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.
Litsa Williams and Eleanor Haley teamed up in November of 2012 to create What’s Your Grief?, a wonderful blog with a focus on grief exploration, education and expression.
Both are mental health professionals who share the personal experience of losing a parent in young adulthood. Subsequently they have amassed 10+ years professional experience working in the field of grief and bereavement.
They rely on both their personal and professional experience in their work supporting grievers on-on-one, in workshops, and through their website.
Based in Baltimore, the two came together to grow their reach, expand their focus and provide a place where people can come to support and be supported.
LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Many people go through a grieving process, and some, like my co-author Jo-Ann, work in the field of grief support. But not everyone creates a community like What’s Your Grief. Where did you both meet, and how did the idea for What’s Your Grief? online website community come about?
ELEANOR HALEY (What’s Your Grief?): We met when we were both working for an organization that provides grief support to individuals immediately following the death of a loved one. Typically the losses we were supporting people through were sudden and unexpected, however on a personal level we shared the experience of losing a parent to terminal illness.
At work we would often find ourselves scouring the Internet for realistic and relatable grief resources to recommend to clients for their specific kind of loss. It really bothered us when we weren’t able to offer them something concrete, relatable, and specific.
To be fair, we’re picky. We’re on the older end of Generation Y, we’re Baltimoreans, and we have a very specific ideas about grief support. The resources that appealed to us were few and far between and after enough complaining we decided – if we can’t find what we were looking for, we’d just create it ourselves. The rest is history.
JO-ANN LAUTMAN (Tears and Tequila): You write on your site that you both “fumbled through” the process of dealing with the feelings you had after losing your loved ones. Tell us more about your own experiences, and what did you do to work through it?
LITSA WILLIAMS (What’s Your Grief?): I lost my dad at the end of my freshman year of college. It seemed like I was the only person who had ever lost a parent, even though I of course knew this wasn’t true. The school I went to was in a very rural area and there were no grief groups for students on campus. It was still in the early days of the Internet, so online resources were limited and difficult to access.
As a result, I didn’t talk about my grief at all. I consumed myself with college life, probably drank more than I should have, kept myself busy, made some impulsive and questionable life choices – you know, the usual!
As I have written about on our blog, it wasn’t until I discovered philosophy that I found a tool to help me cope. My grief spiraled into a pretty deep existential crisis (as grief is apt to do), so reading and writing about those who had been contemplating questions about the meaning of life, why bad things happen to good people, and what it means to live a good life, was strangely comforting and made me feel less alone. Weird, I know… but hey, we all have to find what works for us.
It was later that I started doing more with writing and other creative expression. When we lost my sister’s boyfriend to a drug overdose, writing became a big part of how I worked through my emotions. I find the older I get the more I am drawn to writing and art as tools for exploring grief.
ELEANOR HALEY (What’s Your Grief?): Yeah, I can relate to Litsa’s experience because I also took the path of grief resistance except I was in a different stage of life when my mother died, newly married and on the verge of having my first child. Instead of acknowledging the gravity of the loss and finding ways to cope I just pushed onward and upward.
I think sometimes individuals with mental health backgrounds – the “helpers” – are the last ones to admit they need help. There was some of this going on and then the fact that I just didn’t see anything out there that I thought was “for me”. I’m an introvert so I immediately ruled out support groups. I felt the resources available to me were un-relatable and kind of hokey. It wasn’t until I found personal and private outlets like photography and writing that I really started processing my grief.
Actually I’ll take that back, I started down the path of understanding grief the second I started supporting others a few weeks after my mother’s death. This has taught me a ton about the fact that no two grievers are alike and the reality that what works for one person may or may not work for another.
LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): I’m fascinated by the unexpected twists and turns of our life paths, and the moments of serendipity that come, even in loss. Litsa, you say on your blog that you never imagined yourself here. Can you tell us about your own unexpected journey to where you are today?
LITSA WILLIAMS (What’s Your Grief?): I went to school for philosophy and, before getting an MSW, I actually got an MA in philosophy. I was on the path to becoming an academic philosopher and imagined I would wind up a professor one day. At some point in graduate school I had a bit of a crisis and realize I wanted to do something more tangible and hands-on to help people, but even then I didn’t think about working in grief and bereavement.
I wrapped up my MA and started working with teens in the juvenile justice system and later in homeless services. It was only when I went back for my MSW that I started thinking about helping other grievers. I had flashbacks of the horrific social worker in the hospital when my father died and I started to consider what an important job it is to support families at end of life and in their grief. I was pretty darn sure I could do a much better job than that social worker did for my family and me so I figured I would give it a go.
JO-ANN LAUTMAN (Tears and Tequila): Eleanor, I’m interested in your work with grievers. At OUR HOUSE, the grief counseling center I founded in Los Angeles, we see and hear stories everyday of the powerful work they do to help those that come to the center for help, and of the intensity of the bonds formed in short periods of time between those who participate in the groups. But we don’t always hear about the effects on the grief counselors themselves, how the process of helping others helps the grief counselors work through their own emotions, as well. Can you talk a bit about that?
ELEANOR HALEY (What’s Your Grief?): Although no two grievers are alike, I think there is a ton that grievers can learn from other grievers. Working with individuals and families from so many different walks of life taught me that while there are commonalities, grief is also a very personal and individual experience.
It was helpful to see the ways people with different strengths, interests, types of loss, coping skills, worldviews, and family dynamics found to cope. It put me on the fast track to understanding that what works for my sister or my brother may not work for me; to accept the unique grief reactions and coping mechanisms I saw from those around me; and to realize the range of emotions one can experience as result of losing something or someone they love.
I have to say that although supporting others illustrated all these differences so vividly; it also allowed me to find a sense of community, universality and togetherness with those who are in ‘the club’ of having experienced the death of someone they love.
LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Yes, because in our story, the main character Joey comes to Los Angeles from the East Coast after having lost her partents. An important part of our story is the story of Joey coming to terms with her own loss through the grief support process she is leading.
We believe when you serve and support others you are bound to learn more about yourself. That being said, it is important to very cautious. You have to know your boundaries and the lines for use of self when helping others. This can be extremely hard for those who haven’t been trained or don’t have good boundary awareness.
Sometimes grievers think that they are in a place to help and support other grievers and then realize they are not emotionally ready. Or worse, they don’t realize it and keep trying to ‘help’, to the detriment of others! As powerful as being a griever who supports another griever can be, it is extremely important for anyone who steps into this role to be certain they’re in a place where their grief process does not impede their ability support others, or where there support of others doesn’t impact their own mental and physical well being.
ELEANOR HALEY (What’s Your Grief?): I understand from previous interviews that Tears and Tequila started to take form after months of you both talking over ideas and concepts. What was your biggest reservation about moving forward with this project? And what were the most important aspects of this story that you just really wanted to get right?
LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): Actually, Tears and Tequila took five years to write. It was a long journey and for me, was a labor of love and deepening understanding. As a writer, I had to embody every character in order to feel their grief from within. As such I was a different person when I finished writing the book than I was when I began.
My greatest reservation was that I would not do justice to the grieving process. That I would write it as too shallow. So I dug deep into my own experiences of grief and loss to find the commonality with my characters. Like all of us, I have experienced great and small losses. I used all of that and then some to render truth to the characters.
It turns out I didn’t need to worry about writing about grief. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors (who lost their entire families), I was born into a house of silent mourning. Grief is in my DNA. It was therefore not difficult for me to dive deep into the grief of others. Hopefully, readers will agree.
I wanted to get every aspect of this story right! I must have rewritten the book 20 times. I’m talking page one rewrites. I used everything I’ve learned as a writer of TV/film and a writing teacher. Because I cared so much about getting every aspect of this story right, I was never afraid to look at it with fresh eyes, again and again and again. I threw everything I had into the writing of it. Ergo—five years in the making!
LITSA WILLIAMS (What’s Your Grief?): Linda you have written for many different projects, had you ever written about grief for television?
LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila):Every project I’ve ever written has been about grief or a loss of some kind. I have always been comfortable writing about it.
My first movie for television was A Place at the Table. It was about a family in which the father loses his job and can’t feed his wife and family. (I won The Christopher Award for it). My next movie, A House of Secrets and Lies, was about a woman whose husband is cheating on her, but blames her for being jealous. She is so obsessed with this man that the idea of losing him drives her to the brink… until she learns she, too, is the problem. My feature film, Omigod, was about a young girl who dies and comes back as a ghost. My novel currently in progress is about death and loss. On all the soap operas I wrote for (General Hospital, The Bold and the Beautiful, Sunset Beach, Port Charles) I was the writer they turned to whenever there was a eulogy to be delivered for a character who died.
LINDA SCHREYER (Tears and Tequila): As bloggers in the community, I’m curious about your audience. Many people think view a grieving stage as a passage, and it is for many. But we know from our own experiences how strong and long-lasting the bonds formed during this period are, and how transformative the experience can be for your own life path—as you both have experienced yourselves. What do you see in terms of readership and followers and personal experiences when it comes to friendships and connections made during the grieving process?
LITSA WILLIAMS (What’s Your Grief?): We recently wrote a post about making “grief friends” and so many of our readers commented on the grief friends they have made through online grief communities as well as in “real-life”.
One of the hardest and most unexpected things to happen after a death is when you find the people who you thought would be there for you aren’t. On the flip side you sometimes connect with people you never expect to, perhaps new people or perhaps old friends with whom you never had such a deep connection.
Eleanor and I realize how lucky we are to have met each other. We connect as regular friends but who knows if we would have developed such a bond had we not first connected as grief friends. And I think it’s worth noting, we don’t necessarily relate to one another’s experience – in fact we both had pretty different experiences – what we relate to is one another’s outlook and philosophy on grief and healing.
We thought maybe if we shared it, our outlook could help others. However we never predicted that through the blog our griefy twosome would turn into an online gang of grief friends. So many of our regular readers and commenters now feel like old friends. We hope (at least a few of them) feel the same way about us!
JO-ANN LAUTMAN (Tears and Tequila): As hard as the process can be, the period that comes after—that powerful sense of renewal and openness to a different life than you lived before—is exciting to me as someone who has witnessed so many new beginnings. How does that inspire you as professionals, and people who have dealt with painful loss in the past?
ELEANOR HALEY (What’s Your Grief?): We absolutely agree – grief can be incredibly transformative. That being said, in the months immediately following our losses we were in no place to see this. When all you want is the person you love back, who cares about renewal and transformation?! For many, it’s a struggle to find enough perspective to even get through the day.
It takes times to understand that, even though we would trade all life lessons learned from grief 10x over to have the person back, there is still tremendous value and worth to these lessons and personal discoveries.
We share a little about how our losses shaped our lives for the better, but you will rarely hear us using the ‘grief is transformative’ mantra to ‘comfort’ people. Many people just aren’t ready to hear that. Individuals need to come this place on their own. Our goal is to recognize the pain and never minimize the struggle, but to show people there is hope for finding peace and help them discover the tools they need to get there.
LITSA WILLIAMS (What’s Your Grief?): Jo Ann, you founded OUR HOUSE because you saw a need for grievers to have the type of support that resonated best with them, which I imagine is based on their stage of life, background, type of loss, coping skills, etc. Litsa and I founded ‘What’s Your Grief?’ 20 years later because we saw a similar need. What do you think is the best way established organizations like Our House and newcomers like What’s Your Grief? can band together to ensure 5, 10, and 15 years from now people aren’t finding themselves with a similar void?
JO-ANN LAUTMAN (Tears and Tequila): That’s a great question, Litsa. First off, I think that events like this online discussion series, where we share ideas and present joint ideas to people who we both serve, is a wonderful idea. For me, OUR HOUSE, has always been about finding new and innovative ways to help others, to do good. And partnerships will always be important element of that equation.
Our relationship at OUR HOUSE with Camp Erin is a perfect example of that.
Camp Erin is an initiative created and funded by The Moyer Foundation in Seattle, WA, a non-profit organization established by Major League All-Star pitcher Jamie Moyer and his wife, Karen. OUR HOUSE is a proud partner, and operates the Los Angeles branch of Camp Erin.
Just last week, the amazing HBO documentary One Last Hug, filmed at our Camp Erin Los Angeles location, was nominated for an EMMY in the Outstanding Children’s Program category. OUR HOUSE is so proud and honored to be a part of this amazing and moving film, and it is through partnerships like this one that it happened. I’m excited by the possibilities in front of us.
Tears and Tequila Talks Participants