Your relationship with grief impacts all your relationships - whether you know it or not.
While the experience of grief is universal, we still react to grief in ways that often stigmatize and alienate our grief or the grief of others in the name of professionalism, boundaries, and self-protection.
And when we face a loss from suicide and all the layers and nuances of this particular type of loss, it can bring up a lot for us and those we lead.
Disenfranchised grief refers to a loss that's not openly acknowledged, socially mourned, or publicly supported–you can see how bereavement by suicide fits one of the most common causes of disenfranchised grief.
When people who have lost someone to suicide feel like they cannot talk about their loss without judgment or criticism, disenfranchised grief festers. It can lead to complicated grief, where our recovery and healing become persistent and debilitating to basic day-to-day functioning over a long period of time.
The deep discomfort, shame, and stigma associated with suicide can make it difficult to discuss, so that when you experience bereavement by suicide, you often feel isolated at a time when you carry deep hurt.
On today’s show, you will hear from someone I have known for over two decades who has consistently and steadfastly led with transparency and authenticity no matter what showed up in her life.
Kathy Escobar is co-founder of The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration and #communityheals: Making Spaces for Transformation Accessible for All, non-profits in North Denver, CO. She's a pastor, writer, spiritual director, podcaster, and advocate and author of several books, including Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World and Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything you Believe is Coming Apart.
Content note: Extensive discussion of grief and suicide. Please take care of yourself as you listen.
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Scroll Down for The Full Episode Transcript:
Kathy Escobar: People are afraid of such raw emotion, and I’m afraid of raw emotion but I know I’m human and I don't show all those things to everybody all the time. But I have learned that there are things you cannot control, and that’s a good thing. The problem is when we don't let ourselves feel it and resist it and shame ourselves or push it down because it’s too scary. It actually is supposed to be that big.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: Hey, there. Today’s conversation is a weighty one, and it’s also an important one. So please take care of yourself as you listen. Now, today’s conversation’s about grief, notably the grief experienced when you are bereaved by suicide. We’ll cover more than just my guest’s grief story, but her survivor story and how she moves and leads through this loss as a part of her story and her life in all the spaces she leads.
So why is this complicated conversation important for you to listen to today? Because your relationship with grief impacts all of your relationships whether you know it or not, and while the experience of grief is universal, we still react to grief in ways that often stigmatize and alienate our grief or the grief of others in the name of professionalism, boundaries, or self-protection. As a leader, you need to learn how to befriend all kinds of grief and loss so that when its waves show up (and they regularly will), you can respond in ways that support healing and connection instead of isolation and shame. One of the ways that we can befriend grief and all it brings up in us is to make space for the stories of others to touch our hearts, not as voyeurs or consumers, but as humans connecting with other humans.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
Hillary McBride wrote in her beautiful book The Wisdom of Your Body: Healing Wholeness in Connection Through Embodied Living, “We heal when we can be with what we feel.” When we can be with what we feel, we don't fear our feelings or the feelings of others. Now, this doesn't mean that we relax about emotions or that feeling emotions is a cakewalk. [Laughs] Nope, not at all. But when we can be less protected and armored up, this means we can feel without shutting down or harming ourselves or others in the presence of difficult emotions. I know this can feel like a tall order with everything we carry these days, especially when it feels like a firehose of intensity from within, along with individuals and systems who keep causing harm and doing things that bring up so much grief, rage, and pain. Since I suspect most of you were taught that feelings made you weak or were necessary to exile to survive, it makes sense that the reflex to reject feeling through discomfort shows up regularly. So when we face a loss from suicide and all the layers and nuances of this particular type of loss, it can bring up a lot for us and those we lead.
Now, disenfranchised grief refers to a loss that’s not openly acknowledged, nor is it socially mourned, nor is it publicly supported.
So you could see how bereavement by suicide would fit one of the most common causes of disenfranchised grief. And when people who have lost someone to suicide feel like they cannot talk about their loss without judgment, criticism, disenfranchised grief festers, and it can lead to complicated grief which is where our recovering and healing becomes more persistent and debilitating to function on basic day-to-day tasks over a long period of time. I regularly see how the deep discomfort, shame, and stigma associated with suicide can make it difficult to discuss. It is complicated. When you experience bereavement by suicide, you often feel isolated at a time when you carry such deep hurt. Even if you have strong support networks, you can still feel alone because you may worry if you share your true feelings, you fear the impact on others, mainly if you're in a caring role for those who are also experiencing the loss.
Now, in writing for this show, which is just wild, I realized I’d become disconnected from my own bereavement by suicide experience when a family member died by suicide, gosh, it was a little over 20 years ago now. I was in my second year of grad school when I heard the news, and I was in the throes of a big project slash presentation thing, and I was slated to present in front of my class the next day. So I called my professor and told him about the loss my family had just experienced and asked if I could reschedule my presentation. I just needed a minute to catch my breath and to orient. I was still in shock as the echoes had stirred up so much in my system about my family.
Now, my professor initially told me he could not reschedule because everyone else had to honor their date. They showed up for their scheduled date so, you know, he wanted me to do the same. And so, I hung up and was in even more shock.
Now, to his credit, he later called back apologizing and offered to work with me to reschedule my presentation. But in hindsight as I reflect on this, this reflex of keeping business as usual and missing the mark on an opportunity for empathy and compassion when grief shows up is not uncommon, and I believe rooted in our low capacity for discomfort intersects with grind culture and the incessant pressure to work and be productive.
Now, on today’s show, you’ll hear from someone I’ve known for, gosh, over two decades who has consistently and steadfastly led with transparency and authenticity no matter what has shown up in her life. Kathy Escobar is co-founder of The Refuge, a healing community, a social action space, and a creative collaboration space in North Denver, Colorado. She’s also a pastor, a writer, a spiritual director, a podcaster, an advocate, and an author of several books including Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World and Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart.
Now, pay attention to when Kathy talks about the split we create inside of us when we experience grief and notice when Kathy identifies the connection of our ability to integrate grief into our experiences as a measure of our ability to be more human with each other, and listen for Kathy talking about how shame shows up with grief, especially in bereavement by suicide. Now, please welcome Kathy Escobar to The Unburdened Leader podcast!
Kathy, welcome to the show!
Kathy Escobar: Oh, I’m so happy to be with you. I was thinking of two decades when I first met you is just wild. Time is so weird.
Rebecca Ching: I know. We’ve lived a lot of life, right? [Laughs] We’ve lived a lot of life, and I’ve been wanting to have you on the show actually since I thought of this podcast. You were on my original list, and the topic that we’re gonna dive into today is grief. There are many things that you can talk to, and I think they’ll weave into our conversation today. But you didn't look to become an expert on this topic -- expert maybe is not even the right word. You did learn to be so familiar with it, and you’ve befriended it as a means of survival. Before we get into some of these nuances of your relationship with grief in your story, I’d love for you to share how you define grief.
Kathy Escobar: Well, for me, it’s interesting because I don't probably give language to it all the time, but I think if I, you know, decide them off the top of my head is that grief to me is all the feelings, all the emotions, all the embodied stuff in our bodies, and spiritually kind of the soulful parts of us, it’s response to loss. It gets there whether you see it or not, whether you notice it or not. But it is not just one part of us, it’s all those three core parts of our experience as humans.
Rebecca Ching: Mind, body, and soul, and relational too, right? We experience it in community also for sure.
Kathy Escobar: Yeah, absolutely.
Rebecca Ching: And you’ve been in community and doing all kinds of work with communities since I’ve known you, and I’m wondering how this definition that you just shared, how has that evolved over time?
Kathy Escobar: Well, the biggest part for me -- I mean, I’ve worked in the trenches of people’s real experiences for several decades and really creating pockets for healing community that always started with our real stories no matter what those were because the truth is, there are not a lot of spaces actually to be able to share in community. In the 12-step model that’s one of the reasons it’s so good is it’s literally a 1-hour circle to just be honest with other people who are being honest too, and that the healing that comes out of that is not formulaic, you know? It’s just get a framework and these things happen if you can create a safe enough container.
So that was always my work, and I had had losses in my life and my childhood, loss of innocence, loss of protection and safety and some really core things that I, actually when I first met you, was really working on. And then you have just always held space for honesty. So I hadn’t lost a parent, I hadn’t lost a significant person in my life, none of those things when I was holding space for other people. But I did understand loss and honesty that comes from honoring, owning, and integrating, and metabolizing loss. So that was always in my experience. And I can say that, for the most part, it’s not that it was only for other people, but it was kind of more for other people than me.
Unfortunately, part of our family story in 2019, is our youngest son died by suicide. We have five children (four living), and that devastation of -- you're a parent, you know. People listening know. It is the worst possible thing for a parent, and it happened. We are in mental health. Our work is in mental health. It’s a long, complicated story that I can't say, but it’s a story that was really out of the blue. It was.
That has its complications, and it’s so easy, even people talking about these things, like, “You should have known. You could have known. You could have done things --,” you know? Those things exist in this story.
Rebecca Ching: Oy.
Kathy Escobar: And yeah, we know our story. But I will say that was when we all, all of us -- so six of us (my four living kids, my husband, and myself), we just entered into a whole horrible reality of grief was going to be part of our lives in a new way.
My dad had died the year before. He actually died in the room that I am joining you from, and we cared for him for four-and-a-half months in hospice. Totally different form. He was ready to go. We were sad, and I could feel some of the feelings of loss, but it just was so completely different, but we had a teeny bit of practice on speaking openly about, in my dad’s situation, death and our experience with it. So we had a little bit of practice. Nothing fully prepares you for the deepest wound as a parent and as a family. I think for us, we just basically agreed together that we were gonna tell the truth. That’s hard, and I’m gonna name this about suicide. There’s a lot of shame that surrounds suicide.
I’m a pastor/leader talking about honesty and all these things, and my kid died by suicide, and it’s hard sometimes to make sense of, and it would have been really easy for me to push away from the table, it would have been really easy for my kids to withdrawal from certain things, my husband to be off work for an extended period of time, things that kind of can happen out of survival.
And our survival was telling the truth to each other and to ourselves and to the people in our lives. I am really grateful it helped us, but it’s hard. People really aren't used to talking very openly about grief.
And see, even coming today I was like, “Agh, talk about grief? Agh.” But the truth is is that I like to. I love it and I hate it because I hate that this part is our story, but I love that you're creating a space to own that is part of the human experience, and we need to do better at it.
Rebecca Ching: Well, it’s one of those topics I bring back on the show regularly because I’m just sitting here thinking about your commitment to honesty about your story. Even prior to this horrible loss, you had that muscle built going into this. It didn't take away the exquisite pain, but it helped you move through it as a family and in your own story, and I’m just sitting here thinking about even in my own grief, we all have grief stories whether we know it or not.
Kathy Escobar: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: And are there spaces where I’m just honest about my grief in the moment, my loss in the moment, that I don't filter? And I’m like I don't think so. I mean, there are a couple people that I can just pop in -- a good friend on Voxer, my husband at the right time when the kids aren't around, and we filter so much of our honest experiences with grief, but a lot of things. To have that practice of really practicing being true means we have to also be honest with ourselves and really know what we’re feeling and how we want to communicate, when we want to communicate. There’s a lot, but I filter a lot, and I know we all do.
I want to get more into some of the things that you wrote, especially after the loss of your son, but before we transition to that, I’m curious about how your relationship with grief has impacted how you lead in the spaces and the communities that you're a part of.
Kathy Escobar: I personally am very grateful for The Refuge community because it’s a community that has always had honesty and pain and real stories embedded in it. Even though I couldn't connect with personally in my own exact experience with other people’s stories of grief, I was always present that people struggled and that people were trying to make it through the day and people could share some of their real feelings. And for sure talking about shame, fear, anger, “What the fuck?” those kinds of things that were real in the communication of people’s real stories. That’s what people would say.
Rebecca Ching: I’m just thinking about this because I could hear some people say, “Oh, you know, that’s great for Kathy and the spaces she leads, to have honesty, but you know, at school, at work, at the dinner table, nah.”
Kathy Escobar: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: “That’s a recovery community, so those folks need to be really honest, but I don't know if we need that kind of honesty in other spaces not like that.” What would you say in response to that, what I suspect would be a pretty common objection?
Kathy Escobar: Oh, I’ve been hearing this for decades, and so, I mean, I know those words. I’m very familiar. I think what I would say to it is that the reason why we need to find ways to do it in our workspaces, we need to find ways to do it in schools, in our families, in our churches and faith spaces, whatever it is, is because it’s happening for everybody. Everybody is experiencing these things, the realities of some form of grief, since that’s kind of the thing that’s on the table right here in this conversation.
So everyone is experiencing it. It’s a loss of people, loss of dreams, loss of health, loss of security, loss of relationship, all the losses. And so, it’s happening anyway, and so, why do we have it segmented into this very small place in the world when you talk about how many people, which is universally, why can't we have it more integrated into all areas of our lives? And I do respect that there are jobs to do, there are things, we can't sit around all day and be processing our feelings, and that’s actually not at all what I’m talking about. It’s places to do that, but it’s actually places to have our real lives be on the surface and out in part of everything, instead of having us managing it on our own, usually not well, then not modeling for other people or giving them space to be when our coworkers, our employees, our kids, everybody’s living it. So, in my opinion, greater health in our systems is what’s needed, and so, our systems are where we operate in. And, in my opinion, I feel really strongly about this. The Refugee space is a refugee space, so it’s gonna maybe look different, but all the systems that I’m aware of should at least be able to do some of the basic, healthier, ongoing things of the human experience because humans are in those systems.
Rebecca Ching: Absolutely, and so, you're not saying every space has -- because, “Oh, Kathy’s a pastor and a helping professional.” You know, I do therapy and coaching. That’s for us. We’re not asking everybody to do that. You're saying creating spaces where folks don't have to hide their real-life experiences doesn't mean they have to process it 24/7 wherever they're at. It’s just being able to be honest about their life experience. Is that correct? Or correct me if there’s more. Elaborate on that.
Kathy Escobar: Yes! That’s correct.
Rebecca Ching: Okay.
Kathy Escobar: And so, I just think that is a very sad state of affairs that we have to basically create a split inside of us. We have to show one thing in these spaces and then we have this whole other thing going on inside that we’re trying to manage and find our way through and what that does create is what splits and divides create, and that’s not a holistic, whole, healthy thing. It’s a divided thing, and then we’re confused because we’re like, “Which part of this? Oh, that part’s gonna come out,” you know? All these things, and I think the part that I’m passionate about in all areas is just trying to just practice saying some of the simplest things and have that be more normalized.
For example, just working with people, sometimes it’s like coworkers don't know that people are walking through their spouses battling cancer, and it’s really, really hard. “And I don't want to say it because I don't want them to pity me. I don't want them to think that I’m not doing my job good. I don't want to have to talk about it.”
My take on that is it’s okay to not talk about it. There are places it’s nice to not have to think about it. But it’s consuming a lot of you, so could we just practice saying, “Hey, when I’m here, it’s really good for me just to do my job. I just want you to know that I am navigating this. It is hard for me right now.” That’s actually all I’m proposing on honesty in some of these spaces. It doesn't happen as much as it could.
Rebecca Ching: No, and I’m thinking another reason why I probably edit, and I know a lot of other people edit and hold back on being totally honest is because of how people respond --
Kathy Escobar: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: -- even when that boundary is set. When other people are hurting, it brings up, “Ugh,” you know? We change how we interact. And so, some people are like, “I don't want to say what’s going on because I don't want anyone to look at me differently, to treat me differently. So I’m kind of sitting here with this going it’s not just us being honest about our stories. It’s we as a whatever system we’re in, as a collective, we need to do a better job just going, “Okay, thanks!” and not having to go into fixing or managing our discomfort in ways that make things awkward or end up doing harm to somebody else unintentionally. So I’m just thinking about this. That protection is not showing in part because other people don't know how to respond when ish is happening, right? [Laughs]
Kathy Escobar: It’s just so hard, and that is so real, and we’ve all been in situations, I mean, all of us. I have a pretty decent list of weird things that people have said to me. But I think the truth is that we do need to practice it, and the only way to learn things (I’m a big fan of practicing) is to actually do them and then live with learning to do better and that’s why I’m also a fan of the 12-step model because in 12-step recovery, we do learn how to truly just say, “Thank you so much for sharing that. Thank you.” That’s it.
Rebecca Ching: I want to shift to something you wrote. You and I honor a tradition around the Easter holiday. There are kind of like these days leading up to it, and there’s the Maundy Thursday, and then there’s Good Friday, and then there’s Saturday (it doesn't really have a name), and then Easter Sunday. Within that whole realm, there are lots of different ways of celebrating, but I’ve come to really love Saturday (the in between). I actually really don't want to say I don't like Sunday anymore, but I kind of like sunrise service and then move on. I feel like Friday and Saturday just need a little bit more of a beat these days. [Laughs] But this in between. You wrote a post about that in between of Saturday. I shared an excerpt with you, and I'd love for you to read this excerpt, and then I just have a follow-up question after you're done reading this excerpt.
Kathy Escobar: Sure! So I wrote this:
“I feel a mix of, ‘Oh, my God, I have been talking about grief for three-and-a-half straight years,’ and ‘The last thing everyone needs is one more post about it.’ That reflex resistance is part of the problem though. We need to bravely integrate real, raw responses to losses (loss of people, faith, health, relationships, dreams, innocence) into our everyday lives. And the only way we can do this is by refusing to let it remain submerged. As part of the human experience, we all process differently, and there is no one right way to grieve. This Holy Saturday 2023, these four simple words come to mind yet again: grief has no rules.”
Rebecca Ching: Thank you. Thank you for sharing. I read that several times and just kind of meditated on that. I’m wondering what is at stake if we let grief, as you said, remain submerged? What’s at stake for us?
Kathy Escobar: I think that what’s at stake for us is being disconnected from ourselves and from other people, ultimately. That is what’s at stake. That disconnection gives us all kinds of other trouble, and so, we find other ways to cope with the pain, we find ways to protect ourselves or to keep people at a distance, to keep it compartmentalized. It’s just that part just truly will find its way out, and when we disconnect from it, it comes out in all these sideways ways.
Rebecca Ching: That don't create connection?
Kathy Escobar: Yeah. Overeating, isolation, binge watching TV to completely check out. I’m not talking about healthy ways of coping, and that’s why grief has no rules. That was something that came to me early on after losing Jared, and that’s a hashtag that I have used, and it has guided us because the other part about grief in all these ways is that there’s no one way to do it. So what is healthy and aligned for me and my values is totally different than somebody else’s. When I’m speaking, I’m really just talking about my experience, and I do feel confident in the systems do need to become healthier, which is part of your work. So when I think integrating grief and real people's experiences, we need to get better at humaning together. So I’m gonna hold to that. But related to grief, I just say, “It has no rules.” So sometimes binge-watching TV for three days is part of what we need to do.
But the truth is that we know when it’s coming out sideways because we feel terrible, and the feeling is actually not the grief. It’s not the loss, it’s the shame or the disconnection or the other things on top of it. And so, the pain is really like metabolizing the pain, the loss, the grief is the path forward, and I think that piece is what we want to avoid because that’s human nature. So we find ways to cope. So that’s what I mean by sideways. A little bit of just learning how to be more direct, and we’re just indirect all the time because it’s scary. And I know, I mean, everything I say I’m practicing too. I mean, I know the feeling, but we’re trying to practice not holding back to protect other people. We do hold back to protect ourselves sometimes out of health, and that’s a healthy thing. I’m not saying you go around telling everybody everything. But I am saying I know when I’m protected and divided, and I know when I am as honest and whole. What I always say is, “It’s just the truth!” So why can’t we --
Rebecca Ching: It’s just the truth.
Kathy Escobar: It’s just the truth! It’s just the truth, so can I just tell the truth? And the truth is a lot of the world doesn't really love the truth, and then we don't love to tell it because it’s super painful. I mean, I hate coming here and telling you that my kid died by suicide. It sucks. But it’s true.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, Kathy, how has you embracing kind of this mantra of “grief has no rules” helped you navigate the shame that you so kind of beautifully know -- I mean, grief has its own exquisite tenderness. It’s hard to describe. It’s a clarity and a searing pain, but how has grief having no rules helped you navigate the shame that comes in and tells you what you should or shouldn't do, or who do you think you are to be leading this community to parenting to helping others to be in recovery, all those things. How has that helped you navigate when shame arises?
Kathy Escobar: Well, like you, I mean, I‘ve been working on shame my whole life. So, you know, it was always present. I didn't really know how to name it, and then a big chunk of years again, it was really in that season that I met you, it was before then, a chunk of years before I met you. So a long time, long time, 30 years. And so, shame is a good, easy reflex for me in general. Nothing to do with death and loss, the way that I have experienced it. But I did address that I’m a fan of therapy. I’m a fan of creating healing support groups, recovery. I go to meetings twice a month. I’m a fan of being in those spaces because they help me. I did get an amazing somatic outdoor therapist to just only work on that. That’s what I did.
She said something. Of course shame is the part. If he had died any other way, I would feel the grief, no question. My husband always says that. “He’s gone. No matter how it happened, he’s gone, and that’s what we have to do,” but I do have an extra layer of shame about suicide, and so, she helped me with this because I really was very present when I had a little more space. You can't do it all at once.
So it took time, but I really saw how it was really paralyzing me, inhibiting my voice, and just a lot of things that were really, really tricky. She said something I know will live with me for the rest of my life. She talked about how shame is a false sense of control. I’ve never heard that. I mean, I’d done Brené Brown, all the things for so long, and I’d never heard it this way. She actually told it to me very early on, and I didn't register it. When I had more room, I was able to really get it, and that was everything because it was my way of staying in control to not feel the magnitude of my child dying by suicide. And so, it’s a way to cope. The shame is a false sense of control.
And so, whatever that did in me, it really has helped me. It does not mean I don't feel shame. It doesn't mean that when I show up here it crosses my mind. It doesn't mean any of that, but something really shifted in that department that it is a false sense of control, and because I believe fully in trying to let go of the things that are unhealthy, that hinder connection with myself, with other people, with my work and vocation, all of those things, I was committed to working on a false sense of control. And so, I’ve been working on shame.
So part is walking in your rooms and telling the truth. Part is just showing up. I mean, it’s tough to do, to show up, when you know that people know this about you. Because I don't talk about it every second of every day, but it’s a public story, and then just be in my body and let go of controlling myself and my narrative about who I am. And then also controlling is the way of trying to explain.
That is the other thing I’m gonna say, too, about grief and our story at least. I still do tend to want to tell people certain things about it, but I have held back a lot and just said it and let it sit. Early on in grief, I would try and say all of the story every time, and as a way, actually, to manage my shame because it was like, “Okay, if I could just give them all the facts, then I wouldn't be a bad family,” you know, the horrible things that we think about ourselves. And so, learning to just say what I need to say and let people figure it out. I know that’s a piece of all of this, honestly, in leadership and in grief and in shame work. It’s like we just have to let it drop into us, and the ripples, some will work, and some won't because some people don't like it. They like it when we’re in shame and they like it when we’re not telling the truth and they like it when we’re not so honest. But we know that we have to to be resonant in our bodies and in our souls.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, thank you, Kathy. That lands. Shame really thinks it’s certain about us. It really thinks it’s certain what everyone else is thinking about us, and it’s that false sense of certainty, that false sense of control, if we get hooked and lead ourselves by that and let it lead us, we’re gone. That is a powerful anchor to be reminded, when it shows up, that it’s a false sense of control.
Kathy Escobar: Mm-hmm.
Rebecca Ching: And that we can move through it. We can metabolize the emotion and the vulnerability, and we cannot control how others perceive us, what they say about us. We will be misunderstood, whether we’re being honest or not, we will be misunderstood period, no matter how we try to spin things or how honest we are. So I’m gonna be thinking about that for quite some time.
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I poured through a lot of your writings over the years, even prior to Jared’s death, around grief and leadership, but this came up in more of a recent writing, another nugget that stood with me, where you really wrote about the paradox and the power of grieving and living at the same time. I’m wondering if you can talk about how embracing that paradox is different than conventional wisdom about grief.
Kathy Escobar: Where I came from is where a lot of people did of just the five stages of grief. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ stuff. I mean, that was out there for a long time. I mean, it was pretty embedded in things, and then I did some reading, and she changed her position to say she misinterpreted some of the way some of that model got did.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Kathy Escobar: And then there’s some work about having the six-stages of [INDISCERNIBLE]. And so all of that, to me, one of the things I knew wholeheartedly, a little bit when my dad died and then for sure when Jared died (my son), there are no stages. There are no stages. There are rhythms.
Rebecca Ching: Hmm.
Kathy Escobar: I do really like those rhythms. I give different language to them here and there, but on the whole, there are rhythms, and they're pieces that just sometimes the rhythms are in one hour, and sometimes they're over a course, and they're not linear.
And so, they're just rhythms that we’re just gonna have to learn to live with. I’m gonna be living with -- I’ll just use that framework a little bit -- those six things for the rest of my life. That’s the difference is the language comes all the time. I hear all the time, “Getting through grief.” “Getting through grief.” There is no such thing. Anybody who knows grief goes, “There’s no such thing as getting through grief. There’s learning to live with grief.”
Rebecca Ching: Exactly. Thank you. That’s a word, and I feel like it’s okay to still hurt, and we can't control it. The waves of grief are gonna come and go.
Kathy Escobar: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: And the more we try and control them, the more they kick our ass. And so, it’s about just embracing those rhythms.
Kathy Escobar: Riding the wave. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: I love that language. Yeah, the surfing metaphors do not lack with grief. But no, you're absolutely right, and these rhythms, though. It’s befriending grief and learning to live with it in these rhythms when sometimes the grief is debilitating and sometimes you have a little bit more ability to breathe and get a little bit more expansive. And then it’s kind of this expanding/constricting sense I got from reading what you wrote about it. We love things tidy. We love things in steps. We love to just kind of go, “I am recovered, period. I am over it, period. I have overcome, period,” and I’m like, “Dude, we overcome, and we’re recovered when we breathe our last breath, y’all.”
Kathy Escobar: Yes.
Rebecca Ching: It’s so toxic. I’m really grateful for how you contributed to this important conversation. We have to redefine our relationship with grief and loss and the shame that comes up around it in our culture. Otherwise we’re not gonna be living a life. We’re gonna live a zombie life, right?
Kathy Escobar: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: And so, you wrote some other truths that grief has taught you and kind of some practices, and I just want to name some of them and have you kind of riff on what you wrote. You integrate WTF into your vocabulary. Can you tell me more about why that’s important?
Kathy Escobar: Yeah, so I realize that I swore just a little bit before, and I don't know about your audience here…?
Rebecca Ching: Okay, we can say “what the fuck.” I’m sorry. It’s okay. Please. [Laughs]
Kathy Escobar: So yeah, I just mean that as being honest and that’s the word. It’s not for everybody. Everyone doesn't say “what the fuck,” but most people say something that is when we’re honest, that truly, “What is happening, and what happened, and how is this my life, and how did it turn out this way? This isn't what I thought.” Whatever that phrase is, most people -- and this is not just the death of a person. This is any of these deep losses, and I think that just integrating that honesty about that “argh” feeling has been super helpful to us.
I’m really proud of my kids because I have four adult kids, and when Jared died the twins were 19, almost 20, so young adults. And one of my sons got us all pink T-shirts that said, “Fuck Grief,” and we have them, but what I like about it is it’s honest because that is how we feel, and so, that’s what I mean by that. The grit. We don't have to sanitize the real things that cross our minds. I’m mad at Jared all the time, and I also have compassion and love and all those things. It’s like they both can exist. This is grieving and living at the same time. The contradicting things can be in there in the same space, and that’s what incorporating WTF into our vocabulary really means.
Rebecca Ching: I really loved this one that you wrote. You wrote: “You let yourself feel feelings you thought would kill you but actually don't.” Tell me more about that one.
Kathy Escobar: Well, I mean, I do just what I mean. You know, I’m an Enneagram 2, adult child of an alcoholic, codependent, people-pleaser, and so, feelings are not really my specialty because I’m used to other mainly leaning into positive feelings, and I’ve learned over a couple decades (three decades) how to integrate more feelings into my repertoire. But I was not prepared for the depth and magnitude of the feelings related to losing my son. And so, just owning them and letting them be and not trying to resist them or justify them or minimize them. Justify or defend is probably a good one, especially because people are afraid of such raw emotion, and I’m afraid of raw emotion. I’m not so much anymore because I have felt it, but I know I’m human, and I don't show all those things to everybody all the time. But I have learned that there are things you cannot control, and that’s a good thing. And I think, honestly, I didn't know how to control a lot of those things before some of that got stripped away.
And so, letting them be and then not judging ourselves for them but honoring that feeling is supposed to be. Actually the problem is when we don't let ourselves feel it and resist it and shame ourselves or push it down because it’s too scary, it actually is supposed to be that big.
Again, I always want to keep saying it’s not just loss of a kid. We lose these things in our lives, and they're raw and they're real. We don't have to go, “But I didn't lose my kid, so I shouldn't…” that’s that comparative suffering that Brené Brown talks about, and this is a piece of not doing that, just like letting it be.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and when we stuff and we resist, that’s a natural reflex to kind of recoil from something painful. I think it’s important to normalize that, but if we fight to avoid it at all costs, it becomes toxic and malignant in us versus letting it metabolize and move through the waves. That’s exhausting and hard work.
You also wrote about how you learn the art of practicing paradox. Tell me more about that one.
Kathy Escobar: Well, I was saying I’ve been writing and talking about paradox (which is contradicting themes in the same space, same body, same experience, same anything) for years and years and years, but I truly didn't understand it in the same way as grief until Jared died, how to be able to have the deepest, deepest possible grief for me as a mom and then be able to experience joy in the same space. This is true for most people who have lost humans but, again, across losses. It’s like am I allowed to feel good when I’m feeling this deep pain. All the kids, our whole family really expressed this dilemma that we felt, and am I allowed to smile.
I remember the very first picture I was like I’m never gonna be able to take a picture again because I’m never gonna be able to smile in a picture. It’s like, “How could she be smiling?” you know? And this was a really strong thing, and then I remember when I just let myself do it because in that moment, I was happy in that moment, and I had the deepest pain existing in my body and in my soul and in my family at the same time.
And so, I think that paradox is why I just think the practice of paradoxing is one of the most important skills for humans to learn, and in a binary world, we live in a binary world even though it’s a nonbinary world. We live in a binary system framework world still, and so, that’s where you can do one or the other, but you can't do both, or the range of things. And so, the practice of paradoxing is really just living in a more nonbinary world. It’s being able to hold it all, and it’s hard, and I know I say all the time, “It’s so much easier to split and split,” and that’s why people want to get through grief. “I want to get through grief so that it’s a ladder, you know? I just climbed up it, and I got to a new place.” It’s this big, tangled mess that goes on and on and on, but in this big, tangled mess, there’s good, there’s hard, there’s beautiful, there’s messy, there’s freedom, there’s constriction, all the things.
So I think, for me, the practice of paradoxing has been grief has no rules, guiding for me and for us, and the practice of paradoxing. Humans are actually made to do it. We have more capacity than we think and that we’ve been taught. So we do have the ability to do it, but it’s tough in we’ve been taught to constrict it or squeeze it out, but it’s actually in us. That’s one thing that I learned. It’s different in theory and it’s different in our heads, but we’re actually having to live it, you’re like, “Okay, it is possible,” and people are doing it every day, all day, all the time, so it’s almost like naming it and honoring it instead of pretending it’s not as tricky as it is to do.
Rebecca Ching: I really appreciate that. We really have attached a lot of moral meaning into any kind of messiness, complexity, nuance, struggle. There’s a lot of moral meaning, and I see that whether it’s in spiritual places. I see it in corporate, professional development spaces. I see it in schools. I see it everywhere. Part of it is because we have a discomfort problem. We have a hard time sitting with things that we don't know, and we don't understand, so we want to create a false sense of certainty, a false sense of control that you had mentioned that shame does. And so, there’s a lot of dots I’m connecting here.
Another thing you wrote is you said: “You begin to own this as part of your story but not the only story. Can you tell me more about that one?
Kathy Escobar: Yeah, I mean, the piece is that in three-and-a-half years -- we’ve lived on this earth three-and-a-half years without our kid in our family and here living his life the way that we hoped he would, and I can say this that it’s like just being able to name the reality of the grief and the pain and then to be able to keep going and to basically keep showing up in life and not run away from it. And so, in some ways, it’s some of the things that we’ve already been seeing.
But I think a piece is my kids early on say, “What are you most afraid of?” They said, “We’re really afraid of losing you guys.” They said, “No! We’re actually afraid that we’re gonna lose you because this is going to become everything. Grief will be your defining everything.” That will define our family. It will define our everything. This is day one. It was really early that we talked really frankly together all of us because everyone had to travel in from other places. We were together like, “What are you most afraid of right now?” And that will always stick with me because I don't want my identity to be grief. I’m happy to talk about it with you, and I’m happy to be honest about it in all the places I can, but I’m a lot of other things. Basically having it be part of my story and part of my family story, but we have a lot of other parts of our story, and so, we want to live them out, and I want my kids to be free to live them out. I want to be free to do what I love to do and not be constricted by shame and paralyzed by shame, and I want, when people look at us, for them to see more than Jared dying. But I do want them to see the truth, that we lost our kid and we’re trying to make it in this hard, hard world. But I don't want that to be the only thing that they see. And I love what you said. It was so good. We can’t control what other people think or do, but I can control showing up.
And it’s hard. It takes a lot of courage. It does. And I thought of everything, you know? I’m in a position where I could retire, I could check out, I could move to, I don't know, a foreign country and live there now. There are a lot of things I could do. And it’s not that it hasn't crossed my mind because there are parts that’re tough to have this be my story and show up in my story, but because it’s not all my story, I don't have to have that lead every part of my life. I can have it be part of everything, but it doesn't have to lead everything in my life. But it is part of everything. It’s part of all my days and all my ways, but it’s not leading me in every part of my life.
Rebecca Ching: It’s really important and really a powerful reminder. Part of my generous assumption is at least that this is a part of you and not all of you and doesn't lead you because of your honesty about your relationship with this painful part of your story, with the echoes of grief that keep showing up. So it doesn't run you.
I’m curious. How come you chose to stay in the life that you have right now? Like you said, you could have tapped out. You could have retired. You could have just checked out of all the things of humaning. But you’re staying engaged. I’m hearing part of it was for your kids, but I think a lot of people would have given you a pass to you and your husband saying, “Go to an island. Do your thing.” How come you chose to keep humaning and engaging as you are today?
Kathy Escobar: Because I love other humans. That’s why. I really love other humans.
Rebecca Ching: Dang nabbit!
Kathy Escobar: [Laughs] Ah!
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Because of love. Because of love!
Kathy Escobar: It’s healing in community. It’s like being with other humans, trying to live this really crazy, weird, bizarro, hard, beautiful, wonderful, infuriating, sweet, tender life. I mean, that’s why I’m still good!
Rebecca Ching: I’m laughing because it’s like yes, we heal in community. And so, for you to peace out would have been antithetical to everything that you're about. So I’m kind of realizing how silly my question is, but I think it was important to ask it.
I’m curious. What I’ve learned over the years in working with folks and even in my own experiences with grief, surviving loss has its own flavor, right? There are different flavors of loss, too, like you touched on. What would you say to those that are feeling the feels that you do when you survive loss, when you’re surviving a terrible loss?
Kathy Escobar: The feelings are real, and they don't need to be judged. They just are. It’s like we are in good company. We’re in good company. We are not alone. We can feel alone if, in some of the places that we’re at, people are not safe enough or articulating enough or you don't feel that connection. But we’re not alone in loss. It is a universal experience. Everybody has it. The other part I would say to survive as survivors is to not rank it. It’s not hierarchical or linear. It just is. So it’s not a spectrum that has really hard and less hard. But it’s just this big, muddled, it’s all equal. It’s just different.
They all actually inspire the same things in humans, but they are different, and they have different textures. But the ultimate same feelings I think exist with all of them. So it’s honoring that and not ranking them and not ranking ourselves in how much good we’re feeling. That’s the other part. It’s like yes, a lot of times I hear people apologize for crying or certain things. “I’m so sorry for crying,” even. It’s like, “Oh, my gosh, you sweetie! Those tears are good! They're supposed to come,” you know? And so, just honoring that there’s not value on what’s good or bad feeling. They're just the feelings.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah. We’ve exiled so much of what makes us human and puts so much moral meaning on not being perfect. That’s beautiful. I can't not have this conversation without talking a little bit about hope. I’m kind of developing my own definition of hope. It’s kind of like a scrappy hope.
Kathy Escobar: Mm, yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Especially for the kind of last decade for myself. I’m curious for you what your relationship is with hope and how it intersects with your grief.
Kathy Escobar: Hope is one of my favorite words, okay? So there are a lot of jokes. There are a lot of jokes. This was for years and years. “Kathy’s always gonna make us write hope on a rock,” you know? The truth is that is a piece I have. I like the word hope and I like the principle of hope. However, my definition (I love scrappy) was never being tidy, all squared away. It’s just this openness to the human experience. That, to me, is hope. I’m here. The people I’m with who have really hard losses all around, not necessarily their kid, but really hard things are here is hope. Hope can exist in the same place as the very deepest despair. We don't have to process the despair to get to hope. They can be there at the same time and probably if we’re processing it, there’s a little bit of hope in there.
I’ve changed my language a little bit over time about hope, especially in things in the world that are just so painful, like systemic things that grieve us. The systems are so broken, and the way that I have embraced this is hopeful realism. This comes from kind of this deconstruction stuff that happened 17 years ago when I really did shed a lot of things that were part of my past faith experience. And so, I wanted to be careful on not becoming super cynical about absolutely everything or super skeptical about absolutely everything because they both have a texture. It’s not that some cynicism isn't helpful, and some skepticism isn't helpful. They're good things, but I don't want them to be the only thing.
And so, hopeful realism helped me, and the realism is that people die tragically, our bodies fail, our relationships break, our innocence gets lost, this world is completely inequitable. There are so many really painful things in it. That’s realism. Then hopefulness, for me, is that we can participate at least in our smallest systems, yes. The most possible is some change and that you can't have the structural changes without the personal. This is my friend Melvin Bray whose 12 Steps for Anti-Racism work we use at The Refuge. You can't have the personal change in systems without structural change. Personal is nothing without the structural, but you can't have structural change without the personal.
Rebecca Ching: One of the things that grief has taught me is it brings things that matter into exquisite focus and the things that don't matter fall aside. It’s this wild almost like a vortex, right, that happens?
Kathy Escobar: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: And it’s narrow of what matters and then the rest of it doesn't. What clarity do you have today through your grief?
Kathy Escobar: I think the biggest clarity that I have is really just letting go of what people think. The clarity is who gives a shit what they think about me, honestly. I know the life I have. I know the family I have. I know the work that I do. I know the community that I’m cultivating and a part of. And so, it’s like who gives a shit. It’s not that I don't care at all. It’s not that it doesn't cross my mind. It’s not that I don't go there. But it ultimately does not guide me, and it did guide me a lot more before Jared died, and I just lost the ability to manage that because it’s hard enough just to make it.
And then the second thing that goes with it is my son Jared was a philosopher, very super existential, and he’s a unicorn, the total future (in my opinion) of how the world could be a better place. But he had a tattoo. It’s a quote that’s attributed to Plato, but it’s, “I know more than you because I know that I don't know.” He has “I don't know” tattooed on his side, and my husband got that tattoo. I got a paradox heart, which has helped me. I look at it almost every day. And he got “I don't know” in the same script as Jared, and that has become clear. I don't know! Things I used to be clear on or thought I knew how people should live their lives or what I thought would be better for them or all those things, it’s so clear to me that I really don't know. There is something freeing about letting go of having to know.
Rebecca Ching: The power of “I don't know” is amazing on how we project what we think is best for others too. I’m gonna be sitting with that.
Kathy, I could keep talking forever. You are a wealth, and you're so much more, I know, than this particular part of your story. It felt really important to have you come on and share this knowing you, and I hope that you come back, and we can rumble with more paradoxes in the future. I’m grateful that I barely made it through this. This is very tender and wholehearted. I’m feeling it.
Kathy Escobar: Thank you for your honesty.
Rebecca Ching: Thank you.
Kathy Escobar: And thank you for creating a space for us to have these conversations. I feel so grateful, and I feel honored to know you and to be a fellow human with you in this weird world. Here we are, two decades later, doing the best that we can.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, two decades later, doing the best we can, doing our best to create spaces for folks to be more honest. What does Glennon Doyle say? It’s brutiful. It’s brutiful.
Kathy Escobar: Yes.
Rebecca Ching: So thank you for sharing these tender parts. Thank you for honoring your family’s story and thank you for the gift of who you are and how you lead in all areas of your life. I’ve been impacted for the better, and I’m so grateful so many people are gonna be more exposed to what I have known for so long. So thank you!
Kathy Escobar: Thank you! So grateful for you!
Rebecca Ching: Before you go, I want to ensure you hold some key takeaways from Kathy’s tender and powerful Unburdened Leader conversation. But first, thank you for listening. I know talking about grief from suicide can bring up a lot, and as I noted at the beginning, please take care of yourself. The echoes of hard conversations can continue after the end of this show, so take some notes and journal. Talk to a trusted friend or mental health support. Stay curious about what came up in this conversation, and continue to reflect on your relationship with grief, especially bereavement grief.
Kathy reminded us how little control we have when grief strikes, but we have a choice to move through grief. She noted shame’s role in her bereavement by suicide and how she moved through by surrendering her false sense of control. I was struck when she noted how we do grief together is a measure of how we human together. Phew, we sure have some work to do in this area. We also need to destigmatize feelings in general and the discomfort that comes up when we feel awkward or are in our pain instead of worrying about losing control or saving face. We also need to help our nervous system navigate grief so we can move through the depths of compassion and vulnerability that surface when confronted with a lived experience of deep loss, and this is the ongoing work on an Unburdened Leader.
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. And if this episode was meaningful to you, I’d be honored if you left a review, rated it, and shared it with someone who would benefit from it. Now, you can find this episode, show notes, and the free Unburdened Leader resources, along with ways to work with me www.rebeccaching.com!