When something unexpected happens in our lives, just like in the movies, everyone and everything seems to freeze, and the soundtrack playing in the background stops abruptly with the sound of a needle across vinyl.
A record scratch.
It is inevitable that we will all experience “record scratch” moments in our lives. These big, disruptive moments require resiliency to move forward with our lives, for we are never the same.
My record scratch moment was when my son Jake died in a car accident on February 19, 2022. He was 16. That fateful day completely disrupted my life and only recently I have rediscovered my voice.
Trauma recovery is not a D-I-Y situation. I am surrounded by a team of amazing humans who continue to help me along my healing journey. A few of these very important individuals have already been guests on my podcast, Finding Joy with Kara (see Iva Nasr, Charles Crenshaw, Jr., and Graehm Hall episodes).
Authenticity is greatly important to me — so all of my featured guests are individuals who walk their talk.
Trauma encompasses a vast spectrum. There’s no competition and no judgment as we speak about varying topics including generational trauma, grief, PTSD, and what we can do to heal our wounds and be better humans.
Please follow me on social media and subscribe to this podcast. @karakavensky on IG, TikTok, FB, Twitter
Chief Grief Officer ™ of The Memory Circle, Barri Leiner Grant shares with Kara her journey of living with the loss of her mother, Ellen. Barri left her career as a publicity and editorial stylist to help people cope with grief full-time.
Grant has studied with the leading names in grief certification and education trainings with Claire Bidwell Smith, David Kessler, and Dora Carpenter. She combines her writing background and yoga/meditation training to craft a one-of-its-kind way forward in learning to live with loss and love your life.
Open your heart and notebook — and sharpen your pencils to take notes on Barri’s supportive advice and tips.
Kara Kavensky: @karakavensky FB, IG, Twitter, LinkedIn, and TikTok
Receive updates on Kara’s new memoir release, FINDING JOY, here.
Sponsored by: Adam Gibson Design
Produced by: Marilou Marosz
Original music written and performed by: Adam Gibson
Welcome to “Record Scratch.” Today, my guest is Barri Leiner Grant. Barri is the Chief Grief Officer and founder of The Memory Circle. In 1993, Barri’s mother, Ellen, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. She was only 50 years old. In the subsequent years and decades since the loss of her mother, Barri found few resources available to those living with grief. She eventually became a certified grief coach and in 2018, she left her career as a publicity and editorial stylist to step into full-time work with her new venture, The Memory Circle. Barri has studied with the leading names in the grief space, including Claire Bidwell-Smith, David Kessler, and Dora Carpenter. Barri combines her writing background and yoga meditation training to craft a unique way forward with her clients as they learn to live with loss and love their lives. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
A quick housekeeping note. After recording a few interviews for my podcast, I realized the hard way that I had experienced some technical issues with the third party technology that I’d engaged with. As a recovering perfectionist, it is an understatement that this is challenging for me not to give in to the temptation of rerecording my parts.
However, I am truly prioritizing the level of authenticity in my conversations. So I thank you in advance for your grace.
Thank you, Barri Leiner Grant, my friend, for being on Record Scratch with me. I would love for you to share with our listeners what you do professionally now, and then we’re going to rewind a bit and find out how you got there.
Ha! It’s a long road. I am the founder and self-proclaimed Chief Grief Officer of The Memory Circle, which I started formally in 2018. I lost my mother, Ellen, in 1993, and there were precious few resources for people who had experienced mother loss. That’s really where it all began. And I kept meeting the woman in the room who had lost her mother, and so it just became an unofficial peer guide. And then fast forward to finding my way into yoga and meditation and creating some events locally as a peer and then really leaning into trainings where I opened the circle a little bit wider, formally gave it a name and really stepped into becoming a certified grief coach.
Your route to becoming a grief coach. This has taken quite a long time.
Oh, decades, decades.
In speaking with you and in getting to know you, this really feels like a calling. You were totally destined to do this and to be so compassionate in this space for yourself, but specifically for others. And as you came along this journey, I would assume that then you’re the loss of your mom really initiated your record scratch moment. Like that was when your life was disrupted.
Yeah, I would say because I experienced a sudden loss, she died of brain aneurysm in beach chair one day at 50 was here and then gone. But I didn’t even realize back then I was in the midst of being the owner of a public relations firm in Manhattan. I worked in the fashion industry. So I wouldn’t say the moment of her loss, it certainly changed the trajectory of my life because we were so close. I would say she was the most important person in my life. But I didn’t realize how the grief and loss would affect me until some life events occurred, moving out of state, having a baby, things that I was doing without her that made grieving or the lack of my grieving her loss more apparent. And in coming in contact with other people who had experienced mother loss and tapping into some support for myself in the way of a therapist. I just became more curious about what I could do to help myself and then in turn, as a peer, just started to give my 10 cents. As I do with anything that I’ve been through that feels tricky, I feel like that those pay-at-forward moments have always been the way that I have started most anything. So it wasn’t really that exact moment that I felt like I wanted to do this work because I knew that she knew all of my work as a writer, as a publicist. I thought those were the jobs that she was super proud of and that she would be angry or disappointed or if I in any way I had to find myself by her loss. I just felt like that would feel awful to be the sad girl. I felt like it was some sort of betrayal to her legacy.
Right, dishonoring in some way.
Yeah, I just, I didn’t think like that, that’s not your work. And I just said to someone one day, it’s amazing how I’ve come to realize that this defines me. And this friend said to me, of course it does. And he too had experienced a loss. And so it felt very validating. And I felt empowered to move from peer guide to having more formal training. I was interested in the possibility of going back to school and becoming a social worker, but I thought I better dip my toe in and see what grief support training looks like to see what that felt like to me as someone who had experienced loss.
So what were the resources when your mom passed in 93? It seems like a whole world away from what’s available now.
Yes, nobody said grief, grieving. My sister, my stepfather and I sort of disbanded right after we held a shiva call at our house and we all just went back to what we thought was normal. And it wasn’t until 1994 that I found Hope Edelman’s book, Motherless Daughters. It was new that year that I had like this crazy aha moment that I was not the only person experiencing these things, but found other women my age who had experienced similar losses and women who were explaining further down the road what it felt like to turn the age of your mom when you lost her and sudden loss versus a long illness. And it was more about like the trajectory of a life with mother loss was there in the pages of the book.
Wow. You describe yourself to me once as a magnet for others who had lost their mom.
It was the universe tapping me on the shoulder. I’m sure of it. I am sure of it. There were just too many in my path. Like I’d be on the grocery line and I’d be at the checkout and they would scan the item and say something like, “Oh, my mother loved these.” And I would hear that past tense and ask, is she still alive? Because I was curious about that past tense and know she died in X year. And this happened over and over. It just kept happening too often to the point where I didn’t see the signs. I didn’t have that awakening at the moment. I wasn’t ready, but there was all around me. And as a peer really had the opportunity to practice, if you will, being a support and knowing that our experiences while so different had a lot of the same life themes as we moved forward along the very long arc of loss.
And as you moved through your arc of loss, When did you decide, “I’m really, I’m going to do this. I’m going to get this formal training?”
I had done some informal mother loss events at my yoga studio when I became certified with a beloved teacher named Amy Owen who also had experienced mother loss around the same age as I was. We decided to do an event on a Saturday before the Mother’s Day so we could sort of take back the night, if you will. It was a difficult day for both of us and we thought it might be for others. And so we had a class together. And I was so overwhelmed by people sharing how cathartic it was for them, but also a resounding, there’s no place for me to say this, there’s no place for me to go. That really was, we have to do more of this. There has to be a place to go. You know, like it was like answering their call. And so it It was really a crazy experience on someone’s podcast where they sent me an intake form and the query at the very bottom of the form said, “Is there anything else you wish us to promote?” And Kara, out of my fingers, I had never searched it. I had never spoken it. Out came the memory circle.
It was meant to be. By the time I was a guest on the pod, I had the website up. I had the Instagram account, I had a private Facebook group all arranged, and I didn’t even have the training at. So it was then that I thought, this is the time. I’m going to really lean in and see if this is in fact my life’s work. It was like a whisper and then a shout.
Right. And I love that you had all of those assets in place before you’re speaking my language from both of us having this, I call it corporate storytelling, but in marketing and experience, like you have to have those essentials so we can focus on the substance.
Well, if you could have seen like the drama that ensued in my house, like before I press send on that form, of course, I was like calling out to my daughter is like someone check IG and see if the memory circle is available and then go on, go daddy and see if I can buy by the domain and they were all available, free and clear, which really was like, they’re pretty high search words. And I was just so surprised that no funny spellings, no just real clarity in the dot com. And I was so happy. And there was something about my nature reaction to memory making when I lost my mom, holding on to things that my daughters, God forbid I should go at the age my mother was, that they would have my story.
She was much more experiential. She was a doer and I holding something in my hands is kind of a neat thing for me, like a charm with an engraving or framed photo or artwork from a vacation. Like I’m really about like the ephemeral qualities of the memories.
I want to touch on dates, anniversaries, and you mentioned, of course, Mother’s Day being a challenging time. What do you recommend to support people as they are looking at anniversaries, birthdays, holidays specifically that may be challenging for them?
I always say those are like days on the calendar that you can expect to have what I call a grief burst, right, where they may be activating. So when I work with a client, we create a plan in advance, like we know that’s coming up in the calendar, what would feel like an interesting reframe for some people that’s ignoring it all together and like heading to a movie or a hike, you know, not wanting to have something formal. Sometimes there’s a birthday on the calendar that can feel overwhelming. I know mine was. Mine turned from like gifts and balloons and your special day really to the date that my mother brought me into the world, my birthday. And it was really heavy for me. And so on that day, I made sure that I was doing something that was really nurturing for myself, whether that was a yoga class or a massage or something that was a little bit out of the ordinary from having a party. I just wasn’t into the celebration in the same way. I also recommend for people to make it what feels good. So on my mother’s birthday, for example, my sister and I honor the fact that she was what we call an Olympic discount shopper. We buy something at discount in her honor. So it’s sort of a way to remember her in the day, but also come home with something that reminds us of her. So one year I remember going to 2J Max and buying like a big pump soap. It was like a vat. It was so giant. But it was like lavender, it lasted literally almost for a year. It had the sticker on that I left in the shower that said like 799 was 2499.
I love that you’ve gamified.
Yeah, it was so Ellen. And the funnier thing is that at the end of the day, you know, in the morning, my sister and I will send each other like a little text, like remember to buy something discount today, where she would have been this age. Like it is a way of us lightning the day a little bit from the heaviness and also honoring her by doing something she loved, which to some might sound funny, but for others I say like bake her most favorite cake or light a candle. I also call my mom, Grandma Ellen, to my children. I have two daughters, Emma and Quinn. And since they were born, they have known Grandma Ellen stories. My mother never met my children. She was never a grandmother. But I feel like I’ve created a connection for them in telling stories of my mom to them that both girls will say they feel as if they know her.
Oh, I love that. Oh, I love all of this. I think that honoring who your mom is was with finding a discount, like the whole gamification around shopping and getting a deal on something. It’s just really so fabulous in so many ways. And I’m laughing because it just seems like such a fun tribute. And that takes the bite out of the sadness you’re celebrating in a fun, fun way. And I can only imagine how your mom would totally appreciate those type of events for honoring her.
I also have a few of her, She had very few things that remain that I can hold. And she had, I have one of her purses. So I take that purse when I go to theater because she loved theater. And whenever I go to see a show, I’m like, “Come on, mom, we’re going to the show.” And it has lots of tickets. And it was such a lovely thing to remember. And sometimes I saved that play bill and stick the ticket inside so that I couldn’t remember when I went. but for a long time it was just filled with ticket stubs.
Oh, that’s lovely.
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What are some of the main healing focused activities that you encourage with your clients as they’re dealing with their own grief?
Everybody grieves very differently. So what we do is we craft a toolbox together to see how each feels semantically. How does this feel in your body? What is this release? But the foundation of the memory circle is really that I don’t believe that we ever get over loss. I believe that we learn to live with it. So all of the tools that I invite in for clients are really like day-to-day ways that we learn to live with loss. So we craft a toolkit that is everything from writing, and that can take many shapes. it’s writing to the loved ones that we can create a relationship with them that invites them in. For example, a date would come in the calendar like my daughter’s graduation from college where it was just one of those days where I knew my mom would be damn proud and a place where she certainly should have been where she alive. And instead of having what I call like an Ah, shuck’s day or you know, that’s the PC version.
We can say, oh shit or whatever.
I mean, I’d be like, I can’t believe my mom fucking missing this. Like I would be so pissed. They was just so angry. And so instead of having that floating around my body, I started to write these interesting Dear Mom letters and inviting her into the day, creating that connection by saying, Dear mom, if you could have been there today, Emma’s graduating BU, cum laude, I found her in a sea of red. You know, like it’s something that I have always done. I’ve written about her several times on her birthday, but it wasn’t until I read this gorgeous book by one of my teachers, Claire Bidwell Smith, about the anxiety that can come as a informal stage of grief that she names from not being able to make that connection. So in one of the chapters, she offers that as a way of continuing the relationship and or creating a way to mend any strife that you may have had or last words to share with a loved one. So, leading into the exercise more for my clients, just as an experiment, I all of a sudden realized I had never written to her. And there really is something incredible about the feeling that you get when you make that connection in body with the person. I don’t believe the body knows that the person is earthly or otherwise. I think part of loss that’s so painful is that we are wired to care for our people. And so as soon as we lose them, it’s hard for the brain to understand where they’ve gone. So we’re in this constant state of looking for them, searching for them. And so we have to tell the body they’re not lost, they’ve died.
And on a cellular level too, it’s challenging.
It is, it is. And so sometimes the counterbalance to that sometimes though is crafting this incredible connection where the body and these new neural pathways that you create in writing to them make this incredible connection and it can feel so healing and so soothing. This isn’t you know to sugarcoat the idea that they’re gone at all, but it is very healing to write to them, to continue the relationship and again whether that is something positive that you want to to invite them into or that you have something that comes up that’s troubling you. Like, I could have done more or you have guilt or you feel as if there’s something about there dying that was your fault, right? We can put some of that to ease by creating this relationship through writing.
Well, and I have read that there are two things that have been proven to help people heal from PTSD, one of them is sharing their story, whether written, verbally, whatever medium that is. But sharing the story, the second thing is yoga-nidra, which I’m still exploring. But those two things have been proven to help. People heal from PTSD and there’s a large, large, large spectrum of trauma. Loosing a loved one is traumatic.
Well, especially sudden loss. And I don’t know that there’s so much that’s different about the way that we lose a loved one. But there is an element to me of trauma in all of it, really.
Well, and you’re also dealing with loss in a different way currently with your father.
Yeah, thanks for asking. My dad is suffering memory loss. really incredible because the person is in front of you, although you’re grieving the person that they were. And you have to really find ways of meeting them in a different way so that you can enjoy their very alive self and simultaneously mourn the loss of the person that is no longer your advisor, your caretaker, the father of our family, the grantee, the main man. I mean, he was an award-winning advertising guy and there wasn’t a contract, a client, naming of a product, even starting the memory circle. There wasn’t anything that he didn’t have his 10 cents to say about moving forward in business. He was just a great advisor. And I miss that. I miss that piece greatly. And at the same time, I’m learning to love him exactly where he is and find so many beautiful lessons in being so present. You know, he doesn’t remember a lot of the past. He’s not worried about what’s happening in the future. He’s very present and in the moment. His sense of humor is intact and we appreciate the joy that we have while he’s here. but it is very grief inducing because it’s a very slow loss right before your eyes.
There was an essay that you wrote that I just felt was so captivating about this and about your father in dealing with the, I want to say it’s like preemptive grief. What do you call it when seen?
Thank you. Thank you, yes. And you said, “I’m learning to love what’s left.”
Yeah, it’s the truth. Yeah, I had the good fortune of interviewing Steve Leder, who is a rabbi in California. I have such a crush on him. A grief crush, he said that the book that he wrote, “The Beauty That Remains,” is one part of apology because as many times as he had helped families through their particular losses in his congregation, there was not a realization of exactly what they were going through until he had lost his own father also from dementia that he said it’s one part of apology. Steve the rabbi thought he knew but it wasn’t until Steve the son lost his father that he really knew. And he says loving what’s left, the beauty of what remains is really the gift that we try to lean into. And again, I think, you know, a lot of people have a lot of, they try to make it a neat and tidy. All things happen for a reason, and he’s in a better place. And all of those things are crap to me. Yeah, agreed. And I loved leaning into what Steve Leder said, because I believe it to be so true that the beauty of what remains in my father is that he’s alive right before my eyes. So I could grieve the idea that he is eventually going to die of memory loss and how I could just live in that space or I can meet him where he is every day and be more present. We started to tell him stories about himself. We tell him about the ad campaigns. We tell him about he worked on a drug with Ethel Kennedy and developed breast cancer awareness week. And I tell him when that comes up and everybody’s wearing a pink ribbon, dad.
It’s a whole month.
I know. I’m like, dad, you know what you did? Yeah, it’s pretty incredible. And I tell him all these stories about him and he says things like, “That sure sounds like me.” And it’s just, it’s so sweet that he gets that reflection from us. And even sitting down with him when I go for visits, my sister and I will pop open an app and use some of the filters. And he cracks up from that or we’ll sit down with the Scrabble set, which of course, he can’t play the game with us anymore, but I’ll spell out the names of all the loved ones. And he says them like I said, and who’s this? He says, me. Like he doesn’t say Neil, but he goes, me.
You know, it’s very interesting what the brain remembers and doesn’t remember. He has a new grandson while he’s had memory loss. My brother Matthew had a baby and we never knew my dad needed a baby, but he did. He remembers this incredible relationship that he has with the baby is so beautiful because they play so alike. My dad will see Archie banging on the table and he’ll repeat it. They giggle at each other. Archie pushes his walker from the bottom rung and learned to walk holding onto that while my daddy uses it from the top rung. It’s just so sweet and it reminds you that there is still life that remains in my dad that is beautiful to witness. It’s just that I have to meet him exactly where he is.
I love that. What are important takeaways that you would love for people to know about grieving?
I always try to remind everybody there’s no right way or one way. There’s your way. I call it grief tending, where you really make space and place to honor your grief. I say it’s like weeding and watering it like you would a garden. If you don’t tend to it, it will kind of grow up around you. So even if it’s a very small way that you honor it each day, I think it’s, and that could be in therapy, that could be in coaching, that could be in writing, that could be in taking a walk in the woods and remembering, that could be yoga, knee, draw, that could be any way in which you feel that you are tending to the way that you feel on the inside movement in some way. As far as showing up, I always think the best thing that you can do is show up just as you are. I always say the cook cooks. If you’re the one that’s really good at cooking, You do not want me to show up with something that I made.
So…You just say, “Yeah, I’m doing you a favor. I did not bring any food.”
Yeah, I’ll sit with you. I’ve always been the one that will sit with you in the muck. Even before I was in this space, I was the one that could really sit with you in the muck and listen to how you feel or complain or whine or cry. I can really sit, be the one that sits. Ask about the loved one. Keep saying their name. That’s for friends and grievers. Say their name. I used to say, “I lost my mother. My mother died.” I would say it real fast so as not to make anybody sad. Now I proudly say, “I lost my mother, Ellen. She died suddenly in 1993.” She had a brain aneurysm. That’s my story. That’s her story. I share it and most often I get some kind of retort that opens up a conversation about my mother. She’s a person. She’s an important person in my life. To honor her legacy, we tell her story all the time. Say their name. It is integral to keeping the memory alive, but also keeping your relationship alive with them. I think grief needs a better place to live in modern day society. So if you are learning to live with loss, when you do things like saying their name, you let other people know that it’s OK to talk about them, that you’re not going to make me more sad. I’m not going to forget. Like, it’s not going to remind me my loved one is dead, because believe me, I remember. It’s just going to make you a more compassionate soul. And I thought this was beautiful. I lost my brother-in-law about six years ago and someone wrote us and said, they had lost their dad as a young child. It suggested that we ask people who worked with Bob for their stories about him. You know, when they said, “What can I do?” Our answer was, could you write down a note to the kids so that they can have your memory of their dad? So then we got them from Bob as an executive at work. Bob is a great friend, Bob is someone in high school, kind of created this beautiful 360 degree look at their father. And so I always recommend people will often say to you, “What can I do?” And that open-ended question is so tricky when you’re grieving, especially in very fresh new grief. Ask for them to write a memory of your loved one It’s something that you can reopen on the anniversary of their death, on their birthday. It gives you a place to go for those memories and those stories, you know, by going back to some of their life before you were born, to know what they were like when they were in high school or when they were the best friend in the preschool. You find out all this great stuff about them. So you know them as a father, but the workers know them as compassionate beings or amazing leaders or they’ll have some fantastic joke they told at a conference. You know, it’s really amazing what you learn.
Oh, I love that. Thank you so much, Barry, for speaking with me. I always look forward to our communications and you’re such a wise, amazing human. And I love what you’re doing to help others in this very important conversation about grief.
Thanks so much. I am so glad we found one another in the chat box.
On a writerly Zoom call, and made this incredible connection. It’s really a pleasure.
Thank you so much.