Grief is Love: Navigating Loss, Health & Transformation | Marisa Renee Lee

Marisa Renee Lee

Have you ever experienced a loss so profound that it shook the very foundations of your world? A grief so deep that it felt like a part of your soul was ripped away, leaving you lost and adrift in a sea of sorrow? If so, you’re not alone. Grief is a universal human experience, yet it’s one we often feel ill-equipped to handle.

My guest today, Marisa Renee Lee, knows this pain all too well. In 2008, after a courageous battle, Marisa lost her mother to cancer. This devastating loss transformed her life and set her on a quest to understand the true nature of grief and what healing really requires. Marisa has since become a leading expert on coping with loss. She’s a former appointee in the Obama White House, the managing director of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, co-founder of the digital platform Supportal, and founder of The Pink Agenda, a national organization dedicated to raising money for breast cancer care, research, and awareness. Her insights have been featured in Glamour, Vogue, MSNBC, and CNN. In her book, Grief Is Love: Living with Loss, Marisa shares her hard-earned wisdom on navigating the landscape of loss. She challenges the conventional ideas about grief and healing, and invites us to see grief not as a force to be overcome, but as a powerful expression of love – a love that endures even after death. Join me for a deeply moving and ultimately uplifting conversation about love, loss, resilience and the human capacity to not just survive grief, but to allow it to transform us in beautiful ways we could never imagine.

You can find Marisa at: Website | Instagram | Episode Transcript

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photo credit: David Needleman


Episode Transcript:

Marisa Renee Lee: [00:00:00] When you suffer a tremendous loss of any kind, you need room to fall apart, because at the end of the day, it is a transformative experience and you are going to be different as you work your way through that than you were before the thing happened. Whether it’s a health situation, the end of a marriage, the loss of someone you love, like all of those things are transformational experiences and they require space to just fall apart, come undone, and not everyone is allowed to do that.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:34] Hey, so have you ever experienced a loss that’s just so profound? It shook the very foundations of your world. A grief so deep it felt like a part of your soul was being ripped away. Leaving you lost and adrift in a sea of sorrow. If so, you’re not alone. Grief is just this universal human experience, yet it’s often one we feel really ill-equipped to handle. My guest today, Marisa Renee Lee, knows this pain all too well. In 2008, after a courageous battle, Marisa lost her mom to cancer. And this devastating loss, it transformed her life and set her on a quest to really understand the true nature of grief and what healing really requires. Marisa has since become a leading expert on coping with loss. She’s a former appointee of the White House, a managing director of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, co-founder of the digital platform Supportto, and founder of The Pink Agenda, a national organization dedicated to raising money for breast cancer care, research and awareness, and her insights have been featured in glamour, Vogue, MSNBC and CNN, and in her book Grief Is Love Living with loss. Marisa really shares her hard-earned wisdom on navigating the landscape of loss. She challenges the conventional ideas about grief and healing, and invites us to see grief not as a force to be overcome, but as a powerful expression of love, a love that endures even after death, which is something we talk about. Join me for this deeply moving and ultimately uplifting conversation about love and loss, resilience, and the human capacity to not just survive grief, but to allow it to transform us in beautiful ways we could never have imagined. So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:22] It was funny. I was, um, reading a little bit of your socials recently, and you had this really funny thing where you said that a friend of yours refers to you as the Steve Jobs of grief.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:02:36] [laughing]


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:36] So tell me a little bit more about this.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:02:38] Yeah, that’s what she started calling me. Um, well, just so you know, this is actually less about any tech proficiency or true expertise, and it is more about a deep commitment that I hold as a New Yorker to a basic black turtleneck. My office is hot pink, and that’s the way it’s been for years now. And so when you’re doing these kinds of interviews and things, it’s hard to find the right clothes to wear. You know, like, it’s just it is a practical move. But I have also loved just a plain turtleneck since I was a kid. Like, it’s just easy. I know I’m going to look nice. I know I’m going to feel put together. I can wear it on top and be having my like, joggers on the bottom, and nobody’s going to know the difference and it’s going to be wonderful. So yeah, my girlfriend Emily decided I need some wardrobe assistance and started calling me the Steve Jobs of Grief.


Jonathan Fields: [00:03:35] I love that. It’s interesting also because I’m totally get that side of it, you know, like as we were talking about before, like in Boulder, Colorado now, but like 30 years before, that was New York City. And it was kind of hard to find anything that wasn’t black in the wardrobe. Yeah, because that’s just the way it is when you’re in New York. So default what’s interesting also is so years back, I wrote a book about uncertainty, and one of the things that I discovered was that one of the ways that people tend to deal with high stakes, sustained uncertainty is they create what I call certainty anchors and all of the parts of their lives that they were just like the every day, the and they didn’t want to have to make decisions. So one of the things you saw all the time was wearing the exact same thing every day, eating the same food for lunch or for breakfast every day, all these different things. And I think it’s interesting in the context of our conversation also, because and I guess this is part of maybe a question that I have about this. I discovered this in the context of people dealing with high-stakes uncertainty. But I wonder if when people are moving through a season of grief, whether this also helps by almost like removing a decision-making part of the process. Curious what your take is on that?


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:04:46] 100%, and I’ve never thought about it in that way, but that is absolutely how I structure my life and like how I’ve structured my life for a while now. You know, taking a step back, recognizing that there are there are just all these things that I cannot control. You know, right now I’m having some health challenges. Before that, it was just life as a mom who owns a business and has a two-and-a-half-year-old, and there’s a lot about toddlers that you cannot control or prepare for. And then before that, you know, we were living in the midst of a sustained season of grief as we frankly waited for my mother-in-law to pass away. She was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in the spring of 2022. So six weeks before Grief is Love came out in the world, and we were told at that time that, you know, she had six months. She didn’t pass away until late September 2023. And so that entire period, it was, you know, the adjustment to being a writer with a book out in the world, which is one sort of type of professional uncertainty, the management of, you know, my day-to-day consulting career and that business, the management of her illness and, you know, trying to provide support and everything from afar.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:06:10] And then just the adjustment to being new parents. And so I’m always trying to think about what are the things that can make this moment easier because it’s not, you know, none of that was ever going to be easy. But how can I make it easier? I think about like points of uncertainty in terms of my wardrobe, like what we eat. You know, I am one of those people that’s planning the meals the week before, and it’s generally a rotation. Like I have a list on my phone of the common meals that everybody in the house will eat, and those things are in the rotation every 2 to 3 weeks. You know what I do and when I do it, even like my exercise routine, like doing workouts around the same time of day and like, you know, I know I’m going to do this this day. So I’ll do this the next day. And it’s just less to think about anything you can do to lessen the burden of decision-making when you’re navigating a tough time, I think is hugely helpful.


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:06] Yeah, I’m so agree. And I feel like so many of us are navigating a season of tough times, and we have been for a chunk of years now. You know, like whether it’s a specific loss or something that’s specifically, you know, really causing you stress or anxiety or uncertainty or. Or just the fact that it’s sort of the air that we breathe these days is uncertainty. And to a certain extent, loss. On some level, I feel like there are very few people right now that aren’t in some way touched by the sense of losing something, whether it’s a person, whether it’s a sense of security, whether it’s a worldview. I mean, you have these conversations all the time. Is that your sense as well?


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:07:42] Yes. Not only is that my sense, but I tend to think about grief as any time you had a reasonable expectation for your future and that gets taken away. So whether we’re talking about, you know, global unrest, climate change, the pandemic, the loss of a marriage, the loss of your health, the loss of a job, obviously the physical loss of a person, etc. it is all grief. And I think I think people are really struggling right now. And I hope that because we all have this shared grief experience, you know, through the global pandemic, that we would emerge different when it comes to how we approach grief, how we handle it, how we think about it, how we show up for ourselves and one another. And I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet. Um, that is probably what is most troubling to me, because, you know, the pandemic fundamentally was a deeply humanizing experience. Whether you were on a work zoom and, you know, you saw someone’s kid run in the background or you lost someone you love or you relocated like you did and like my family did. In the midst of it, there was a lot of there was a lot of acceptance for just being a human being and not treating yourself or treating others like machines, frankly. And I feel like unfortunately, we’ve moved away from that and back into this, like very capitalism, productivity focused space that doesn’t leave as much room for compassion and community and mutual aid and all of these other things that we saw spring up during the pandemic.


Jonathan Fields: [00:09:38] Yeah, I think we’re all feeling that. And what you’re describing, it’s not like we haven’t gotten there yet. It’s like we got there and then we let it go, and maybe we got there in a moment where we were feeling so constricted in our ability to actually share, like share space, share with other people, share our humanity, that that window where we felt it the most, where we really wanted to be the most connected, we actually weren’t allowed to. And now that we’ve moved past it, like it never really got to a place where it would have been as truly sustainable. Just sort of like guessing on that. But, I mean, I don’t know if you were in New York in, um, 2001 during 911. So I was in the city and like so many folks, you know, like anyone who was in New York for a long time, then you knew somebody who went to work that day that didn’t come home. And in the six months after that, as much pain and suffering as, you know, just blanketed New York. It was just it was hard to breathe. At the same time, there was a level of sisterhood, you know, brotherhood, fellowship, like seeing each other’s humanity. And just like the dominant thought in your mind was, how can I help you? And that lasted for about six months. And then it kind of just faded. And it’s almost like with a bit of shame that I look back in that window of time, and I miss the level of just rawness and humanity that was in that window, because you had a sense of what was possible when we let ourselves go there collectively.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:11:06] Why do we think that fades?


Jonathan Fields: [00:11:08] I don’t know, what’s your take on that?


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:11:10] I don’t know, but as I was listening to you speak, I’m like, yeah, I remember that. So for me, September 11th was the day before I was starting classes. My freshman year of college. I was going through this big, very routine, but, you know, significant life change. I was away from home for the first time in my life. And I’ll never forget that day because I actually couldn’t call home because, you know, the phone lines were all messed up and worrying about people and all of the things. And then, you know, to your point, it quickly faded. And still, I would say in New York, in the surrounding kind of tri-state area suburbs, always right around 911, there’s lots of ceremonies and, you know, moments to pause and remember and memorialize and all of those things. But the the shared humanity, the compassion, the sense that we can work together to create a better, just nicer world for all of us. Like that has not come back at all. And it almost makes me think about addiction mindset, which I don’t know, I don’t know a ton about. I’ve done a. Little, little bit of research and, you know, a few events within the substance abuse disorder community. And it’s very hard to like, really change how things fundamentally work and how people fundamentally operate. And I almost feel like we are addicted to these ideas around independence and looking out for yourself and taking care of yourself and scarcity, and it’s all, you know, kind of tied into capitalism, white supremacy, etc. and like, we can’t seem to break out of those systems and really let ourselves push for something different. You know, we’re almost addicted to what we know and like what we’ve all grown up in.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:11] Yeah, I feel like the rugged ideal, you know, has been elevated to self-reliance. Self-sufficiency.


[00:13:18] Yeah. It’s not real.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:19] It’s like what society has ever endured and flourished long-term without some level of interdependence. You know, it just it doesn’t exist like we are. Human beings are literally wired as social animals. David Brooks, like, wrote a whole book on this. It’s like, this is how we’re supposed to be. And yet we keep embracing this idea of like, no, no, no, no, no. If we have to be that way, it’s weakness rather than no. This is actually how we are. Okay.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:13:44] Yeah, yeah. And also and I wrote about this in Grief is Love because it, it is infuriating to me. You know, there’s a lot of reasons why people struggle, myself included, to be clear, to ask for and accept help. And so much of it comes down to these ideas around weakness and inferiority. And you are expected to do everything yourself. But if we look at truly, if we take 60s to look at anyone who has accomplished something great, I use the example of President Obama in my book. If not for Valerie Jarrett, his senior adviser in the white House and the woman who brought together all of the fancy rich black folks in Chicago to fund and support this young upstart, he never would have been president like he never would have been president. Amazon. We all spend more money than we probably care to admit on Amazon. The company was started with a $250,000 loan from Jeff Bezos. Parents like you need help. Whether it’s free help or paid help, like you need help if you want to be big and successful and even just happy in this life, I think, and I want to normalize that.


Jonathan Fields: [00:15:00] Yeah. I mean, especially in the context, you know, we’re talking more broadly, but as you mentioned this, this was one of the major categories that you explored in your book, Grief Is Love. And I want to get into some of the ideas because I think they’re so poignant, especially right now, but also sort of like zoom the lens out a little bit because you didn’t start your career saying, you know, like, I’m going to be a therapist or a social worker or a psychologist and let me focus on the area of grief. You were in the world of business, you know, like you were early days in the world of finance and then small business and then government and then so, you know, like the fact that you down the road end up writing this really powerful book on grief, this wasn’t part of the plan for you. And yet the seeds were planted for this, as you write about, you know, back in oh eight when you had this profound loss with your mom.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:15:51] Yeah, this was definitely not the plan. But it’s funny, I was thinking recently how I actually believe that the seeds were planted well before the loss of my mom. You know, one of I was talking to my cousin a couple weeks ago, and one of our shared earliest memories. She’s about a year younger than I am, was of our uncle’s funeral. It was 1988, so I was five years old. She would have been four, and he was a gay man who died in the Aids crisis, like in the 80s. And, you know, I can remember knowing that he had Aids. I can even remember going to visit him in the hospital before he died. And then I just have, like, this very visceral memory of the day of his funeral. All of us kids were kept together with a babysitter at my grandma’s house and then taken to this like massive, beautiful old black Baptist church. And we all little kids, like, we held hands and we had to walk down the center aisle of this church and pay our respects to our uncle. And this is at the end of the funeral service for this man who I mean, when he died, my best guess is he was like 30s ish, you know, so, like, everybody’s a mess and you’re there and like, it was, it was just such a thing. And there are all of these moments like that that just stood out to. Me. And at the time, you know, I was a little kid, I would have told you I remember them because they were sad.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:17:26] But now, looking back, it feels like that is the beginning of those seeds being planted of me understanding that death and grief are a normal part of life. You know, whether my mom was trying to normalize that experience for us, or just doing what she thought was the right thing to do, I don’t know, because I can’t ask her, but that is what it did. You know, it showed me that sad things happen, that bad things, hard things happen to good people. And when they happen, like, you have to find a way to show up. And so fast forward to my senior year in college. I’m a couple days away from graduation, and my mom, who already had multiple sclerosis, had been in and out of the hospital all year. And I just my gut instinct was that something very serious was wrong with her. And so I left school. The week of graduation came not far from where I’m sitting today, to a doctor’s appointment with mom and dad, where I learned I was right, you know? Unfortunately, she had stage four breast cancer on top of her multiple sclerosis, and so took a year off after college, was deeply committed to doing everything I could to help my mom and dad manage the situation, and to preparing myself and my mom for her to die like that. You know, there was no I am I am a pragmatic person. And so I had lists and spreadsheets, and I was reading books and doing all the things that I could to prepare both of us for her death.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:19:00] I never thought, oh, maybe there’ll be some miracle. I was like, no, like, we need to have a plan. Let’s set it out and stick to it. That is my type A personality at its best. And I thought that I really, really, really thought at 24 years old that if I prepared for my mom to die when she died, I would be fine. Like I was 24 turning 25. I was an adult, not really, but I thought of myself that way at the time. And then she died and it was awful. And I absolutely made it worse by plowing through and doing everything I could to ignore my emotions, and also to beat myself up, frankly, for having all of these feelings about an ordinary event. You know, moms and dads die like, that’s like, that’s the natural course of things, right? So why was I so upset? And I was back at work two weeks after it happened, and every day for months I would go to get off the subway at Wall Street. And as I would just ascend the stairs leading to the street, I would start to have the most debilitating panic attack, and I could keep it together, sort of to get myself into the bank where I worked, and down to the basement where they had a lounge that I knew no one was using, and I would just have a full-on panic attack down there every morning before work.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:20:31] The only other girl in the department and one of my friends would come down every morning with a latte and a Xanax from my desk and any, like, makeup things that I needed. She’d sit with me while I put my face back on, and I would just go up to work. Like that was a normal way of behaving, and the way that grief works and the way that it impacts your brain. A lot of people talk about kind of having a black hole around the loss of their person or, you know, a major loss event. And I didn’t even know how long I did that for until a couple months ago when I asked that same friend, you know, did I have those panic attacks for weeks? I think it was more than a couple of days. And she looked at me like I was crazy and said, oh no, it was months. It was months and months. That was how I lived. Until one day, six months after my mom died, I wrote in a notebook, you know, there is nothing wrong with me like what I am experiencing is normal. What is not normal, and what we need to fix is how people treat grief and loss in this country and how we treat grieving people. So I’m going to write a book about it. That was my plan in 2008, and the book did not come out until 2022.


Jonathan Fields: [00:21:48] Um, and we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors. What makes you. And granted, a lot of things happen, you know, in your life between 2022. What brought you back to it in a way that said, like now, like now this has to happen.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:22:05] Ah. Another loss. I learned in my late 20s that I have a condition called primary ovarian failure, which basically means my ovaries shut down when I was younger. They think it was a result of the trauma and things that happened around the loss of my mom. And so IVF was always the only way of starting a partially biological family, I should say. And so my husband and I were three years into the egg donor IVF process with lots of losses, and we had our last pregnancy loss in August of 2019, and it was just so awful. And at that point, my mom had been gone for 11, almost 12 years, and all I wanted was my mom, you know, to comfort us, to console us, to make us food. You know, a couple months later, when I finally was ready to start eating like a normal person again, you know, I just I just wanted my mom. And then the irony that I likely lost my ability to become a mom at the same time as I was losing my mom, you know, it was just all of these layers to the loss and frankly, just feeling very lost. You know, we’ve invested years, my physical health, my mental health, a lot of money, and we had nothing and didn’t know what we were going to do. Or frankly, at the time, if we could even afford to do anything else. And so it was a really hard time, and I was still very physically sick from the loss when the pandemic hit in early 2020. So like grieving and physically unwell, when you’re surrounded by grief, like all I could do was write and I just I wrote and wrote and wrote and eventually one of, you know, a series of journal entries became an op ed that was published by glamour Mother’s Day weekend 2020, and it went viral and laid the foundation for Grief is Love.


Jonathan Fields: [00:24:21] I mean, sort of like piling on of everything, but it seems like also, even though there was this 12-year span or so between your mom’s passing and this moment that you’re in, it feels like there’s a seamless connection between all of it. Like this was never something that was processed out, and then you’re sort of like, okay, living your life and then entering the next season of grief. This was just like like it was always there, you know? Like it was always sort of like just underneath the surface. And then like, there was this next bookend to it that just broke it all open and said, okay, like I need to actually, like, really drop into this now and figure it out, both for me, but also because you have such an advocate’s heart. Also, like you look at like you look at society, you look at like, okay, if this is affecting me, I’m seeing what’s happening at scale here. Like we need to actually have a public conversation about this, because if I’m feeling this, other people are feeling this too. So let’s can we talk about this in a different way?


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:25:13] Exactly.


Jonathan Fields: [00:25:14] It’s interesting that you named the book Grief Is Love. And I know that’s sort of like the fundamental, like if there is one thing that I think, you know, like this is the deep insight from it beyond the tools that I want to dip into a bit. It’s this notion that, like, if there is no love, whether it’s for a person, an opportunity, a place, a space, there is no grief. So take me into this a bit more.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:25:35] Exactly. So it’s really interesting. You know, everyone’s like, where did you get the title from? And I, I found it in a notebook, you know, another journal entry type where I just I wrote it down. I was like, fundamentally, that’s what it has to be. Because if I didn’t have so much love for my mother and she didn’t have that for me, and, you know, in 2019, if I didn’t have so much love and commitment associated with the idea of me becoming a mother, I wouldn’t have cared about the pregnancy. I wouldn’t have cared about the loss of her. But because because we had all of that love and she’s no longer here to act on it. I feel pain, and that’s the way that unfortunately, I think that it should be. Because fundamentally, at the end of the day, you know, you you have a life partner. I have a life partner. Love. You know, this it is both action and it is feeling. I love my husband, even when he sometimes takes actions that I don’t like or that get on my nerves. Same thing for my child. Lord. Um, toddlers are wild, but with my mom, it’s like I know that I can continue to love her.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:26:52] I know that I can continue to. You see that, love? But she’s not here to act on it. And that hurts. And I think, and I wrote this in Grief is Love. I think the only antidote to the painful parts of grief of which there are many. And I want to make sure I say that because I don’t want anybody to hear grief is love, and think that it should be all rainbows and sunshine and butterflies and like signs from the other side like, no, it is crying in the shower and it is anger and it is like lack and it is frustration and disappointment and it’s all of the things. But I think that the antidote to the harder parts of grief is love, and if not, the love that you continue to hold for the person or the opportunity or whatever it is that you lost, then it is the love that you give to yourself, or the love that you request from others who are here and are able to act on it. That I think, gives you the room to heal.


Jonathan Fields: [00:27:53] No, that makes so much sense. It’s interesting also because in order to that last part, you know, request love from others, this goes back to what you were describing earlier, like when you actually need to ask for it, but it also speaks to something else that you write about, which is the notion of safety and vulnerability. Like it’s really hard to get to that place where we’re willing to actually ask until we feel safe. And that takes a level of vulnerability that oftentimes we don’t have in everyday life. And then when we feel like we’re suffering through something invisible, it’s almost like an entirely different level, like. So I’m so curious how you look at the notion of safety and what safety is in the context of grief and how we create that.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:28:36] It is a tough one. Um, and I came at this piece around safety because when we had our pregnancy loss in 2019, I spoke about it extensively. You know, I wrote about it, I posted on Instagram, I did all of the things, and I personally didn’t feel bad or uncomfortable doing any of that. Like for me, it was easier to talk about it and to be honest about it, whether with a work colleague, a friend, or just screaming into the void that is social media, that was helpful for me. But what did make me uncomfortable was the response that I consistently got back, which was, you’re so amazing, you’re so strong, like you’re so vulnerable, like, this is so wonderful to see, etc., etc. and it didn’t even now talking about it like it makes my palms sweat a little bit because it just didn’t sit right. And I realized that’s because in 2019, 2020, you know, at that point I was very professionally successful, financially stable and secure in a wonderful, you know, loving, committed marriage to someone who, like, cares about me deeply. I have a community of friends, like I had all of these assets that made it easy for me to frankly, not give a fuck what someone thinks about the fact that I’m still sad that we lost that pregnancy and like, don’t have a plan for how to start our family. Like, I didn’t feel like I needed to care because I realized I was safe. I didn’t have to worry about what other people thought of me because I had everything that I needed and more technically.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:30:16] And so then I started peeling back the layers of that. Okay, so like, what does it really mean to be vulnerable? What does it really mean to be safe? Is vulnerability an essential aspect of healing from grief? And, you know, continuing to live with a loss that you’ve sustained. And where I landed is it is, as you’ve already said, it is hugely important because when you suffer a tremendous loss of any kind, you need room to to fall apart, because at the end of the day, it is a transformative experience and you are going to be different as you work your way through that than you were before the thing happened. Whether it’s a health situation, the end of a marriage, the loss of someone you love, like all of those things are transformational experiences and they require space to just fall apart, come undone, etc. and not everyone is allowed to do that. What does it look like to fall apart and be truly vulnerable? If you’ve already been, frankly, made vulnerable by the way our society is structured, either because you are poor or Black or Latinx or immigrant or female or trans, LGBTQ, whatever it is, it is a lot harder to to have that space. I’ve seen this practically, even within my own family. You know, like the room that I could give myself to grieve. Our pregnancy loss in 2019, 2020 was very different from the room, or frankly, lack thereof, that my aunt was able to give herself this summer when my my cousin, 29 years old, four weeks postpartum, has four kids, including that infant, disappeared.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:32:13] And we all knew we knew she was dead before it was proven. And it turned out, you know, unfortunately, we were all right. And so my aunt went from working with me on this nationwide PR, comms, media public engagement campaign that I created to apply pressure to try and find my cousin to caring for these four kids. Like there’s no there’s no space there for her to really grieve and heal and fall apart and figure out what she needs. And mind you, in her case, and this is just horrifying. I like hate even saying this out loud, but that’s the fourth child that she’s lost. And that is there’s just nothing about that. That’s okay. And unfortunately, I know because I was so public about everything that our family was going through this summer. And, you know, my cousin’s story, the number of black people and I’m talking, you know, super successful, award-winning, best-selling author, Ivy League black folks who reached out to me and said, you know, I’m so sorry this happened to my family and ex year. And like, we never found cousin Z or, you know, like over and over and over again and it’s like, oh, that’s right. If you are in certain categories in this country, like you are fundamentally less safe. And that makes life harder, which naturally makes grief and healing harder. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:33:41] I mean, I was scrolling through my mind is what do you do with that? I mean, there’s a certain reality on the ground, there’s a certain practicality like there. The circumstance is the circumstance. And yet as you write about, like if you don’t create this space to be vulnerable, if you don’t create this space to actually feel what you need to feel, it becomes essentially a part of your DNA for life. I mean, it becomes part of your DNA for life no matter what. You’re changed by it, but, you know, never able to actually leave that window in a way that allows you to to step into some semblance of what, you know, um, I would never use the word normal or like, return to anything. It’s just not how grief works. Right? But if you’re in that circumstance, like, what do you do right now?


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:34:29] And this is part of why I continue to advocate for this work. It’s both, you know, normalizing everyone’s experience with grief and loss and elevating the conversation. But because of my time spent in politics and advocacy world, you know, throughout my career, I know that when we start to elevate conversations and shift culture, that then creates the space to shift policy, because fundamentally, what this gets to is we don’t have we don’t have in this country enough infrastructure around care of any kind. And this is just one of those pieces. And unfortunately, as I’m sure you would assume, you know, the communities that are most often called to grieve and who are most often forced to deal with loss are also the communities that are least resourced to handle it. You know, on average, black children in America are three times as likely as white children to lose a parent by the time they are 18, and black people are 30% more likely than white people by the age of 30 to have suffered the loss of multiple close family members, meaning, you know, brother, sister, parents, children, etc. and what that adds up to is excess death in the black community, which means excess grief and not a whole lot of infrastructure and support to handle it. And so one of the things that we kept coming up against when I was working on grief is Love, and doing research around the book is there isn’t enough research conducted at the intersection of grief and race to help us then, you know, ultimately come at, you know, what are the most important targeted interventions? Because we know that when children lose parents, the cascading impact of that loss usually leads to poorer life outcomes, either because of educational reasons or economic reasons, etc.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:36:50] like the things that you lose when you lose a parent and child. That are just in a lot of cases, it’s like too big to overcome. But how does that differ for different communities, especially communities that are forced to deal with loss more frequently? And so I’ve actually been able to get a small grant from the California Endowment to do some research with a professor at Harvard who’s a bereavement expert who worked on grief is Love with me at that intersection, because I think we need to have a better understanding of what are the specific impacts on these black and brown children when they lose parents as kids in order to recommend, what do we do? Like how do we help? You know, I’ll tell you right now for my aunt, she just is in a really deep place of grief. She continues to function and care for these kids, which that alone blows my mind. You know, for kids, I think the eldest is 10 or 11 and my aunt’s in her mid-60s. She’s got a newborn, you know, like it’s it is wild and unfathomable, except we’re watching it play out. And so we all do what we can to support and help out. But at the end of the day, you know, she is bearing the brunt of the premature loss of her child. And it’s horrifying.


Jonathan Fields: [00:38:16] The notion of elevating the conversation to the level of policy, also really understanding how grief affects different populations, different people, different communities differently, and the need to have time to have resources to be able to to process it in a way that allows you to be the way you need to be, you know, for the rest of your life and for other people and for yourself. It’s really interesting because when you think about there have been pushes to create policy level changes for like family leave for, you know, first it was maternity leave and maternity leave, then family leave. And and I think a lot of these are built around moments in life where this is a joyful moment. It’s also really, really, really, really hard. But it’s a joyful moment. Whereas moments of loss, I almost wonder if we’re so allergic to even the conversation around loss and grief, that to then have the conversation around resourcing policy changes around it at scale, it’s just nobody even wants to talk about it. It’s almost like a bit of a third-rail type of thing. Does that land with you or no?


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:39:18] Oh, 100%, 100% accurate. And that’s why I say yes to pretty much every interview. This is not my full-time job, but it is just deeply important to me. And I know how policy change happens, and you need to be having a lot of conversations about a thing when it’s not a popular thing in order to see movement around it. And so, you know, normalizing this experience and the conversation around it is really important to me. And I’m just grateful that, you know, I was able to have the opportunity to write Grief as Love. And now, working with Al Roker and his production company, a docu-series based on Grief is Love. Because I know that if we can get it out there more, we will change things, because at the end of the day, we all have grief experiences like it’s not something any of us are going to get away from. And once you start talking about it, people do tend to open up about what has happened in their lives and you create the space to really change things.


Jonathan Fields: [00:40:28] Yeah, and we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors. One of the other things that you talk about in this context, too, because part of what we’re talking about is the safety and the space to be able to have the experience of care as you’re moving through this experience. Right. And that’s self-care. That’s other care. And this is part of the thing. And part of what you write about in grief is love. But there’s also this internal aspect of it, which is that often going along with like the notion of I need to take care of myself, I need to be self-compassionate and self-care. I need to be able to receive also from others is the potential for for a sense of guilt that I shouldn’t be focusing on me right now. And this is interesting to see. You sort of like lay that out as like, this is another part piece of this puzzle that we need to talk about.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:41:20] Yeah, we’ve got to let go of the guilt. And it’s it’s not it’s not easy. It is something that I continue to struggle with. You know, I started being a caretaker when I was 13 years old, and my mom first got sick. And so my default mode is to care for and invest in others. And do you know, I’ll check the baseline boxes for myself. I drink plenty of water, I exercise, I sleep, but the things that are beyond that, I still struggle. Even though I know what the research says. I know what the science says. I know that really intentional care is an important part of the healing process in the immediate aftermath of grief and loss, but also for the long term. I know at this point, you know, this February was 16 years since my mom died, and even though it’s been 16 years, February is still a really tricky month for me. You know, no matter how much I try, no matter how much I work, and I still, you know, I still do plenty of work and take care of my kid and do all the things that I’m supposed to do. But I struggle with sleep. I’m usually a little bit more anxious. If you ask my husband, he might say I’m a little bit more moody. And I know that February is a month where I have to be really strategic with my time, and that is probably one of the number one things that I do to take care of myself.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:42:46] And when I say strategic about my time, I don’t mean fitting in as many things as possible. I mean the opposite, like taking a look at the calendar and saying, okay, the 18th is my mom’s birthday, like I should. I need to be careful about what I schedule for 17th, and I’m probably going to want to take the 18th off. If it’s a weekday. The 28th is the year that she died. I’ve never worked that day like since the day that she died. I have not worked on February 28th ever again. And so what does that mean for my professional priorities, for my social commitments? Just being really thoughtful so that I don’t end up in a place where I either feel like I am flaking on people, which will only add to my inherent guilt, or a place where I feel exhausted physically, in addition to feeling exhausted and taxed emotionally. And so I want people to not just think about care in terms of the things that we hear about and see on social media, you know, going to the spa or getting a good workout in, but instead think about it more from the perspective of what do you need for your unique needs to be met in this challenging moment? And that should look different for all of us.


Jonathan Fields: [00:44:07] Hmm. Now that makes so much sense. You talked about how you might feel a particular way, and if you asked your husband, um, he may have an interesting things to add to that as well. Which also brings up one of the topics that you dive into, which is the notion of like, how does grief affect intimate relationships? And we’re not just talking about sexual intimacy here. Like that’s a part of it, sure. But just like the intimacy that you feel with, like the person who, you know, like if you’re fortunate enough to have walked beside you in life, they’re going through it with you, but profoundly differently. And it affects the dynamic between you.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:44:43] Oh, yeah. Um, the pregnancy loss and like, grieving that in the midst of a pandemic with someone else who went through it, but in a very different way, you know, like at the end of the day, it was all my physical body. Right? So like, there was that part of it. And then I was also carrying this added layer of grief around my mom that I was trying to work through and process. And then I was also for quite a while after the pregnancy loss, like I definitely in my grief-warped mind, was thinking I was just randomly going to get pregnant, which Jonathan, if that ever happens, it’s going to be like the second coming of Christ, okay? Like it’s like that’s like not going to happen. So like I had all of kind of those things going on in my mind. My husband on the other hand, was more like, this was awful. I never want to see you go through anything like that again. I never want to see you that sick again. I’m done with any of that process. Like they’re like, I am. I don’t want to do IVF again. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Think you can randomly get pregnant? Like I’m done with all of that? I am ready to move on and make a plan for us around adoption.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:46:11] And that’s what I think is best for you. And that’s what I think is best for us. And then there was also just the two people are never two people are never going to grieve something the same because their relationship to the thing, the event, the person, etc. is different, period. And also we just we don’t have the same coping mechanisms. We don’t have the same emotional styles, you know, like communication styles. Like it was really hard. And I remember this one moment just before the pandemic. It was right around the holidays in 2019 when I finally said to him, like, I feel like you’re getting frustrated with me. Like I feel like you don’t have enough empathy for me, frankly. And he had he paused and he had to admit that I was right. And, you know, he kind of gave his reasons for where he was and why he was struggling, seeing me still, you know, so upset basically. And that was a really difficult but important conversation. And so my advice to someone who is going through it with someone else and, you know, you’re both grieving the same loss, but differently, is to have those hard conversations like you don’t have a choice but to have them, in my opinion, because if you don’t have them, then there’s also something that is sitting between you that doesn’t need to be there necessarily.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:47:47] And so I would say absolutely have the hard conversations. I will also say, if you are someone who is in the passenger seat to someone else’s grief event, which we also went through not too long ago, you need to be incredibly, incredibly intentional about your care. Just bringing us back to the conversation around care like your care and your needs. Because being in a place where you are basically expected to be able to show up and support your partner consistently around something that is very, very hard, you need to be in a really good place to be able to do that well. And so being intentional about your care also includes things like finding sources of joy in community with others. Sometimes, you know, it’s it’s really hard sharing space and being in partnership with someone who is grieving themselves. And so I yeah, I just want to push people to do what they need to be okay. Because if you’re not okay, you’re not going to be a good support for someone else.


Jonathan Fields: [00:49:01] Yeah. Or them for you. I mean, I could definitely see scenarios where like two people are grieving the same loss, but differently in the way that they need to individually and, and then each kind of going inside, you know, like, I just need to really I need to be with myself, I need solitude, I need to feel what I need to feel and how that can create like space that you don’t want created, but you don’t know how to be another way. Because this is not something that there’s there’s no class, you know, like in, hey, sophomore year of college grief one on one. Um, yeah. It’s like, it doesn’t be pretty cool, actually. I know, I don’t know if I would sign up for it, but, um, you know, but just I think so many people with the reaction is to withdraw and there’s no judgment there. Like, it’s it’s a natural reaction for a lot of people. I think some people just want to go inside. But the effect that that can have on an intimate relationship, especially if you really have those conversations and navigate it, it opens up. It opens the door to say, like, let’s actually really go through this together. Yes, we need our own space and we need to go through our own process, but that’s actually pulling a part of the most important part of community out of this process for us that we really need. But of course, easier said than done. You know, like from the outside looking in, you brought up the topic of joy. Also, you write about a story at your mom’s funeral. Actually, can you tell that story?


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:50:25] Yes. I grew up in predominantly black church. And then at some point, you know, when I was younger, we shifted to. A predominantly white church and lot like amazing, amazing church community and leaders and just wonderful people. And when my mom died, you know, I had my spreadsheet, I had all my notes. Right? And so I knew one of the things that she wanted was this traditional gospel hymn sung at her service. And so, in my mind, the appropriate person to sing it, you’re either black or you have a Kelly Clarkson-type voice, you know, like there are a few people who get it done. I told that to our pastor and he said, you can take that off your list. I’ve got you. I know the perfect person. Great. Fast forward to the funeral. It’s open casket. Hundreds and hundreds of people who just adored my mom and our family are. They’re super grateful. We’re sitting in the front row, coming towards the end of the service. And, you know, the pastor introduces this woman and she starts singing. And it was like, you know, that Seinfeld episode where Elaine is dancing and it’s like, it’s like the worst thing you ever seen. And you’re like, it was like, that was her singing, like, as though she was trying to make fun of someone, not anything serious, but she was serious and it was just that bad. And I started, like, snickering, you know, trying not to, but like, definitely laughing. My cousin, she was she was laughing, like, way too obvious about it. My sister, my grandmother was like trying to shush us. But she was also like, oh my God, what is going on? Like, this is so terrible.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:52:07] And tears streaming down her face like, I’m sure people thought we were crying because, you know, my mom’s in a casket ten feet away. But really, we were crying because we were like, holding in so much laughter. And I told that story in the book because I think it’s a really important reminder that our brains need breaks from grief. You know, that moment of laughter. And we still talk about it now, like to this day, I have not heard anybody sing who’s as bad as that lady was. But 15 minutes later, I was the last person in the sanctuary, and they were getting ready to close the casket. And I was completely, completely hysterical in the other direction. You know, that moment of laughter didn’t mean I was over it, or even that I was fine because I was definitely not fine. You know, I’d watched my mom drop dead a couple days before, but it was important and it was necessary, and it was normal and human. And I just want people. I want people to be okay with the both end of grief. You can have moments that are just about joy. You can have moments that are just about grief. You can have moments that are a little bit of both. And that doesn’t mean that you are like doing a disservice to your relationship with the person who you’ve lost. That doesn’t mean that you’ve forgotten about them. It doesn’t mean that you’ve gotten over it. It just means that you’re human. And joy is also healing. You know, crying is healing, and it’s important. Being sad, giving yourself space to process difficult emotions. It’s all important. But joy is important too.


Jonathan Fields: [00:53:45] So agree. A friend and my dear friend of mine who I think you might know actually Cyndie Spiegel. Yes. And so she describes the phrase micro joys, you know, and Cyndie went through this just brutal season in the last four years of like loss after loss after loss. And she but she was like like there were these moments along the way where she’s like, I smiled and I felt it. And she’s like, it’s really important to let that in. And I agree. I think sometimes we just think we’re not supposed to feel this way. This is the time where all I’m supposed to feel is grief and loss and suffering and and angst and yes, yes, yes, yes. And that doesn’t close the door as you’re describing. And as Cyndie writes about, you know, and it doesn’t have to be this big capital joys. It’s like the little tiny like drops along the way. I think that takes the pressure off when you frame it that way.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:54:32] Yeah, I don’t want and Cyndie and I talk about this often, you know, I don’t want people to feel like, oh, you have to turn your lemons into lemonade. Like, no, you don’t have to do that. Like some things are just awful. And that doesn’t mean that you can’t. Like where just to bring us back to fashion for a second. Like a fabulous badass outfit to your mom’s funeral. You can have, like, moments of comfort and joy and, you know, excitement here and there while you’re in the midst of the struggle. That is normal.


Jonathan Fields: [00:55:06] Hmm. No, absolutely. The last thing I want to touch on also is this notion. And you brought this up in the very beginning of our conversation of loss as transformation. And I think anyone who’s been through any kind of, like, really substantial loss knows that you’re never quite the same after, but how you’re never quite the same is maybe not in the immediate moment of the loss. Like we just need to feel what we need. Feel, but with space, with time, with distance from it. I feel like we have this sense where we can, we can. We have a touch more agency in how we want this loss to change us, and we can start to choose the the trajectory of what that’s going to look like. And it and that’s something that you touch on as well.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:55:52] Yeah. So for me, I think this happens to a lot of us. You lose someone or something that is deeply meaningful to you and you keep trying to go back like I, you know, at the time I had just turned 25. I was working on Wall Street, you know, living in Nolita, like just trying to be like a fancy young person in New York City and have as much fun as possible with a mom dying in the background. And it turned out it was easier to be that version of Marissa before she died than after she died. Like after she died, I felt like I had I had a different understanding for how fragile and brief life is and the loss of her. It changed. It changed the way that I wanted to live, and a lot of it ended up ultimately being just deeply internal to me, you know, very values-focused. Not a lot of big, flashy stuff. You know, I often think that when people think about the legacy of someone, you know, that they love who’s no longer here, they think about it in terms of, you know, awards, writing a book, you know, do it. Starting an organization, just like doing all of these things out in the world. And I’ve done a lot of those things. So, yes, I can attest that those things matter and they can help and aid in the healing process. But at the end of the day, what matters most to me today is that I am raising my son to embody the values that were most important to my mom, that she passed along to me. You know, kindness, generosity, empathy, hard work, like these very basic things. And, you know, kids, kids pay attention. They usually are paying more attention than realize. And so I feel like I’ve really doubled down on how the loss of my mom has transformed me since becoming a mom myself. I’m trying to be a better person. Jonathan. It doesn’t work out that way every day. Um, but I’m certainly trying.


Jonathan Fields: [00:58:06] Yeah, as are we all. But, I mean, what you’re describing is beautiful also because it’s what you’re partially describing is like how if it’s a person that we’ve lost, how they can continue to live with and through us.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:58:18] Oh! Oh My God.


Jonathan Fields: [00:58:19] You know, and part of it is passing on like the values, the ideals, the stories. Yes. Which leads to, you know, like this legacy of circling all the way back to the beginning of our conversation of love, like the person may no longer be there with you, but the love will always be a part of you. And that’s the thing that you can keep sharing.


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:58:36] It’s funny, last night and this was definitely partly a bedtime delay tactic, you know, Bennett said. My son, he said he wanted to FaceTime someone. So I said, okay, well, who do you want to FaceTime? You know, we usually FaceTime when we miss somebody. I said, who do you miss? And he said, Grandma Lisa, I want a FaceTime. Grandma Lisa. And I was just a puddle and, you know, had to remind him, remember, she died. Like, we can’t FaceTime her, but that’s really nice. So why don’t you FaceTime Pop-Pop instead? And so that was what we did. But yes, you can continue to keep these people alive and love them and share their love with other people, even if they’ve never encountered them.


Jonathan Fields: [00:59:17] Such a sweet story. Also, it feels like a good place for us to come full circle. So in this conversation, in this container of Good Life Project., if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Marisa Renee Lee: [00:59:28] Oh gosh, you said to live a good life. And I immediately thought of my kid. Um, you know, just that love and exuberance and joy. Yeah. Just having having a joyful and authentic life. That’s what feels like a good life to me.


Jonathan Fields: [00:59:46] Mm. Thank you. Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode, safe bet, you’ll also love the conversation we had with Claire Bidwell Smith about moving through grief. You’ll find a link to Claire’s episode in the show notes. This episode of Good Life Project was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help by Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it? Maybe on social? Social or by text or by email. Even just with one person. Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.

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