Q&A with Jill Smolowe, a journalist, author, and widow
There was no doubt I wanted to interview Jill Smolowe after reading her New York Times essay “I Am a Bigamist.” Certainly, the title provokes. It’s meant to, but not for the reasons you might think. Like me, Smolowe lost her beloved first husband to cancer and remarried a man with a similar story. In this relationship she feels the enduring presence of her first marriage. Smolowe loves both husbands. She writes her story in the beautiful memoir Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief (She Writes Press, 2014). A veteran journalist and writer, Smolowe is also a grief and divorce coach.
She talked with ESME’s Nancy Sharp about grief and healing.
What is the most profound insight you gleaned from the death of your first husband, Joe?
That I could be unbelievably sad but not collapse from grief. I expected to be swallowed whole from it, and yet I was surprisingly OK.
How did you arrive at this understanding?
In the hours and weeks that followed Joe’s death, the business of everyday life—laundry, dishes, paperwork, time with my daughter Becky—gave me something concrete to do, offering necessary moments of distraction. I came to see that even though Joe was gone, life for me had not ended.
I’m struck by how clear you were in telling friends and family what you needed after Joe died. What’s a useful thing for people to do after a friend or family member dies?
Sit back, observe, listen, and then suggest a specific way to help. You might ask, “What do you find your biggest concerns right now?” This is far superior to “Let me know if I can support you in any way.” Americans have a one-size-fits-all preconception about death. Everyone greets you with drawn faces, certain that all you can think about is your deceased spouse. It was really draining for me. Which is not to say I didn’t feel immense sorrow. When I was at work, for example (then at People magazine), I simply wanted to focus on my assignments. But every time someone knocked on the door wanting to console me, it pulled me right back into that worried place. Eventually I sent a note saying that I would relay everything to a close colleague and to please see him for news about Joe and, later, how people might care for me. It was vital to ask for the space I needed.
What can bereaved women do to make their lives feel whole again?
Get away from identifying yourself as “that woman.” You are whole beyond your loss, beyond wife of sick person, beyond wife of dead spouse. I feared having to reimagine my whole life after Joe died, but I’d built and preserved a life for myself that sustained me—my relationship with Becky, my job, my writing group, close friends.
I love your boldness in affirming your desire to date relatively soon after Joe died. What motivated you?
Those first few months were a sea of grief, but somewhere I recognized that I was lonely. I was married to Joe for 24 years, and my marriage made me very happy. Why wouldn’t I want to experience that again? In fact, I made sure to include this in my dating profile. I really wanted to meet a widower mourning a beloved spouse of many years. And that’s what happened. I met Bob just seven months after Joe died. He wrote glowingly about his wife of 38 years. For two people who cherished their first marriages, neither one of us wanted to spend the rest of our lives alone.
What do you appreciate most about your work as a grief and divorce coach?
Having endured the loss of four loved ones—my husband, sister, mother, and mother-in-law—I know sorrow intimately and feel deep empathy for people dealing with grief. People are often overwhelmed when they first come to me. I love how the coaching process restores a sense of purpose and momentum to life again. As the focus shifts from what’s “missing” to the pursuit of concrete goals, confidence and hopefulness about life return. Not only is life moving again—it’s moving in a direction that the client has chosen by mindful design.
Nancy Sharp is an author, a keynote speaker, and a storyteller who frequently speaks publicly about loss, transformation, and bold living. The author of the award-winning memoir, Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living, she lives in Denver with her second husband, her twins, and her two stepsons. You can find her on Twitter at @BoldLivingNow and Facebook at Nancy Sharp.
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