Colin and Hart. (Courtesy of Colin Campbell)

Weekend Listening: How to Live After Profound Loss

Colin Campbell lost his two teenage children in a car crash. He says that the way we treat grieving people is cruel and backward, and that it needs a reimagining.

Four years ago, Colin Campbell, his wife Gail, and their two teenage kids were driving to Joshua Tree, when they were T-boned by a drunk and high driver going 90 miles an hour. Colin and Gail survived. Their two children, Ruby and Hart, did not.

How do you live after that nightmare? How do you support a friend, a colleague, a brother or sister, who literally does not know how to go on?

Colin’s new book, Finding the Words, attempts to answer those unimaginable questions. It tells the story not only of his own pain in the weeks and months following Ruby and Hart’s death, but also breaks down our society’s misconceptions about grief, which he calls the “grief orthodoxy.” It provides practical advice for a different kind of approach to grief—one that is more truthful, real, and connected.

People say to the grieving “there are no words” because they’re scared to confront the hard conversation. As Colin writes, it “acts as a perfect conversation killer. This empty phrase immediately ends any chance of a dialogue about loss and mourning. It encapsulates all that is wrong with how our society handles grief.”

This conversation, which you can find excerpts of below, is a bit different than the ones we usually have on Honestly. But when I think about the name of the show, this feels like exactly the kind of conversation we should be having. —BW

On Colin’s family, the crash, and coping with fear:

BW: I wonder if you could start by telling us a little bit about your family. 

CC: My wife Gail and I met in graduate school for theater directing, so we’re theater nerds. She went on to write for television as a comedy writer, so she’s very funny. I always thought I didn’t want to have kids, until I met Gail. Then suddenly I wanted to get married and have kids with her. We created the family that we had always dreamed of, a boy and a girl. They were sweet, kind, and loving, and our whole family was kind and loving.

BW: As someone who wasn’t sure that you wanted to become a father, what most surprised you about becoming a parent? 

CC: That it was so fun. That I loved being a dad. I loved spending time with little kids. Two-year-olds in general do not appeal to me, but my two-year-olds did. When they turned three, I was like, “Oh, thank God.” I love when they kept getting older, and that’s the extra heartbreak. I was just so excited to have them be adults. In the end, we were just entering a new dynamic, it felt like. We didn’t have to actively parent so much. We just got to hang out together and play, which is so beautiful. 

BW: Tell us what happened on June 12, 2019. 

CC: We were going to Joshua Tree, and we had just made an offer on a house there as a getaway vacation home, because all four of us loved going to Joshua Tree. So when we found this house, it was like a dream come true for us as a family. We were headed back there at night, because the following morning I had meetings with somebody who would see they could put a pool in for us. Ruby had already chosen the spot for the pool, and it was a joyous ride. It was sort of like a high point for us as a family. Once we crested the hill up to the high desert, it was only about another 20 minutes to the house, when a drunk and high driver, a repeat DUI offender going 40 miles above the speed limit, T-boned us. The point of impact was the rear passenger door, Ruby’s door. Ruby and Hart were killed basically on contact. The paramedics came and they tried valiantly to save them, but they never really breathed after the crash. So to my mind, they died on impact. Hart was 14 and Ruby was 17. 

BW: In your book, you quote C. S. Lewis and write, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” Can you explain what you and Gail went through in the hours and days immediately following the crash, and the terror that you write about so powerfully in your book? 

CC: It was a shock to me that that was the overwhelming feeling I had. Even just stepping into our home, the void there was so overwhelming. I guess on some level it made no sense to me because we had just left the house eight hours earlier in a state of real joy, and now I was scared to come into the home without them. I was scared to be in that space. I was scared to sit at the dining room table without them. That void was so powerful. There was also a fear that I would just veer off into insanity and never come back—that I would just lose my mind—because the thought of living without Ruby and Hart was just too terrifying and too mind-bending. Those first few nights in particular, I was too scared to go to bed. I had some powerful nightmares. I actually had one just last night. The nightmare was that Hart was going to come out of a coma and I was going to have to tell him that Ruby was dead. That was a terrifying nightmare. At some point in my dreams, I always remember, “Oh, no, wait, you’re dead, too.” 

On our misconceptions about grief:

BW: In your book you call out “the grief orthodoxy,” which are the things that our culture tells us about grief that you think are wrong. One of which is that grief is too big and too unknowable, and so people often say to those that are grieving, “There are no words.” But your whole argument is that there are words. Talk to me about coming to that realization. 

CC: I want to first definitely preface it by saying that I don’t want to shame anybody for having ever said that. There’s nothing wrong with that phrase if it then leads to a conversation about grief. But I think oftentimes that phrase ends the conversation because you’re saying to the person that there literally are no words, so let’s just not talk about it. I think the main problem with that is that from my perspective, the griever needs to process this loss. It’s so monumental that they need it to be acknowledged and witnessed by their community, and they need to just talk about it. To my mind, it’s not a search for adequate words. The main thing is to be there to listen to them so they can start to talk about it. 

BW: There’s this saying that “Everyone grieves in their own way.” You say that is false. Talk to me about realizing that that wasn’t true. 

CC: A lot of the books I read and grief groups I went to use that phrase, “Everybody grieves in their own way,” and it was meant to be validating. In other words, whatever you’re doing is great; don’t judge yourself in your grief. But I was judging myself in my grief. I didn’t need that validation. I needed some sort of help. I needed some guidance because I had no idea how to grieve, or what was happening, or what was going to help me in this moment. As I talked to more and more people in grieving, it seemed like there was a lot of commonality. In these grief groups, everybody talked about how many people abandoned them, how isolated they felt, how they felt like people were just backing away from them and they were on their own. There were a lot of things we needed and one of those things was community. So maybe the idea of leaving people alone is not a great idea.

The other thing that seemed clear to me was that we all needed to talk about our grief. We needed to share our pain, and we needed to talk about our loved ones. Everybody I talked to was desperate to talk about the people that had died, and so it seemed to me that the key to grieving is being engaged in your pain and talking about your loved one to other people. So the idea that everyone grieves in their own way—in my mind, I inverted it. I say we all grieve the same and we all avoid grief in our own way because we don’t want to sit in grief nonstop. That would be terrible. We need breaks. We need to be able to just have an ice cream cone or look at a sunset for a moment. Of course, when I look at the sunset, I think about Ruby and Hart, but there are moments we need to take breaks and avoid the grief. 

BW: Another false idea about grief that you puncture in this book is the notion that this pain is so unspeakable that it cannot be spoken about, that it has to be experienced privately, avoided, or ignored. Where did we get this idea that talking about grief is so unspeakable? 

CC: I think people are uncomfortable with discomfort. The friends that showed up for me were the ones that were willing to sit with me in my pain. The night that Ruby and Hart were killed, everyone in the hospital was avoiding Gail and me. I knew there were social workers. I knew their job was to come and talk to us about loss and grief, yet they were avoiding us. They were scared of us. People were scared. This doctor finally came in to tell us the brutal news that not only was Ruby dead, but now Hart was about to die, and then she asked, “Tell me about Ruby and Hart.” And so she sat with us in this most extreme moment, and she was not scared of the pain. We wept and talked about Ruby and Hart, and it was so powerful to see somebody not scared of us.

Ruby and Hart Campbell. (Courtesy of Colin Campbell)

On running toward the pain:

BW: At some point in your grieving process, you arrive at what you call “a radical approach to grief.” Tell me about what that looks like. 

CC: I think it was really about leaning into the pain. Once I decided that I didn’t want to run away from the pain, the next logical step was to go towards it. Ruby struggled with OCD and depression, and she wrote this beautiful essay about OCD, which I include in my book, where she is on the beach and she’s seeing these waves coming in. For her, it was the waves of depression and of obsessive-compulsive behaviors. In the essay, she’s terrified of being tumbled by the waves, but she knows that after each wave, it recedes and you can come up for air. She ends the essay with her running towards the water, and I love that idea. I try to practice that. I run towards the pain. Not exclusively. I’m not a masochist. I’m trying to run towards the pain so that I can let go of the pain, and I can suffer less. Ultimately, that’s what I found true for myself, that the more I allow myself to feel the pain—the more I go to Ruby and Hart’s favorite restaurants, or to Ruby and Hart’s favorite hikes, allow myself to look at the pictures—it allows me to be more in this present world and not locked away in the past. 

BW: Where did you get the idea of your approach? 

CC: I think part of it was Ruby’s essay, but I got a lot of it from the Jewish traditions of grieving. My wife’s Jewish. We raised Ruby and Hart as Jews, and when it came time to grieve them, we just agreed that we were going to follow what the Jews say. One of the first lessons I got is when it came time to bury Ruby and Hart. In the Jewish tradition, the people closest to the deceased—in this case, Gail and I—throw the first clumps of dirt onto the coffins with their bare hands. So we were literally burying our children. Then we sat on a seat and watched as our gathered community threw shovels of dirt onto the coffin. On one level, it seems cruel. Like, “Give these parents a break.” But Judaism thinks the opposite. Right away, we have to sit and watch our children get buried by our community, and it’s beautiful because here my friends are weeping and burying our children. What a beautiful act. That’s community building. That’s bonding us in the grief and combating denial. It’s walking towards the pain. It’s not backing away from the pain. It’s this idea of leaning into the pain.

Another tradition in Judaism is saying Kaddish, or the mourner’s prayer. You have to say it every day for the first year after the death of a loved one, and you have to have at least nine other people with you. So again, you’re grieving in public, and our community was there to support us. They showed up early in the morning and stood around us and said the prayers with us. That’s all about leaning into the pain, in my mind. 

BW: One thing that you and Gail do is have these giant pictures that are blown up of your children. This shows me just how willing you are to rush towards that wave. How much of looking at these photos feels like an ache, and how much of that feels like love? Or are those the same thing? 

CC: I had this idea early on of exposure therapy, inspired by Ruby because it helped her with her OCD. It’s a way of showing them that it’s not so bad because it’s mostly fear of the fear. You’re scared of how scary it’s going to be. So I applied that to my grief. I had this idea, or this abstract formula, that the more I looked at their photos, the more the pain and aching would slowly shift and become more joyful and less aching. I think that’s true. The photos that we have up regularly around the house have become easier to look at. I now think more about the joy than the pain. When I initially put the big blown-up pictures up, there was this one morning where I couldn’t get myself to look at them. I didn’t feel ready. But in that moment, I had this epiphany of like, “Oh my God, I’m turning away from my own children because I’m scared of the pain and I won’t do that.” I was crying and I looked up at the pictures and I said, “I’m not scared of you.” That was sort of this moment that really stuck with me because it guided me in the future. I’m never going to not look at Ruby and Hart’s pictures because I’m afraid of the pain. I’m going to handle the pain and take the pain. I’m going to feel the pain and it’s going to be okay. 

On becoming parents to new kids: 

BW: I think the biggest action you take is deciding to become foster parents. Was that something that you and Gail had ever talked about in your past life before Ruby and Hart were killed? 

CC: It was Ruby’s idea first. She pitched it to us when she was 15, maybe 16. She was doing research and saw that there are a lot of kids here in Los Angeles that needed a loving home. “We have a loving home,” she said. “We should bring someone into it.” It was so beautiful that this teenager wanted to do that. So, about a week after the crash, I said to Gail, “We could still be parents again. We could foster-adopt.” She burst into tears and said, “I’m so glad you said that, because I was thinking that too, but I was scared that you wouldn’t want to.” So we waited a year and began the process. We connected with this young girl who was 13 at the time, and she lived with us for a year and a half. We thought we were connected with her. We really thought that we were a family. It was going great and then tragically, she decided that she didn’t want to be in a family. She wanted to be left alone and age out of the system. It was tough, but apparently it’s not that uncommon for teenagers who’ve lived most of their lives in the foster system. After she left us, we were heartbroken. Now we had loss upon loss. But we learned so much from this experience that we decided to try again. Now we have a 13-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl. They ask about Ruby and Hart now and again. The boy plays Hart’s video games. The boy is in Hart’s room and the girl is in Ruby’s room. We’ve completely transformed the rooms, but they’re physically the same space. 

BW: Is there something uncanny about it? 

CC: Well, uncanny and painful. Not too much, but right on the verge. . . right on the edge. I think part of us thought maybe we’d feel a little less grief, but actually, we feel more. We think about Ruby and Hart all the time because we’re parenting teenagers. We had a pool party for the girl and her friends, and they were splashing in the pool. I walked away at one point and started crying. I looked up at the sky and said, “Sorry, Ruby and Hart, you’re not here.” But we have kids laughing in a pool, and without that, it would just be Gail and I, and memories of kids laughing in the pool. So, it’s hard, but it’s also beautiful. 

On the connection between courage and grief:

BW: Tell me about your understanding of grief and courage, and the connection between these two emotions. 

CC: In grief, we’re always given a choice to either engage with it or avoid it at any given moment, and I think it takes courage to engage in grief. I know some people who say, “Don’t call me courageous. I have no choice. Of course I’m alive. Of course I’m living.” But I think we do have choices in how we live in grief. If we bottle it up, or try to compartmentalize it, or try to erase it as a way to protect ourselves, I think it’s going to backfire. You’re going to feel more suffering. I want to honor people who engage with their grief, who let themselves feel the pain and still live with it. I think it takes courage and I think it’s beautiful and healthy. 

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