Writing Through the Loss of a Parent
An In Conversation with Caitlin Garvey & Margaret Henry
Margaret: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, Caitlin. I really enjoyed your book, both because the writing is wonderful and because it is such a unique take on a common topic. Reading it also hit home for me as my mother also passed away after a long struggle with cancer. You explained your process a bit early on in the book, and it seemed like you hoped through interviewing people close to your mother’s death you might learn something to help you cope with your grief. Is that right or was there something else you hoped to get out of the process?
Caitlin: I am so sorry to hear about your mother, and thank you for sharing that with me. I am glad you liked the book! In collecting the interviews, I hoped that I could gain a little bit more of my mom’s story from others’ perspectives, and because grief is universal, I also thought that I could gain some wisdom from others about their own experiences with grief. Also, I think that, prior to conducting the interviews, part of me was repressing certain memories or just intentionally not remembering things in an effort to “get on with my life,” and that, as you can probably guess, wasn’t working out for me, so I wanted to kind of force myself to revisit the moments before and after she died through those interviews.
Margaret: That’s so interesting. I think the notion of “moving on” is such an interesting one and also such an ambiguous one. How do you move on from the people who helped form you? How do you leave them behind? I think the idea of beginning a book project as a way to revisit those moments is such a unique way to go about the grieving process. And, yes, so universal.
Caitlin: Yes, exactly!
Margaret: I remember the first piece I wrote about my mother’s illness and I think I cried the entire time I wrote it. It was cathartic, of course, but also difficult because in writing about it I had to recreate it in my mind, which broke my heart all over again. I imagine the interviews were fascinating to conduct, but also emotionally charged in the same way. Was that the case? If so, which interview was the most difficult for you and why?
Caitlin: Yes, that’s exactly right. I could feel that, at times, the interviews were making things worse for my mental health. I was irritable after revisiting memories, and I remember questioning over and over why I was doing this in the first place. If I wasn’t “healing” from this, then part of my original goal was being thwarted. But healing is a much slower process than that, obviously, and more incremental. I think I have two answers for this. The interview with the hairstylist, Debbie Musso, was emotionally charged because she was the one who dressed my mom’s hair for the wake, and she was also part of my community and was friends with my mom. She was comforting and warm, which made me less anxious but also made me miss my mom all over again. The interview with the funeral director, Charlie Williams, was emotionally charged in a different way because I had to revisit the site of my mom’s wake to conduct the interview in the first place. It was sort of a sensory overload, and a lot of negative memories returned.
Margaret: I had a sense of the difficulty of both of those interviews while reading the book. Interestingly, many of the things you describe about your mother’s illness as well as her death were similar to things about my mother’s illness and her death. Those sensory descriptions are so transportive and visceral they can put you right back in those moments so easily. After my mother died, I made arbitrary time markers in my mind for when I would stop grieving and feel whole again. I’d tell myself “next month it will all be okay” and next month would come and go and I still would not be okay. I wonder if you pinned hopes like that on the interviews and what, after everything was said and done, was your ultimate takeaway from working on the book?
Caitlin: Yes! I had so many expectations that writing this book would “officially” allow me to move on. Even as I felt worse while writing it, I told myself that it would be “worth it” when it was all done. That was, I think, the toughest part of the whole writing process — the grief that came after the book was completed. It was what I think of as a grieving of expectations. I was still very depressed, with chronic fatigue and low motivation. And I think because it was over, it was sort of like, “Well, what the hell am I supposed to do now?” I felt like I had failed myself, which is maybe the opposite of what a writer should feel when completing their first book. The interviewees provided comfort at times, but I had such high and unrealistic expectations, and I don’t think there is anything they could have said or done that would have made me feel differently after it was over. Still, my biggest takeaway was all the material I had about my mom after writing my book. The interviews did bring up a lot of memories, and I was able to thread my mom’s journals into some of the chapters, so she is published in it, too, which was her dream at one point. And I had to remember that publishing a book was my dream, too, not just publishing a book to “cure” my depression, so I am ultimately proud that I saw it through for both myself and my mom.
Margaret: Wow. I think we can all relate to the grieving of expectations, whatever our experiences. And depression is such a difficult thing to deal with, especially when compounded by grief. The book does such a great job of describing grief, depression, and anxiety — all things so many people deal with and while it may not have been a cure, it certainly is a gift to anyone going through something similar.
Caitlin: Thank you so much for saying that. It means a lot to me. That’s what I was hoping.
Margaret: I think you accomplished that goal! I was also fascinated by the people you interviewed. The chapters read almost like mini profiles. In interviewing people around your mom when she died, you saw glimpses of their whole lives. I wonder if you plan on writing about them again in more detail in a different context?
Caitlin: I hadn’t thought of that until you said it, but it’s a good idea. I have thought about using this format to explore issues other than death and dying at some point in the future, but I’m not yet sure what the focus would be. For now, I am trying to challenge myself to write about things unrelated to my mom, since I’ve felt very stuck, or frozen, after completing the book, and I don’t think it’s healthy for me at this point to cling onto it and not be able to set the book and its process aside, if that makes sense.
Margaret: That totally makes sense. The themes that come up throughout the book are also interesting. I was struck by the recurrent struggles surrounding faith, in terms of religion, but also faith in terms of simply believing in the people we love, our bodies, ourselves. One striking moment is the moment when Father Dore talks about being unsure of what is real because we all imagine priests don’t wrestle with this kind of doubt. I wonder if any of the themes that came up while writing the book surprised you and if so if you plan on exploring them further?
Caitlin: A lot of the themes surprised me. I saw issues of time coming up most with the estate attorney, Mary Lee Turk, along with ideas of a deceased person’s possessions and final wishes. Something that I realized about myself while forming the chapters is that, for many years after my mom died, I was looking for ways to escape reality: through binge-watching shows, smoking weed a lot, sleeping 18+ hours a day, etc. I think that would be useful for me to explore further. It brings up questions like: What does it mean to be in the present? What is the point of living if I am just trying to pretend I’m not every day? How can I leave space for daydreaming, fantasy, and certain forms of escapism without letting them consume me? etc. I’d eventually like to write about that.
Margaret: Ohhhh! Escapism is really prevalent in the book and I hadn’t really thought about it. It’s such a relatable topic and would be interesting to explore. I feel like many people want to escape, and you see it in pop culture, from everything from Bojack Horseman to The Sims…
Caitlin: Yes! And fan fiction, too, is interesting to me — just being so wrapped up in fictional characters that you have to incorporate them in other stories.
Margaret: The line between healthy escapism and unhealthy escapism is also such an interesting and tenuous one.
Caitlin: Yeah, I think it’s healthy for anyone, but writers especially, to fantasize, but it can quickly consume, and it’s really hard to figure out how to get out of it when that happens
Margaret: Absolutely! It’s easy to fall into whole other worlds, in a way that I’m not sure it was years ago. Because we can do it in so many different platforms and because we live so much of our lives virtually, I think it’s a really important thing to explore. Now, with COVID, perhaps even more so. And, yes! Writers already tend to be so much in our heads that a book that explores how to fantasize but still live our lives in the real world is a book I’d like to read.
Margaret: Well, thank you so much Caitlin for taking the time to answer my questions. Your book was a difficult read for me, because so many of your experiences mirrored my own. It wasn’t an easy read, but it was a good one, the kind of read that makes you a bit more empathetic and the kind of read that reminds you that no matter what your troubles, you’re never really alone. Thank you for writing it.
Caitlin: Thank you so much for talking with me about it. I am really sorry that you could relate, but I am glad that you had an overall positive reading experience.
Margaret: It was my pleasure. I appreciate that and the book as well. Thanks again. Be well.
Caitlin: You too! Thanks for taking the time today!
Caitlin’s book The Mourning Report (Homebound Publications) is available now through all major retailers.
Caitlin Garvey is a writer and English professor in Chicago. She has an MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University, as well as an MA in English Literature from DePaul University. Her work has been published in Post Road Magazine, JuxtaProse Magazine, Apeiron Review, The Baltimore Review, The Tishman Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and others. Her debut memoir, The Mourning Report (Homebound Publications, 2020), is about losing her mother to cancer and collecting the stories of the people who played a role in her mother’s care.
Margaret Henry is a writer, editor, and former caddie. She writes about the things people do, from worrying to crossing the road to buffing graffiti. She holds a MA in literature from the University of Montana and a MFA in Nonfiction from Portland State University. She lives .7 miles away from the nearest golf course in Portland, Oregon.