Podcast #131 Visiting When Someone Is Dying – “Always go to Ohio” – Jennifer Graham

What would it mean to you to “Always go to Ohio”? In this episode, author Jennifer Graham and I ponder the question: why show up?  Whether for a next door neighbor, or for a family member or friend across the country, how do we show up for one another? Jennifer says, “That’s one of the lessons that I’ve taken from all of this: That there’s absolutely nothing you can do that has more value than physically showing up for people.” Maybe this is what humans need — to show up for each other. But how, and when, and in what way? Together we tackle some of the obvious questions and also mull over some of the nuances.

https://jennifergrahamtoday.com/

Transcript:

Diane Hullet: Hi, I am Diane Hullet and welcome to the Best Life Best Death podcast. Today I am with author Jennifer Graham, and I stumbled across Jennifer because Jennifer wrote this article for the New York Times called Jennifer Graham, likes Jennifer Graham, and somebody in one of my classes sent it out and it’s.

Just a really beautiful piece. So, you know, the modern, modern world of the internet. I reached out to Jennifer Graham. So welcome Jennifer. Thank you 

Jennifer Graham: so much. I have to say, I did not write that headline, and so I wanna make that clear because it makes it sound like, you know, it’s, it’s kind of a a story all about me and it’s really not.

It’s about somebody else named Jennifer Graham. 

Diane Hullet: That’s really, that’s actually really interesting to hear. Do you have a title that you would’ve given the piece, or is that. Too specific. Oh, that’s an interesting 

Jennifer Graham: question. I’m trying to remember what was on the piece when I first sent it to the Times. I think it was something like a Requiem for a Jennifer or something, trying to be a little more elegant than that.

Yeah. But they seized on this line in the story about how, when I first started corresponding with this other Jennifer Graham, I had gotten a notification from Facebook that said, Jennifer Graham likes Jennifer Graham, and it was such a weird and quirky thing, and so I, it was a fine headline. It just didn’t really maybe represent the article.

Diane Hullet: It doesn’t go to the depth, does it? It doesn’t, yeah. It sort of is a quip at the start. Well, you know, just tell us about this article. This article was published in the New York Times in October of twenty-three, and it was in the section called Relationships, or wait, what’s it called? What’s that called?

It’s called Modern Love. Yes. It was in that section called Modern Love. Tell us about it. Well, 

Jennifer Graham: the, the article itself is a, a very short synopsis of a relationship, a cyber relationship. I had for about a year with another woman named Jennifer Graham, and how it ended tragically because during the course of our correspondence, she was diagnosed with cancer and she went downhill, unfortunately, pretty quickly, and.

I don’t want to minimize. Everything that she went through. So the, my article itself is kind of what I went through as she was going through this, and mine was a first-world problem, which was how do I relate to somebody who is a quote-unquote cyber friend? And I think this is something a lot of us are dealing with.

Anybody who spends a lot of time on the internet, as I do, as most writers do. Friends with people that, you call them friends, but they’re not friends in the sense that you don’t say run into them at the grocery store. You don’t have coffee with them on Tuesday or go to lunch on Saturday. It’s, it’s a kind of a liminal space of friendship.

And when something like this happens, it’s kind of hard to know what your, what your role is. If that makes 

Diane Hullet: sense. It does make sense. I, I actually had an experience of this with someone who I knew a little bit through a workshop and then we started corresponding and our correspondence quickly went to this incredible depth of an exchange of ideas, and we became really quite close through emails.

And then the next time we saw each other in person, it was like, oh. Hi. Oh you know, just kind of this awkwardness of the embodied friendship versus what we developed online and, you know, we figured it out. But yeah, there can be, and I think especially the pandemic threw us into some of these friendships that can be really strong virtually through social media or Facebook or emails and yeah, I’m, 

Jennifer Graham: and I’m glad you mentioned that because you do very quickly get.

Through, through writing to a level of intimacy that perhaps you don’t get to with somebody that say, you know, through the PTO or, you know, through a church group or something like that. At, at least I did. I, I am assuming that’s the case for everybody. I don’t wanna assume everybody’s experience is my own.

But it was definitely the case for my friend Jennifer as well, because within a couple of emails we were like going into these long descriptions of our children and our in-laws, or in my case, my former in-laws, and revealing all these kind of secrets because you can hit it off online the same way you hit it off in person, right?

As, as you’ve experienced. 

Diane Hullet: It’s really true. I remember also, this is a tangent, but the Funny Friends episode where one of the guys and friends starts corresponding with a woman online and it turns out to be the woman that he was dating in person who he broke up with. ’cause I. She was annoying in person, right?

But then they, they correspond online and he’s got all this stuff in common with her. He says, I’ve met this wonderful woman, and we’re exchanging emails, and then it turns out to be the same woman. So, yeah, I do think there are these different layers of friendship, whether it’s in person or not in person.

So you and Jennifer kind of stumbled across each other and quickly develop this deep relationship. Well, she stumbled across 

Jennifer Graham: me is how it happened. She had sat down. She, she wasn’t a full-time writer, but she dabbled in writing on the side. And so one day following the advice that we’re all given that we need to Google ourselves and see what’s out there.

She Googled her name and my website came up. And so she went to the website and she read a couple of pieces and for whatever reason, she just felt a kind of camaraderie and kinship with me and decided to reach out. And in her initial email to me, she sent me a couple of columns that she had written. And so.

I read them and I just was absolutely charmed by her. And as I said in the article, my, my editor specifically, he must have been kind of perplexed by this whole idea of why you would so quickly develop a relationship with another woman. And maybe it’s more common for women than it is for men. I don’t know.

But he was like, can you please explain why you would hit it off like this? And, you know, I tried to put my finger on it, but you know, some of it. You never know, right? It’s just a spark of friendship. You don’t know where it comes from. Part of it was, I was recently divorced. I was at home with four young children.

That was another thing. She had four children as well. So we had these little connection points and I worked from home. It was kind of isolated and you know, when somebody writes and is friendly. You 

tend 

Diane Hullet: to respond and they have good grammar and they have correct punctuation. Right, 

Jennifer Graham: exactly. As I pointed out in that, you know, there, there’s some emails that I get that perhaps I would not have re so readily responded to, but for whatever reason just the similarities between our lives you know, we, we were close in age.

I think it was two years difference between us. And even though she was in Ohio and I was in Boston, just the shared connection as both being writers with the mothers of children, about the same ages, you know, we just started talking. So then 

Diane Hullet: how did it come about that you learned of her diagnosis? How did that sort of come into the letters?

Was it in the first month or two or after that? 

Jennifer Graham: No, and I mean, that was kind of part of the unfolding of all of this. And unfortunately I don’t have every single email that she sent me. I did not know that this there was gonna be a historic significance, so to speak. But I do have, I’d say, more than half of them.

And so I went back and. And looked at the progression. And what happened was, I, I think when she first reached out to me, it was August and sometime late winter, she started writing that she was having bizarre pains and she was having stomach pains and she thought it was this, or she thought it was this and she, they were running tests and you know, she thought it was something not very serious.

But as months went on and tests went on, I guess this isn’t. Pancreatic cancer maybe isn’t easily diagnosable, and was somebody otherwise healthy? I guess there was no indication that she might have cancer, and so perhaps she didn’t. I, I, I can’t comment from Boston. I’m not a doctor. I don’t play one on tv, so I don’t know if there was any kind of failure of.

Medicine to diagnose, but for whatever reason, for a couple of months she was writing, I’m really not feeling well. I’m really not feeling well. And then it was, I think in June when she finally got the diagnosis. 

Diane Hullet: Well, I think part of what happens for people is you end up, you know, medicine is quite specialized at times, so you end up kind of chasing the symptoms and trying to figure out what it is.

I know one friend was chasing stomach symptoms that turned out to be cancer that had returned in her brain. So she was seeing gastroenterologists and you know, stomach people trying to figure out what was going on with her belly and her digestion and changing her diet and all this stuff, and all of those things take about a month.

To get into, or six weeks or eight weeks. So time went by and finally when they figured out it was, you know, in her brain, it was just a totally different scenario. I’m not sure the outcome would’ve been any different if they’d found out sooner, but. There is this kind of, we’re looking at the down, we’re looking down the lens of this one thing that’s a problem.

So they were probably trying to eliminate all the possible stomach things and at some point they did a bigger test that showed more. Yeah. So that at that point in June, she was pretty far into it. 

Jennifer Graham: Yes, exactly. And she, she wrote me, I think it was a email and not a text. Most our relationship was primarily email.

I think we exchanged a few texts and of course as we’ll talk about later, I’m sure. Part of the reason I wrote this essay was, and the reason that I. I tried to get her work out there, in a sense is because of my lingering guilt that I didn’t do enough for her. You know, I can make all the excuses I want to, you know, that, that we were 10 hours apart.

We were cyber friends. We weren’t unquote real friends. But the, the fact is, I, I could have done more. And so I guess part of that guilt is that I did not further the relationship I. I did not go to Ohio that I, I wasn’t there. And you know, I’ve tried to. Parse all the reasons for it. In an attempt to assuage my own guilt or looking back, I, I felt like I should have gotten in the car the day that she wrote me on her way from the hospital that her diagnosis was cancer.

I should have gone that weekend. I, if I had it to do all over again. How many times do we use that phrase right? That’s what I would’ve done. And I, you know, I would’ve put aside all my thoughts of, you know, I don’t really know her. It, it doesn’t matter, you know, when somebody is going through something like that, you show up.

That’s, that’s one of the lessons that I’ve taken from all of this is that there’s no, there’s absolutely nothing you can do that has more value than physically showing up for people. 

Diane Hullet: And that’s the part that really I just really resonated with in your article when you wrote, you know, towards the end you said, just always go to Ohio.

And there’s something about that, and of course, you know, with the caveat that not everybody can afford to take the time off of work or buy the plane ticket or jump in the car. And of course you had the four kids and you know, there’s lots of logistics to it. But I think the. Through line. What feels true to me is this thing that we sometimes layer excuses on, when really there’s this huge power in showing up.

And that’s what you kind of came to with this always go to Ohio phrase. And it, it isn’t just because there’s guilt afterwards. It’s, it’s really like, this is what humans need is to show up for each other. Exactly. And the more 

Jennifer Graham: trouble it is, the more meaningful it is. Right. 

Diane Hullet: I think so. And for you there would’ve been a lot of logistics to it, but still there’s some kind of sense of like we keep, we keep it at arm’s length, right?

There was something about, well, we’re only cyber friends. That kind of made it feel like, well, I’m sure her in-person friends are showing up for her. But that still wasn’t your friendship and the ways in which you might have shown up for this time in her life. 

Jennifer Graham: Yeah, exactly. You know, there’s so many layers and complications to this.

Not only in my own experience, but for all of us. When we are confronted with somebody who is seriously ill, I think we all struggle with whether the person lives next door or whether they live in Ohio. I think we all struggle with what to do, and I, I don’t think that it’s because we don’t. It’s, it’s the situation can just be so uncomfortable and it’s easier just not to think about it and to rationalize whatever it is easiest for us to do.

Does that make sense? Yeah. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah, and there’s also this sort of complexity of what I wanna call like the oh, the like norm of independence. You know, that we have this thing of that we are we, it’s like the gold standards is independence. So if you’re interdependent and you’re relying on other people and calling other people, then somehow.

In some situations that’s seen as a weakness or that the person themselves doesn’t quite know how to reach out and say, I’d accept help. So it’s this delicate dance, right of do they want me to show up? Should I show up, can I show up? How would I show up? What would they imagine that would look like? And, and I think these are, like you said, these are really unique to every experience and really the complicated friendship that a friendship is.

And yet, I, I agree with you that time, after time showing up is what matters. Yeah. And 

Jennifer Graham: You know, I’m from the south, as you can probably tell from my accent. And what we do in the South to show love in under any circumstance is to shower people with food, to bake things casseroles and whatnot. And I guess that’s also a thing in Ohio because one of the very funny lines I think I might have quoted in that article is that one of her emails was how complicated her life is she.

Constantly going to the door to accept tuna casseroles. So I mean, this, this is a thing and it, it’s the fallback, right? I, I guess maybe not just in the south, maybe everywhere is you cook for people you know, it’s something relatively easy to do. You feel like you can check a box, oh, I did something for that person.

But you know what, what do you do after the tuna casserole? I mean, that is the question that confronts all of us and I. I am once again in the circumstance right now where I have a, a fairly good friend locally who has cancer, and I, you know, I. I’m not that close, but I’m close enough that I feel like I need to be doing something.

And I’m even now, I mean, Jennifer Phillips. Graham died a decade ago, so we were talking about a story that happened some time ago and I. Even though I’ve learned some stuff, I learned always go to Ohio. You just showing up every day and knocking on the door and saying, I’m here. I’m here to help. I’m here with the tuna casserole.

That’s not the solution either. And I mean, nobody wants us constantly, so this is fine balance that we’re always going back and forth. How do we help within the constraints of our life, how do we help? The constraints of another person’s life and in their desires. And I guess the only answer is to ask, but then you have to weigh whether or not the person’s being honest with you, because people don’t want to be 

Diane Hullet: demanding, right?

There’s all these nuances to it, aren’t there? And I think. You know, I think of two situations that I’m familiar with where really with one friend from his wife’s diagnosis on, they always had someone with them. Her sisters came best friends came, family came, mothers came. Somebody was always in the house.

And I remember looking at that, and this was probably 15 years ago, and I said to my husband. I don’t know if this would work for you, but that’s actually what I would want. I would want people around, and it could be rotating people, but I would want a lot of people like whoever could appear and be those extra hands in the kitchen and doing things that I’m often the one who does.

I would really want that. I just remember having that conversation with him and then I know of, couple right now where he’s maybe in the final weeks, might maybe of his life and now they have people constantly at their home. And, but that’s a particular community. You know, that’s a particular couple that can withstand that kind of attention.

And not everybody wants that. So what’s the balance and, and how do we, as. The people with the diagnosis or the partners of that person, how do we know what we want and how do we ask for that? And how does our community show up? And many people are living in more isolation than that, where they simply wouldn’t have 20 people to draw on.

So this is, you know, this is so nuanced and so complicated and depends a lot on. How you’ve lived your life, what friendships you’ve developed, who your contacts are that are bigger, like you said, like a religious circles or communities of schools or friends. This to me is partly about the community we’ve woven and then how we call on that community, and I think it’s one of the real challenges with modern aging, let alone modern dying, is how do we create community?

Yeah. And that’s really interesting 

Jennifer Graham: to me that you had that conversation 

Diane Hullet: With your husband, right? Because a lot of people, we might have a plan 

Jennifer Graham: for our very last days, or we might have a plan for dying and what happens after our death, but I, I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down and thought, well, if I get a diagnosis like this, what do I want to happen?

And to share that with. My, my kids, you know, my friends now. And maybe that’s something that we should be thinking about as well in addition to, you know, making plans for when we do die. What about that year or two before death as, as our condition deteriorates or I don’t know what the percentages of us who will be diagnosed with something that will be ultimately fatal, but I’m sure it’s a fairly high percentage.

And so we should maybe add that. Our own. Just planning. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah, I think so. I remember seeing a Ted talk where the doctor giving the Ted talk. He said, everyone in this room, out of all the people sitting here, none of you will die a sudden death. All of you will die a more prolonged lingering death of disease or frailty.

And it was kind of shocking. You know, you look at these, I don’t know, 500,000 people in this room and you think, oh, statistically that’s how it is. Most of us don’t die a sudden death, and many of us have those experiences of a car accident or a heart attack. A suicide is a sudden death. But most people.

Do have some notice that they’ll be dying. And so what do we do with that time? How do we wanna spend it and what makes sense for our families and communities? I. Yeah, I 

Jennifer Graham: love that idea and I, that brings to mind. I don’t know if you have read Tuesdays with Maury. I guess everybody has read Tuesdays with Maury at this point, but I talked to Mitch album recently, who’s the young man who’s spent that time with?

I. I guess, should I explain the book? Does everybody know what Deuce Deuce 

Diane Hullet: is? Throw it out there. ’cause I definitely have some listeners who might be of a younger generation who might not be familiar with it. Yeah, 

Jennifer Graham: well the, this, this person, Maury Swartz was a professor at Brandeis University in the suburbs of Boston who is diagnosed with a LS.

And I’m not sure how he came to the attention of Ted Koppel, but Ted Koppel went to his house and did a segment on what it was like to be dying of ALS and Mitch Albom, who at the time was just a sports writer, basically at a newspaper in Detroit, saw this. This piece that had aired on the, I guess it was Nightline.

I, I’m not even sure what Ted Koppel’s show was, but I guess it was Nightline and he recognized Maurice. Schwartz was a professor. He had had, here’s another little story of guilt about what we have done and have not done because when he had graduated, he had promised his professor that he would stay in touch over the years because they had been very close when he was at college.

And I think it was 16 years had passed and he said he had never actually got stayed in touch. He had never even contacted his professor after all that time. And then he found out that Maurice Schwartz was dying, and so he got on a plane. He went there, always go to Walham. Massachusetts, I guess. So he goes to Walham Massachusetts and he meets with the professor who is, I don’t know what stage of dying he was in at that point.

They just, they hit it off and he said, will you come back? And he went back for two or three months and just. Let Maury Swartz talk and share his wisdom. And, you know, he, he was Swartz, I think was an extraordinary person in terms of his mental gifts and in terms of, you know, he was a teacher already.

He had been a professor for all of his life, and so he had wisdom to impart and he had somebody willing. To take that wisdom. And so Mitch Albom took notes of all their conversations and then he, after his professor passed, he wrote this beautiful little book called Tuesdays with Maury, which are the lessons that he learned all his own, his his personal always go to Ohio kinds of.

Bits of wisdom and I mean, it just transformed his life. And he, he went on from there. I, I think it’s now the best-selling memoir of all times. Just incredible popularity of this book. And, and he went on and is now, he still is a columnist, but he writes books primarily. And, and I would add, because I’m a big fan of Mitch Alba, he has donated half the proceeds of all of the success of Tuesdays with Maury to the family.

You know, what a legacy. It’s a way of coming back from his earlier 

Diane Hullet: failing. Yes. Yes. That’s, that’s an incredible story. And I’m trying to think, and you were gonna say something about Mitch, I guess you what, what was the part you were going for at the beginning? ’cause you said, well, I have no idea 

Jennifer Graham: except, well, we were talking about the context of what we do for other people.

And what we can bring them. And a lot of times I think that all they need is somebody to either A, talk to, or B, listen to. And we’re all different in that regard. Right. Maurice Schwartz was somebody who wanted to talk. Yeah. And you know, it, it may be in the case of other people that somebody just wants somebody to hold their hand.

You know, you might wanna talk, you might wanna listen, but it’s hard to do that. Email back to go there. If that was The message of my piece is if, if you even think somebody might need you, don’t hesitate and don’t sit around in him in the hall like I did. Don’t talk about the cost to yourself, either financial or in other ways.

Just go because you know you can pay the bills later. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah. Yeah. There’s something about that that. I think sometimes then I think grief can be a little less complicated if it doesn’t have a layer of guilt on top of it or woven into it, right? So the sense that we showed up can, we’re still gonna grieve, but it can make our grief a little bit.

I dunno, cleaner seems like the wrong word, but a little bit more pure and it’s just grief instead of it’s grief. Also for what I didn’t do or how I did it poorly or you know, all these kind of regrets that humans carry with them. I think about, I’m reminded of, you know, I talked with Dr. IRA Bajak, and you know, we talked about the four things that matter most, right?

And it comes down to I love you, I forgive you, please forgive me. Goodbye. I mean that the power of those things and saying those things really creates a kind of closure that we don’t get if we didn’t go to Ohio. Yeah, 

Jennifer Graham: absolutely. And it reminds me, there was a, a book that came out within the past year or two about regrets.

A researcher who, who. Specifically does regrets and he has an online survey where people go, it’s, I guess it’s cathartic in some way for people to go in and say, these are what my regrets are. I wish I knew the name of the website off the top of my head. But anyway, I interviewed him at one point for my day job and that his, he did make that point about the connection between grief and regret and how much.

One is augmented by the other as well, and he said that a, a major, I, again, I wish I could tell you the exact number, but that a, a majority of the regrets that were coming into his website did have to do with the passing of somebody. So. Once, there’s no way, no way to assuage what happened in the past.

Yeah. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah. That’s, that’s so powerful. Well, and I also think, I’ve had some interesting conversations with people who would say, if you have regret and the person has died, I. Go ahead and create a space to have that conversation with them, right? Either in a quiet space, in a meditative space, in a dream world, nap time kind of space.

Or even there’s this fascinating phenomenon called wind phones. Go find a wind phone in your area and have that conversation. And what’s interesting is how that. Can make a difference in your own experience of the guilt and the grief. It’s, it’s like a, a ritual that in our society we don’t do a lot of rituals, but I think there is this way we can have a ritual conversation that can move our own experience and our own feeling with it.

And you don’t have to believe that spirits are out there listening for this to be impactful to your own unburdening of what you feel you should have done differently or wish you had done differently. What is a wind phone? I’m not familiar with that. A wind phone is really interesting. I just did an interview with a woman who manages a web site called Mywindphone.com, and she maps the locations of wind phones.

So wind phone was started as a phenomenon by a Japanese man who. The way I understand the story is he missed his wife terribly and he created a little glass phone booth in his backyard with like an old rotary phone, and he would walk in there and talk to her on the phone. Shortly after that, sometime after that the tsunami happened in Japan and he moved his wind phone to a hilltop where a variety of people could access it.

And what Amy told me is that something like 30,000 people have been to that wind phone to speak to their deceased person. And from there it kind of grew. And she said there’s like 170 wind phones in the U.S now, and some of them are just. You know, kind of a spontaneous art piece put up in a quiet space on a trail.

And some of them are a little more like approved by a city government for a particular space, that kind of thing. But I think it’s this fascinating combination of service and art and a public phenomenon that allows for grieving in kind of an intimate way, but also a public way. Yeah. Check it out. 

Jennifer Graham: It just, it brings to the forefront.

I.

Our need to continue to communicate with people, you know, not to com and to communicate something specifically, right? Something that wasn’t said while the person was alive. And I’m thinking within the past week, I think I’ve seen an article, or I didn’t read the whole article, but I saw the headline in a photo about a little girl.

Who had set up a mailbox at a cemetery for people to deposit their letters. The same kind of thing, right? I mean, I guess wherever you go around the world, there are people trying to communicate one last message in some 

Diane Hullet: way. Yeah. Or in either one last message or an ongoing relationship. Yeah, and I think, I think maybe why we find it so fascinating and moving is because our, our culture doesn’t sort of automatically have that built in.

I think there are absolutely human societies where that assumption of a relationship that continues after the shell of the body is gone, where that’s just a presumed known. Understanding within the society, but I think in, you know, current western US modern society, people have gotten really far away from that.

And so there’s this incredible kind of interest in it and I think some relief in it. I think people feel like, oh really? That’s fascinating. So. I love that. Well, Jennifer, I just think I appreciate your thoughts so much on this and your phrase, always go to Ohio just really resonated with my experience of showing up as best we can with our limited and profound selves to these really life altering circumstances.

I was really pleased to 

Jennifer Graham: get a number of emails from people afterwards. A couple of whom said that they had booked plane tickets that day after reading the piece. So I was like, okay, this, this. She would love that. Right. Jennifer Phillips Graham would’ve loved to have known that, that some people did make that connection after reading the story, reading our story, hers and my story together.

And so, yeah, and I, I hope she knows that and I should go to a wind phone and tell 

Diane Hullet: her. Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great idea. Well, thank you so much. How can people find out more about you? Well, I have a website 

Jennifer Graham: Obviously since Jennifer Phillips Graham on it, it’s Jennifergram.com, so some of my freelance work is there and there’s, a’s.

I think that the heading on the page is favorites. If you go to Jennifergram.com and click on Favorites, there’s a link to this particular New York Times piece. Even if you don’t have a subscription to the New York Times, I think you get five or 10 articles free a month, so you can still read it online.

Diane Hullet: Fantastic. Thank you so much for your time, and as always, you can find out more about me at Bestlifebestdeath.com. Thanks, Jennifer. Thank 

Jennifer Graham: you. It was a pleasure speaking to you, to all of you.

Diane Hullet

Diane Hullet

End of Life Doula, Podcaster, and founder of Best Life Best Death.