The day after Jamie died, I started writing. I began with journal entries, obsessively documenting the foggy days leading up to and following his funeral. Not long after that, I shared long and vulnerable posts on Facebook — helping some friends by being transparent about grief, and undoubtedly freaking out others. Lately, I’ve been offering thoughts about life after loss to a wider audience, in this newsletter and other various publications.
Somewhere along the way, I became a writer.
Being a writer is something I’ve always wanted — something I’ve talked about for years with friends, family members, and, of course, Jamie. For a variety of reasons (namely, career choices, and a lack of confidence) that vision seemed far out of reach. Until now.
In the past year, I’ve been published in Glamour, Vox, Outside Magazine, Garden & Gun, and The New York Times. I’ve stood on stage with other writers I greatly admire. I’ve written more than 50,000 words for My Sweet Dumb Brain readers (enough to be considered a novel!). Now, my goal of someday writing a book feels a lot more like a tangible possibility and less of a pipe dream.
When I look at the things I’ve accomplished since Jamie’s death, I feel proud. I also feel really, really guilty.
That’s why I experienced so much relief after talking to Rachael Cerrotti this weekend. Rachael is a multidisciplinary storyteller, and an exceptional one at that. She’s a photographer, writer, and podcaster, and her work focuses on the intergenerational impact of migration, trauma, and memory. She’s also a young widow, with a story similar to mine. Her husband Sergiusz died suddenly on September 28, 2016, from an undiagnosed heart condition. He was 28.
In the three years since Sergiusz’s death, Rachael has experienced new levels of success. She’s been published and featured in national and international outlets, created a portrait series called Welcome to Widowhood, and recently released a podcast, “We Share the Same Sky.”
I asked Rachael whether she also suffers from the guilt of experiencing success when her spouse is dead. Her response made me laugh and feel lighter.
“You can quote me on this: Fuck yes.”
“I think the guilt that has come with grief is, more often than not, worse than the grief itself on many days,” she added. “When I feel great and I feel happy and I feel good, there’s always a twinge of guilt. And when I feel shitty, there’s also a twinge of guilt because — hey, I’m alive.”
Rachael has several reasons to feel great and happy and good these days. Her podcast, which traces her grandmother’s steps after fleeing Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust, is the result of a decade’s worth of work. It’s a relief finally to share that story with others. Rachael also recognizes that she’s reaching a larger audience, in part, because of Sergiusz’s untimely death.
“My career has totally transformed since Sergio died,” she told me. “I was working on this story about my grandmother for seven years when he died. It was really only after that people started to be interested in it on more of a national and international level.”
Like Rachael, my career has changed dramatically since becoming a widow. I quit my full-time job, have found joy in freelance work, and get to write regularly. Occasionally, the path to this reality haunts me. I can’t help but think about, if I died, whether Jamie would have become a filmmaker, which is what he always wanted to be. I wonder what doors would open for him amid his deep sadness. I consider whether my death would propel him to chase his dreams more intensely.
Rachael probably wonders the same about Sergiusz. Every widow and widower I’ve spoken to has imagined what things would look like if their partner was left without them.
The irony is not lost on me that my biggest cheerleader, someone who pushed me to challenge my sweet dumb brain when it didn’t believe in itself, has become the source material for my writing success — only after his death. I’m hardly the first person to face this conundrum. There are plenty of authors out there who have written beautiful memoirs sparked by the death of a loved one. There are even courses and journals designed specifically to help people process their grief through the written word.
“Overall, most of us want to feel like we’ve left some sort of footprint or impact on the world, on a local or global level,” said Rachael. “And that’s the privilege I get as a storyteller, to continue bringing to life people who aren’t here anymore.”
Of course, there are sensitivities in telling the stories of those who can no longer control their own narratives. In writing and speaking about her late grandmother and husband, Rachael asks herself, “Am I ever telling a story that I wouldn’t want them to hear?”
This is something I consider with my current, thankfully very alive, partner. Whenever I do write about our relationship, I check with him first to make sure he’s comfortable with what I’ve written. I can’t do that with Jamie. Instead, I have to trust my instincts.
Despite all these conflicting feelings, I can’t help but reflect on how beautiful it is to find purpose in the pain. For me, writing has been one of the most reliable ways to process my grief. For Rachael, following her grandmother’s journey has helped her make sense of her own feelings around losing Sergiusz.
“When you go through something traumatic or heavy or monumentally life-changing, it gives you perspective and you better run with it,” Rachael said during our conversation. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Jamie’s death was the ultimate wake-up call that life is short. While I would do anything to change the past, I have no choice but to find gratitude in the wisdom I’ve gained and to apply that wisdom to the present. This is one way I’m doing that. Writing has given me direction on some of my darkest days. It’s brought me joy, and helped me feel connected to Jamie as time goes on. Even better, my words have helped others made sense of their own hard times — something I’m reminded of whenever readers reach out to me.
Combined, that all seems like a big win, and not one to feel guilty about.
Good job, brain
I'm (still) reading: “City of Girls,” by Elizabeth Gilbert. This is a long book, and I haven’t found a ton of time to read in the past few days. Still, it’s been a joy to transport to 1940s Manhattan for a few minutes each night!
I’m inspired by: Rachael Cerrotti. Is that not obvious yet? Our conversation was the salve I needed this week as I reflected on my survivor’s guilt.
I'm aiming to: Be a better dog mom. As he’s inching towards turning 13, Henry Barfight really seems to be slowing down these days. That means more (slow) walks, more treats, and more quality snuggle time.
Rachael’s podcast is beautifully done, and I’m pretty sure you’ll fall in love with her amazing grandmother.
As it turns out, there are also many health benefits to writing about our pain! This fascinating episode of “The Happiness Lab” featured psychologist James Pennebaker, who in 1998, conducted a landmark study that proved the health benefits of disclosing traumatic events.
From Harvard Business Review: Here are three reasons it’s so hard to “follow your passion.”
Next time, try telling your stories like you’re a superhero: “The thing is, therapy does put a lot of stock in narratives. Therapy is mostly stories. It’s rehashing that one time from your childhood, and then that one conversation with your boss, and then trying to make sense of it all through narratives. In that way, superhero therapy, while not perfect for everyone, is a valid way of coming up with better stories for your life.” (My therapist had similar advice for me.)
For your sweet dumb brain
Take some time this week to write about a hard thing you’ve experienced, and take note of how you feel as you do it. You don’t have to share your writing with anyone (though it’s fine if you do!) or publish it anywhere (that’s cool, too!). If you want to rip your thoughts into shreds or burn the pages when you’re done, that’s also allowed. I’ve done that, and I can assure you that it feels great.
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who is also writing more often these days. That makes me very happy!