EP 54: Honoring the Fullness of Your Grief with Marisa Renee Lee

Uncategorized Jun 03, 2022

 If you don't take time to grieve, your body will make the time for you. 

Grief is an emotion that does not respond to intellectual strategies or hacks. It has a job to do and it will take you out if you do not listen to it. 

And there are not many spaces that encourage you to take the time to tend to the fullness of your grief. 

Work deadlines are still looming. Bills still need to be paid. Family care needs are still all too present.

But when we neglect to approach our grief and the grief of others with the reverence it deserves, we may unintentionally become complicit in toxic narratives around grief while doing harm to ourselves and to others.

And when grief is not tended to, our bodies end up being the truth tellers in ways of: anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, brain fog, and so much more to get us to pay attention to our grief. 

My guest today addresses powerfully what it looks like to normalize grief and what happens when we try to bypass it. 

Marisa Renee Lee is a writer, speaker, entrepreneur and grief advocate. She's the author of Grief is Love; the founder of the social impact consultancy Beacon Advisors; the co-founder of the digital platform Supportal, which offers resources to those going through hardship and loss; and the founder of The Pink Agenda, a national organization dedicated to raising money for breast cancer care, research, and awareness. 


Listen to the full episode to hear:

  • How Marisa went through anticipatory grief leading up to her mother’s death, and how it couldn’t prepare her for the actual loss
  • Why there is no getting over some fundamental losses and why that’s okay
  • The mental and physical toll unattended grief took on Marisa in the wake of her mother’s death
  • How the emotional vulnerability required to fully grieve is a privilege not everyone has
  • Why it’s imperative for leaders to normalize grief and offer tangible support to those experiencing it

Learn more about Marisa Renee Lee:

Learn more about Rebecca:


Scroll Down for The Full Episode Transcript:

Marisa Renee Lee: I thought being fine meant going back to work, moving on, and just getting on with my life, when, really, what I needed to do to be fine in that moment was take care of myself, tend to that grief, experience the fullness of the loss, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that, I didn’t think I could afford to do that, both in terms of my professional career and just practically, financially, and so, I went back to work.

[Inspirational Intro Music] 

Rebecca Ching: If you don’t take the time to grieve, your body will make the time for you. The more you try to control or suppress your grief, the more it ends up controlling you, and when you stifle or suppress your grief, it can come at a great cost because grief is an emotion that does not respond well to intellectual strategies or hacks. It has a job to do, and it will take you out if you don’t listen to it. I also know there are not many spaces that encourage you to take the time to tend to the fullness of your grief. There are work deadlines that are looming, bills that need to be paid, family care that's all too present, and the systems in place and culture's approach to grief and loss, at least here in the states, is making us sick as we're further perpetuating a practice or even a fundamental need to push through and go about business as usual in ways that are unsustainable.

I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with leaders whose burdens have inspired their life's work.  Our goal is to learn how they’ve addressed these burdens, how they rise from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.

If you can grieve well, you will lead well, and I say this because having a respect for grief means respecting the work it does in all of us. 


Grief disorients and it also reorients. Grief changes and grief transforms. Grief is not convenient, and nor will it feel efficient or tidy as much as efficiency and tidy are desired, but leading people means leading through the complex and nuanced human experience. When we neglect to approach our grief and the grief of others with the reverence it deserves, we may unintentionally become complicit in toxic narratives around grief while doing harm to ourselves and others. There is so much going on in the world right now, in our country and in our communities. The amount of loss and devastation we continue to witness from war to white supremacy and gun violence to reaching a devastating and heartbreaking milestone of one million lives lost to COVID, the collective grief piles on personal grief. It understandably feels too much. So when our schools and our businesses and even places of worship don’t know how to properly give permission to really grieve, we breathe in the message that it's just not okay to not be okay, and frankly, for many to really grieve and heal is simply not in the budget. Robust policies and practices around bereavement would push back on the explicit and implicit messages to, quote, "Get over it," and, quote, "Move on."

Now, grief is exhausting for sure, but the work that goes into managing it instead of working through it is even more taxing. When grief is not tended to, our bodies will end up being the truth-tellers in ways of anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, brain fog, and so much more just to get us to pay attention to our grief and the message it has for us.


Now, my guest today addresses powerfully what it looks like to normalize grief and what happens when we try to bypass it. Marisa Renee Lee is a writer, speaker, entrepreneur, and grief advocate. She's the author of the book Grief Is Love. She's the founder of the social impact consultancy, Beacon Advisors, along with the cofounder of the digital platform Supportal which offers resources to those going through hardship and loss. She's also the founder of The Pink Agenda, a national organization dedicated to raising money for breast cancer care, research, and awareness.

Now, pay attention to how Marisa tried to prepare for grief and what she discovered when grief arrived in her life. Listen for the impact unattended-to grief had on Marisa's body, her work, and her relationships. Notice when Marisa started to own her capacity as she was working through grief and what happened when she spoke her truth and started to own her grief at work and in her personal life. Now, please welcome Marisa Renee Lee to The Unburdened Leader podcast. 

Marisa, welcome!

Marisa Renee Lee: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. 

Rebecca Ching: So we were geeking out before we started recording.

Marisa Renee Lee: [Laughs] 

Rebecca Ching: I'm showing you right now -- if you're listening, you can't see it -- but I've got Marisa's book with my post-it notes throughout. 

Marisa Renee Lee: I love it.

Rebecca Ching: We could be talking for hours to cover the juiciness in this book, but, first, I just want to say congratulations on this book.

Marisa Renee Lee: Thank you. Thank you.

Rebecca Ching: Grief Is Love. It will be sent to a lot of people I know.

Marisa Renee Lee: Aww.


Rebecca Ching: There's so much in it that cuts through a lot of the things that I was taught about grief in my life but also in my clinical training.

Marisa Renee Lee: Right? Oh, my god.

Rebecca Ching: And I love how you were like, “This isn’t a how-to, this is a compass.” I'm like, "Yes! Thank you." In the book, you cover a lot about grief, detailing your own grief story, right? 

So I want to go back to early 2008 and take you back to your childhood home where you were caring for your mom who had stage four breast cancer and also multiple sclerosis and just want you to share what was going through your head when grief arrived for you, when your mom collapsed in your arms.

Marisa Renee Lee: At that moment, when she collapsed in my arms, I just knew it was over, and I thought that her death was something that I could prepare for. I'm a list-maker, I'm a spreadsheet person. I'm a research-and-we-can-find-the-answer-to-anything-that-we-need-or-are-trying-to-figure-out type mentality. I had read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's On Death and Dying, like, six months before she died. I knew what she wanted to have done with every piece of jewelry. I knew that she wanted to, if possible, donate her body to science given all of these health challenges that she had. You know, I had the playbook. I was ready if there was, you know, such a thing, and in that moment, we shared a joke. My mom literally died laughing. We shared a joke. She passes out, and I'm, like, trying to hold her up. 

She, then, starts having a seizure, which that was probably, honestly, the most traumatizing part in a lot of ways. I couldn’t hold her up anymore. I'd lost so much weight from the grief that I didn’t even know that I was experiencing building up to her death, and so, I laid her body on the floor. 


I laid her on the floor, and when I saw what she looked like there I screamed because I just knew that this was it, and what I didn’t know, in that moment, was that when I laid her on the floor and I screamed, the person who I was ceased to exist. There was now an entirely new identity that I had to pick up and figure out how to carry forward and figure out how to live without my mom. I was now a motherless daughter, as some people like to say, and it was really hard. It was devastating. I didn’t know that something that was emotional could cause so much physical pain too. 

Rebecca Ching: Exactly. There's a couple moments in your book that you talked about (and you mentioned it right now, too) the lead up. There isn’t enough -- like, Kübler-Ross, there's the five stages, and you mentioned that that's written for people who are dying, themselves.

Marisa Renee Lee: Exactly. I was gonna say I want to make sure we unpack the five stages for people because I feel like it's often -- and you know in your work that it's often used to create more self-judgment and shame because when we hear "stages" -- we're both parents. My baby's almost eight months old, I think about developmental milestones, you know, the things that we're watching for. He started rolling over in the last week. He's got his two top teeth coming in. You know, there are things that you look for that happen in a sequential order, and that's not even -- 

Rebecca Ching: Oh, it's such BS.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, it's just so unfortunate. It's literally the worst game of telephone.

Rebecca Ching: And so many people I talk with about anticipatory grief, ambiguous grief, and the losses that happen when someone is still living.

Marisa Renee Lee: Oh, yeah. 

Rebecca Ching: But there was also this moment -- and you mentioned, too, when you screamed when she collapsed, and that hit me 'cause I think of some of the most devastating losses I've had, and that's exactly what I did. I had this scream that came from somewhere I did not know 'cause it was this physical pain.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.


Rebecca Ching: And that scream was the only thing that could somewhat regulate and release and ground a little bit, orient a little bit. 

Marisa Renee Lee: Yep.

Rebecca Ching: There was nothing else. So I read that, and it was like a drop-the-book moment. [Laughs] I just felt that in my body.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, 'cause, for me, that scream, even now, feels like it almost feels like I was having a sort of out-of-body experience, you know? I can very clearly, very quickly go back to that exact moment and see myself there and, god, yeah, I didn’t have words. I didn’t even know where that sound and that sort of raw emotion came from, but it came up and out, and as soon as it happened, I just knew, and that was it. She actually wasn’t dead in that moment, but she died, like, two hours later.

Rebecca Ching: I'm just feeling that. I'm just feeling that, and another image is coming back to me from your mom's funeral. I was laugh-crying reading this because you're at the funeral, and all that you had done that lead up to it, and then there's this person singing a song that was very dear to your mom, and it wasn’t landing, and you just started cracking up, and it's that contagious laugh, that when-you're-not-supposed-to-be-laughing laugh. 

Marisa Renee Lee: Oh, my god.

Rebecca Ching: And I'm reading this, and I started laughing and then started crying, and my family's like what is going on 'cause I was feeling that with you. [Laughs] 

Marisa Renee Lee: [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: But there's that scream, but there's also that laugh. It's like this laughter that's not about funny.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: It's another way of releasing.


Marisa Renee Lee: Another release, yes, exactly. Exactly, and for context for folks, we grew up -- I was raised in the Black church, but by the time my mom passed away, the church that we were attending was predominantly white, and the pastor who was helping with all of the funeral arrangements (a wonderful man) confirmed that he had this fantastic Black woman gospel singer to sing His Eyes On The Sparrow (you know, one of my mom's favorites). This woman got up, and I truly cannot describe how bad she was. The family, we're all sitting in the front row, and it's my dad, my Godparents, my grandparents, me, my sister, and my cousin, and me, my sister, and my cousin looked at each other, like, is this really happening? Then once one of us started laughing, the others just followed suit, and my grandmother's there trying to get us to stop being rude (because it was incredibly rude), and she was laughing too. It was just such a ridiculous moment and such a distinct memory for our family. You know, we still talk about it all the time. When my sister read it in the book, she was so happy that it made it into the book because it was one of her favorite memories if you can have a favorite memory from the week your mom dies.

Rebecca Ching: There's a bonding acre -- 

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah! 

Rebecca Ching: It's the ridiculousness of grief, too.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: It's ridiculous, and it's disorienting. 

Marisa Renee Lee: Disorienting, yes.

Rebecca Ching: There's some kind of common humanity where you can breathe a little bit, and so, I just wanted to make sure I mention that because I think there are so many of us that can relate to that.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: In an article that you wrote for The Atlantic that, "After the acute stage of grief and loss," and I love this, "Grief will arrive like a papercut: not debilitating, but just sharp enough to force you to acknowledge all you have lost." 


Like, oof, let's let that breath for a moment. I just want you to share how has grief continued to show up in your life since your mom's loss?

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, I mean, it is in these little things, in the details, you know? I grew up outside of New York City, and I'm here today getting ready for an event we're doing with Brooke Shields this evening, and it's my first time bringing my son to New York City, you know, the city that I grew up around, the city that I still believe (and I will fight anyone on this) is the best city in the world, and it feels wonderful, but it's like a nostalgia colored by grief. I know my mom is so happy seeing us here. I believe she's with us all the time, but I wish, obviously, she was actually with us. 

Then, last week the book came out, and books come out on Tuesdays so on Monday it's pub week but not quite pub week, and I woke up, and I just felt sad. Not overwhelmingly so, not in a cry-yourself-to-sleep type thing, but just a wow, this is here, this is a really big milestone, this is a really big moment for me and for my family, and it is so much about my mom, but it's not something that I can share with her in the way that I would like. You feel it. Or sometimes my husband will say something or Bennett, my son, will do something, and I just see my mom in these moments, and it can be just a sharp sadness that usually comes and goes quickly for me, but it's definitely there. 

Rebecca Ching: There have been other experiences with grief and loss, that cut deeper than a papercut, since your mom's death, too, that you touched on in your book.

Marisa Renee Lee: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. In 2019, my husband and I lost a much-wanted pregnancy. 


At the end of a multiple-year, multiple-thousands-of-dollars journey, egg donors, all the things, and when I found myself on that day in August curled up on the floor of our bathroom realizing that this dream was not about to come true, and also, being very physically sick from the pregnancy loss (sicker than I'd ever been), all I wanted was my mom, and I didn’t know what to do with that. If you had asked me before that day in August if I had, quote, "moved on" from having lost my mother, I would have told you, "Yeah, I think so. I'm in pretty good shape," and when that happened, it just all came flooding back plus the piece around grieving the pregnancy loss. So I found myself in this place where I was grieving for a future that I had hoped for and was no longer about to realize. I was grieving for this woman who had raised me and cared for me and supported me who was not there to help me navigate all of this. Fast-forward a couple of months, and we found ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic. 

And so, I was suddenly stuck with all of these feelings I was sorting through and still had no plan for how we were actually going to become parents in this world full of grief with no distractions, you know, not even the healthy ones like and in-person therapy visit or a trip to church, and I was left to just figure it out on my own, and I ended up kind of writing my way through it, and that led to an article in Glamour that went viral about how you don’t get over these foundational losses. When you lose someone you love who is one of your people (your child, your spouse, your best friend, your parent), you don’t get over that. 


You shared unconditional love with this other human being, and I honestly don’t even know what getting over it would look like, you know what I mean?

Rebecca Ching: Ugh. Oh, yes. 

Marisa Renee Lee: The thing that I'm so grateful for through this book process is that I was able to work with a Harvard researcher and bereavement professor who, also, went through a pregnancy loss and parental loss so it was all very resonant for her, but she was able to bring the research and the data around grief and loss into this book so it's not just my experience. I ultimately learned through her that I was right. There is a theory called The Continuing Bonds Theory -- you know, obviously -- that is considered to be one of the healthiest ways of dealing with grief and loss, and it's all about identifying ways to continue your bond with your person who's no longer here in a manner that's healthy and positive and hopeful. My son is going to know about his grandmother. There is no doubt in my mind that he's going to feel like he has a relationship with this person who is not here, who he will never meet. That is how I choose to do grief, and that is the framework that this whole book is based around. 

Rebecca Ching: And it's one of the healthiest conversations and books' discourse of grief that I've seen.

Marisa Renee Lee: Oh, thank you so much. 

Rebecca Ching: Well, because of what you talk about. Like, this isn’t getting it over. I've even had mentors even before my clinical training, like, "You’ve got one year, and then if you're not over it, then you need to get help. You're broken."

Marisa Renee Lee: No, what does that mean? 

Rebecca Ching: I just call BS to that. 

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah. 

Rebecca Ching: Exactly. I mean, and you identify what that means. We'll get into that, but you talked about moving on, and this really landed with me and I know will land with a lot of people. You returned to work --


Marisa Renee Lee: Oh, yeah.

Rebecca Ching: -- your very high-intensity work two weeks after your mom --

Marisa Renee Lee: I love it. I love being productive.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, oof.

Marisa Renee Lee: [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, that's toxic productivity.

Marisa Renee Lee: Uh, yeah.

Rebecca Ching: Two weeks after your mom died, and you were determined to have the appearance of someone who moved on.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: I'm curious, what were you afraid of happening if you were not seen as if you had moved on? 

Marisa Renee Lee: In the months leading up to my mom's death, once we had decided that she was no longer going to undergo active treatment, I decided I wanted to do everything I could to make her end of life as positive and pleasant as possible. I also felt it was important for me to give her permission to go. She was the kind of person who was just such a caretaker of others. I wanted to make sure that she knew that I was gonna be okay when she was no longer here, and so, I wrote her a letter probably the month that she passed away, and in the letter,  I promised her that I would be just fine. I think that the mistake that I made was confusing what it means to be fine in the absence of someone you love, you know? I thought being fine meant going back to work, moving on, and just getting on with my life when, really, what I needed to do to be fine in that moment was take care of myself, tend to that grief, experience the fullness of the loss, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that, I didn’t think I could afford to do that (both in terms of my professional career and just practically, financially), and so, I went back to work and -- this didn’t end up making it into the book, but, at some point, I'll probably write a piece about it -- every day I would get up, get dressed, be miserable, exhausted, heavy, grieving, struggling, but I could get up.


I could get out of the house, and then when I would go to get off the subway to actually go to work, that's when it would hit, and I would have these horrible panic attacks in the basement of the investment bank where I worked pretty much every day for months. One of my close friends who, thankfully, worked there, she would come down every morning with a latte, a cookie, and a Xanax from my drawer at my desk. I would have the coffee with her, eat the little pastry, take the Xanax, and go to work as though that was a normal way to start your day.

Rebecca Ching: Oof.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah. [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: So what pull did this initial approach to your grief have on you and your wellbeing, and what was the turning point for you when you realized a latte, a cookie, and Xanax isn’t the way to kick off a day for the long term?

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, so the turning point for me happened when I saw an acupuncturist in New York, and she had a lot of thoughts about Benzos and all the meds that I was taking because I was on Xanax and I was also on a really strong medication for sleep. Neither were really working effectively. I do not think I was being medicated effectively, and I want to make that clear to people because I do really believe that there is an important role that medication can play when you are living with loss and trying to figure out how to navigate the worst of your grief. I just think, in my case -- this was also 14 years ago -- I don’t think it was all well-managed. so I just want to put that out there -- but she shared some concerns that she had for me, and so, I then decided that I wanted to stop taking these meds, and I did that cold turkey which, I'll let you weigh in as a therapist, is absolutely not the way to go. 


It was not healthy. It was not the right decision, but ultimately, it led to a better, healthier place for me. So the conversations that I had with her and the way that I felt that she really cared for me and cared about me helped me kind of see things in a different way. I just wish I had been more supported by others so I would have known how to navigate that period of time better, honestly.

Rebecca Ching: When you say, "I wish I was supported more by others," who are the others that you're talking about?

Marisa Renee Lee: I wish that I had a therapist who was more involved in my holistic health, managing the medication, because I think I did need it. I think that I, maybe , could have also benefited from an antidepressant, but I didn’t have that. You know, I was young so I didn’t know how to navigate a lot of the sort of intricacies of our mental health system. 

Rebecca Ching: You bring up a good point. Because of what my areas of specialty are clinically, I've always worked on treatment teams with a primary care physician, a psychiatrist, often, a dietician, and then other axillary treatment. It's really important that we have a team and a holistic approach, and we talk to each other on that, and, yes, cold turkey -- from what I read of your book and got a sense from you, that was how you were gonna roll.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.


Rebecca Ching: That was you. [Laughs]

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: Public service announcement: we should always do that under the supervision of a medical doctor.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yes.

Rebecca Ching: That’s the ideal way. I also have a lot of compassion for why you did what you did, though, I'm not encouraging it for anyone listening. 

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, no, absolutely not. Absolutely not.

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] So I'm wondering, as leaders, what can we do to foster spaces that have room for grief and the other messy human emotions?

Marisa Renee Lee: That's a really great question and an important one because, as you and I both know, we are at a point where nearly one million Americans have been lost solely to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are millions of Americans returning to office spaces, carrying the heaviness of their grief, and I think a big part of it is normalizing grief, and leaders who are able to share that grief is real, that they know that it's happening to a number of their employees and colleagues, and that they are committed to providing support services and resources to people who are dealing with grief and loss, that makes a big difference. If people see from leaders and managers and executives that it is okay to talk about grief, to acknowledge grief, to share that you are experiencing grief, they will be more likely to do it which I would hope would help facilitate whatever they need to heal. So I think a big first step is just making it known that this is a part of life and that we know that this is something that you're going through. Having the conversations and elevating it as something that we all have to deal with, especially right now, but always in life, I think is really important, and then I would love to see more companies offer a more comprehensive bereavement leave. 


Grief isn’t just about those first two weeks after you lose someone. Letting someone take a few days off later in the year to, perhaps, commemorate either the anniversary of the loss or their loved one's birthday or something -- having more flexibility around what bereavement leave looks like, around what bereavement support looks like. Lots of companies have employee resource groups. Should we be thinking about companies starting employee resource groups for people that are grieving in this moment? 

Rebecca Ching: Hello. I've been digging into some research on kind of peer support and peer mentorship.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: There's some really juicy stuff because of accessibility, because of how full everyone's lives are, and I think that's powerful, but here's the catch, though, Marisa. I'm saying this, but you know, that if leaders are going to talk about grief and cultivate spaces that grief can be discussed, that means that leaders need to be able to sit with their own grief stories --

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah. It's hard.

Rebecca Ching: -- so they can sit with others.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, that's absolutely right.

Rebecca Ching: Grief, to me -- I talk about grief as being probably one of the most painful emotions to feel 'cause it is a full-body emotion.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yes.

Rebecca Ching: It is a physical pain, but it also is one of the most clarifying emotions.

Marisa Renee Lee: Oh, god, yes.

Rebecca Ching: I talk about it like hydrogen peroxide: it stings like a mofo, but it cleans and cleanses at the same time, and you're trying not to cuss or maybe you are just cussing. 

Marisa Renee Lee: Oh, gosh, I love that analogy.

Rebecca Ching: Right, but you know it's cleaning and cleansing. It's gotta do its job, and if you don’t let it do its job, you get infected.

Marisa Renee Lee: Wow, I love that. You need to put that out into the world bigger.

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]

Marisa Renee Lee: That is beautiful.


Rebecca Ching: I mean, I had to get some language around what was happening for me when grief hit me, and I did not have permission. You write about this in your book. You have a whole chapter about permission and that if we don’t give ourselves or give others just the permission to grieve, permission to not be productive. You touched on COVID which I want to dive a little deeper into that. We want to just kind of get back. We think, "I've just gotta get back," you know? I've gotta move on or this whole get-back-to-normal stuff which I think we roll our eyes at, but there still is this pull. We roll our eyes, and then we're like, "Yes, but I just want to get back." People are saying it, but you can't ever get back after grief. There's no getting back.

Marisa Renee Lee: No, there's no -- what I kept trying to do -- and I think this is a big part of why I struggled so much after losing my mom -- I kept trying to go back to myself, you know? I just wanted to feel better, I just wanted to feel normal, I just wanted to feel like Marisa, and I didn’t understand --

Rebecca Ching: Ahh. 

Marisa Renee Lee: -- that Marisa was different, that Marisa had been transformed, that Marisa is now a 25-year-old trying to navigate Wall Street as a Black woman who had just lost her mom. That's just a different person, and if someone had told me, "You are not the same. When your mom died, the person who you were at that time died, and now you have to figure out what it looks like to build a full life without her," I think that would have been really helpful. 

Rebecca Ching: Permission to -- it's the both/and. You talked about someone who talks about the and in this, and I liked that. I don't know if you have the book nearby…

Marisa Renee Lee: I don’t, actually. I gave away all my copies to other people. [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: I love that. 


I want to read this because you touched on vulnerability, and as someone who has worked with Brené Brown and her team for a decade now as a facilitator, vulnerability is like the crux on Brené's research, and people keep talking about it and getting it wrong, and you wrote about this in a way that I think is really important for listeners. In the book I have, I think it's on page 28. 

Marisa Renee Lee: Yes.

Rebecca Ching: It says, "As I've considered vulnerability in the context of grief, I've come to realize that vulnerability requires a sense of safety that is not equally distributed in our society." This was big, "Some people are too busy to be vulnerable. Some of us are too female, too poor, too gay, or too Black for vulnerability. There's no space in our lives for it. Vulnerability is something we were not taught, never learned, or had to unlearn given life's challenging circumstances. How do you begin to access the vulnerability that grief requires in the absence of safety and security? If day-to-day living often feels like a battle, grieving seems like a luxury."

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, I actually wrote this whole sort of thesis on vulnerability and safety during the early days of book writing and, you know, I wasn’t even sure if this was going to make it into the book. It was more about the discomfort that I personally felt after we lost our pregnancy, and I was very open about it (sharing on social media, writing articles, all the things), and I got a lot of credit for, quote, "being vulnerable." I felt really sort of icky that people were praising me for my vulnerability. I kind of had to go back and unpack it a little bit, and I realized it's because I am privileged or as privileged as one can be as a Black woman in America. 


I'm as safe as one can be as a Black woman in America. I have all of the degrees, I have the solid gold resume, I have the bank account, I even have a white husband. I'm good, so I can share in that way because people generally receive it well, but what does vulnerability look like if you are the 16-year-old single mother, Black, living in a community that has been completely disenfranchised, under-invested in for decades? You are already vulnerable based on the circumstances of your life, so you don’t have room for this emotional vulnerability that I feel so comfortable expressing. 

I've been thinking about it more and more lately as we watch both things happen in this country, like the horrendous anti-gay legislation that we're seeing in Florida and in Texas. The parents of those children, they don’t have time to be vulnerable because they're worried about keeping their kids safe. I thought about it when we saw those images that came out of Ukraine of the mothers writing contact information in permanent marker on their children's bodies in case they die or are separated as they try and flee this period of war. So when we think about vulnerability, when we praise people for being vulnerable, I just think it's really important to examine the broader context. Why are they able to be vulnerable and maybe someone else isn’t?  

Rebecca Ching: I really appreciate that nuance, and people continue to get that concept wrong because if you're like, "Yeah, I was so vulnerable," and you're smiling, that wasn’t vulnerability.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yes, yes. I love that.

Rebecca Ching: You are crawling, you're curling up, you're agitated, but you were true, you showed up writing and working through these things 'cause you were being true to what mattered most to you (your values), but from the outside it made other people feel -- sometimes it's so uncomfortable, and it is not a fleeting thing. 


It is a full-body situation, but there's also a lot of nuance to it so I appreciate that, and just building on that, too, you talked about how at the recording of this conversation we're almost at the one million mark for lives lost to COVID, and I'm wondering if you could walk me through how grief and loss and trying to heal from them teases out the many inequities in our culture especially around COVID.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah. 

Rebecca Ching: So you touched on that a little bit, but how have you seen COVID and the grief and loss piece kind of bring to light even more of the privilege and the haves and have nots?

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, I mean, summer of 2020 as folks were taking to the streets to protest the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and general racial injustice in America, you also saw Black people, poor people, other people of color dying from COVID at disproportionate rates. So it's almost like if you are poor and also happen to be a person of color in this country, every experience is made harder because of the ways in which our country is rooted in white supremacy and capitalism, you know? If you are a Black or brown person who doesn’t have a lot of financial resources, the odds that you either lost a close family member or multiple close family members during the pandemic is incredibly, incredibly high, and, generally, Black death is more pervasive in this country. Black children are three times as likely as white children to lose mothers. Black people, by the time they are 30, are 3 times as likely as white people to have lost multiple close family members, and that's just normal life in America. That's nothing to do with the pandemic, that's just how the country is.


Rebecca Ching: And COVID brought it up to light for a minute for those who chose to look at it. 

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah. 

Rebecca Ching: And you touched on this, too, that you would like to see businesses offer more expansive bereavement policies, but what else would you recommend?

Marisa Renee Lee: Yes, so in this country, because of our commitment to capitalism, I think, we don’t value care because care isn’t something that you can monetize. We've seen it a lot around women in the workforce, especially in the midst of the pandemic. All of these women having to flee the workforce because suddenly they were left with no options for childcare, and I think when it comes to grief policy, we need better mental health support and resources in this country. 

Rebecca Ching: Yes.

Marisa Renee Lee: Both public and private. 

Rebecca Ching: Amen.

Marisa Renee Lee: You know, we need for people to be able to more easily access therapy and counseling and support groups and to be really practically supported in doing so. So that means we need more childcare. We need more paid family leave. We need better policies around how therapists are even reimbursed for the work that they do. I know from conversations with a friend who's a therapist -- yeah, I see you -- [Laughs] and even casual conversations with my own therapist, some of the frustrations and inequities that exist in that system as well. 

So there is a lot that needs to change, but I think it starts by having conversations, like this one, that elevate grief and the need to talk about it, to think about it, to think about it differently, to figure out how to deal with it out in the world because when you're trying to change policy, you have to start by raising awareness. 


And so, as a former policy-maker, as someone who continues, in my other job, to advise various policy-makers, I hope that this book can both help people heal from their losses and navigate grief in their own personal lives but can also be a part of elevating the conversation around grief and loss so that we have better policies and people are better supported as they're moving through it.

Rebecca Ching: What would you say are the stakes for leaders right now who are hearing you talk, reading your book, hearing these conversations to step up and honor the collective traumas and losses that we continue to move through as we navigate the subsequent physical and emotional toll this has had on all of us. What do you see as the stakes right now for the leaders that are listening?

Marisa Renee Lee: I think the stakes are high, and as someone who has previously and is currently working on a talent management and leadership development project for a client, and doing research around all of the ways that talent management strategies have shifted as a result of the pandemic, and what people now expect and look for from employers (especially top talent), if you are not taking care of your employees in a holistic manner, you're gonna lose them, period. So the stakes are very high, and when you think about what it would cost leaders of organizations (CEOs, etcetera) to step up right now, the cost of it is not high -- 

Rebecca Ching: No. 

Marisa Renee Lee: -- but the potential downside is incredibly high.

Rebecca Ching: Yes!

Marisa Renee Lee: And so, I think it's a business imperative.

Rebecca Ching: Yes. 

Marisa Renee Lee: Beyond the fact that I believe that helping people move through grief and honor their losses, that we all have a moral responsibility to do that, there is also a real business imperative and business responsibility here. 


It does connect to your bottom line. When people are cared for and supported in a healthy way in the workplace, they perform better. When employees perform better, your bottom-line business results are better, and who doesn’t want that? 

Rebecca Ching: And we don’t have to leave our morals out when we're talking about business.

Marisa Renee Lee: Exactly. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. 

Rebecca Ching: It doesn’t have to be morals and business. I think this is the rub right now, and this is scary for a lot of leaders that are still stuck in old ways of thinking, not just about the bottom line but about getting talent in, and it's so easy to pooh-pooh: "Oh, they're soft." So thank you so much for naming that. I think I'm gonna have you back to talk more about this 'cause my brain is going, but I want to circle back to (what you write a lot about, too) that you name the pain of loss never fully subsides. I think this is so imperative that this is the normal. The sky is blue, and the pain of loss never fully subsides. It just is. You're not flawed or broken or weak.

Marisa Renee Lee: There's nothing wrong with you.

Rebecca Ching: It is part of daring to love and just being human.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yes.

Rebecca Ching: I want to hear from your words how -- 'cause I know for me how it was -- but how is this different from the conventional wisdom about grief and loss that you were taught?

Marisa Renee Lee: The conventional wisdom is that, you know, you go through these five stages. You're really sad for two weeks, but you have a year to get over it, and then you move on, and it's done, and you, essentially, forget about it, and that's just not true, and it truly is not possible. When you share these unconditional love bonds with someone else, it leaves an imprint on your brain. I am who I am because my mother was who she was, and we had the relationship that we had while she was here alive. 


There is no getting away from that, and so, instead, I am telling people, first of all, it's okay to be sad, and second of all, you should do whatever feels right to you when it comes to healing and also when it comes to honoring your losses. What does it look like for you to bring this person to life for people who've never met them? There can be joy in that. 

Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm, and it comes back to permission.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah! 

Rebecca Ching: We've got to cultivate spaces where it's okay, but we have a discomfort problem in our country here. We have a big discomfort problem, and the reason why is 'cause we're holding so much in, and we bob and weave and try to avoid feeling all that we're holding, all the burdens that we're carrying. So there were a lot of badass things in this book, but there was this moment that you were writing about, and I was thinking would I have done this?

Marisa Renee Lee: Oh, gosh, now I'm like what is she gonna say. [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: Okay, so this is when you were working in The White House, and there was, like, the big blowout -- 

Marisa Renee Lee: Oh, yeah.

Rebecca Ching: -- with the My Brother's Keeper initiative, and you knew it was gonna be around your mom's birthday and her death day, and you were thinking, "Okay, I hope it doesn’t fall on there." It was initially scheduled, and you were like, "Phew, it's not on those days. Good, I can be there," and then a snowstorm hit, and you turned to a colleague and said, "If it's on February 28th, I'm not there." 

Marisa Renee Lee: I can't be there. I'm not doing it.

Rebecca Ching: That was another put-the-book-down moment. I was like, okay, you're in The White House. Barack Obama's gonna be there, Magic Johnson’s gonna be there. Colin Powell’s gonna be there. I mean, this is the show, and having lived in DC, you don’t have that choice. It's like you just do.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: That's kind of like the culture, so my 20-something self was like huh. 

Marisa Renee Lee: [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: You know? I was like that's a choice.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: And you told your colleagues. You spoke it, and you asked for help, and your colleagues were supportive even though you noted they didn’t have the power, maybe, to make it happen, and it ended up not happening.

Marisa Renee Lee: [Laughs] We got lucky.


Rebecca Ching: But I think, though, there's something -- even in The White House you spoke that, but I think there's something to be said where you stepped up and named that, and if more people asked for help and gave themselves permission or were in spaces they knew -- for you, you're like, "I won't be here. If I show up, I'll be a shell, and I've got to do what I need to do."

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, I knew I couldn’t do it. I knew I couldn’t do it. 

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, and you named it where I'm like I don’t know if I would have. I would have pushed through, and so, that just really is -- and I think that's just what so many of us do because you're like it's The White House, it's my paycheck, I've got to. 

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: You talked about having this huge fanfare of this incredible White House event, and then the next day Cheez-Its and movies on your couch, you know?

Marisa Renee Lee: Curled up on the couch.

Rebecca Ching: Snot flying everywhere, and I'm like that's human.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yes!

Rebecca Ching: It's right there. I just wanted to draw attention to that because I have been thinking about it. I would encourage other people to do what you did, but would I have done that in that situation? And I just thought, you know, you were really true. You were true to your grief story. 

Marisa Renee Lee: I just knew that that day -- because the event and the initiative were so near and dear to the President's heart, you know? He gave a speech after Trayvon Martin was killed. It was after the George Zimmerman verdict came out, and he spoke in The White House press briefing room, and I remember when he gave the speech, and he said, "We're gonna do something," and we all kind of looked at each other like, "Oh, we are? Does anybody know what he's talking about?" Nobody knew what he was talking about because he was just speaking from his heart. So the event was something that he was very emotionally connected to. 


High-profile folks from business, media, entertainment, sports, government, etcetera, and I had a very big staff role to play, and those days, they are non-stop, high-pressure, lots of details, lots of moving parts and pieces, and there was just no way that I could do that on the anniversary of my mom's death. At that point, I think she'd been gone for four or five years maybe, and I just knew I couldn’t do it. I knew I couldn’t do it, and so, this one guy that I was close with and had been close to for a few years who was on my team and more senior than me, I was like, "Dude, I can't. Here's the situation." He said, "Well, if you can't be there, I guess we can't have it that day."

Rebecca Ching: I loved that. 

Marisa Renee Lee: He's so arrogant. I love him so much. We're still good friends so I can say that, but looking back --

Rebecca Ching: It's DC, I mean… 

Marisa Renee Lee: Yes, exactly, and he is such a DC guy, and it was so classic him that he said that, and I instantly felt better even though I knew he was full of shit, you know? So if people are listening, and they're trying to figure out how to support someone through a grief moment, just say whatever's gonna make them feel better even if it's a little bit of BS. And so, we got lucky. There were only a few days that we could do this thing once the snow hit, and it happened the day before her anniversary, and I was so happy that I got to be there, and it was truly an amazing day in The White House, and then the next day was the exact opposite, and I had to be okay with that. 

Rebecca Ching: But I think that's real, and so, when I say "bad ass," I want to make sure it doesn’t sound like I'm like, "You were so vulnerable. Yay!" To me, that just took a lot of self-leadership there, a lot of confidence and courage and clarity and knowing yourself and really not putting the job and everyone else above you too.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.


Rebecca Ching: I think that's something that was powerful. On this idea of success and work, we don’t typically expect successful people to carry around emotions like grief. 

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: It's not cool. So how has your idea of what it means to be a successful person changed since you’ve integrated grief into your experience and identity?

Marisa Renee Lee: It is all rooted in compassion and being honest because the thing that I have learned -- and I'm sure you would agree -- is that when we do show up as our full selves, sharing our whole story, even if it's just pieces of your story because it is, again, harder for some people than others, you're able to build much more genuine connections and relationships with others. I think having real relationships with the people that you work with can be really helpful when it comes to getting the work done too. So you're not only getting this new support in a place where you spend a ton of your time, but you are also, now, somewhat closer to the people who you share this office space with, and I think that makes working together so much easier. 

So I feel like there are so many benefits to being honest about who you are and what you're dealing with. I've even seen it in these last few months. My son is adopted, and he arrived unexpectedly two weeks before my book was due. That meant -- yes, and I own my own business. I have my own consulting practice, and so, that meant I didn’t have a plan for maternity leave. So I was showing up to client calls, meetings with my editor, etcetera, on the four hours of sleep or whatever that you're lucky to get those first few weeks of a baby's life, and I just would tell people the truth, and it led to a lot of really great mom advice and funny stories and tips and tricks and things that I have benefitted from because I showed up as who I was in the moment. 


So I think it just makes life easier when we're able to be honest about who we are in all aspects of our life. 

Rebecca Ching: Success is not hiding big parts of our lives.

Marisa Renee Lee: I don’t have the energy for that. It's exhausting. 

Rebecca Ching: Oh, isn't it exhausting?

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, I don’t have the capacity for it, and that's not what I want to do with my energy. 

Rebecca Ching: Well, it's interesting you're bringing up capacity 'cause grief has a way of kind of blowing out the parts of us that could just push on through, and we never recover from that, right? You can't go back to just numbing and living the zombie life, and that's why it's this great clarifier. You're like that's not gonna happen, and it's disorienting, and, at least here in America with the way we push on through with work and life. 

How has your relationship with grief and loss evolved since you started to befriend it as a reflection of love?

Marisa Renee Lee: I am more accepting, and I give myself more permission. This is why permission is the longest chapter in the book, you guys. I give myself more permission to do whatever I need to do to be okay. 

Rebecca Ching: Oof. Permission to do what I need to do to be okay, and you define it on your terms. 

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, I define it on my terms, and no two days are the same for any of us. You know,  while there are things that you know, especially when it comes to the way that grief lands in the body and the brain, that are universal for all of us, I think everyone's experience with grief is unique which means everyone's healing journey also has to be unique. So what I need to be okay today is not the same as what you, Rebecca, need to be okay today, but we can both commit to giving ourselves permission to accessing whatever is going to help us really be okay, you know? 


Is it a workout? Is it a walk with your dog? Is it a few minutes of meditation? Is it letting yourself cry in the shower before you start your day? Whatever it is, let yourself access it so that you really can show up fully for the other people in your life and for yourself when the good moments, when the joyful moments arise.

Rebecca Ching: I love it. I'm just thinking, going back to your chapter on asking, and asking for an extension of a deadline.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, yeah.

Rebecca Ching: And asking for some more support if you can't do it all on your own or changing the schedule altogether, and not holding these deadlines, the rigidity that we breathe in. Like you talked about, supremacy culture will kill us from the inside out, but instead, just live fully. So thank you. 

Do you have a moment for some quickfire questions before we wrap up?

Marisa Renee Lee: Oh, yeah. Oh, I'm excited! [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: Awesome! Okay, what are you reading right now?

Marisa Renee Lee: Oh, my gosh. I'm so glad you asked. I am reading my friend Kate Spencer's romance novel called In a New York Minute. As I already shared, I think New York City's the best city in the world, and there is so much in her writing about this adorable little love story that is also a love letter to New York, and it just brings me so much joy.

Rebecca Ching: Ah.

Marisa Renee Lee: You know, I read a line, and I'm like, "Oh, my god, that's exactly how I feel! Oh, my god, I know exactly where that is!" I'm loving it.

Rebecca Ching: Okay, I gotta check it out 'cause I lived in New York for a beat right after my DC stint, so I'm gonna check it out.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah!

Rebecca Ching: Okay, what song are you playing on repeat right now?

Marisa Renee Lee: I feel like everything I've been listening to is on my son's playlist which has real music. 


So one of the songs, that I can't actually remember the name of off the top of my head, is a Ben Harper cover of a Coldplay song, "Fix You," but it's a Ben Harper cover with this awesome gospel choir, so I highly recommend.

Rebecca Ching: I'll be checking it out. What is the best TV show or movie you’ve seen recently?

Marisa Renee Lee: We just finished the latest season of The Ozarks, and I was like, "Whoa, this is wild. This is wild." Also, the mom in the show completely took a turn this season. I won't reveal anything to anyone, but I was like yikes. We also have been watching, on Netflix (I need to finish it) The Ultimatum. Marry or move on where these couples who've been in relationships for 18 months, 2 years, 4 years, whatever, 1 of them has served an ultimatum to the other, and they go on the show to basically figure out if they're going to get married or if they're gonna move on, and the twist in the show is when they show up, the couples actually initially get broken apart and repaired together. So it is high drama. It is hilarious as sort of an old, married lady watching these 20-somethings navigate these conversations and figure out whether or not they should marry these people, and in almost every instance I am like, "You don’t need to get married at 23." "You don’t need to get married at 24. Just sit tight. If you're not ready, you're not ready, and it's okay!" So that has been really entertaining. [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh, yeah. Reality TV, oh! Okay, what is your favorite '80s movie, TV show, or piece of pop culture? 

Marisa Renee Lee: Anything Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, or Janet Jackson from the '80s. Hands down, 1000%. Yeah, I mean, I was a jazz-dancer kid. Not very good, but I had a lot of fun with it so that is -- yes! "Escapade" was our first big jazz recital song, so all of that is always fun.


Rebecca Ching: Awesome, what is your mantra right now? 

Marisa Renee Lee: Compassion. Self-compassion. I think self-compassion is most important because when I can extend compassion to myself, it makes it easier to extend it out to others in the world, but everything right now is about compassion and love. Not exactly a mantra, but compassion and love. Period. If I have those words in my mind, it just makes everything else easier. 

Rebecca Ching: So true. Who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?

Marisa Renee Lee: My mom. She was just a really kind, compassionate, loving, supportive person. So many people loved her, and she didn’t have a big life. When I was a kid, she had a job and always made clear that it was a job and not a career, and she did have other career ambitions that she was just never able to realize. First, getting sick at 37, and I think back sometimes to her wake, and the volume of people that showed up because of the impact that she had had on their lives without being a CEO or writing a book or having a podcast. All of these people stood in life for hours. It was five hours and several hundred mourners when we lost her. I just think about having that kind of impact without having the tools that we all have now that create impact, and just how meaningful it can be to show up in the world pretty much everyday as a kind, loving, compassionate human being. It makes a difference, and I saw how it made a difference.


Rebecca Ching: Mm, and you are living her legacy.

Marisa Renee Lee: I'm trying. [Laughs]

Rebecca Ching: And she's shining down from above. Yeah. Marisa, this has been an honor.

Marisa Renee Lee: Thank you.

Rebecca Ching: I'd love to have you come back on the show in the future.

Marisa Renee Lee: Yeah, for sure!

Rebecca Ching: There were some things I was like, "Ooh, I want to go deeper on this!"

Marisa Renee Lee: We could talk for hours.

Rebecca Ching: Where can people find you and your book?

Marisa Renee Lee: Yes, so you can find me on Instagram or, really, on any of the social media channels as @marisareneelee. You can find my book pretty much anywhere books are sold. I'm very fortunate. It is in Target stores. It is on Amazon. It's in Barnes & Noble. It's a lot of independent bookstores which I am all about supporting, and it is actually already in a second printing. So I don’t know when this is going to air, but right now, it is backordered on Amazon.

Rebecca Ching: Marisa, congratulations. That's a big frickin' deal for an author!

Marisa Renee Lee: Thank you. 

Rebecca Ching: Congratulations on that. Well, thank you again. This has been truly a pleasure, and I know that this conversation's gonna be a support to many people so thank you for your time.

Marisa Renee Lee: Thank you for having me. This was so wonderful. 

Rebecca Ching: We need to make time to grieve, and I'm really worried about us if we don’t. Gosh, I'd love to see us stop judging ourselves or others for grieving. I'd love to see more normalizing and welcoming of the grieving process as a simple sign of life full of love and care and commitment, and this requires a capacity to sit with grief, and that's some important inner work. Sure, grief is exhausting, but the work that goes into managing it instead of working through it is even more taxing, and Marisa detailed for us at length the toll of not taking the time to really heal and move through grief and what that impact had on her wellbeing and her relationships.


So, I want to ask you how do you respond when grief arrives in your life, and what were you taught about grief and how does that help or hurt how you lead yourself and others, and what has grief taught you over the last couple of years? Yes, grief is painful to feel, and it's also awkward and uncomfortable when navigating it with others too, but often I see people try to operationalize and develop a strategy around grief, but I'd love to see us do a better job just honoring grief with ritual, with acknowledgement, and with our presence. I really believe we have an opportunity to shift how we do work, how we build community, and how we run businesses by reevaluating how we approach and acknowledge grief and support those who are grieving. This is the work of an unburdened leader.

[Inspirational Music Interlude]

Leading is hard, and leading is also, often, controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries, and navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence, clarity, and calm. Now, you don’t mind making the hard decisions, but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action. 

Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing at safe and small.

Now, leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights, but it’s bold and brave work to stay the course when the future is unknown, when grief shows up, and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up. Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is actionable and aligned. 

When the stakes are high and you don't want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict between your ears and with those you lead, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader Coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things differently than the status quo. 

To start your Unburdened Leader Coaching process with me go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!

Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. You can find this episode, show notes, sign up for the Unburdened Weekly email, and also free Unburdened Leader resources, and find ways to work with me www.rebeccaching.com.


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