Lisa Romeo is the author of the new book Starting With Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love After Loss. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and O: The Oprah Magazine, and she is thesis director for the Bay Path University MFA program. She lives in New Jersey.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?
A: In one sense, momentum carried me toward it. For about six years, I was writing and publishing essays about my experiences with grief and trying to get to know my father better after he died.
Great writing advice is to write what you can’t shut up about, what obsesses you, and for me, it was this topic. I could never understand why people don’t talk about death and about deceased people with more ease and frequency. I wanted to keep exploring that.
When it seemed a body of work was accumulating, I pulled together an essay collection, which didn’t sell. All the people I trusted told me to rewrite it as a more traditional memoir, but I resisted and I shelved it for a while.
But it kept nagging at me and eventually I challenged myself to do just that, to shape/rewrite/revise all the material into a somewhat more linear narrative (though true to my style, there’s a lot of moving around in time and place, too).
Q: You write, "Can a relationship really continue, and even get better, when one of the two is gone?" How would you answer this question?
A: I believe this is possible, yes! The love remains, and so does the essence of the beloved person; they are part of us and in a very real sense, do not depart this earth as long as they are present in our memory.
I admit this requires some suspension of belief; it’s a stretch. But actively continuing the relationship, the conversation, to me is a lot more healing and makes a lot more sense than trying to forget or “get over it” (which I do not believe is possible).
Now that I’m hearing from readers, it’s clear that many other people experience “conversations” with their departed loved ones but are very reluctant to share that with other people, lest they be thought unstable or just loony.
But who says you have to stop talking to your loved ones just because they’ve died? Or seek their counsel? If that’s how your grief unspools, then go there, indulge yourself, see how it makes you feel and what you might learn from those conversations with your dead dad, mom, sister, etc.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The title was a genuine collaborative effort between me, a small group of trusted writer friends (my “hive mind”), my husband and sons, and the publisher.
Working with those friends and family members, we came up with 20 possible titles and subtitles, a mix and match kind of list. I sent my top five of each to the publisher, who chose the final title and subtitle from that list.
I think it’s perfect because it’s literally what happened: my father and I started “talking” again when it was time, traditionally, to say goodbye. After loss, I discovered the many ways love had been present all along.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I believe we as a society should be able to talk more openly about death, loss, grief, and related issues, and this book perhaps is my one small contribution to urging folks in that direction. These are some of life’s most significant experiences and it would be great if they were more a part of our collective conversation.
I also hope the book might help reassure people that grief is not rigid; there’s no way to do grief right or wrong. It does not have to conform to some prescribed set of stages, and however you experience grief is okay.
If talking to your dead parent in the middle of the night while eating his favorite snack makes you feel good, brings back warm memories, then why not?
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Trying to decide on book number two; three nonfiction ideas are currently vying for attention and as is my way, I’m writing essays about them, seeing which one grabs me most.
In the meantime, I’m doing all the things I normally do: teach, run workshops, coach writers, edit manuscripts. I have two sons in college, so those things make up my normal workday, keep the paychecks coming. And the truth is, my own writing is always enhanced by what I learn from all of those activities, by working with so many other writers.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: When I’m having a writing problem, I do something relatively mindless like needlepoint, walking, laundry, or going for a long drive—and the solution always occurs to me. Napping is also a good way to let the writing mind settle and find new direction.
I’d like to say that dark chocolate also has the same effect, but so far, not so. I’ll keep trying though!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb