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‘A universal thing we’re all going to go through’: Texas author explores mourning, grief in new book

Laura Rice
/
Texas Standard

Grief is a deeply personal experience and yet universal: Dealing with tragedy in whatever form is part of life.

And after losing her mother to cancer and sister to alcoholism just a few years apart, Texas author Dina Gachman dealt with grief head-on. Through humor and candor she explores mourning in her latest book “So Sorry For Your Loss: How I Learned to Live with Grief, and Other Grave Concerns.”

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: First of all, I guess I should say I’m so sorry for your loss – not just talking about the book title here, but the loss of your mom and your sister. You actually write in your book about the words we use to those who are grieving. Why do you think we’re all so bad about talking about this?

Dina Gachman: I mean, I used to be very bad at it before I had deep grief in my life, and I think that it’s such a scary topic and you don’t want to upset people. So I think there’s so much fear of, like, ‘I’m going to say the wrong thing. I’m going to trigger them.’ And what people don’t realize is: A grieving person’s already triggered. There’s not much you can do to make us feel worse except saying nothing.

There are certain things that aren’t really appreciated. Like, you know, ‘God wouldn’t give you more than you could handle.’ Some people may like that, but across the board, pretty much everybody I’ve talked to is not a fan. Or, you know, ‘they’re in a better place.’ ‘So sorry for your loss’ was something that used to upset me because it felt sort of, you know, just like a standard thing people would say. And then over time, I came to appreciate it, because at least people are trying.

You write a lot about your specific experiences with your mom’s death, and later your sister’s. Though grief is something that we will all inevitably go through, is it universal in how we experience it?

I think, I mean, obviously it’s a universal thing we’re all going to go through at some point. But everyone, I think, handles it differently, experiences it differently. But what I’m hearing from people who’ve read the book who are reaching out is that there are some commonalities, right? I mean, that first sort of, in the book, I call it like the sledgehammer of grief, that just it really feels like physically, emotionally, spiritually, everything, it just kind of knocks you out.

And so I think there are some similar things, but I really think everyone handles it differently, and that’s okay. And that’s part of the point of the book is that it’s okay if you’re doing it one way and somebody else is doing it another. There’s not set stages; it’s not supposed to go a certain way.

One thing that struck me  – and I think you’re referencing there with that sledgehammer – is like the actual physical, you know, your description of what happened to your heart. Can you talk just little bit about that? 

You know, the old English word for grief was “heartsarnes,” which translates to “soreness of the heart.” And that’s really how it feels. It was very surprising to me the physicality of grief in the initial days. Thankfully, it gets better. But it was very surprising to me how much your chest really kind of constricts and tightens – and maybe not everyone feels it, but I think many, many people do. And, you know, there’s an actual medical condition that is related to that, which is interesting. So it’s just those initial physical symptoms can be a little bit shocking.

“I think there’s so much fear of, like, ‘I’m going to say the wrong thing. I’m going to trigger them,'” author Dina Gachman says about discussing grief. “And what people don’t realize is: A grieving person’s already triggered. There’s not much you can do to make us feel worse except saying nothing.”
Jessica Comiskey
“I think there’s so much fear of, like, ‘I’m going to say the wrong thing. I’m going to trigger them,'” author Dina Gachman says about discussing grief. “And what people don’t realize is: A grieving person’s already triggered. There’s not much you can do to make us feel worse except saying nothing.”

One thing that can vary a lot depending on circumstances is end-of-life care. What sorts of conversations do you recommend we all have long before we need to? 

That is a good question, because there’s one chapter about hospice – because we did not; we were so unprepared. My mom had been sick for several years, but when somebody is sick but they want to get better, it’s very tough to have end-of-life discussions, because what you’re saying is, you know, “you’re going to die.” And that’s really tough for somebody that’s sick. So we didn’t really have enough discussions.

So what I’ve learned in retrospect is it’s really helpful to have those before anyone’s sick. Like when you’re young, you and your partner, you and your spouse, whoever it is, have them you’re young and healthy. And then it takes all that really tough emotion out of it. So I have like sat my husband down, like, “we need to talk about this now.” So I definitely think trying to do that is helpful.

But, you know, even when you’re in it, if you haven’t had that, as tough as they are, they’re really important to figure out – you know, what kind of insurance can you have that will help, or are you going to go home for hospice. Just so you’re not having them when you’re in the depths of grief, which is really tough.

I mean, this is important information, and it’s valuable, and we’re all going to need it. But we’ve had a serious tone here, and your book is serious in some spots, but it’s also filled with a lot of humor. You write one of your mother’s firmly held beliefs was sometimes you just have to laugh. Can you share about some of those moments when you just needed laughter, even in those very dark moments?

I wanted to put a lot of humor in the book because you feel so low or heavy when you’re grieving that it’s so important to have that. And I was raised by my mom to always have that sense of humor. So there were moments that maybe, at the time, they weren’t hilarious. But my sisters and I, because we were mostly together, we sort of looked, you know, an hour later and laughed, because what else could you do?

So one of them was the hospice orientation nurse, I guess to make us feel better, told us that her whole family was murdered several years ago. So to us in the moment it wasn’t funny. But then a little bit later, we all laughed about it, because what else are you going to do? You just have to. I think it’s kind of a survival mechanism, like you find those funny moments. Or we laughed about the fact that our mom wanted to be buried with her blond wig as a Texas belle. And so that became funny for us in a way to sort of honor her and, you know, find a little bit of lightness in the dark times. And it absolutely helped me writing it to have that humor.

It seems like this is a good book for people to read if they’re trying to talk to someone else through grief as well. I mean, what are your messages for people who may be on that end of things? 

That was intentional, too. I wanted the book to be for people who have deep grief and live with grief and people who maybe don’t know what to say, don’t know what to do, because that was me before I experienced this – you know, I was tongue-tied; I didn’t know what to say or do. I think that, you know, one of the best gestures that happened for us is when my mom was on hospice, a family friend just knocked on the door – she didn’t say, you know, “I’m coming over” – she just knocked on the door, handed us a bucket of KFC and was like, “I love you; I’m here if you need me” and just pretty much ran off.

And those things are so amazing because you’re not making the grieving person think. You’re not asking, “what time should I come? What should I make? What should I do?” Just do something, you know, like, say, “I’m picking up your kids. I’m going to take them to the park” or “I’m going to come and do your laundry” or, you know, “here’s some lasagna.” And I think those things matter. And it can be little things, too, like just a friend checking in on the year anniversary somebody died just saying, “I’m thinking of you.” It’s very seemingly small, but it means a lot.

Listen to an extended interview with Dina Gachman in the audio player above.

Kristen Cabrera is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she saw snow for the first time and walked a mile through a blizzard. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) and is a former KUT News intern. She has been working as a freelance audio producer, writer and podcaster. Email her: kcabrera@kut.org