Colin Campbell, a writer and director for theater and film who was nominated for an Academy Award for Seraglio, a short film he wrote and directed with his wife, Gail Lerner, is the author of a powerful memoir about catastrophic loss titled Finding the Words: Working Through Profound Loss With Hope and Purpose. When his two teenage children, Ruby and Hart, were tragically killed by a drunk driver, Colin was thrown headlong into a grief so deep that he felt he might lose his mind, and he found much of the common wisdom about coping with loss—including the ideas that grieving is a private and mysterious process and that the pain is so great that “there are no words”—to be unhelpful. Join us as Colin shines a light on a path forward through the darkness of grief and empowers us to live more fully while also holding our loved ones close.
IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT THINGS LIKE:
- The tragic accident that took Colin’s two teenage children’s lives.
- What a doctor did that became a “beautiful lesson” in Colin’s grief journey.
- Why “there are no words” is akin to the worst thing you can say to someone who is grieving.
- The amazing, inspiring ways Colin turned his first birthday without his children into a powerful experience of love and active mourning.
- Why leaning into pain helps a person to be less fearful and promotes healing.
SOME QUESTIONS IRENE ASKS COLIN:
- Why is it important to take community with you on your journey through grief?
- What makes grief frightening, and why does it take courage to grieve?
- Why should anyone who has had a traumatic loss seek therapy?
- Is therapy always unaffordable, and how can we discern if we need a different therapist?
- How did you find a way to think once more about a meaningful future and a life with purpose?
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Colin Campbell: Can We Keep Our Hearts Open to the Pain and Experience the Joys of Life as Well?
In this episode, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to interview Colin Campbell, a gifted writer, and director for theater and film who is nominated for an Academy Award for Seraglio, a short film he wrote and directed with his wife, Gail Lerner. Colin, who taught theater and filmmaking at Chapman University, Loyola Marymount University, Cal Poly Pomona University, and to incarcerated youth, is the author of a powerful memoir about catastrophic loss titled Finding the Words: Working Through Profound Loss with Hope and Purpose.
When his two teenage children, Ruby and Hart, were tragically killed by a drunk driver, Colin was thrown headlong into a grief so deep that he felt he might lose his mind. He found much of the common wisdom about coping with loss including the ideas that grieving is a private and mysterious process and that the pain is so great that there are no words to be unhelpful.
In finding the words, Colin drew on what he has learned from his grief journey, offering an alternative path for processing pain that is active and vocal and truly honors loved ones lost. By shining a light on a path forward through the darkness of grief with practical advice on how to survive the aftermath of loss, Colin will be speaking to us from Los Angeles, empowering his readers to live more fully while also holding their loved ones close.
I’m looking forward to talking with Colin about leaning into pain to heal, what it means to create a grief feel, and how to take community with you on your journey through grief. His solo show titled Grief: A One Man ShitShow and more will surely be an illuminating and open-hearted interview with a man who has much wisdom to share with us.
Colin, a heartfelt welcome to the show.
Irene, I’m so honored to be here. Thank you for having me.
Thank you. We’re going to have a lot to talk about that is going to help a lot of people. Let’s start by having them get to know you, what happened to you, and know your beautiful kids. Tell us about Ruby and Hart, your relationship with them, and how you and your wife, Gail, raised them together as a teen.
Ruby was seventeen when she was killed and Hart was fourteen. We got to raise them through childhood. We were an amazingly tight-knit family, the four of us. We loved doing very similar things. One thing that comes to mind is card playing. We would play cards all the time. We go to a restaurant, place our orders, and then out would come a deck of cards. We started playing immediately and also waiting in airports. We love to travel, all four of us. We went all over the world together, which is a great privilege to be able to do that. We loved also traveling nearby locally. We went to Death Valley and many times at Joshua Tree, which was one of the favorite places for the four of us.
For people who don’t know, where is Joshua Tree, Colin?
It’s about two and a half hours East of Los Angeles where we live and it’s in the high desert. Palm Springs, people may be more familiar with it. That’s the low desert. The high desert is a different extra special place. It’s not very crowded. It’s very empty up there with amazing views and rocks. Joshua Tree National Park is enormous. It’s about the size of Rhode Island. You can drive there for hours but you can pull over.
They’re these clumps of rocks called jumbo rocks. They have all these different names. You can scramble up them. The four of us love to do that. We pull the car on the side of the road and scramble up these rocks. It’s like easy bouldering. It’s very friendly. You can get very high in the sky and get these amazing views. We would spend several hours there slightly getting lost and then finally back. That was a thing that the four of us love to do. Also, horror films. That’s my wife Gail but more me and Ruby and then Hart when he got older. We loved horror films together.
Would you tell us about the tragic accident that took Ruby and Hart’s lives? What did that doctor tell you that became your first beautiful lesson?
I don’t call it an accident. I called it a crash only because the woman who hit us, we were driving to Joshua Tree at the time, was drunk, high, and speeding. To my mind, that wasn’t an accident. She chose to get drunk and high, get behind the wheel, and speed. My children are dead. I don’t want accidents because it let everyone off the hook.
We were driving to Joshua Tree because the week before, the four of us had been there again at an Airbnb and then we saw this house. It was for sale and we thought, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to have our own place? We come here all the time. Could we afford to get our place in Joshua Tree? How magical would that be?” We discovered that we could afford it. We’re very privileged and lucky to be able to do that. We bought it. We put down an offer to buy this house.
The night of the crash, we were going back to the desert to check out our new house. I had an appointment the next morning to see if we could build a pool there. It was a high point in our family life because the four of us loved it and we bought this house together. The school was over. It was June and Hart was about to go into high school. Ruby’s going into eleventh grade. We were all together and extraordinarily happy.
Our lives were destroyed. Ruby and Hart were taken from us. We were plunged into horrible grief. The woman that you mentioned, the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit doctor, said something very extraordinary to us on the worst night of our lives. A lot of people were avoiding us after the crash in the immediate aftermath because they didn’t know what to say to us. I discovered that people who’ve lost children are scary to a lot of people.
They are weary. They don’t know what to say. Subconsciously, they think it’s like a disease they can catch. We become these figures of fear. In the hospital, I knew that there were social workers and their job was to talk to us in grief. There were two separate hospitals. They both avoided us and did not tell us that Ruby and Hart were dead or Hart was dying.
There was a general air of like, “Here come those parents. Let’s not talk to them.” This doctor came to us and told us the truth. By then, we had been told that Ruby was dead but she came to us and said, “Hart was dying of three life-ending injuries.” In other words, he was going to die three times over. They tried as hard as they could to save him but there was no way. They couldn’t stop any of those three things from killing him.
We were hit. We were T-boned, broadsided. The kids had their seatbelts on but that doesn’t help you from the whiplash. The whiplash being hit 90 miles an hour is so strong that the seat belts themselves kill you. A human being can’t survive that impact. This emergency care doctor sat us down and told us, “Tell me about Ruby and Hart.” At that moment, instead of backing away from our fear, she leaned into it. She wasn’t scared or maybe she was but she still pushed through that fear and asked us to talk about Ruby and Hart in this moment of utmost devastation.
It was such a beautiful act in such a terrible moment because it gave us something to do that honored Ruby and Hart. We could talk about them to a stranger and tell her how wonderful our children were. We are still adjusting to the idea that it’s a were and not are. There in the past and that’s a long journey to understand that. We certainly didn’t understand it that first night but we were starting to somehow come to grips with the reality. The idea that she sat with us and gave us something to do that honored our children and that she was there with us in our grief was an early lesson in how to behave with somebody who is in grief.
The people who can’t handle it erased them. I talked about my husband and people who have in my world gone on to the other side all the time. They’re still in my heart and with me. This leads to my next question, Colin. Why do you say the phrase, “There are no words as akin to the worst thing you can say to someone who’s grieving?”
I didn’t know anything about grief until my kids were killed. In those first few weeks after they were killed, people would write condolence cards, send emails and texts, come to our door, and talk to us. I noticed this strange pattern, which was almost everybody said there were no words. A lot of times, that would be the last thing they’d say. They say, “There are no words,” and then we would sit in silence. I would nod like, “There are no words.” They would nod back and then it would be awkward and silent.
I started thinking, “I don’t want silence. I want to talk to people about Ruby and Hart. I want to talk about my grief. These people knew Ruby and Hart. They love them. Why can’t they talk about them with me?” I started thinking of this phrase and I understand the origin of the phrase. The phrase is there because they’re trying to say, “Your loss is so catastrophic that I can’t even fathom to put words to it. I’m here. I love you.” That’s the subtext of it but for me, it became like a conversation killer.
I discovered that I desperately needed to talk. That’s when that phrase started to bother me after a while. After I heard it 100 times, I was like, “Why are people still saying this? Who taught people this phrase?” It’s bizarre. How do we all know to use this phrase? Were we told this at some point?” It was strange. I started analyzing and thinking that it was not helpful.
“There are no words.” I get what’s behind it but can we try and find the words? The truth is we don’t need to find the right words that are going to fix the loss. That’s not happening. No one’s fixing my loss or comforting me. I don’t need that. I need people to be with me in my pain and allow me to talk about my grief and Ruby and Hart.
That led to a grief spil. There were about three elements to it and then later, it changed. From there are no words and not being good, how did you get people to stop saying it? What was your grief spil? For those who do not understand the word spiel, do you want to explain it? It’s a Danish word.
It’s like presenting an argument or a pitch. In German, it means play. Danish and German are very close to being connected. There is that sense that it’s a little bit playful. “It’s my spil. It’s the thing I tell you. I’m trying to convince you.” I like the playfulness of that idea. My pitch to these friends who were coming over was, “I got to tell you.”
What happened was they’d come to the front door and look stricken. They were horrified. They didn’t know what to say. They didn’t say anything at all. They were terrified to say the wrong thing or cause me more pain. I desperately needed to talk. I said, “Here’s the deal. You can’t hurt me so don’t walk on eggshells. You can’t say the wrong thing. You can’t trigger me because I’m already triggered.” That was the spil. It’s like, “I’m triggered as far as you can be. My kids were killed a few days ago. Don’t worry about it. You’re not going to make me extra hurt. I’m in such pain. You can’t hurt me.”
I didn’t want people walking on eggshells. I want to talk and be able to say car crash. People are terrified. I want to say, “Kids.” They couldn’t say the word kids. They couldn’t say Ruby and Hart’s names because there was scared that it would upset me. I was like, “I’m already upset.” I need to talk about Ruby and Hart. I can’t let them be erased. I also needed to talk about my pain. I wanted people to ask me like, “How is your grief today?”
It was such a catastrophic event. It was so hard for me to even understand and process it. My whole world is ripped to pieces, my very identity, and who I was. I was Ruby and Hart’s dad, first and foremost. I taught them how to swim, climb trees, and ride bikes. That’s who I was. I was their dad. That’s my identity. Now, who am I? I needed to talk about it. The spil kept changing a little bit because I found little things.
In the early days, I didn’t want people to talk about their grief because a lot of times, people would try and connect with me like, “My cousin died ten years ago.” They’re trying to relate to me. In acute grief, I didn’t have room for their cousin’s death ten years ago. My kids died. I don’t care about your cousin who died ten years ago or your dad who died when they were 60. My teenage children are dead or your favorite cat who died.
You don’t have time to process. I get that.
“I have no room for other grief. Please don’t talk about other grief,” but now, I do. I want to talk about other people’s loss and pain but in acute grief in those first few weeks, there wasn’t room for that for me. I told them, “Please don’t talk about your losses.” It seems so rude but we’re selfish. Acute grief is so overwhelming. There’s no room for anything else.
I respect the fact that you were so in touch with your needs at that incredibly tough time in your life. You were already practicing self-care so early on.
That’s right. That’s a beautiful way to put it. I was protecting myself.
You were helping them to better help you also. You were being proactive. At that time, you didn’t become a victim of it. You became proactive with it.
My friends were so grateful to get this instruction because they were like, “We want to help you. We love you but we don’t know how. You telling me what you need is so helpful.” That helps me reinforce this idea of like, “This grief spil is useful and it’s helping all of us. Let’s be honest and open about this terrible thing.” That was very helpful to get that positive feedback.
At the time, you were able to say, “I have a little bit of space to hear,” which is your step two. That leads me to my next question. You had this community coming to you. You’re teaching them in a way and helping them to help you. You say in your book that it’s so important to take community with you on your journey through grief. Do you want to talk to us a little bit about that? I’m sure the community is with your friends and other people too.
I didn’t know much about grief at all until Ruby and Hart were killed. My father and grandparents had passed away but they were old. My whole life was warmed up to the idea of old people dying. This was a different thing altogether. My idea of this grief in the past had been like, “You go away by yourself. You are sad for yourself. It’s a mysterious process. Nobody can help you. You grieve on your own until you’re ready to come back to society all fixed somehow.” It was my idea that I got from the movies but then it happened to me.
I found that it was so helpful to be with a community because they were grieving too. I was taught that very early on by the Jewish traditions of grieving. I’m not Jewish but my wife is Jewish. We raise Ruby and Hart as Jews. They were bar and bat mitzvah. We were members of our synagogue. We were active members. We went to High Holy Days. We celebrated Shabbat every Friday night, lit candles, and said prayers. It was a meaningful part of our lives. I’m an Atheist so I don’t believe in God but I believe in these Jewish traditions. They were important to me.
You were able to embrace what the traditions were met to do to bring people together and give them a source of comfort and all.
I found comfort in them. In mourning my children, I leaned on the Jewish traditions of grieving. One of the first ones is Shiva, which is seven nights after the funeral, except not on Shabbat. You have people come to your house and sit Shiva with you, which means they come and sit with you. They are with you in your grief, which is initially counterintuitive because I didn’t want people to come to my house. “My kids were killed. How can people come to my house? That sounds like a social call. I’m not fit for anything.” That’s not what it is. It’s not a social call. I’m not there to entertain anybody or socialize.
They are there to take care of you and grieve with you.
They’re going to be with me. Our wise rabbi, Sharon Brous, said, “Do you want to say any words to these people who are here?” My wife and I both found that we did. We wanted to talk about Ruby and Hart. We invited them to talk about Ruby and Hart and they did. They came up and shared stories. It was so clear how important it was for all of us as a community to talk about Ruby and Hart and our feelings. It wasn’t just one night. It was a whole week of this. It was a powerful lesson. We’re all grieving. It’s so helpful to be together and not all by myself and isolated. It hurts. Every night, it was like, “They’re coming again. Here we go again.” In the long-term, that was so helpful. It’s not like it’s easy but it helps.
Having been through that myself a few times, one of the things I love is that people bring food to you and take care of you. As a community, they asked nothing of you. They’re there to be with you as you grieve. It’s very comforting. Who’s thinking about eating, taking care of yourself, or anything? They’re making sure that at least in that way, you’re nourished.
The idea is that you’re not supposed to thank them. They’re not expecting you to thank them. In early grief, I was not grateful. I was not in a place to thank any. I didn’t want to be alive without Ruby and Hart so I’m not grateful for anything but I am now, for sure. It was so beautiful that people came early, set up, stayed late, and cleaned up. Gail and I didn’t do anything.
Unfortunately, it happened at a terrible time but it’s a beautiful way of how Jewish people handled it. Early on in your grief, you felt so scared to look at photos of Ruby and Hart. I loved your book about how you overcame that fear. You learned a very meaningful lesson of thinking about loving your kids. Would you like to share that with us?
We had these blown-up photos of Ruby and Hart for the funeral. A friend of ours made these beautiful 2×3-foot blown-up photos on foam board. I took them to the walls of our living room so we could look at Ruby and Hart’s faces and then I wanted more. This friend made 4 more so there are 8 giant photos of Ruby and Hart’s faces in our living room. They were gone but the photos were there.
One morning, I came downstairs and looked away from them because every time I looked at them, there was pain. They’re my beautiful children and they’re gone and that hurts. As I was looking away, I was like, “What am I doing? I’m not even going to look at my children’s faces because I’m too scared of the pain. I can’t do that. I can’t live a life like that. I can’t avoid them. I can’t run from my memories of my children because I’m too scared of some pain. I’m not going to let that get in the way of me loving them.”
I looked back and was weeping. I said, “I’m not afraid of you.” What I meant by that was, “I’m not going to let fear get in the way of loving you, Ruby and Hart, even though you’re dead and your lives ended tragically. I’m going to go on loving you. I’m going to look at your photos and remember the good times as best I can.”
I went through something similar to that. There was a long period after the accident that I had with my husband where I couldn’t remember certain things in our relationship. It was so painful. As the memories came back and I continued to heal, I embraced them. I was like, “I haven’t lost my mind. I can identify with that.” The other thing that I thought was incredible was the way you turned your first birthday without Ruby and Hart into a powerful experience of love and active mourning. That’s amazing. Tell us about that, Colin.
It was a hard time. My 50th birthday was almost exactly 3 months after the crash. It was September 13th and they were killed on June 12th. Three months later, I got to “celebrate” my birthday but I had nothing to celebrate at that point and still. I’m not so thrilled. I used to love my birthdays. I was not one of those people that was like, “I can’t.” I love my birthdays.
I was not afraid of growing older because I had a family, honestly. I was okay with it and now, it didn’t. It seemed like a mockery. My first 50 years on Earth were meaningless. They were all built toward raising these two children and they were gone. My future is meaningless. I have no children. I felt empty but I knew that I wanted to be around people who loved Ruby and Hart.
I always had this birthday celebration at the beach. I called it my beach birthday bash. I invite Ruby’s friends, Hart’s friends, Gail’s friends, and my friends. We’d all gather at the beach. I give out sandwiches. I make everybody tell me their sandwich orders. It was ridiculous but that was my birthday thing. I want to know their sandwich orders.
It’s beautiful because on your birthday you gave it. That’s how you celebrated your birthday.
I gave everybody a delicious sandwich and we all spent the day at the beach. It was lovely. Here I was confronted with this birthday. In this birthday tradition, that meant so much to my whole family, I decided, “Let’s keep it going. It won’t be a birthday bash. It’ll be a beach memorial for Ruby and Hart instead.”
I asked everybody to bring a stone. We’re going to spell out Ruby and Hart’s names in the sand and let the ocean wash them away. I insisted on asking everyone for their sandwich orders, even though I was in grief. People were like, “Are you sure you’re going to still do the sandwich orders?” I was like, “I need that continuity and that sense of I’m still me. We’re still going to do this in honor of Ruby and Hart. They loved my birthday.” They got to hang out with their friends at the beach all day. It was great.
More people came than usual. It was a very big crowd that showed up that first year after the crash. We spelled out their names in rocks. What was magical was people said, “Give us direction. How do we spell out their names?” Suddenly, at that moment, I didn’t want to. I wanted them to just do it. I wanted it to be like a collective act. I’m a director so it would be natural for me to want to direct people. “Each letter should be about 1 foot high.” That would be what I would normally do but I didn’t.
I took off my director hat and said, “Just do it. Put the rocks in.” It worked out perfectly. They spelled the names at the right size so that they ran out of rocks. They finished the T of Hart. It’s Ruby and Hart. It was beautiful. We wept together. We all shouted Ruby and Hart at the top of our lungs. We all ran into the ocean together. I cried but I was surrounded by people who loved me and who loved Ruby and Hart. There was continuity. It turned what would have been a brutal day into a beautiful meaningful day that was also brutal but still so much better.
You state in your book that it takes courage to breathe. What would you like to tell us about that?
It’s like short-term pain for long-term gain. It takes courage to do that, to walk into that pain.
What you did on your birthday took a lot of courage.
It did because here I was surrounded by all these beautiful people who were alive, all these kids, friends of Ruby and Hart, teenagers who were alive and happy, and their families. Hiding myself from them is not going to help. A part of me wants to do that and a part of me is like, “Don’t look at them. It’s going to hurt. Look away.”
That alternative is going to cause more pain but internal unprocessed pain. I’m going to stew. What’s the alternative, me lying in bed and mourning? I’m not sure if that’s helpful. Here I was engaging with the pain. It does take courage to grieve because we’re allowing ourselves to feel feelings that don’t feel so great but they’re part of life.
A lot of people compartmentalize and run away from them. Later on, they have to process them, and guess what happens? Road rage or whatever is going on. You also talk about active grieving. Tell us about your concrete action plans for active grieving.
That’s part of this idea of leaning into the pain which is taking action. You alluded to it when we were talking about Ruby and Hart. I don’t know if escaping victimhood is right but being active and choosing to take not control of our grief journey in a way. I felt very much like the victim in the early days of grief. I was unable to keep them alive.
I was behind the wheel. I continue to live with that grief and guilt. It’s very hard but I’m learning to live with it like I live with my grief and guilt. I felt very much like a victim and helpless in the face of these waves of pain. I was steamrolled by it all. I found that if I took any action at all, had a ritual, did something for Ruby and Hart, talked about them, or took a walk with a friend, it was so much better than lying in bed and mourning. That got me this idea of active grieving, not trying to avoid it but engaging with my grief.
What you did is so great. The other thing that you did that I touched on because you’re talking to the choir here is you spoke to a therapist and got help. You say that there’s freedom in talking to a therapist as opposed to a friend. For anyone who’s had a dramatic loss, seek therapy. Tell us about that.
We’re wrestling with things we’ve never wrestled before, in general. For most of us, it’s the first time we’re experiencing trauma.
Some people are very stoic and think they can handle it.
The idea of handling it often is misunderstood as compartmentalizing or bottling up, which is not handling it. It’s the exact opposite. If you think you’re handling it by not thinking about it, that’s not handling it at all. That’s avoiding the pain and trauma. We’re taught that. We’re giving images, especially as a man. I’ve received a lot of images from television and movies of tough guys who stifle their feelings of grief over and over again. I can cite many movies and television programs. The tougher the warrior, the less they’ll talk about their loss. It’s like, “Wait a minute. That’s the opposite.” It takes courage to talk about your loss and real strength to talk about grief.
How did your therapist help you? In what way?
A lot of different ways. I went to two different therapists in the beginning. I’d never been to therapy before but I knew I needed help. I knew I was lost. My daughter Ruby, struggled with OCD and depression. She had a therapist who specialized in obsessive-compulsive disorder. He loved Ruby and came every night of Shiva. On the last night, he said to Gail and me, “I think I can help you. There are certain elements of grieving that are similar to OCD because of the idea of having these intrusive thoughts and repetitive thoughts, “What if?”
A lot of times in early grief, people who’ve lost somebody close can replay in their minds, “How could I have saved that person?” They get stuck. That made a lot of sense to me. I want to talk to someone who knows about OCD and obsessive thoughts. Plus, I wanted to talk to him about Ruby, honestly. He was her therapist and he loved her. She was wonderful and amazing. It was great to talk with him and get a gauge of how we’re doing. Some are like measuring sticks for us in our progress through grief. It was helpful to talk to him.
He did help us with these obsessive thoughts and what-ifs. You have to struggle ultimately with acceptance of reality. He used the phrase, “That’s not what happened.” I didn’t turn in early or later. I didn’t knock it in the car. We got in the car and we were hit. Ruby and Hart were killed. It was helpful to break out of those what-ifs and come back to reality. Here we are.
That’s what I love about therapy also because you’ve got an objective person who’s very educated with emotions and all. They’re not coming from someone else’s history, pain, or experiences. They know how to help you process and talk to you about it.
A good therapist assumes they have a lot of experience with people who are struggling and I don’t so it was very helpful. I went together to see him and that was nice. It’s like a couples therapy in a way. We each also went to our therapists. She had her therapist already so she continued with that therapist and I found a new therapist for me. He was very experienced and he helped a lot of people. He helped me talk about the dark and scary things.
I’m allowed to say whatever I want to this therapist. We don’t have a personal relationship. He doesn’t know my friends or family. He doesn’t have any history with me. There’s no judgment. I could say whatever terrible thing I felt about anything. It was a different relationship than with your friends but I also talked to my friends.
After having therapy, probably when you talk to your friends, you have a more important conversation, even when talking with them.
Part of the struggle of grieving is processing our feelings. These are huge feelings that I had never felt before. They were overwhelming. I needed to talk about them to a therapist and my friends so I could understand, “What is this? What’s happening to me? Who am I? How am I going to survive?”
That’s a big one and you feel that you’re not when you’re going through something like this. I also liked in the book that you talked about how therapy can be affordable even for people who can’t quite afford it. You also talk about discerning when you need a new therapist. A few people say, “That’s crazy. He could afford two therapists and his wife went to a therapist. I can’t afford to do that.” What would someone like that do? I always tell people, “You don’t marry a therapist. If it doesn’t work out for some reason, you can make a change.” Would you like to talk to people about that?
A lot of people think therapies are for other people and it’s not for them. It’s not affordable and not something that they want to do. Nobody wants to go to therapy. Once you go, you keep going back because you find this useful. Give it a try. If affordability is an issue, there are ways of finding affordable care. Some therapists certainly work with a sliding scale. They work with budgets. Universities have students who are learning to become therapists. They need to fulfill their hours. They can offer free or discounted therapy. Oftentimes, places of worship have connections. Your rabbi, priest, or minister might know a way to get therapy. It’s affordable. It’s worth looking into it.
If someone’s gotten into therapy, you’re starting to explore but there’s something about this therapist that’s not resonating with you. How do you know that? How do you give yourself permission to find someone else? How do you make sure of it?
I know this from Ruby because she went through many therapists. Maybe five before she found the right one. They all struggle with helping her and they weren’t helping. They had ideas. OCD is very complicated. Ruby has a brilliant mind. She felt like her mind was too quick for these therapists. She was too clever and they were not going to fix her. She then found a therapist, Dr. Grayson, who suddenly took a different tact and resonated with her. Suddenly, she was responding and feeling better. There’s that issue.
She kept searching. They weren’t working for her. We’re like, “Let’s try somebody knew. Let’s keep working and make this work.” I have a lot of opinions about grief and grieving. A lot of people have attitudes about getting over grief. There’s a history in therapy that goes all back to Freud. Freud had some misguided ideas about grief. He thought that you needed to break away from the person you’ve lost to make room in your heart for new love.
He had this idea that is finite. To stay in this life, you have to, in a way, get over your loss. I’m not a Freud scholar but he did lose his daughter and then he had new ideas about grief because, suddenly, he was grieving. People didn’t track that change of heart that he had. There is that history of getting over. You have to get over your loss. It’s scary that people are grieving for too long. The reality is you agree for the rest of your life because you love this person. You’re going to always grieve.
It doesn’t mean you can’t live a full life but you’re living a life alongside your grief. It doesn’t just go away. It’s a very ignorant idea. If you are grieving and your therapist is talking about, “It’s a year now, you should be over your grief,” get a new therapist. If your therapist says, “There are specific stages in grief that you go through. First, you start in denial and then you’re in anger.” That’s not how grief works. We don’t go through stages in any sequential order and finally arrive at the end where we’re all healthy again. If your therapist thinks those thoughts, find a new one.
It’s like finding a good lawyer. Do discovery calls or talk with a few people and see where you’re resonating with. I want to talk to you about your wonderful memoir, Finding the Words, in which you share some of the discoveries you and your wife made with others who are struggling with grief. Tell us what you’d like people to know. It’s a very powerful memoir. There’s a lot of substance to it. What would you like to share?
One of the big things for me is that I went to a lot of grief groups early on and it was shocking. What would happen was that everyone would share their aching loss, how painful it was, and how shocked they were that their kid had been killed. Very quickly, the conversation would turn to how abandoned they felt by their friends and family and how lonely they were. They suffered the second loss. Their community wasn’t there for them.
I saw this potentially happening with my community because people were scared to talk to me. That’s why I developed the grief spil and we held these ceremonies and gatherings. I thought, “I didn’t lose anyone to grieve.” People became less important to me than others but I didn’t have a catastrophic break from any of my friends where I was like, “I’ll never talk to them again.” This happened a lot in the grief group.
A lot of people would say, “I’ll never talk to my family again. They fail me.” Part of the mission for me writing this book was to offer what I thought were concrete steps that one could take to at least help minimize that abandonment so that it could educate people who are supporting people who had lost loved ones. Also, help those people who have lost loved ones find the words to get the help they need and the support that they need.
Did you find that people who are saying they felt so abandoned that they were people who are not yet in therapy or counseling? Therapy changes that.
I don’t know what their individual therapy journeys were. I can’t say.
If you felt abandoned in your childhood, grief is going to exacerbate that.
I was thinking specifically of how we counter the great cultural misunderstanding that we all face. People think grieving people should be left alone. “There are no words to talk about their loss. We can’t talk about it. It’s too mysterious and awful. It’s unmentionable. They should go away and grieve until they come back to us.” It’s so damaging.
They want you to come back as the person that they knew before and you’re transformed by this. You’re not the person who you were before.
No, and yet we can all grieve and grow together instead. Nobody feels good.
Your book helps people to grow through grief and learn how to do that.
Thank you. It’s also full of actions. Going back to the idea of taking action and grief and having an active grieving process, the book is full of actions one can take that are not lying in bed and mourning but are doing things that ultimately re-engage with life. Don’t compartmentalize grief. Don’t box it up and put it away. Don’t also retreat from life itself.
You took a one step further when you created Grief: A One Man ShitShow. Tell us about that. Where can our audience see that? I know it premiered at The Hollywood Fringe Festival. Where can they catch it? It won an award too.
I went to New York and did it for a whole month at Theatre Row on 42nd Street. It went great. It got great reviews and crowds. We extended. I performed it at a festival called Fringe of the Woods Festival. It was this outdoor theatre festival in Frazier Park. It’s about an hour and a half North of Los Angeles. The artistic director came and saw it and said, “Will you come do it at this festival of mine next year?” I said yes. It was beautiful to perform it out in the open at night. It’s very magical and meaningful for me.
If people would love you to perform it somewhere, do you travel?
I do. I’m going to Boston and performing on October 3rd, 2023 at Natick Center for the Arts. They invited me. This organization called the Parmenter Foundation said, “Will you come to perform your show here?” I love performing it. I love sharing with an audience and they find it meaningful. It says things that a lot of people don’t talk about. It says the raw ugly truths about grief but it also ends, I believe, on a very empathetic and uplifting note honoring everyone’s grief.
I know you like to talk to groups about grief. Is the focus of your message that you can’t process it on a more positive note? I already have established it so if anyone would like you to speak to the groups about grief or perform the show, they can reach out to you through your website.
Why do you say that it’s important to lean into pain to become less fearful and to heal? It’s an important message of yours.
Thank you. Many of society’s ills are coming about from fear like fear of talking about the tough stuff. It makes grief feel taboo and so scary. We don’t talk about it. It’s like the white elephant in the room. If we talk about it, it becomes a lot less scary a topic and it brings people closer rather than driving them apart. It is a very scary grief. In the early days of grief, I was terrified that if I started crying, I would never stop. I would go mad and lose my mind.
In the early days, like keening, it was awful. It was like almost vomiting up tears. It was so visceral, painful, and scary but I learned by doing it that it does pass. You don’t cry forever. It comes in waves. Each wave always recedes. Over time, the ways are smaller and farther between. You get more of a break and you get to access more joy.
Speaking about joy, how did you find a way to think about a meaningful future and a life with purpose after this happened to you?
It’s very hard especially in early grief to think about joy and meaning because life felt meaningless to me. It felt like there was no point in being alive. My wife and I had each other but we were ratchet and in so much pain. I thought instinctually that I needed to stay engaged in life as much as I could. I had this crazy policy where I said yes to everything.
If a friend said, “Do you want to go for a walk tomorrow,” I would say yes, even though, part of me is like, “I have no idea what I’ll be like tomorrow. I can’t say I’m going to go for a walk tomorrow. I can’t even promise you in an hour I’ll be able to take a walk. Who knows? I’m in grief.” I just say yes to everything. If I had to, I would cancel but I generally went. I did everything. By staying engaged in life, talking to people, taking walks, and doing things, I gradually got back into discovering that life was meaningful gain.
You also found joy because you found ways to be of service. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
I read a lot of grief books and one of them was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. For your readers who don’t know, he was a holocaust survivor. He lost his wife and family in the holocaust. He dedicated his life to helping others through grief and trauma. He was a psychologist. His central theory was that we’re not searching for sex or power. We were searching for meaning. That’s what we’re doing.
That search itself is what keeps us in life and able to survive the trauma and be engaged in that. He said that we find meaning in other people. It’s not like we search for ourselves like, “What is our purpose in life?” No. Our purpose is outward. It’s to other people, animals, plants, or whatever it is. Also, other living creatures or living things. That’s where we’re going to find our meaning and purpose.
What did you find is your meaning in life?
We’ve touched on many of them. I’m trying to change the culture in its treatment of grief. I’m trying to normalize grief and help people who are grieving. That’s why I wrote my book and speak at communities about grief. I’ve spoken to a number of synagogues and grief organizations about grief. My wife and I are fostering to adopt two teenagers.
We still believe that parenting is part of our identity and meaning. We have these two teenagers. They’ve been with us for a while and we’re on a path to adoption. The four of us have tragic stories. They didn’t wind up in foster care because of good things. They have a lot of trauma and challenges. The four of us are finding ways of being together as a family.
That’s a four-time blessing, helping each other. That’s wonderful. Permutation drives you crazy.
We fight about homework, bedtime, and electronics like regular parents except with all the trauma and grief on top of it.
One more question. Tell us about the Ruby and Hart Foundation.
That’s another way of searching for meaning and purpose. Gail and I are raising money to send authors to underserved schools so that kids can hear stories read by children’s authors in person. It’s the Ruby and Hart Foundation. Your readers can feel free to contribute to it. The money goes to authors for most literacy because Ruby and Hart both love to read. It was an important part of their lives and their identities. We love honoring them by helping literacy.
Colin, I so appreciate this interview. I want to share a powerful quote that I can share with our audience. “Each month brought a new insight into grief, a new tool for surviving the pain, and a new way of honoring the lives of Ruby and Hart. Years later, we have found a way not just to survive but to actively choose life. We continue to mourn and be rocked by ways of pain and aching but we have also found a way to make room for other feelings such as joy, love, pride, and hope. We have found a way to think once more about a meaningful future and a life with purpose, finding the words as a true gift for those with a broken heart and for those who care for someone whose heart has been broken.”
Thank you, Colin, from my heart, for this illuminating, open-hearted, and wisdom-filled interview. Here’s a loving reminder, everyone. Make sure to follow us and like us on social, @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, and wherever you get your shows including YouTube. As I like to say, to be continued. Many blessings. Thank you, Colin. Bye for now.
Thanks for having me, Irene.
- Colin Cambell’s Website
- Ruby and Hart Foundation
- Colin Campbell’s book: Finding the Words: Working Through Profound Loss with Hope and Purpose
- Colin Campbell’s Show
- Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning referenced in this episode
- Connect with Colin Campbell on Instagram and Facebook
- @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram
- Irene Weinberg on Facebook
- Irene Weinberg – Grief, Rebirth + Healing Podcast on YouTube