‘People are Grappling with Losing the Life They Had Before’: An Interview with Karolina Waclawiak

The author of Life Events on grieving, exit guides, and the way we think about death. 

In 1967, British psychiatrist John Mark Hinton tried to outline dying in just 144 pages. Brief as it was, Dying didn’t discuss finality with euphemisms, but centred the experiences of terminally ill patients. And while the book guided the implementation of palliative care in hospices, it did little to acknowledge how those institutions conceal death and illness. Over fifty years later, and in the midst of a pandemic, deaths are not only abstracted in statistics, but we’re being forced to move on without grieving that loss.

In her third novel, Life Events (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Karolina Waclawiak considers the pre-grieving stage of loss. Her narrator, Evelyn, is at a crossroads: her marriage is ending and her father is dying, so she becomes an exit guide. It’s in meetings with death doulas and afterlife conventions that she learns how to provide companionship to three terminally ill “clients,” and helps them die. Exit guides help restore dignity to the dying by letting them dictate it or, as her boss proselytizes, “[d]eath isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you do.” 

While Evelyn struggles with her avoidant relationship to pain and grief, she ultimately makes peace with her failures and choices—something Waclawiak’s characters have evaded at all costs. In her two previous novels How to Get into the Twin Palms and The Invaders, they are outsiders, constantly faced with the pressures to pass as much as they can in order to be accepted. Life Events ends on a more hopeful note, with Evelyn playing back old voicemails from her parents, wondering what will happen when they can no longer ramble on.

Sara Black McCulloch: How is everything in LA right now?

Karloina Waclawiak: When I went to get my dad out of Texas, because the numbers were going up there, California was fine. And then we drove to Connecticut to bring my dad to my brother, and in the time it took for me to do that… I returned to California and it’s now a disaster.

Life Events deals with grief and death and with everything going on with COVID, has this changed your views on grief or shifted the way that you were thinking about a lot of this before the pandemic?

In the early weeks of the pandemic, I saw a lot of young people and people my age start talking about health directives, feeling like anything could happen. They started to think about, what would happen if they died? And it really felt like a mass movement that I’ve never seen before. I think in general, Americans certainly have an uncomfortable relationship with death, if they have a relationship to it at all. And to me, in American culture, it feels like death is really hidden away. Aging is really hidden away. And aging is seen as a threat and something to fix if possible. And so, it was really interesting to me to see the pandemic as this sort of great leveler—where everyone had this acute threat of, what happens if I die or my loved one dies? To me, that’s been really the striking moment of the pandemic. And it felt like, wow, everything I wrote about in the book, just their energy, has come to the fore. But with that, you know, I had anxiety. Everyone is already feeling terrible. A book about grief? Do people really want to confront grief? But it is an inevitability.

Recently, I saw tweets where people were talking about writing wills just in case, and few people, especially young people, have had to consider that until now. Because of COVID, hospitals have instituted a no-visitor policy, and now a lot of people have been dying in hospitals alone. Their families can’t properly mourn or even hold a funeral. Even during this pandemic and this monumental loss, a lot of us are still not seeing it.

It’s so heart wrenching having someone you love die. I lost my mother in September, and talked to my family about this. It was awful, but the idea of… just, what so many families are now facing, like you said: if she were in the hospital and we could not be with her, that would just have added a whole other layer of grief. I can’t even comprehend what families are going through, especially if it’s somebody who was not previously ill, that sort of dramatic turn, and then having them go to the hospital, not knowing what’s happening and really being cut off. And then, you know, being told they’re gone. It’s just so shocking, and I think, with the pandemic in general, we’re all suffering from a collective grief as a society.

I truly don’t believe it will ever go back to the way It was and a lot of people are grappling with losing the kind of life that they had before. I certainly heard from people who said, “I’m okay right now,” and who are expressing gratitude. I feel the same way—that my life has changed significantly—but I also feel grateful for the life that I have. That collective grief of not going back to the way it was and having to sit with an uncomfortable feeling of not knowing when and then the added layer of grief that comes from watching so many people die. Even if you’re not intimately connected with someone who has passed away, just seeing the numbers climb is really debilitating. All of this is to say that I think it is unreal to me to not be able to be with your loved one as they’re dying. That was an experience [losing someone] that I had with my mother and my grandfather who passed away over a decade ago. It’s such a profound experience. It’s really terrifying, and it changes you, but for people to not have the opportunity to mourn feels like another kind of grief.

The way we talk about death is through so many euphemisms. We have this urge to compartmentalize it. And the language for death distances us from it. Did you ever struggle to give a language to grief and to that kind of mourning when you were writing the book? 

I tried to be clear-eyed about it. During the editing process, my mother passed away and even though I had lost my grandfather, like, the level of grief when it comes to losing a parent is not something you really understand until you go through it. So, the purpose of the book was to try to capture that anxiety of pre-grieving and knowing something is coming. And so, it is a book about grief, but it’s a specific time: it’s not the aftermath. It’s the wave that’s coming to crash down on you and what that anticipation feels like. I just didn’t think that hiding behind euphemism or being particularly flowery about it was going to serve the purpose that I wanted the book to serve. I read Joan Didion’s work on grief, and to me that also was so plainly written and so direct. And so, I really wanted to do something similar in capturing the time before and just create work that people could find and just be straight with them about what that grappling looks like.

Did you speak to any death doulas while researching the book?

The origination of this whole project actually came from randomly listening to the Criminal podcast and there was an episode about an exit guide, and I was so shaken by the episode because I had never heard of volunteers who work as exit guides. The only understanding I had around assisted suicide was Dr. Kevorkian in the ’90s. And so, this woman’s testimonial of why she was providing this service, why there’s a whole network of people providing a service, gave a nuanced understanding of that work.

I’m certainly a writer who does research. I want to, hopefully, sound like I know what I’m talking about so I did take courses with a death doula and it’s interesting because there’s certainly a break between people who are okay with assisted suicide and the larger death doula community, so I certainly don’t want to conflate the two because death doulas really sit with people as they’re dying. They’re really going through the whole process of helping someone die naturally. And that was an interesting tension too. I tried to nod to that in the book. I had a bit in there about people’s comfortability with assisted suicide. It is a transgressive act, and it’s not even legal in most states in the US. It’s obviously legal in Switzerland, but I really was thinking about the idea of control in death, and how long we allow ourselves to suffer. And taking back that sense of control—not even putting a value judgment on it—just thinking about, how long do I want to live? How long if I know I’m terminal? Do I want to suffer? Is that suffering needless? Is there another way out? And so, I did immerse myself in death communities. I really went deep into the people who attend afterlife conventions. I even attended one myself and wanted to understand what level of grief drives people to even seek out psychics—to really believe in people who say they can give you access to the afterlife. I wanted to provide an empathetic picture of the world of death without necessarily taxing value judgments.

In the book, there are discussions among the exit guides—where they assess their own quality of life in percentages, and what “weaknesses” they could live with. For instance, one person says they want to go at 20 percent, which means that they would be fully reliant on an IV, a feeding tube and intubated. It made me think about how in many narratives about death, especially in illness narratives, there’s an honour in suffering and here, people are determining at what point their quality of life is severely compromised and not worth living. We don’t really talk about this or even assess it for ourselves and even now, we’re hearing about people being intubated and how painful that is even though it’s supposed to keep you alive. We don’t examine these procedures because they’re tied to a cure, and to medicine and hospitals. They do good, they keep you alive, but not necessarily in the best way possible.

And that’s a controversial opinion. I’m okay with people not agreeing with me on that, that at a certain point, if your loved one is dying, and it’s terminal, a lot of times people are kept alive, because the family can’t let go. I’ve had friends whose parents have died. It’s really hard to make that choice, to say: okay, pull the plug (so to speak). But you really do have to start thinking about quality of life, which is what’s really interesting about making a health directive saying, I don’t want to be intubated. This is the quality of life that I’m willing to say, like, past this point, I’m not interested in living. The fact that more and more people are thinking about this and actually making those decisions, especially if they have children… that’s something that I put in there, too. You don’t ask someone who is really close to you to make that decision because they’re going to be thinking about their wants and needs over yours. It’s human nature and it’s complicated. But when do you say enough is enough? And when do you really give up? It’s almost like you’re giving up hope on the person, which feels so loaded, but when it’s clear they’re suffering and there’s no “what’s next?” I remember thinking about that, like where are they going to go from here? There’s no up! 

I remember reading an excerpt of Life Events back in 2015—“Late-Night Bloomers”? I remember it being written in the third person. I wanted to know why you chose to write it from Evelyn’s perspective instead or what had prompted that change? 

I worked on that with Paul Reyes, who is a brilliant editor, and that was sort of a selection from the book that I was writing at the time. And it was all in the third person. I wrote to the end and I actually showed it to Paul and asked what he thought of it. The main thought was that perhaps it shouldn’t be in third person. And writing that whole draft… I felt so distant from the why—why would Evelyn do this? What was going on in her life that she would make the choices that she made? And it was a totally different book. I just didn’t feel like I had access to the characters in the way that I wanted. I threw that whole draft away and I kept Evelyn’s name, what she did, and I kept maybe like a dozen pages, and I totally started over. And it was terrifying! I was under contract for the book. They were really pushing me to publish it within the year. And I felt such a sense of anxiety. Basically, I didn’t want to put out a book that I didn’t want to write, so I got out of my book contract. And it took getting out of my book contact to feel the freedom of, like, “Okay, I’m gonna take the time I need. I’m going to write the book that I want to write. And who knows, maybe it’ll take me ten years. I just don’t want to feel like I’m being rushed.” I aged Evelyn down—in “Late-Night Bloomers,” she’s in her fifties, I think, and I really thought about, what age is someone at a crossroads? I felt like since this was such a big life event—to want to be around people who are dying, like, what else is going on in her life? I started thinking about the big life events like marriage, children and the markers of progress and stuff. I started thinking about a woman who felt like she had gotten all of those things wrong and really felt stagnant in her own life and was using this as a catalyst in a way to selfishly wake up, along with trying to desensitize herself of her parents dying. I had her going through a divorce and edging towards forty, which is a pivotal year for women because there are a couple of years left when you can actually have children. But what happens when your whole life blows up later in life? And thinking about the sort of life you’re supposed to have by the time you’re nearing forty, and stripping that from Evelyn, and really thinking about somebody who even in her career hasn’t had those highs and what that looks like and then giving her something that really becomes her obsession. It took me six years, but I’m really proud of this iteration. It really took me having to throw the first draft and getting out of the contract to get here.

You empathize with your characters, especially the women like Evelyn. Do you always extend that kind of understanding to them, or do you have to come around?

I love my characters. I feel like I have to, warts and all, especially if I’m spending so much time with them. It always bugs me when critics are like, “Karolina always writes unlikable female narrators,” and I’m like, “I write them all!” It’s hard because in all of my books, I’ve always written complicated women who make choices that are often transgressive, that are going against the grain of what you’re supposed to do as a woman. And so that does rub people the wrong way.

I personally find complex women really interesting and I wouldn’t want to write about women who aren’t making mistakes. But I also never want to torture my narrator. I want to take them as far as they can go and make them uncomfortable. And I definitely know that in making them uncomfortable sometimes it’s uncomfortable for readers. I never do it just for the hell of it. They learn something about themselves, but not in a corny way. So much of the book became a question of how you avoid pain and seeing the way Evelyn dissected the ways she avoided pain her whole life, and part of that was getting married and seeing how much more pain that caused her. I think this is probably the first book where my narrator has been able to face herself.

I was going to say!

[Laughs] I mean, I have women who avoid themselves, or trying to figure themselves out but the willingness to really face yourself, I don’t think has been there as much as it has in this book and that felt even scarier!

In your two previous novels, I was especially thinking about Cheryl (from The Invaders) who stayed in her marriage because she didn’t want to start all over again. But Evelyn ends her marriage and deals with the uncomfortable realities of starting from scratch at thirty-seven. And I think in the past, your characters have dealt with passing in communities—they’re outsiders dealing with their identity but not fully confronting it so they try to assimilate instead. Usually the endings are so explosive because the women are self-destructive. But Evelyn forgives herself. It feels like a natural progression to have your narrator confront herself and forgive herself so she can move forward.

I was like, “maybe I’ll end this book with a hopeful ending”—a totally new challenge for myself. I really do feel like this book is this journey of self-discovery for her, and the end of that self-discovery is just forgiveness. I think that forgiving yourself is the hardest thing you can do. Giving up resentments against other people is really difficult to do. Seeing the part you played in your issues impacting other people in your life and then saying, “I own that, and I forgive myself for it.” It’s growth! And I really wanted Evelyn to start in one place and change. It’s not this explosive change, but it felt important to me to end somewhere in forgiveness because she really blamed so much of the way her life turned out on herself. And that fear of making choices, but through being around people who are dying and trying to leave without resentments and leave without unfinished business, for lack of a better term…I think she really wants to learn how to live consciously and take ownership over her actions and ownership over her life instead of being evasive. In The Invaders, Cheryl certainly felt like an evasive character. With Evelyn, while saying that vulnerability was the hardest thing for her to ever do, she was being so vulnerable with the reader, which was something that I felt could also provide nuance to her. It didn’t seem reasonable for me to withhold from the reader and, I think in other books, I certainly have withheld in how much you got to know about each woman. And I really love those kinds of books. I love Rachel Cusk’s trilogy because you learn virtually nothing about her character, but I wanted to almost do the opposite of that, where you’re watching the machination of Evelyn try to confront herself. I do feel that in those moments of forgiveness, she is setting herself free and that to me feels like a beautiful endpoint that feels less tragic than the other books I’ve written.

At the end of Life Events, Evelyn listens to old voicemails from her parents and it’s a gesture of pre-grieving—of revisiting someone’s voice when and if you lose them. It’s weird because a lot of us dread voicemails, but they can also be a connection to someone we’ve lost. Their voice can have so much more impact on you than, say, a photo.

Totally. My phone right now probably has twenty unlistened-to voicemails…

Right? Have you saved any voicemails that really matter to you? Especially now that you’ve been grieving?

I think you either have denial about what’s going to happen, especially if your parents are aging and you don’t think about building an archive of what you’ll miss. For me, I certainly wasn’t thinking in that way, but I now wish I was because I don’t even have any videos of my mom. I remember we would go on trips together and I was always documenting everything because I had my phone. But I was deleting stuff because I needed more memory and so I don’t have videos of my mom on my phone. I have some “Live Photos,” which I’ll watch sometimes where I’ll see some movement. I deleted so many of her voicemails for the same reason, like where is this message going? And I cleaned up in my inbox, but rarely did I transfer files. Who has a “Mom” file in anticipation of her passing? I certainly wish I had, but I do have a few voicemails that I’ve listened to when I want to feel really emotional, but it made me think about how memory functions and what we collect of the people that we love. Of course, there was an era of home videos and everybody had a camcorder and stuff but we really only have our phones now and there’s a finite amount of memory there. So even thinking about what has value and what doesn’t—I have so many stupid photos that I could have deleted to save videos, but I didn’t and it’s impossible to prepare. Who the hell wants to prepare?

I’ve been thinking, with static photographs, that memory is faulty. It’s also a question of access: if you’re looking at photos, it could be you when you were younger with your parents and you have a perception of what was happening but you don’t have that other person’s input and maybe you remembered incorrectly—maybe you’re blocking out things that were painful about that memory. Having a video or voicemail of it feels like a more potent archive than just a photo because you can overlay whatever you want over that photo, but it isn’t necessarily the truth. I think that after someone dies, you’re looking for the truth, but the access to the truth is cut off. There are so many things I wished I had asked my mother that I’ll never know the answer to and I’ll never get that truth. I can ask my dad, but he has his own truth of whatever that was. You’re losing access to someone’s inner life, even if they didn’t give you a lot.

With Evelyn and her clients, it’s all about access and access to those intimate moments, in a way. She takes something from a client’s house—it’s such a random object, but in a way, it’s her wanting to preserve a memory of that happening or that the event existed, that the person existed. Even in the training session, there’s a moment where people are asked to give things up and I think a lot about inheritance and which objects have meaning. I used to go to vintage shops all the time and even swap meets, and just looked at family photos and items that have been passed down. You don’t know the journey of that object, but it was always weird to me to go through boxes of people’s photos. How does this stuff end up here? These are all someone else’s memories.

We lack that context. It’s interesting because as much as Evelyn clings to objects, when she is helping her clients clear up their spaces, it’s in an effort to help out the people they leave behind—so they don’t have to deal with someone else’s stuff, so to speak. Things can mean something to us, but with enough distance from those objects, they’re simply clutter to someone else.

So many things provide painful memories and part of that empathetic gesture of helping people exit their lives is trying to take the pain away from the loved ones who have to live with this choice and live with the death of their loved ones. It’s easing their pain and suffering too.

For Evelyn in her divorce, she really doesn’t take that much from the home even though her husband is trying to give her things. That transference of wanting someone to remember a relationship—a relationship that Evelyn is trying to forget—that’s a pain-avoidant thing, too. Sometimes people do it for us or we do it for ourselves; we self-select what we surround ourselves with and often having objects without context is taking a layer of pain and understanding away on purpose.

Were Evelyn’s three clients—Daphne, Lawrence and Daniel—inspired by any experiences or people you met in these meetings or the afterlife convention?

Daphne was someone who was going to spur the most feelings about her mom and that was the most painful experience for her—looking at the frailty of an older woman. Evelyn was trying to impose a relationship on Daphne. They didn’t know each other, and yet, she really wanted to create memories with her and deviate from what you’re supposed to do based on the training.

I was thinking about what it means to be a person alone, having to reckon with the end of your life, so someone like Lawrence, who was at once on top of the world and now at the end of his life, he’s this old, anonymous man in an apartment building where, who knows? You burned bridges. It was about what it means to be no one, in a sense, after you’ve been someone.

With Daniel, she was really confronting the type of men that she had fallen for. I think Evelyn is trying to reckon with what it means to try to save people, putting herself in situations knowing that it’s impossible. In a way, that’s a selfish act for her, too, to try to put herself through these trials in an attempt to force herself to learn something.

The people that I met travelling in these worlds certainly were trying to prepare for their own parents’ deaths and feeling anxiety about what to do, as if there’s some textbook that you follow of how to be the perfect kid as your parent is dying. There’s only so much preparation you can do. Also, you have to give somebody the dignity of their own experience. You could be trying to have your loved one accept death and be okay with what’s happening and they could be absolutely not okay with what’s going on, not wanting to have some big conversation towards the end of their life or wrap anything up tidily. There is a sense of agency there, that we don’t get to choose how someone dies or what their experience is like, and that goes for either end of it, whether you’re taking care of somebody or you’re the person dying. A lot of this book, for me, was about letting go of that control, of what you think your life should look like.

And what the end of it should like.

Exactly. The end of life experience and all those expectations. I think that in popular culture, we’ve seen so much of this internal reckoning, where everybody gets to say goodbye. I talked to people who were completely crushed. I mean, we were talking about this earlier, what’s at the fore of COVID right now—their loved one died and they never got to say goodbye. They have no closure. They’re never going to get closure. And you have to find a way to move on anyway. Death is really messy.

Death doesn’t necessitate enlightenment either. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but sometimes you get sick, and there’s no narrative you can attach to it to ease that pain or even understand it. And some people don’t want to assign a greater meaning to it.

We’re all accepting some profound experience at the end of life—and it is a profound experience, I don’t want to take anything away from that—but you can’t plan for what’s going to happen! It’s such a complicated relationship. I was born in Poland but grew up in America, in American culture. I know what the Polish relationship is with death, just from going back to Poland and having Polish parents. When we visited, we went to the cemetery to see our relatives and pay our respects. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that’s something that happens here. It’s a cultural thing and I’ve always been, in a way, death-obsessed and just thinking culturally about how we navigate death. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and we all have different needs and wants. We just can’t say what these things are going to look like.

We put a lot more effort into hitting targets and milestones instead. There’s no energy or time devoted to death or those health directives.

It’s even crazy to me how quickly you even have to go back to work!

The bereavement leave?

Yeah! The fact that we have very little space for mourning or it’s such a prescribed amount of time: you get x amount for bereavement unless you decide to take more. Grief is such an out of control process and it goes on for a long time. Even just trying to put parameters around something like that. Personally, grief has been physical, emotional and it comes in waves. I can be fine for months and then feel like I’m back at square one. I really wanted to investigate our relationship with mourning and death and why we haven’t made a space for thinking about these things more readily and not figure out the best way to do it. To me, there is no “best way.” I want to raise those questions: what do you want your relationship with death to look like?

I don’t really believe in that kind of closure, either—that a formula for grief will help you get there. I don’t think of it in terms of goal-setting either—that’s so strange to me. 

And what is closure, anyway? That you don’t get to feel this anymore? That speaks to how we as culture don’t want to sit with our uncomfortable feelings, we want to know what the end is and we’re really being tested now because we’re in a situation where there is no end in sight. It’s ultimately about acceptance. You don’t get closure. You don’t know when something is going to end. The way someone you love dies doesn’t look the way you want it to and most of us just don’t get closure and we have to be ok with that. It doesn’t mean we’re happy about it. Acceptance doesn’t mean, “I love it.”

Have you been feeling any pressure to be productive or work on anything else? I feel like that’s how a lot of people have been grappling with that uncertainty lately.

I wrote one essay since I finished my book. I have not started writing a new book. I’ve been thinking about a new book, but I’ve been absolutely unproductive during this time. I really had to give myself a break about it. I only just started reading again. I haven’t really watched TV. I was telling a friend the other day that I can barely bring myself to watch reality TV. I’m trying to spend a lot of time outside because being in your house all the time is so hard and having to tell yourself things are okay all the time to just get through the day is so exhausting that I don’t have time to be productive.

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