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Podcast: #36 Rachel Brougham – Widowland: I’m Fine, Except I’m Not Fine

“I’m fine. That’s what grievers often say when people ask how they are doing. Except they’re not fine.”

When Rachel Brougham was a young wife, her dynamic, beloved husband was killed in a bike accident in the city of Minneapolis while she was home making tacos for dinner. Her book, Widowland, is part memoir, part grief journal, part advice manual for all of us to better understand the path of grieving and how to support ourselves and others along its rocky contours. Whether coming from an expected death or a sudden surprise, grief is a new land – a region Rachel calls widowland – and we can learn how to be in that space and how to offer stronger support to those who dwell there.

Transcript Below

[00:00:00] Diane Hullet: I am Diane. Hello and welcome to the best life. Best death podcast today. I’ve got a special guest. Who’s a journalist and an author. Rachel brome. Welcome. Right. Hey, I got introduced to Rachel because my dad sent me an article from the Petoskey news review column actually right column rather than the article.

[00:00:29] And, um, Rachel was talking about grief and I really loved the way the column was written. And I kind of followed through, I said, well, wait a minute. I’m going to look this person up. Rachel now lives in Minneapolis. She’s written an incredible book called widow land. And. She’s here today to talk about her story and also kind of some pieces about what matters when people are grieving, how we can be helpful, um, what we can do to both sort of get ourselves through it and help others get through it.

[00:00:59] [00:01:00] So welcome Rachel. Oh, thanks, Diane. Um, tell us about, you know, tell us about your, your story and what has brought you to be a writer and, um, what happened that changes. Sure. Well, I am

[00:01:12] Rachel Brougham: one of those few people that grew up knowing that I was going to be a writer of some kind. And I come from the world journalism.

[00:01:19] So I’ve worked in television and newspapers, and now I work as a freelance writer. Um, most of my career was spent in Northern Michigan, and then we moved to Minneapolis. Um, for my husband Collins’ job in 2015, um, our son had just finished kindergarten. It was a great time to leave. If we were going to leave, uh, we fell in love with Minneapolis.

[00:01:43] And, uh, Collin was a bike commuter. He developed a love of cycling when we moved to Minneapolis and he wrote about, I dunno, it was like 15 miles to work every day, most days. And, um, he [00:02:00] was hit and killed by the light rail, which is the commuter train here in Minneapolis. And, uh, it happened on his way home from work, just maybe five blocks from our house.

[00:02:12] Um, while I was getting

[00:02:13] Diane Hullet: dinner ready, that’s what,

[00:02:18] Rachel Brougham: uh, kind of gave me the jump. I needed to write a book about my experiences.

[00:02:24] Diane Hullet: Absolutely. Absolutely. And what I, what I think is really interesting about your book is instead of it being kind of a, a narrative that’s kind of a straight, direct, you know, a linear story about what happened or you’re in Colin’s life, it’s much more journalistic feeling and it bounces kind of, um, each chapter kind of bounces to different places.

[00:02:46] Some are memories, some are present times, some are what happened that day. And so. Letters to Colin and, um, it’s, it’s just got this really moving quality to it. I loved reading it. I highly recommend it. [00:03:00] And, um, You know, Rachel has her experience and then she takes that experience and really helps us see how her experience is a universal experience.

[00:03:09] Although we were just talking before we hit record how also every death is just so different. It just, the people around it and how the person dies. And, um, they’re just in comparable, whether it’s a sudden death or a long expected death, everyone is so. So you, you talk about, I love this chapter. You have a chapter called things you should never say.

[00:03:33] And you’ve got this list at the beginning of things that people said to you. And, um, I thought I’d just read a few of them and then you kind of, you know, tell us your experience of this. You’re so young and beautiful. Don’t worry. You’ll find love again. We can only hope he’s in a better place. Have you ever wondered if he did it on purpose?

[00:03:55] I went through a divorce. So I understand loss. I know how you feel. [00:04:00] My cat died and I was a wreck for a week. Everyone dies. It’s just hard for you because you’re so young. And did you tell him to be careful when he rode his bike? So, you know, I think people are often well-meaning and stumble over themselves, but tell us a little about some of those things and how they live.

[00:04:21] Rachel Brougham: Oh, I mean, when you read them as a list, I just wanted to cringe. Um, so that first one, the, uh, there was a woman at Collin’s funeral who came up to me afterward and said, you know, you’re so young and beautiful, don’t worry. You’re going to find love again. And I was just. That’s one of the very few things I actually remember about Collin’s funeral and it just it’s like, wow, I didn’t ask for that, but, okay.

[00:04:48] Thank you. Like, you know, what do you say? Thank you. And you say, yeah. Um, I think a lot of those are platitudes that we tell people who are grieving. And I think there’s two reasons for [00:05:00] that. Um, one we’ve heard them before, you know, he’s in a better place or. You know, oh God we’ll handle. Or, you know, we hear those platitudes and we think that, okay, well, they must be the right things to say, because we’ve heard them over and over throughout our lives.

[00:05:18] Um, I think that when people say those things, they’re not, they’re not bad people. They just don’t know what to

[00:05:25] Diane Hullet: say. Yes. I think there’s sometimes a kind of stumbling over, well, let me say something,

[00:05:31] Rachel Brougham: please say something. Um, I think there’s another aspect to that in that people, as people, we just want those around us to be happy because when everyone around us is happy, we are happy.

[00:05:43] So we say things like that. To try to make others feel good, but really what we’re doing is we’re diminishing their feelings or diminishing their, the grief that they feel.

[00:05:55] Diane Hullet: You talk about how the answer is often when someone says, how are you? You say I’m fine. [00:06:00] But inside, you’re like doing this mental dance of like, how much do I want to say to this person in this moment and what is great and it’s my real genuine response to this.

[00:06:10] Rachel Brougham: Um, what do I’m trying to think about? I’m trying to think about when early on after Collin’s death, I would say I’m fine because either the person who was asking really didn’t want to hear the answer. And I knew that, or

[00:06:26] Diane Hullet: how much did I want to talk

[00:06:27] Rachel Brougham: about it at

[00:06:28] Diane Hullet: that moment? Right.

[00:06:30] Rachel Brougham: So I would just go to, well, I’m fine.

[00:06:33] Diane Hullet: Right? I mean, how are you as kind of the wrong question? Probably there’s maybe a different phrase. Right,

[00:06:40] Rachel Brougham: right. And I don’t know exactly what that’d be. I think it depends on the person, but you know, um, maybe how are you doing

[00:06:50] Diane Hullet: today? Uh, yes. You know, All right. Thinking of you a lot with all you’ve been going through something, something a little bit [00:07:00] less asking of the person to respond with the depth of what’s happening for them right now.

[00:07:06] Rachel Brougham: How are you? Well, let’s ask about how well are your grief is today, you know, and maybe they don’t want

[00:07:11] Diane Hullet: to talk about that. Right. Right, right. What about this one about, um, do you think he did it on purpose?

[00:07:18] Rachel Brougham: Yeah, that’s um, that’s a question that I only remember being asked of me once. However, I have a lot of friends who were close to Collin who have been asked that.

[00:07:31] So I know it’s a question that people ask and, um, you know, I don’t really know how I feel about it. I feel like it’s kind of a nosy question, but I know that as humans, we’re kind of nosy sometimes.

[00:07:45] Diane Hullet: Um, I guess it’s like, it’s, you know what I was struck by you say, so clearly at some point in the book you talk about, you know, accidents happen.

[00:07:53] Like that’s why they’re called accidents. And I think we don’t, we don’t like accidents, so we want to find some [00:08:00] control. I think saying, you know, could it have been on purpose is some way that grasp control from a terrible accident. Right.

[00:08:08] Rachel Brougham: Right. And, uh, you know, I know it was an accident because. There’s a lot of factors, but I read the police report.

[00:08:16] You know, I read witness statements. I know it’s an accident, but not everyone knows that. No, it was all those details. And I think you’re right. People don’t want to think about, oh, this could happen to me. This could happen to someone I love. Right. So, um, I think asking if he did it on purpose is a great way to dismiss and like kind of shoved those feelings of fear that you might have of it happening to you.

[00:08:40] Diane Hullet: Yes. I think that’s exactly right. And what about the one about, um, this? Do you, did you tell him to be careful? You know, and I told them to be careful

[00:08:49] Rachel Brougham: every day, but my last text message to him was actually be careful.

[00:08:54] Diane Hullet: Yeah. Yeah. And I don’t

[00:08:57] Rachel Brougham: know if you know. [00:09:00] Maybe I didn’t tell him that enough. Like if it would’ve helped something like, I don’t know why that’s a question.

[00:09:04] Did I tell him to

[00:09:05] Diane Hullet: be careful? Right. Right. Does that matter in the case of listen? So my

[00:09:10] Rachel Brougham: wife didn’t tell me to be careful today, so I’m not going to

[00:09:14] Diane Hullet: fight. So I did something reckless. Yeah. You, you have a great chapter. Another chapter called I am not brave. And you talk so eloquently. People you believe are brave.

[00:09:27] You know, the, the first responders who run into a building, um, you know, someone who signs up for the military, um, you know, they’re an activist stepping forward in some way. There you say, these are brave people. I’m not brave, but you say people like me, those who are grieving aren’t necessarily brave.

[00:09:48] We’re just people who have been dealt a heavy pile of shit to deal with every morning, we must wake up, relive a nightmare and go on about our lives. A reality we never signed up for. We have no other options, no [00:10:00] other choices, no alternatives. We just have to make the most of what we have been given. I cry.

[00:10:06] I laugh. I smile. I stare out the window and I go on, I guess you could say that strength, but strength is not the same as being brave. I am not bringing. Yeah.

[00:10:20] Rachel Brougham: Um, I think brave being brave includes a choice. You have to make a choice. Um, firefighters make a choice to go into a burning building, to save people.

[00:10:34] I don’t see myself ever making that choice. Um, I, you know, my son was nine, so I had to get up every morning. I had to get them to school. I had to feed him. I had to get groceries. I had to do all the things around the house now on my own.

[00:10:54] Diane Hullet: Um,

[00:10:55] Rachel Brougham: that’s just flat out sucked. It’s not being brave. It’s [00:11:00] just kind of facing my reality, like

[00:11:03] Diane Hullet: carrying on with stress

[00:11:05] Rachel Brougham: and trying to find the strength in myself.

[00:11:09] To go on with my life and figure out what that was going to be moving

[00:11:13] Diane Hullet: forward. Yeah. Yeah. I love that distinction. I think that’s really strong. Another one of my favorite pieces is the chapter called. They’re not just things. Tell us, tell us more about that.

[00:11:27] Rachel Brougham: Yeah. Um, I, I’m not one to keep a lot of sentimental things around.

[00:11:35] I don’t like clutter,

[00:11:37] Diane Hullet: but when Collin died,

[00:11:40] Rachel Brougham: I found myself really holding on to things that we had together or things that were his, because it’s just one more thing that gave me some connection to him. And I think when your person dies, you look for any connection that you can to keep [00:12:00] them kind of going.

[00:12:02] And so he, uh, we were on spring break a week before he died and he got this tube of chapstick from a brewery in North Carolina. And I remember. A day or two, after he died, I saw it on his nightstand and I remember wiping some of it across my mouth and knowing that I was wiping his DNA on me and I had this moment where, you know, I didn’t want another child.

[00:12:30] Like we had talked about having another child and we had decided not to. And I remember thinking at that moment, I wish science were, was further along. So I could harvest some kind of DNA of his and make a baby, even though I didn’t want to be from

[00:12:46] Diane Hullet: the chapstick. I’ll get more DNA. Yeah.

[00:12:48] Rachel Brougham: I just wanted some thing to keep him going and.

[00:12:54] So, you know, I remember one day somewhat, recently I opened up the dishwasher and there was [00:13:00] a broken cereal bowl and it was a bowl that part of our wedding set that he used to eat out of. And I cried about it, you know, I could replace it, but it’s not the same. Um, so I, I talk about things in there that I know I will have to replace someday.

[00:13:18] Like our toaster that we got as a wedding gift, I don’t even know who got it for. But I think about all the slices of bread and English muffins and everything that’s been shoved in those slots by him over the years. And at some point that toaster’s going to end up in the truck.

[00:13:34] Diane Hullet: Right. At some point it will stop working.

[00:13:36] You say, you say in the book, you say shirt, it’s just a toaster and I’ll replace it when it finally toasts that last piece of bread. But that’s not to say I won’t be sad about it. Sometimes. Grief makes you weird about certain things. And you go on to say so many things are just things until that special person attached to them is no longer there.

[00:13:56] And it’s the same reason. It’s hard to part with books or pieces of [00:14:00] clothing. Um, and then the very last part of the chapter you say, I suppose I could call up the brewery and Asheville and ask if they still sell those little tubes of chapstick, I can replace the cereal bowl that broke and I’ll get a new toaster someday.

[00:14:14] I can get new things, except that misses the point replacements weren’t used by someone I love, they don’t carry the same memories, the same stories, the same weight replacement things would just be things. Yeah. Yeah. Well, Rachel, I really appreciate that you took the time to, as a writer, kind of not only experience all that you’ve gone through, but digest it and then put it in this incredible book that I think is, again, both a beautiful telling of your experience, but also then a real resource.

[00:14:50] And. Um, obviously like a mirror for people going through a similar thing or people who want to better understand what friends or family are going through.

[00:14:59] Rachel Brougham: Right. [00:15:00] I did write it, um, as a way to bring up a lot of little things that I didn’t feel like other memoirs on widowhood kind of talked about that.

[00:15:10] Diane Hullet: Yes. I love that. That’s a really good way to put it, that your book kind of grapples with and supports the thinking about the little things and the daily things. Like, I really got a feeling for your day-to-day life with Colin and without Colin. Yeah.

[00:15:26] Rachel Brougham: And I also thought it was important to talk about how to better support people, you know, for those who are grief adjacent to, um, just be better support.

[00:15:35] Oh, it’s a better

[00:15:36] Diane Hullet: supporter. What last things would you say about that?

[00:15:40] Rachel Brougham: You know, I, I have a great support system in place and I feel like I was very surprised by those who are great supporters and extremely disappointed by people who have been in my life for a long time, who are not good supporters. [00:16:00] And what

[00:16:00] Diane Hullet: made the difference, what support versus not.

[00:16:03] I feel

[00:16:04] Rachel Brougham: like the great supporters continue to show up and it didn’t have to be big things. It didn’t have to be, um, bringing food over every week or any of that. But I still get text messages from people who maybe I worked with years ago, who reach out every now and then and say, Hey, I’m thinking about you.

[00:16:25] Um, you know, wonder when you’re going to be back in town. Can we have lunch? I’d love to buy you a beer or whatever. And then, you know, I had a family members who maybe came to the funeral or they sent a card and I haven’t heard from them since. It’s just really shocking. And I don’t necessarily think the bad people for not showing up.

[00:16:47] They just don’t know what to do.

[00:16:48] Diane Hullet: Right, right. I think sometimes it’s, people’s own massive levels of discomfort that fate fall off. Right. Or they think, oh, she’s doing okay. She’s doing great. She doesn’t need me. Right.

[00:16:59] Rachel Brougham: But you [00:17:00] know, when you’re grieving, you can’t either, you don’t have it in you to better instruct people how to do that.

[00:17:06] You don’t want to be that person. So I thought, you know, what, if I write a book, I’m going to include some simple things that people can do to just be a better supporter.

[00:17:15] Diane Hullet: I love that. You, you talked about like, don’t, don’t ask, like my brain is in a fog and I can’t make a list for you, but if you show up and mow my lawn, I’ll be thrilled.

[00:17:24] If you kid to school, I’ll be thrilled. Like just, just kind of make yourself. Helpful in whatever way you can serve the situation.

[00:17:34] Rachel Brougham: Right? Think about what you’re willing to do. Don’t just let me know what you need, because I did not know what I needed. Yeah. But when people showed up to shovel my sidewalk or help mow the lawn or drop off a bag of just simple groceries, like bread and milk and cereal, that was the

[00:17:54] Diane Hullet: best.

[00:17:56] Well, thank you so much, Rachel. I, I, I. [00:18:00] Yeah, I’m just speechless at your experience and what you went through and your son went through. And, um, I think your book is a great addition to the sort of grief literature that’s out there or whatever you would call this genre. Um, widow land is the name of the book and Rachel’s name is Ray.

[00:18:21] Rome spelled B R O U G H a M. And you can find her book@rachelbrome.com and that will take you to black hat press. And if I can help get this book on Amazon, I will be doing so, because I just think it should be so accessible to people. Uh, thanks, Diane. Anything else you want to add for people? I don’t think so.

[00:18:44] All right. Thanks so much. It’s been great to talk to you. I really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you.

[00:18:56] Well, thanks so much to Rachel brome. You’ve been listening to [00:19:00] the best life, best death podcast. You can find out more about my work at best life, best death.com. And again, you can find out about Rachel’s book widow land@rachelbrome.com. That’s R a C H E L B R O U G H. A m.com. Lot of silent letters in that wonderful last name.

[00:19:23] Thanks so much. .

Diane Hullet

Diane Hullet

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

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