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Transcript – Enduring the Loss of Love With Clare Mackintosh

Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Enduring the Loss of Love With Clare Mackintosh


[0:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for Episode 456 of Live Happy Now. As we continue our month-long look at love, this week, we’re talking about an inevitable but painful aspect of it. I’m your host, Paula Felps, and today, I’m sitting down with best-selling novelist, Clare Mackintosh, who has written her first nonfiction book, and it’s very personal, I Promise It Won’t Always Hurt Like This. Is part memoir and part roadmap through the tricky and heart wrenching journey of grief. As you’re about to hear, Clare wrote these 18 assurances on grief years after the death of her son, and she has encouraging words for everyone who is mourning the loss of love. Let’s have a listen.



[0:00:44] PF: Clare, thank you so much for joining me on Live Happy Now.


[0:00:48] CM: Thank you for having me.

[0:00:49] PF: I am really, really excited to talk to you. Most people know you as a New York Times bestselling author, you write thrillers. What we’re talking about today could not be farther removed from that. So what we’re talking about today is your new book that’s coming out in March, it’s called, I Promise It Won’t Always Hurt Like This. It is about grief and loss. All this month, we are talking about love on Live Happy Now. For many, it might seem odd to include loss as part of that conversation, but it really is.

[0:01:19] CM: Well, that two sides of the same coin, aren’t they? You don’t grieve for someone unless you love them.

[0:01:25] PF: Right. Right. Loss is inevitable. In some way. we’re going to lose the ones we love.

[0:01:32] CM: We are. I think that the more conversations we have about death, about grief, about how we’re likely to prepare for that, and to feel when it happens, the better. As a writer, and a prolific reader, the best way I know to start conversations is books.

[0:01:53] PF: Yes. Yes. You do it so well. What’s interesting is, even prior to this book, with your fiction, grief has really informed your work. Can you talk a little bit about that, how it has appeared in your fiction work?

[0:02:06] CM: It keeps cropping up in my fiction, even when I don’t set out to write about grief. My first book is very obviously about grief, and that the central character has lost a child. The book starts, in fact, with a hit and run that kills a child. This is I Let You Go, which was my big debut. I guess I put a lot of my own emotions in that as someone who had lost a child herself. I imbued that character with a lot of the emotions that I was feeling. But then, what I found in subsequent novels is that it just kept ripping in, either I was exploring it directly and that the characters were experiencing grief, or it was a sort of a slightly more obtuse angle, perhaps. They were grieving a trauma. One of my characters in my more recent novel, The Last Party is grieving the sort of the loss of her adolescence, I suppose, as a result of something very big and dramatic that happened to her as a teenager. So yes, grief has sort of woven itself through everything that I’ve written, but I have never written directly about my own grief.

[0:03:23] PF: What’s interesting is that this book really began as a Twitter post. Can you give us that backstory? I found this so interesting.

[0:03:31] CM: Yes. I mean, social media is, it can be a really difficult place of content in lots of ways. But it’s also an amazing place for people to come together, and draw comfort in each other’s stories. What happened was that, I felt a sudden need to share something, and it was because I’d woken up on the 14th anniversary of my son’s death, and I hadn’t realized it was his anniversary. That was significant for me, simply because, anniversaries have been really tough. I think a lot of people find these significant dates, that the anniversary of someone’s death, their birthday, perhaps a wedding anniversary, or whatever it is. A significant date can be really, really difficult when you’ve lost someone.

For years, I’d really struggled with the 10th of December as just this sort of specter of the year where I would feel my grief more acutely than any other time. On this particular day, I woke up and I just did what I normally did. I had breakfast, and I did some work, and you know, and then I suddenly realized it was December 10th. I felt, well, initially, I actually felt guilty. I had this sudden blood of, “Oh my goodness, how could I have forgotten this huge date?” But then, what I felt was a kind of right, I suppose, that I had survived. It made me think about the way those anniversaries had changed and consequently, the way my grief had changed over time.

I went on what was then Twitter, and I shared some thoughts on the way grief evolves over time. What I wanted to do was promised people that it would get better, that it would get easier to carry. This was a promise that had been made to me in the immediate aftermath of my son’s death. A woman had come to the door, and given me a bunch of daffodils from her garden. We’d never met before, but she had lost a child herself many years previously. She wants to reach out and promise me that it would get better, and I didn’t believe her, but it had.

I tweeted these promises, different aspects of grief and the way they changed, and the thread went viral. I was inundated with messages from people all over the world. They were kind of split into two camps. There were the people who, like me, were veterans in their grief, who were saying, “Yes, you’re absolutely right. This is what happens to grief over time, it becomes easier to carry, it becomes softer, it’s become something that we live with, but it doesn’t define us.” And then, there were the other stories, the people who were right at the start of their grief journey, who were saying, “I really needed to hear these promises. Thank you. I need to know that there’s hope. I need to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.” I tried to reply to all these messages, but they came in so fast. I just couldn’t. So I did what authors do, and I wrote a book.

[0:06:42] PF: Because yes, that is what you do. I want to ask you, because as you said, when that woman told you, it would get better, you didn’t believe her. I think that’s true of every one of us who experiences a devastating loss. We feel like, okay, I understand your situation got better, but mine never will. I think that’s very human and it needs to – it’s okay to feel that way.

[0:07:07] CM: It absolutely is. I distinctly remember what I was thinking when that woman was talking to me. I would never have said this to her face, and I’m still really quite ashamed of the fact that I thought it. But what I was thinking was, you can’t have loved your child the way that I loved him, because if you did, it wouldn’t get better. You wouldn’t be standing, you wouldn’t be – have makeup on, and be dressed nicely, and holding down a job, and you wouldn’t be doing any of this because my life has fallen apart and it will never get better. You know, it’s not an attractive thought, but grief isn’t.


[0:07:49] PF: But it’s human, yes.


[0:07:50] CM: Yes, it is. Grief isn’t soft-focused, like tear-stained cheeks, and crisp-white handkerchiefs. Grief is ugly, and raw, and painful. Often, it’s angry, it’s losing your temper with people, or being aggressive even. It’s so many different things. They are all totally normal, and totally valid.

[0:08:16] PF: Absolutely. Absolutely. With your assurances, and that’s what they are. I love that you call them the 18 assurances, and that truly is what they are. Can you mention a couple? Then, I also want to know how you develop these? Did you just sit down and write these thoughts down? Or were they just observations and realizations that came to you over time that you wrote down?

[0:08:41] CM: The book is structured into 18 standalone promises or assurances. So each chapter in the book is effectively a different promise. That was something I wanted to do, because I want people to be able to pick up the book, and dip into it, to be able to read just one chapter. I remember how incredibly short my attention span was. when I was first bereaved. I couldn’t concentrate properly, and I just didn’t have that focus to be able to read a whole book. It was overwhelming. So, I think something that is bite-size, that’s easily digestible is really important when you’re going through something like that.

But I also wanted to be able to offer hope at every stage of the book. So sometimes, we read memoirs, they’re structured in a very narrative linear fashion. At the start of the book, this terrible thing, this event happens, whether it’s a bereavement, and an abuse, whatever it is, poverty, alcoholism, a terrible thing has happened. Then, gradually, we move forward in time to a place of happiness, and hope, and that’s where we leave the reader. That works brilliantly, and it’s a great way of structuring an autobiography or a memoir. But the problem with it is that you have to travel through all those dark times before you get to the light. I felt that readers who are recently bereaved or who are living with loss, you shouldn’t have to wait so long. I wanted to give them small pockets, I suppose, of hope.

What the structure does is that it gives you these 18 promises, and they cover what I see as symptoms of grief. Because for me, grief is like a chronic illness you will live with forever, but the symptoms come and go over time. The symptoms can be managed in the way that symptoms of a chronic disorder can be managed. For example, I promise that you will be able to sleep easily again, and I promise that you will be able to take a breath without feeling as though someone’s sitting on your chest crushing it. All these symptoms of grief that are so very acute in the beginning will ease over time.

When I started writing it, it was a very different approach to my fiction. I’m a very methodical, very organized person, I have endless lists. When I write my novels, which are generally very sort of twisty, totally plotted thrillers, I have spreadsheets, I have word tables, I have all sorts. It’s all very, very – I suppose, scientific on my computer. This was very different. I needed to write in pen, and I don’t know why I needed to. It just felt –

[0:11:41] PF: That makes sense. Yes, really connecting, because you were so connected emotionally with this topic. To be able to connect with a page in that same way, that makes perfect sense to me.

[0:11:51] CM: Yes. I think I needed that sort of grounding. Anyway, I bought a new notebook, obviously, because writers take every opportunity to buy new stationery. I had a beautiful notebook with the title. In fact, the title was slightly different. The working title was just promises for grief. The notebook has promises for grief on the front, and I wrote things down as they occurred to me. I carried that notebook around with me for months. I just wrote down everything I thought of about grief, and how it had evolved, and how I’d navigated it. I thought of sort of snapshots, I suppose of my life over the last 18 years. Because grief can do funny things to your memory, and a lot of – when I think back, a lot of the early days come to me in very small pockets.

It’s a little bit like – I’ve been watching a film, but I’ve been walking in and out of the room. I’m just seeing broken scenes, and not quite sure what links them together. When I was very ill with my grief, that’s how things were, that there would be perhaps a moment, a conversation, or a day that stands out in sharp relief. But I’m not quite sure what happened either side of it, because I was so unhappy, I was so desperate.

I wrote all that down. Slowly, what emerged were themes so that I could group things together under particular topics that I wanted to explore. But it was a slow process, I couldn’t write it as fast as I wrote my fiction. Normally, I will say to myself that I will write around 1500 words or 2000 words a day, and I will just keep going, unrelenting, seven days a week until that draft is finished, 100,000 words. Done. Well, I couldn’t possibly write I Promise that fast. In fact, I needed to keep putting it down and leaving it for several days.

There were parts of it that I didn’t want to write at home. I didn’t want to bring all that past grief into a life that is now very settled, very calm, very happy. I didn’t want the two worlds to collide. So instead, I wrote in hotel rooms. When I travelled for work, I would write on airplanes, in trains, anywhere where I knew I could shut myself into my own world and nobody was going to intrude. It didn’t matter if I emerged from a hotel room having cried for an hour, no one was going to ask me what had happened. And yes, so I wrote it in in a much more disjointed way and that order, which I never do with my fiction.

[0:14:41] PF: This is so different from writing, as you’ve just told us. The process was different. What was happening to you healing-wise to be working on this book? Because I know how it lands to read this book, and it’s powerful. So I can only imagine what it was like to be walking through those feelings as you’re writing this book. How did it change you to write this book?

[0:15:04] CM: Well, the irony of it is that, of course, I set out to write this book because I realized how much better I was in my grief. I wanted to show other people that they could get better too. And yet, in writing it, I realized how broken I still was, and how I needed to do more work. I would say that this book tore me apart emotionally, and then put me back together again. I think that’s what it might do for a lot of readers. I wrote the first draft, and actually, I found the first draft really therapeutic, and relatively straightforward to write.

When I handed it in to my editor, I thought, “Ah, that wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.” She called me and she said, “I love this. This is going to be so important. I need you to dig deeper now. I’m going to send the manuscript, and I’m going to mark up where I want you to tell us more.” So I got this manuscript back, and there were lots, and lots of areas where she was saying, “Yes, but give us more.” That second draft, wow, that was like – it was like peeling off my skin, and exposing my wound dead flesh to the world. It was so, so hard, and yet, when I finished, I felt so much lighter. I guess I realized that I hadn’t quite worked through everything that I thought I had.

So it was a real journey, a real process of therapy, and catharsis for me, which feels like a very selfish project. It feels like this is surely something that I could have done by writing a journal. But I don’t think it would have worked like that for me. I don’t think I would have been as honest in my own journal as I am in I Promise. Because I think I felt a huge weight of responsibility to tell it like it is. I pull no punches in this book. In fiction, we talk a lot about likable characters, and how readers need to be able to like the characters. They really [inaudible 0:17:18] and root for them. I can tell you, there are times in this memoir, where I am not a likable character. I felt it was really important, just to be honest, write the way through to never, ever tell anything that isn’t just the raw truth.

[0:17:35] PF: It’s interesting as you talk, because one thing we do mention a lot on the show is the power of journaling. Can you see someone using kind of your similar process? Only they’re not writing it for the world, they’re only writing it to explain it to themselves. Could you see how that would be helpful?

[0:17:52] CM: I think it is immeasurably helpful. I wrote it – my entire writing career is because of journaling. I’d written all my life, I wrote as a child, and writing was always something that I loved to do. But after Alex died, I started writing much more intensively, I suppose. I wrote letters to my unborn children, first of all, when – so one of the reasons, he died from meningitis and a brain bleed, but he was very premature, which of course, made him extra vulnerable. When I knew that the babies were arriving early, I started writing to them, I wrote letters, which is – letters are another way of journaling. You don’t ever have to show those letters to anyone, but it’s incredibly healing to say what you want to say to somebody.

I wrote letters, and then after he died, I carried on writing. I started a blog, and I wrote about grief. And later on, I wrote about the postnatal depression that I suffered with my subsequent children. That was my first foray into writing for other people. What happened is that I would get letters, or emails, messages, comments from people saying, “This spoke to me. I’ve heard myself in your words.” It was the first time I think that I’d realized how powerful words were, and not just as a reader, I’ve always known the power that they have over me as a reader. But it was the first time I’d realized that my words as a writer could have that sort of power.

So, I then began writing for an audience and you know that the rest is history. But those early blog posts and those early journal entries were just for me. I think everybody can benefit from putting their thoughts onto paper.

[0:19:48] PF: That’s excellent. Obviously, the book gives us 18 assurances on grief. Is there one that is your favorite or that resonates with you more than the other promises?

[0:19:59] CM: Oh, I don’t know. I think they’re all so important, and they’re all very heartfelt. I guess the one that stands out is the title and the promise that actually, it’s a slight cheat, I suppose. Or it’s slightly disingenuous to have 18, because it is 18 assurances, but I have intentionally repeated the first and the last. Also, used it as the title, I promise it won’t always hurt like this, because it’s the most important one. It’s the one you need to hear over, and over and over, because you won’t believe it. I didn’t believe it, but it will become true. So if readers take nothing else away from the 18th assurances, I want them to hear that, and know that it won’t always hurt the way it’s hurting for them now.

[0:20:49] PF: This is such a powerful book for anyone who was wading through their grief. But what really struck me too is it’s an incredible tool for the friends and family of someone who’s grieving. Because it provides such a clear lens to look through, to really examine grief. Again, we are all going to face grief throughout our lives, so it can help us with our own. But when we’re dealing with someone who’s trying to handle immeasurable grief, this is really helpful for your circle as well.

[0:21:19] CM: It’s hard to know what to say sometimes, isn’t it? Even those of us who have been through grief can struggle to find the right words. Because we know only too well, our grief isn’t your grief. We all experience this in different ways. Loss is universal, but grief is unique. The words that might seem right for one person might really upset or offend someone else. The great thing about giving a book is that the recipient can read that whenever they want, and they can react to it however they want in private. They can read passages over and over, they can highlight bits, they can throw the book across the room if that –


[0:22:01] PF: [Inaudible 0:22:01]


[0:22:03] CM: And a book is there for you at the precise moment you need it. Of course, you might have friends that you can call at three in the morning. But the reality is that, most of us aren’t going to do that. Even if those friends have been insistent in the fact that they are there for you no matter what, no matter when, we’re not going to do it. We wake up, and we sit in the dark, and we feel so desperately alone, and so incredibly grief stricken. So to be able to turn on the light, and pick up a book, or to turn on your audiobook, and to listen to some words of comfort that might make you feel less alone I think is a really important thing. So yes, I hope that this book finds its way to people who need it, either because they are drawn to it on a bookshelf or because a friend presses it into their hand.

[0:22:57] PF: Absolutely. Again, it is remarkable, it is well written, it’s so personal, and it feels like listening to a friend, and going through this journey with someone else. Clare, I really appreciate you sitting down and talking about this. We’re going to tell our listeners where they can find your book, where they can find your other books, where they can learn more about you. Again, this is just a remarkable book. It’s for anyone going through grief, anyone who is friends, relative of someone who’s trying to manage their grief. It is just an incredible, incredible book, and I thank you for writing it.

[0:23:33] CM: Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about it.


[0:23:40] PF: That was Clare Mackintosh talking about grief and love. If you’d like to learn more about Clare, follow her on social media or learn more about her book, I Promise It Won’t Always Hurt Like This, visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab. While you’re there, be sure to sign up for our weekly Live Happy newsletter. Every Tuesday, we drop a little bit of joy in your inbox with the latest stories, podcast info, and even a happy song of the week. That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.



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