Author Interview: Kathleen Sullivan

There are some parts of life that are unavoidable. To love is to someday lose, as Kathleen Sullivan had to learn the hard way early on. Grief and Self-Care is her offering to loss, a guidebook to self-compassion during one of the hardest experiences we will ever go through as human beings. While Sullivan herself recognizes that the book can’t make the pain go away (nor should it), it can make the time and process gentler on the griever. 

A short book that is strategic in its brevity for the scattered minds of grievers, this book is an important one that shouldn’t be overlooked from your library. But to fully understand why, it’s important to dig deeper into its history.

Thank you to Kathleen Sullivan for ‘sitting down’ with me to chat about her book, her future publications, and the history around this little gem that I’m certain will go on to change lives.

(If you haven’t yet, you can check out my book review of Grief and Self-Care.)

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am originally from Boston, MA. I moved to Pittsburgh, PA a year after my father died in hopes of getting back into the swing of a “normal” life again. As a 28-year-old, I have experienced more grief than the average person does in their lifetime. Instead of letting the depression run my life, I decided to take everything I know & continue to learn to help others through their grief and loss.

Tell us about your book, Grief & Self Care.

Grief & Self Care shares my personal story of loss as well as several proven self-care techniques that can make your journey through grief a little less difficult. I wrote this book because when I was going through the height of my grief after my dad died, I realized there wasn’t much information out there about how to care for yourself through grief. So I put some information out there in hopes that it will make someone else’s journey a little less difficult. It covers topics like journaling, pets, professional help, and even has a section about what not to say to someone who is grieving. 

What is your favorite book, and has it inspired how you write? How?

My favorite book is Suicidal by Jesse Bering. This book is about why we kill ourselves. It is a tough read but I highly recommend it. It is brutally honest, eye-opening, and informative. This book has inspired me to always continue to put information out there that answers questions and helps the people who need answers. It also inspires me to write about the taboo because although it may be taboo for one person, someone else may be desperately needing the information you possess. 

What are some key takeaways you’re hoping readers get from your book?

The main take-away I want readers to get from my book is that it is okay to slow down and take care of yourself. Take all the time YOU need to grieve, not what your company policy says and not what someone else has told you. Grief is unique to everyone, put yourself first. 

I have unfortunately experienced my own grief journey in relation to my late wife, and one of the things that was always explained in grief counseling despite it’s debate are the five stages of grief as noted by Kubler-Ross. Do you have your own opinions formed on those stages, or other described stages (as there are many alternate theories)?

This is such a great question. Not known to too many people, there are actually six stages denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and meaning. I certainly believe that every grieving individual goes through these feelings and emotions but I am not a fan of the word stages. It insinuates that you have to go through them in sequential order and then people start to overthink why they aren’t at a different stage yet. I look at the “stages” as a guide, a person can expect to experience these six things but could possibly only experience a few of them.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was spot on that an individual goes through these feelings however, I think it could have been better described and shown that it varies per person, etc. I personally was struck with anger first, never really touched bargaining, then hit denial and meaning, and then once I found meaning is when I started to accept my father’s loss.

What is different about your book?

Grief and Self-Care is different based on the basis behind the book. It is based solely on self-care techniques to make it through the grieving process naturally. Never once does it suggest medication as a route, as I personally do not find the benefit of medications. The source of succeeding is empowerment and personal strength which is more powerful than any medication out there.

In her book Resilient Grieving by Lucy Hone, she describes the ‘grief reaction’ versus the ‘grief response.’ The reaction being how you react to the grief (sorrow, sadness, depression) and the response being at a later date where you decide what to do with your grief moving forward. How do you feel about this explanation, and how do you think self-care ties into how we can move forward with grief?

I think that Lucky Hone was spot on with her explanation. Self-care is crucial to the grief reaction as well as the grief response in its own way. When the reaction first smacks you in the face, it is imperative that you take a step back from your “normal” life and take the time to process the loss. An example of not doing this would be when someone decides to “throw themselves into work”. That is the opposite of self-care and you are just ignoring the loss. With the grief response, putting self-care at the top of your list of things to do can really make a difference in how the grief affects your life after the loss. Meaning, when you finally go back to work, you can actually focus on your work and get the job done without being heavily distracted.

What are your plans for future books?

I wrote a grief journal that includes writing prompts a couple of weeks after the release of Grief & Self Care. I plan to continue writing about grief in hopes to spread awareness and teach others that it is okay to let yourself feel whatever feelings surround their grief.

What inspires you to write?

My love for helping others is what inspires me to write. I am also an aunt to two beautiful kids back home in Boston and I want them to learn to grow up in a world that is a little bit kinder than the one we live in now. I grew up in a family that values philanthropy & that is a large part of who I am today. I live to help make other peoples lives a little bit easier.

What do you enjoy about publishing, and what do you struggle with?

The most enjoyable thing about publishing is seeing my work actually help people. Even if it is constructive criticism I value it immensely. The biggest struggle with publishing my book is marketing it, however I have touched into my creative side a little bit more and have some exciting things up my sleeve to try.

What has been your greatest struggle writing, and how would you inspire other writers to overcome it?

Grief is a large topic, there are thousands of different things you can talk about when it comes to grief. My greatest struggle writing is narrowing it down and making my books short enough that it isn’t a struggle to read. In today’s society people are always on the move and moving at faster speeds than ever before, the last thing I want is someone to not purchase my book because it is too long for them to read, they don’t have enough “time”. So I do my best to organize my thoughts and leave the “filler” out. I would rather have a bunch of shorter books highly concentrated on the specific topic than a large book that has a lot of “stuff” in it. In order to overcome this, I suggest a lot of organizing, brainstorming and outlining throughout the whole writing process.

How can we purchase your book?

You can purchase Grief and Self-Care on Amazon. It is available in paperback and kindle.

 

Book Review: Grief and Self-Care

When a loved one is taken from us, It can feel like the world has crumbled to dust. Grief and Self-Care doesn’t try to make sense of the rubble; it keeps you breathing until the dust settles to daylight.

Grief and Self-Care by Kathleen Sullivan is a succinct and insightful guide for how to effectively take care of your needs in the midst of grief, whether it be grief from the loss of a loved one, a divorce, onset of disability, or other debilitating change. During a pandemic that has cost us over 960 thousand lives worldwide, there has never been a more appropriate time for a book like Sullivan has created.

The most debilitating emotional pain we will ever face as human beings is the loss of someone we cherish. The first time you lose someone that close to you, especially if you’re young and those around you have yet to suffer any similar loss, it can feel like you’re walking blindly through a labyrinth. While Sullivan’s book doesn’t aim to tackle all aspects of grief, what it does is make one particular aspect clear and concise: self-care

In this book Sullivan covers self-care techniques like writing, hobbies, non-competitive exercise, professional help, and even a section for loved ones on what not to say to someone who’s grieving.  Options are laid out in chapters to try, each with an explanation, examples from personal experience, and references to outside resources should you like to learn more.

I found Sullivan’s writing to be very accessible, which is paramount when it comes to a book that may be read in a time of crisis. I appreciated that Sullivan highlights quotes from different books from other accredited authors on grief, which can be found in the References section, giving even more credence to the techniques.

The Good

As you can read more about in our interview, Sullivan’s goal is to not overwhelm the reader, which I find to be a fantastic strategy. While for myself I soaked up books like a sponge a few months after my loss, when my grief first began I didn’t have the concentration for reading long form. This is a fairly common response, and one reason why I’m fascinated to see Sullivan’s future works as they tackle other aspects of grief.

I also think the longevity of these techniques is important. While techniques for stopping panic attacks and fighting through sleepless nights may have been helpful (and perhaps subjects for future publications) the techniques outlined in the chapters can instead become habitual. They’re long-form self-care, not just short-term. Grief often comes in waves that the griever can’t predict; having set routines means getting through the hard days through sheer force of established habits rather than drowning in the debris.

Most of all, there’s a balance of authority and authenticity in this book that is often missing from grief related publications. Half the time the grief books I’ve read are from professionals that can be too clinical for many readers. The other half the time they’re memoirs from those affected from a heavy loss, and the authority of their words just isn’t present. 

Sullivan is a crisis counselor at The Crisis Text Line, works, with a non-profit for suicide prevention and awareness, and is pursuing her masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She has the authority, and yet she comes across as quite down-to-earth and empathetic. She’s also dealt with enough grief personally that I get the feeling that even more than a professional, she’s first someone who’s been there and wants to help.

Should You Read It?

If you or someone you love is going through a loss, then I give you a resounding ‘yes.’ In fact, I have already gifted it to a friend of mine in my own grief group that is at a stage of their journey where they needed to re-approach their self-care routine. This is a book where I put my money where my mouth is.

The thing with grief and loss is that no one wants to deal with it. It’s painful. It’s challenging. This isn’t a book I ever want to have to suggest to anyone because it means they’re suffering. But if you’re in that space and you’re drowning, this book can be a lifeline. Not for everyone—there is certainly a matter of taste and timing with grief books as I’ve experienced myself. But when you’re approaching climbing a mountain every tool is worth a chance.

The one caveat I have to this book that I would feel remiss if I did not mention, is that Sullivan and I disagree on the merits of medication (to read about her views on medication, see our interview.) Though certainly not all people going through a loss should rely on medication, I think in certain cases there are benefits to medication prescribed by a Psychiatrist. This is especially true if the patient is a danger to themselves or others, or is dealing with unmanageable insomnia. I’ve seen medication do wonders for some, and I’ve seen it do nothing for others. It depends fully on the individual, and how their own grief manifests.

Spark Level

I rated Grief and Self-Care as spark level Torch. It’s an informative self-care book that grievers can carry like a guiding light through the labyrinth of loss to help keep them moving forward when all else is veiled in darkness.

Trigger Warnings: Death and loss.