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Katie Hawkins-Gaar was widowed at 31
Her newsletter, My Sweet Dumb Brain, explores the lengthy rollercoaster that is grief
Katie Hawkins-Gaar was 31 when her husband, Jamie, collapsed while running a half-marathon and died in 2017. A year-and-a-half after Jamie’s death, Katie launched her newsletter, My Sweet Dumb Brain, all about the ups and downs of grief. The title is inspired by both her brain’s difficulty facing her new reality, and her continual focus on self-compassion. (I love this piece on pain versus suffering.) Since then, she’s written many universally relatable and inspiring pieces, including a recent New York Times piece about grieving both her husband and her dream of being a mother. She is vulnerable, kind, driven, and a professional mentor to other women, all while working through a colossal loss. We spoke in early October about what it’s like to be a young widow, the challenges of sharing personal stories with a public audience, and the kind of friendships that survive grief’s darkest moments.
We need to talk
Jillian Anthony: Why did My Sweet Dumb Brain feel like the right project for you?
Katie Hawkins-Gaar: Jamie died in February 2017, and all of the advice I heard from people was to not make any giant decisions in the first year. But I was pretty sure that I wanted to take a break from work. Being reminded how short life is was one thing, but being at Jamie’s funeral and seeing how many people were impacted by his life and the stories that people shared—like, no one shared, “He was so great, he showed up to work on time!” At the end of 2017 I told work that I was going to take a year off to process grief and discover who I was. One of the first things that I discovered about myself in that first year is that I’m terrible at taking time off. And I think it’s a little scary too, having loads of time to work through grief and sit with your feelings. Before long I wanted an outlet for all of that hard work I was doing. And that’s where the newsletter was born. There was enough happening in real time from week to week that I felt like, I want to process it as it goes along.
A year-and-a-half into your grief process you felt that your process was still changing week to week?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I still feel that way. Prior to Jamie dying I’ve lived with depression and anxiety, and it’s almost like his death gave me permission to talk about all of my ups and downs.
And you called it My Sweet Dumb Brain. How did you decide to focus on being kinder to yourself?
There’s so many lessons that I just seem to have to keep learning over and over again—something as simple as, when you drink enough water every day you feel a lot better. Those are the moments where I’m like, oh, you sweet dumb brain, why do you have to keep relearning that? Spending time with friends will always make you feel better but sometimes it takes work. And in those moments my sweet dumb brain can be like, ah, it’s not worth it, and I can be a little self-sabotaging, and I have to remind myself: this will make you feel better. For whatever reason our brains seem to be wired to focus on the negative or make the same mistakes or get in the same patterns.
When I think of myself as a scientific subject, it helps sometimes. When I was going through the roughest part of my breakup, I read the psychology of what I was going through and thought about how I’m addicted to this person, and if I was addicted to heroin, no one would expect me to wake up two months later and feel great. So that helped me work through some of that and forgive myself a little bit. Can you walk me through your general grief timeline so far?
We want the grief progress to be linear, and it’s absolutely not. I remember in my first year of grief and especially the first few months, I was so desperate for some kind of way to track progress, or a checklist of things I was supposed to be getting through or realizing. Because it felt like I would be stuck in this really dark and hopeless pace forever, which now more than two-and-a-half years later I’m really happy to say I’m not in that place, although versions of it come back from time to time. And as far as I know from talking to other widows and widowers, it always will. Grief is something that I’ll always carry with me throughout my life, but it is much more manageable. I don’t think of it as a burden as much as I used to, even to the point where I can see some of the gifts of grief.
What were the first months like?
The first few months were so raw. Jamie died while running a half-marathon; he just collapsed and died. It was the most unexpected, shocking thing ever. I was standing there at the finish line waiting to cheer him on. I remember I really, really wanted a cause of death because when somebody hears that a seemingly healthy 32-year-old guy dies they’re like, Okay, well, if he didn’t die in an accident, was it suicide or was it drugs? Four months later the coroner finally called and said they found an incredibly rare disease. It’s called fibromuscular dysplasia. It was so bizarre to me that on that Saturday I left my house as a wife and returned as a widow, with no warning whatsoever. For four months, the fact I didn’t have a concrete reason why he died was pretty much impossible to comprehend. There were definitely sweet dumb brain moments. I would walk around the house and think that I saw Jamie. I think after getting the cause of death, that’s when reality really started to hit. It was hard to see any kind of future, see to the next week much less years ahead, because everything that I thought my life was and my entire identity had shifted. I got through it with friends and therapy, and some very awkward dates where I’m sure I talked about my dead husband way too much. The first year’s just all about survival. And then you make it through that year and realize, oh, nothing has changed. He’s still dead. I’m still a widow. My whole trust in the universe is still incredibly shaken. I’ve had a ton of people tell me that the second year is the hardest. For me, it wasn’t as consistently hard as the first year—the first year felt like this black cloud I had to make it through—but the second year the ups and downs were way more extreme.
And that was the year you weren’t working?
Yeah. It was also the year I started dating my boyfriend, who’s still my partner today. 2018 was also the year I was really desperate to find some kind of purpose. So I did start to do more freelancing and take a little more control of my life. In the first year I was counting days since Jamie had died and, this is probably going to sound way too dramatic, but I felt like the prisoner notching the days onto the wall. It’s weird because you want time to go more quickly, but then I also found myself really upset at how much the world was continuing to move on even though Jamie had died.
Yeah, and on the hard days I’m sure grief feels like a prison; you don’t want to be feeling like that.
Absolutely. What’s so interesting about grief is you feel very alone in it and people aren’t great at talking about it or acknowledging it or knowing how to support other people through it, and it blows my mind because we are all going to experience this. Every single one of us is going to go through grief, and probably several times in our lives, to varying degrees. As a society we should have a grief playbook and know how to support this—not just when something bad happens. We all feel so ill-equipped to respond to it.
I completely agree, and that’s so much what my project is about: how do we get through this and how can I be better equipped, to not only deal with it myself but also to support others? What is one thing you wish people knew about grief or how to support people who are grieving?
Just acknowledging it is so important. For grief around someone who died, I think people make the mistake of thinking that when you say the person’s name or bring up the person who died, it’s going to make the other person sad. The reality is I love it when people talk about Jamie, and especially when people tell me that they miss him. Thank you for telling me that because sometimes I worry I’m the only one. It also makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you for struggling or having a hard time because if people are avoiding the topic, it seems like, oh, there must be something bad about what I’m experiencing, when in reality we’re just human beings with feelings, and it’s natural to be sad when you’re going through a breakup or when somebody died.
Your friend Rebecca is your editor on the newsletter. You met her and Jamie in college?
We all lived in the dorms freshman year.
I want to ask about your friendship and collaboration with her. My best friend called off her wedding two weeks before my breakup, so we’re both going through it. But we’ve been such an amazing support system for each other. Also, writing about such personal things when you’re in the depths of grief is really terrifying. I wanted to make sure what I was sending out into the world was something I would be proud of in a year, and I leaned on my friends to sense check me. How has it been working with Rebecca while she supported you in grief?
I’ve definitely had moments where what I was going through or writing about felt too raw. It’s a thin line, and Becca really helped me with that. I also think it’s been really great for our friendship to work together this way; it’s brought us closer together because we’re thinking about really heavy and important life topics. Since Jamie died, Becca has become a mom of two, and it seemed in a lot of ways—especially when I was feeling really angry—that at the same time that her life and her family was expanding, my life and world was getting a lot smaller. Right before he died, Jamie and I were going through the adoption process, so Becca and I had talked about, “Oh my gosh, we’re both going to be moms at the same time,” and imagining what that relationship was going to be like, and instead we have a very different relationship. I have had conversations with her on the phone where I was sobbing and letting out some of my anger at Jamie’s death on her, saying things like, “Why do you deserve to have two children and I don’t even have a husband?” She would answer honestly and say, “I have no idea. I think about it all the time and I have no idea why the world can be so imbalanced.” I just really admire and appreciate her for sticking with me through those difficult conversations and realizing that I was asking those hard questions because I was so devastated and confused.
What an amazing friend. I can feel your pain and what would lead you to ask a question like that of your friend. There is no understanding, but you want to understand so much.
You try so badly to make sense of it. I’m still learning how to accept that some things just don’t make sense, and things don’t happen for a reason.
You link to things you’re reading and thinking about every week. Is there one thing you’d say really affected your healing process?
The Terrible Thanks for Asking podcast is a lifesaver. The other is this book by Pema Chödrön called When Things Fall Apart. The lesson is basically when things in our life fall apart, our natural instinct is to want to get life together as quickly as possible, to be like, Okay, the pain’s over, everything’s fine. The reality is things will fall apart and then you get them back together and then they’ll fall apart in a different way. The goal is to ride the ups and downs and better prepare yourself for the next time things fall apart.
More about Katie: Katie Hawkins-Gaar is a freelance writer and journalism consultant living in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her writing has been published in several outlets, including The New York Times, Glamour, Outside Magazine, CNN, and Vox. Katie writes a weekly newsletter called My Sweet Dumb Brain, which she began to help process the ups and downs of grief after her husband died unexpectedly at 32. She also runs digitalwomenleaders.com, a site offering free mentoring sessions for women working in journalism. Katie is passionate about improving relationships through transparency and vulnerability, and is a firm believer that you can learn a lot by simply listening.
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