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Sloane Crosley on her memoir 'Grief is for People', mourning and magical thinking

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Many of us have been there - the confusing days and weeks and months following the death of a loved one. At some point, someone will give the well-meaning advice to remember the good times. Sloane Crosley says after her friend's death by suicide, that advice was, quote, "like feeding steak to a baby."

SLOANE CROSLEY: (Reading) I have read the grief literature and the grief philosophy, and God help me, listened to the grief podcasts. And the most practical thing I have learned is the power of the present tense. The past is quicksand, and the future is unknowable. But in the present, you get to float. Nothing is missing. Nothing is hypothetical.

RASCOE: Sloane Crosley has written a memoir about her friend, their relationship, his death, and the days, weeks, and months that followed. It's called "Grief Is For People." Sloane Crosley, thank you so much for joining us.

CROSLEY: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So let's talk about your friend first - like who he was, what he did, what he was like. Introduce us to Russell.

CROSLEY: Gladly. So he was the publicity director for Vintage Books, and he was my boss for 10 years. But we, as I describe in the book, rotated or changed positions as they do in experimental theater. You know, sometimes he was like a brother, sometimes I was like the older sister, a parent, a boyfriend, everything. We were just partners in crime. And he was a wildly generous, smart, very quick and painfully inappropriate person.

RASCOE: It seems like there was this deep connection, but it doesn't seem as neat as, you know, someone who could say, this is my partner. This is my mother. This is - it was a little more nebulous than that. It was a friend.

CROSLEY: Yeah, that's a good word for it, I think. After he died, I was sent - unsolicited, mind you - some self-help books about grief. And this is not to knock self-help. Honestly, whatever helps you is the correct answer. But they sort of bounced off my personal temperament like a rubber ball. And part of the reason is because even in the table of contents, you could see it was loss of a spouse, loss of a parent, and there wasn't really any instructions for loss of a friend. And I thought, well, this is the one relationship we all have. Not everyone has siblings. Unfortunately, not everyone has parents, some people don't have children, but everyone has a friend. And it's not like anyone was trying to rob me of my grief. It's just that I felt, in the midst of all this pain, a sort of parallel attempt to find purchase on it, to think, do I have a right to be this sad?

RASCOE: When his number came up in your phone the day that he was found, you write that you knew something had happened, and you put off answering. How do you think you knew something was wrong?

CROSLEY: You know, there is a way that two people can be connected - I mean, a lot of it is sort of logistical. And so when I saw his home number come up mid-morning, when I knew he should be at the office, I knew it wasn't him. I knew something was wrong. I thought maybe he had been in an accident. I thought maybe he had been fired. And I ran to a coffee cart, and I bought the greasiest pastry I could find, and I swallowed it whole like a pelican. And then I got on the phone with his partner, and I was told. And I think my first memory of it is thinking I should not be on the street. I had just come from a therapy appointment, and I had this sort of strange thought of, do I go back upstairs?

RASCOE: Yeah, like, because at that point you do need the therapist, right? You need to talk to somebody.

CROSLEY: The reason I was there to begin with is because a month prior to Russell's suicide, I had been burglarized. I left the apartment for an hour. And, you know, this is a suspenseful story about grief because I was in the process of trying to figure out what happened and solve the mystery of the burglary, when a much greater mystery tragically fell into my lap. And that is Russell's death.

RASCOE: You could have written it just for yourself because it's so deeply personal. It's an intimate look at yourself. It's an intimate look at your friend. People can be so judgmental. Was there any hesitancy to putting it out there like this?

CROSLEY: No. You know, Russell actually worked on the everyman's edition of James Baldwin. He was a big James Baldwin person. And I always think of that James Baldwin line where he says, you know, you think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. And it's the connection. It's, you know, you - the more specific your story is, yes, the more you're going to expose yourself, but also the more you have a shot at reaching out to other people who have their own loved ones that they miss in such a specific way. It's the generalities of grief, both in how it's written about and how people react to it, that I think are not helpful and that are actually isolating for people who are going through it.

RASCOE: Yeah. Were you surprised by how much you were thinking about Russell from that point on? Did you know the place that he had in your life was so profound? Sometimes you don't realize it.

CROSLEY: Yes. I was surprised by how profound the missing was and couldn't believe how much it took over. Then it becomes a bit pathological where you think, if I stop, if I think about something else, it's like I'm leaving him. I'm getting further and further away from him. And I think anyone who listens to this will understand hopefully what I'm talking about.

RASCOE: Are you still dreaming about him? Is he talking to you in your dreams, as he kind of does a bit in the book?

CROSLEY: Somehow I feel like you're asking me if there's a dog barking next door who's telling me to do things.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: No, no, there's no Son of Sam here. I'm just saying...

CROSLEY: I'm just kidding, OK? You're like - but this is - you know, I do not dream about him as much, but I do feel him, obviously, constantly. You know, every question you've asked, I imagine him just sort of sitting in the corner, just sort of, you know, affectionately rolling his eyes.

RASCOE: Yeah (laughter). Well, you know how publicists feel about us reporters.

CROSLEY: (Laughter).

RASCOE: But early on in the book, you talk about the difficulty of memorializing a loved one for people who don't know or share the connection to the person and how you didn't want to describe Russell too much. Can you read that for us?

CROSLEY: (Reading) But this is what comes of writing not I miss this person, but miss this person as I do. It's too much laundering of empathy.

RASCOE: I wonder, do you feel like you succeeded in walking that line? Because there's so much of Russell in this book, and he's described so well, it would probably be hard for people to read it and not to try to kind of miss him also.

CROSLEY: Yeah. Well, it's not like I don't want people to miss him. I want to bring him more fans in death than he had in life. And he had a tremendous amount in life.

RASCOE: You've let go of this piece of it, but there are those things that you can never let go of, right?

CROSLEY: Yeah, but I don't think you're supposed to. I mean, so much of the book, which is sort of loosely structured - you know, it's five chapters around the five stages of grief, even though instead of acceptance, it's just afterward. Part of that reason is because it's about being OK with never letting go. The worst parts of it, the most painful, sort of the deepest troughs of grief for people who are going through it, no matter what they're grieving, to feel that sort of patina of pressure, to get over it. Get over it. Move past it. And I think you'd do - most people would do a lot better to just let themselves feel it for as long as they want.

RASCOE: That's Sloane Crosley. Her new book is called "Grief Is For People." Thank you for talking with us today.

CROSLEY: It's been such a joy. Thank you.

RASCOE: And we want to remind you that if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, there is a number you can call or text to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline - 988. Just those three numbers - 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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