Debbie Augenthaler is the author of the new book You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope. She is a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma, grief, and loss, and she's based in New York City.
Q: Why did you decide to write this guide to grief, and how did you choose the book’s title?
A: My husband died suddenly and shockingly, and I was shattered. I’ve had a lot of loss in my life, but I was totally shattered. In America we are such a grief-phobic society. We just don’t talk about it. We’re not born knowing how to cope with life-altering loss.
It was 20 years ago. I couldn’t find anything that would speak to my experience. What helped me was a good therapist, family and friends. There weren’t any 36-year-old widows I knew. I became a therapist because I wanted to help people like I was helped.
Helen Keller said we belong to the largest company in the world—those who have known suffering. Grief is universal. I wrote the book I wish I had had, and I felt like I could give to my clients to help manage it. I wanted a book that somebody going through it can say, I am not alone, someone else has gone through it.
That’s where the title came from. You are not alone. You’re not going crazy. We don’t often talk about death until our own world breaks apart. We’re living in tumultuous times, there are a lot of people grieving, and I would like to say it’s okay to be a griever.
In so many other cultures it’s integrated into life, not hidden. 150 years ago people died at home. Now it’s in hospitals. In the back of the book is guidance on what to do [for those who are grieving and those who want to help them].
Q: You share some very personal experiences in the book about your own grief after your husband’s death. Was it difficult to write about those experiences?
A: The distance from it gives me the perspective I needed to write this book. I have had therapy and support, and time to heal. People say you can get over it, but there’s always that pain of it.
I did let myself go back and it was hard to relive it. But it was important to write it in the present tense, to show but not tell. It’s written very simply in short chapters so someone can pick it up and put it down.
I wanted the reader to know I’ve been through it. I chose different experiences in different chapters. There’s no timetable. We go back and forth between different phases, but there are common threads of grief.
The experiences I picked were similar to those of other people. They are common kinds of experiences. There’s the universality of, this can happen, and this, and this. That’s why I went back with that intention of particular stories I felt could help many people. I wanted to help more people than I can one-on-one in therapy.
Q: What are some of the things you hope readers take away from your book?
A: I want them to feel hopeful. I want this book to be a little light. I felt hopeless. It feels as if you may never get better, but you will. You can live your life fully again. It will be different, but you can get through it. It can help to know you’re not alone. It can help to hear other people’s stories.
Primarily it’s the hopeful aspect, and there’s a bit of a guide—this is okay to be experiencing. There’s a section about different losses. There are other losses than the obvious one, things you don’t know until you go through it. I want the book to be a gentle guide and instill hope that you are not alone.
With the teenagers in Parkland, when you have something tragic happen, there’s the idea that we all seek to make meaning out of it, but not always right away. For me, losing Jim brought me to wanting to help others going through it. I wasn’t suicidal, but I didn’t want to live in a world he wasn’t in. This will pass.
Q: How are you doing now?
A: I’m doing great. I’m really happy now. I love what I do, I have a huge network of support, I’m in love again. I’m very grateful for the time I had with Jim. He gave me a lot of gifts. But love doesn’t die. I always feel him and will always love him, and that’s okay.
Q: Are you working on another book?
A: I will be. I have ideas for two books—a broader memoir about other things in my life that maybe could help people, and also a workbook that will go with this.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: It’s okay to be a griever. There’s a chapter in the book: it’s not about you, it’s about them. People can avoid you when you’re in grief…you feel people think you have a disease when you’re grieving. It’s not about you. You’re not always going to feel this way. And rituals can offer comfort.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb