"There are no death bloggers": An erstwhile mommy blogger reckons with widowhood

Author Rebecca Woolf talks about death, grief — and relief

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 21, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Woman in silhouette, sitting on a bench in a moody landscape at water's edge (Getty Images/YinYang)
Woman in silhouette, sitting on a bench in a moody landscape at water's edge (Getty Images/YinYang)

Rebecca Woolf was supposed to be a divorcée. The author and award-winning Girls Gone Child blogger already had one foot out of her failing marriage when her husband Hal was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. Four months later, he was gone, and among the numerous feelings Woolf found herself newly saddled with, there was relief. In widowhood, there was freedom.

In her exhilarating, fiercely frank "All of This: A Memoir of Death and Desire," Woolf steers the reader through the complicated  waters of caretaking and  grieving through mixed emotions. Prior to Hal's illness, the marriage had already become "toxic." After his death, Woolf felt a pressure to perform sadness while she longed for sexual liberation. And there was no road map for such an ambiguous bereavement.

Like Jennette McCurdy's stunning "I'm Glad My Mom Died," "All of This" is a barrier-breaking exploration of death, one in which the end of life does not magically transform a messy personal history. And it's a validating affirmation that there's no one right way to feel or act in the aftermath of loss.

Salon talked to Woolf recently via Zoom about what we get wrong about grieving, "the monotony of death," and why we need to be both the "harbors and ships" in our own lives. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This book was a real departure for you as a writer in a lot of ways.

In my head, I never felt like I was hiding anything so much as I was using metaphor. So much of my blogging was finding ways to talk about what was going on in a way that maybe people didn't know. It felt like I was subtweeting. All the stuff that I wrote about in my book, I actually wrote about in real time on my blog, but metaphorically. Then it was turning everything that I had written for the last many years inside out, and showing it from the underbelly instead of from the surface. 

There are going to be things that people read that surprise them. But I also feel like I was working my way into eventually writing about all of this. It felt very natural to sit down and to know where I wanted to go next as a writer was just to go deeper and deeper and get into the parts of marriage and sexuality people weren't really talking about.

Once I got started, it became like this thing where I was like, "Well, what else aren't people willing to talk about? What do women feel shame about?" That's what I want to write about. It became, why aren't we talking about this? Why are we talking about this? Once I went there and it felt actually really good to get in there, it was like I couldn't stop.

You start the book with your husband giving you permission to tell this story. That is a unique jumping off point. I want to ask how you arrived at that being a place to start.

He gave me permission to tell a story — and not necessarily this one. That was what f**cked me up, because he had never, in the 13-plus years we were married and I was writing about my life from the moment we met, ever gave me permission to write about anything pertaining to him. Every time I mentioned him in anything, I would send it to him first for his approval. I feel very strongly about consent and making sure everyone feels comfortable. And I understand that I'm a liability to be married to, to be associated with, because I write about my life. I always, always have. It was out of respect for him that he got the final say in what I was writing about when I mentioned him at all.

When he got sick, knowing that the only way I've ever needed to make a living was writing about in my life, he was like, "This is what you have to do. You're going to write about the story when I die. You're going to write about all this." But he didn't know what that meant because in the past, there would be the one good time, and I would write about that. Sometimes I'm waiting for him to come to me in a dream and get mad at me, or the opposite. I'm waiting for some message, and there's been none.

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The first version of this book, the first proposal that I talked to my agent about, was not this book. It was a book about the death. It was a book about the feelings that I was having, but not the full spectrum. When I started working on the proposal, it felt false. It felt like another grief memoir about a widow. It felt more performative than honest. I was like, I can't write this. If I'm going to write this book, I've got to write this book. So I was given permission to write a book.

I feel very autonomous in my choices to write what I wrote about. I know that a lot of people will disagree with me. I don't know if he would have. I'm sure there are certain things that he wished I didn't write about. But I only included in that book what I felt was important to include. There's plenty of stories that I didn't include, but I did feel like I needed to include certain things because I don't feel like they're specific to my experience. My marriage was very much a normal, dysfunctional marriage. I don't think that it was in any way anomalous.

I think women curate the experience of motherhood and marriage as being what you're supposed to want, what you're supposed to have. To show a crack in that armor feels like a betrayal of the sisterhood. But then if you do say, "Well, I'm getting a divorce," people comes out of the woodwork like, "Girl, I need to talk to you." That's when you get the true story.

We're having this really profound moment where we are crossing over from one version of sisterhood to another. I think Trump's presidency had a lot to do with it. I think #MeToo had a lot to do with it. There's now this other side where it's like, wait a minute, sh_t's f_cked up. Why are we pretending like it's not? Why are we protecting the people who are f**cking us over? What? Huh?

"It shouldn't be brave to tell the truth, but it is."

We've been doing this forever. And why, for what? I hope we're just getting started, being really honest about our experiences and recognizing how universal they are. It shouldn't be brave to just tell the truth, but it is. It's brave and it's scary and people are worried about it. It's a liability to be honest and it's so much easier and so much safer to protect this heteronormative, patriarchal status quo. That's why everything is such a mess.

It's time, and it doesn't have to be a hashtag or a movement. We can talk openly and honestly about our experiences without shaming each other for them. I hope that we're on our way to doing that. The truth is we're all human and we're messy. I wasn't a perfect wife at all, but I was miserable and that mattered. I was desperate to get out of my marriage and I was relieved when it was over. And yes, it was not the ending that I would've chosen. But it was an ending, so I was relieved.

What's the line that you wrote? "Death does not forgive our sins." Often there is this expectation that it does. That when someone has died, they're off the hook for the ways in which they hurt you, the ways in which they let you down. The ways in which you just weren't in a good relationship. It doesn't mean that they were a bad person. It doesn't mean that you were bad. It's all of that. And we don't talk about that.

Totally. We don't talk. It literally comes down to the fact that we're so bad at death culturally. We think that death is the worst thing that can happen to a person. Even someone who we've had a toxic relationship with, as soon as they die, the worst thing has happened to them. It's like they've been absolved because they've been pulled into this void of worst possible scenario. How can you be mad at a dead person? I think it has to do with our fear of death and relationship with death, the reason why we can't speak ill of the dead.

I also really appreciate it that you talk about how just tedious dying can be. How open-ended and boring and strange. 

The monotony of dying. I have this picture, and it's the last picture I have. I'm so glad I took it because it's such a powerful photo. Whenever I look at it, I'm like, "I can't believe that happened." My youngest were six when he was dying, and then my other two were 13 and 10. My son, he has his phone, so he is on Instagram, just scrolling through, doing what teenagers do. And [my husband] was at this point non-responsive, just lying in his bed, dying, which takes a minute. My twins were putting stuffed animals on him, like on his head, on his shoulder, just placing them all over him. Almost like a game. Like, "Oh, I'm putting it on his head, and he is not moving."

This is all they know, this is their experience, and they're doing what they need to do. Just watching my kids continue to be kids and do kids things, even though their dad was now in this state, it was so profound to me and moving. This is part of life. This is what happens. One day I'll be lying in this bed and hopefully my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be doing the same thing, drawing mustaches on my face or whatever. I want them to. I want that.

You describe his friends bursting into tears when they see him. I get it. But also there's so much around this process because we don't know how to prepare people for it, as patients, as healthcare providers. So then what happens is it comes down on the spouse, and it's supposed to be a privilege. It's supposed to be the greatest honor of your life to go through this often really painful, scary, boring experience.

I was a mommy blogger for years. That's what I did since I was pregnant with my son. I've written about pregnancy and birth and all the experience of raising children. It was such this circular moment for me to be again caretaking. Visiting my twins in the NICU and visiting him in the hospital, sleeping in the hospital, going back and forth between, was so similar.

The amount of books and resources and support you get as a new mother now, with the internet... but there are no death bloggers. There's no resources specifically if you're a young person dealing with a death. I didn't know any, I had nobody who had ever been in my position like a peer.

"Let's normalize the relief part of it."

I saw Jennnette McCurdy's one-woman show "I'm Glad My Mom Died" here in LA a few months ago. I was so excited because I was like, yeah, let's normalize this. Let's normalize the relief part of it.

I have yet to have a relationship with anyone where there wasn't conflict, where there wasn't pain. The relief and the freedom side of it that you talk about is so resonant for so many people.

I have friends who've lost  parents, who have gone through similar experiences. And then feeling guilty for being relieved... God, the fact that people feel guilty for feeling such normal human emotions just breaks my heart. It's so justified, all of those feelings.

You can't feel relieved that someone has died unless there's great love there. When somebody's in your life that you love, even when you cannot stand them, you're still beholden to them. You can't let them go. There's a part of you that's always going to hold onto them or be there for them or have these feelings.

When they're gone, that gets to go away too. I honestly don't think there can be a relief without love. I think it's actually a response to loving someone so much that you didn't leave them, that you didn't cut them off, that you didn't stop thinking about them, stop feeling for them. All of these things, which when somebody dies, you get to release. It's almost like you're in a purgatory with somebody emotionally, physically. In death, the purgatory goes away. It makes total sense that anyone would feel relieved with the death of someone they loved and had a complicated relationship because they're no longer in that purgatorial space with them.

I had grieved my marriage years before it ended, years before. There was a point when he was like, "Let's go to therapy, let's try to save this."  It was like those tire things where once you pass them, if you go backwards, your tires are going to pop. I had already left the parking lot. There was no going back. The idea of going to therapy felt violent, because I was so done. It was so in my body that I was like, how dare you even assume that I would want to in any way rehabilitate this?

You talk about both of you being released and both of you being free. That is what it can feel like when there's a death, especially when you did have time to plan, prepare, to think.

And four months of caretaking feels like four years. I do not know how people do that for long periods of time. I've spoken to a lot of women in the last four years who have been caretaking their chronically ill partners, and holy sh_t, I do not know how one can stay sane and do that. His prognosis was from the day one was not good. I knew that there was just limited for me. I couldn't have done that if I was like, this is my new life. I wasn't going to, there's no way.

And you have a healthcare system that says, "So, good luck to you! Now, you're going to do wound care. You're going to administer medication. You going to change catheters."

All of that was also shocking to me. I had no idea. I was like, "We'll have hospice." No, no, no, no, no. Hospice is a home healthcare worker coming to your house once a week to take vitals. That was it. I was like, "Wait a minute. So who's going to do everything else?" Oh, it's me, right. I'm doing it. At least I had my mother came up to help me with my kids. So many people don't have that family help, friends coming in to help pick up kids. I was essentially with him around the clock. And I had four children.

To someone who is having this kind of experience right now, what do you want that person reading your story to know about what it's really like on the inside of it? And what's on the other side of it?

"A lot of people keep themselves from really running wild and free after someone dies."

I want people to feel seen for having every kind of feeling. For wanting their dying spouse to die faster. For wanting to get on the other side of this. For not wanting to be there. For having all the different feelings that happen when you're taking care of someone who's dying. I want people to be able to feel like it's okay to have the full extent of feelings. And to know that on the other side of it, is okay to feel relief and freedom in all these things. To feel like you can finally exhale. I know that guilt is attached to so much when you're taking care of somebody because your body works, because you get to live, because you get to have this afterlife. I think a lot of people keep themselves from really running wild and free through the field after someone dies, because they feel like they can't. They feel like they'll be judged. They feel like they have to be performative in their grief and pretend like this isn't something that they also feel relief about. And I just want people to feel like they can live.

You can hold more than one truth at the same time.

You not only you can, but you have to. You have to. As a single parent, I write about sex and dating, and that's obviously a large part of my book too. I was like, "Whoa, I'm single again. I've got a body, I'm going to use it while I can." But mothers, we're expected to be the harbors and not the ships.

My journey in these last four years is, I can be both. I have to be both actually to feel like I'm thriving in my life and not just surviving it. At home, I am this. I am the harbor. I keep my dating life separate from my domestic life. This is who I am. But I also have to leave. I have to go explore. I have to feel things. I want women, specifically mothers, to feel empowered to be ships because everywhere is telling us to be the harbor and to be selfless receptacles of everyone's pain and everyone's needs. We don't even know what we want any more because we're so used to taking care of everyone else.

When someone's dying, you realize it even more. The only time I ever felt like I was a good wife was when he was dying. I was like, this is what I do. This is what I'm good at. But this isn't all that I am. I just want every person who is going through any sort of transition to feel like they can be the ship too.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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