MARBLEHEAD – Jan Warner is as surprised as anyone that her book “Grief Day by Day: Simple Practices and Daily Guidance for Living with Loss” has sold 45,000 copies. The book, like the rest of her life, grew out of a desire to help people heal.
“I’ve always had this need to witness the suffering in the world,” said Warner, who lives in Marblehead and New York, and cherishes her Friday night Shabbat dinners where she lights candles with her daughter Erin and granddaughter Gwendy – who attends Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead. “I wish God had created us with free will but more of a tendency towards kindness.”
Warner, who grew up in Great Neck, New York, has worked as a therapist and helped prevent child abuse and suicide, and has traveled to all seven continents. She had a bookstore in Phoenix and eventually moved to northern California with her husband Artie. Then, 12 years ago, Artie died of cancer and Jan began to process the grief that followed. The couple had been together for 23 years, and as the days went on after Artie’s death, she realized that grief was complex and not something that would just disappear one day. “All the ‘wisdom’ that says you’re supposed to get over grieving in six months to a year is ridiculous,” she said.
After his death, she didn’t change the sheets on their bed for three months. Then she went to a bereavement group and met a psychiatrist who hadn’t changed the sheets for a year. Slowly, she realized that doings things – such as helping other people – would be part of her healing. She took a comedy course that led to her performing a 90-minute, one-woman show in New York. And she started a blog, “Stop Thief: Don’t Steal My Grief,” at griefspeaksout.net. That led to her launching her Facebook page, “Grief Speaks Out.”
Her Facebook page found an audience that brings together people from all corners of the earth. “I remember getting the first 100 likes by asking friends and family and thinking 1,000 likes would be respectable,” said Warner. Now, the page has built a virtual community of people who share their stories and their grief. It has more than 2.4 million likes.
“There are seven posts a day: a combination of quotes, pictures and a question. Often the questions come from people on the page. For example, if your in-laws have stopped talking to you or you cry all of the time, you can ask that as a question. “Do you still wear your wedding ring?” was answered by over 140 people.
“I built a community. It’s a loving, supportive community, and it’s only about grief. So there’s no politics – it doesn’t matter if a Jewish person is talking to a Palestinian or a Kurd is talking to an Iraqi because all they’re talking about is grief.”
Then, a few years ago, Jan opened an email. A publisher had invited her to write a book about grieving. The result, was “Grief Day by Day: Simple Practices and Daily Guidance for Living With Loss.” It’s a daily guide that brings the reader through 52 weeks of grief, with quotes by diverse experts on the subject for each day of the week, such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Tom Zuba, with Warner’s annotations.
At the end of each section, there’s an exercise called “Becoming a Grief Whisperer” which gives you practical tools to adapt to your own feelings and experiences. Every five weeks, there’s a section she calls a “resting place” where she deals with things like hope, beauty, faith and music.
“The editor wanted to make sections on things like despair, suicide and exhaustion more cheery, and I said no. There’s nothing cheery about the dark places. The light is in the resting sections.” she said. “Some people start at the beginning of the book and work their way through. Others think: ‘I’m desperate today, let me read about despair;’ or ‘I need some emotional support, let me read about hope.’ ”
The theme she addresses over and over in the book is that there’s no uniform way to grieve. “There’s no right way to do this,” she said. “You’re grieving because you have someone you love, and someone who loves you.”
When asked about the main thing she tells people about grief, Warner returns to her own life in mourning her husband.
“My husband is still dead. He’s been dead for 12 years and he hasn’t come back once. The most important thing I tell people about grief – and I’ve told this to therapists – is you’re trying to heal a trauma that happened in the past. Grief is a trauma that happens every day. When they wake up in the morning and they realize that they have to go through that day again, without the person that was so important to them. That is what they need tools for.
“The depth of grief measures the height of love. My husband and I had a strong and loving relationship when he was alive (even though we also fought) and that relationship continues. However, he is no longer here physically so it is as okay to be sad as it is to be happy. I want his life to matter more than his death so that he continues to inspire me every day.”