistent ‘living’ life the best way they could, regardless of the circumstances. My mom experienced tremendous losses early in her life – her father died when she was a young girl, her brother died when she was in her early 30’s, and her mom died just a short time later. Then my dad died soon after he retired. Dad faced serious, devastating health issues before he died, but I so admired his attitude throughout his illness. He never gave up, he never complained, he never felt sorry for himself, and he kept an optimistic attitude. My mom, even in the wake of the losses she’s experienced, also stayed positive, faced her situation, and continued to stay involved and engaged in life. She’s in her mid-eighties now, and she is an inspiration. Her attitude has always been to face life head-on and cope with whatever comes her way. She’s managed to keep a positive outlook and live a life of faith. The same is true for her 91-year-old sister!

The last but not least reason for my resilience is my daughter. She was barely 28 when her dad died, and his unexpected death was devastating for her. Even before I could believe for myself that I still had a future, and even before I was able to keep on living for myself, I knew I had to keep going and get better for her. She had already lost her dad; I couldn’t let her lose me, too. She was a tremendous motivation for me to find my way back from grief, and to learn to thrive again.

The role models I’ve had, and the family support I know is there, along with my faith, sustained me through my most difficult times.


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Judy, you clearly believe in journaling your way through grief. How did that belief in journaling begin? Were you always a diarist?


JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): Writing has been part of my life for a long time, but I really didn’t begin journaling until after my husband died. I have to admit, too, that I wasn’t always consistent with journaling. However, I came to understand how powerful a tool it is when you tap into it. When I went through the grief-support group after John died, we did several journaling exercises, and they were extremely meaningful in working through various aspects of my grief. They provided insights, too. Some of those entries are included in my book.

Writing about deep feelings brought me face to face with them, and instead of ignoring or hiding from the pain, I was forced to confront it, feel it, and work through it instead of setting it aside. When I went back later and read what I’d written, I began to see progress and it was encouraging. I recognized and understood some things I hadn’t realized before. Being able to verbalize thoughts and concerns and get them outside of my mind and onto paper helped me let things go instead of worrying or noodling them over and over. Sometimes I was able to see that things weren’t as big and scary as I thought, too.

Speaking of writing, I’m intrigued by the way you and Jo-Ann collaborated on writing Tears and Tequila. Were you acquainted before you joined forces to write the book? The fiction aspect of the book seems pretty unique to me, and I wonder how the project came about. Were you aware of each other’s life experiences that would inspire or shape the direction of the book?


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Jo-Ann had the idea to tell a story about a grief group of young widows and widowers. After we met at a garage sale, she sent me pages she’d written about that. Those pages interested and intrigued me. Ultimately, as a writer, I created a large fictional world populated by many other fictional characters. But Jo-Ann’s idea set all that in motion.

As I wrote, I would meet with Jo-Ann often to go over the chapters. Then I would go back to my studio and write some more. The process took five years and umpteen rewrites before I was satisfied that I’d written it as well as I was able.

I was aware of Jo-Ann’s work with bereavement. I was NOT aware how much of my own experience I was poring onto the pages. But behind every work of fiction is a great deal of truth. And a great deal of my own truth lies between the covers of Tears and Tequila.


JUDY BRIZENDINE (Stunned by Grief): That’s wonderful, Linda. I really cared about your characters and I wept at the book’s ending, yet I loved the way you brought the story to a conclusion! I would really like to read more from the two of you! Do you have plans to work together on another writing project? If so, will it be similar to Tears and Tequila – or will you go in an entirely different direction?


LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): There is a sequel that’s been outlined for the past year. Please stay tuned. Also – plans for a potential film or TV series are in the beginning stages. Thank you so much for your encouraging support! It means a great deal, coming from you. In the writing, the characters became more real to me than the ‘real’ people in my life. Looking forward to what they do next!


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