Our February 2013 Book of the Month is the moving memoir, “Heartbroken Open,” by Kristine Carlson.
Written after the loss six years ago of her husband and business partner, Richard Carlson — who is known for his bestselling Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff series — the couple had a romantic marriage, two beautiful daughters, and all the comforts of the American Dream.
But on Dec. 13, 2006, on a typical flight to New York, a pulmonary embolism took Richard’s life.
“It catapulted me into heartbreak and uncertainty,” Carlson writes. “It was the end of life as I knew it, and the beginning of a journey through the depths of grief and mourning.”
We recently had the opportunity to talk with Carlson about “Heartbroken Open,” how she coped with the death of her husband, and how others can learn from her experience. Scroll down for our Q&A.
Be Inkandescent: We appreciate you talking about this incredible experience in your life, one we’re sure is still painful.
Kristine Carlson: Yes, but talking about it actually does help. And as you know from reading the book, December 13, 2006, was a day that started out like any other day. Richard had stayed at the airport hotel the night before because he was taking a 6 a.m. flight to New York. He did that so that he could get in a whole day of work once he got to New York. He always called to talk before he got on a flight, but this time I missed his phone call by five minutes. I had overslept, which was unusual for me.
After I got up, I did the breakfast dishes and got my kids to school—both were teenagers in high school, a freshman and a senior. I pulled into a mall parking space and my phone rang and I saw the New York area code, 212 at the time. I looked down and thought, “Well that’s an odd number. Richard must be calling from his hotel. Maybe his cell battery is out.” I answered the call expecting it would be Richard calling to tell me that he had arrived safely. Instead, two strangers were on the phone.
A nurse and a doctor began firing questions at me: “Are you related to Richard Carlson?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m his wife. Who are you?” They said, “We are calling from the Jamaica Memorial Hospital in Queens, New York.” I started to get very confused, and they told me that they had Richard with them. I started questioning them, saying, “What do you mean? How is Richard with you? He was on the plane.” They said we are really sorry to inform you Mrs. Carlson, but Richard Carlson has expired.”
Be Inkandescent: Breathtaking.
Kristine Carlson: Just that word alone, “expired,” completely threw me. Here we were living our life in full midlife—I was 43, Richard was 45. He didn’t have any health problems that we knew of, aside from suffering from back pain. Just take any day of your life and all of a sudden insert that phone call and that word, “expired,” and it just doesn’t make sense to your brain. You can’t even grasp what somebody is telling you in that moment.
I went slightly insane actually. I really left my body. I got angry and started yelling at these people as if they were playing a joke on me, and then I realized they weren’t when they started talking about his flight. I asked, “When?” They said an hour and a half ago, and in my mind I couldn’t even … I knew it was over. I just knew there was no turning back. It was absolutely devastating, and to this day, when I recall hearing the news, the feeling in my body comes back to me. It was just devastating.
I realized I had to tell our daughters and tell his family and all of his friends and all of his colleagues, and that was mind-blowing, too. But what really shocked me was that I didn’t really know until then that I had been kind of asleep in my life. When I was in the throes of raising kids and being the wife that I was to Richard, I just didn’t realize that I wasn’t fully awake to my life. Ironically, Richard’s death changed that. As I allowed grief to come into my world and my life, I was deeply rocked. I thought, “Wow, I’m really feeling my life at such a different level now.”
Be Inkandescent: Was that shocking to you?
Kristine Carlson: It was because the contrast was so dramatic for me. I would walk outside and all of a sudden see the trees and the sky. The wind would blow and I would just feel it all at a much deeper level than what I had felt before.
I started to realize these things amidst the horrible pain, the horrible pain, of healing. I came to understand that this awakening was a gift of this terrible experience. Richard and I had lived our whole life by the “don’t sweat the small stuff” philosophy—about how to be happy in life. I started to realize that all of those tools I had for being happy and living life well were going to be put to the test. But I knew in my heart I had the wisdom and the strength to go through this experience.
I kept praying the whole time I was grief-stricken that I would come through on the other side better for it—wiser, deeper, more in my heart. I hoped that one day I could return to joy. Looking back, I can honestly say that after about three years of an up-and-down, roller-coaster kind of living through grief and loss, I finally did. Now my life is about deepening my own life’s purpose. In gaining that perspective, I feel I am in a sacred contract with Richard. Losing him was an unfortunate, but necessary, part of my growth.
Be Inkandescent: When was it that you realized you would be okay?
Kristine Carlson: You know, I honestly think I knew right from the beginning—or at least within 48 hours of his death—that I was going to live through this, even though I didn’t know what my life was going to be like.
Be Inkandescent: Was there one moment when that was clear?
Kristine Carlson: I remember sitting by myself and having a very strong talk with myself that kind of went like this: “I can’t believe this happened to your life. This is really f’ed up. This sucks. Never anticipated this in a million years, couldn’t have seen this coming.” Then I remember saying, “You know what, you have had every amazing blessing that life has ever given anyone. Your life has been beyond charmed.” I remember feeling that, really noticing that, and realizing what an incredible life Richard and I had together for 25 years. I also remember feeling the horrible loss of that, and the worry about how to go on, but also knowing that loss is just part of life.
Be Inkandescent: And that is what the book Heartbroken Open is all about.
Kristine Carlson: Yes. The book is really inspired by the idea of, “Wow, I need to learn as much as I can from this experience because otherwise, what is the point?” Why would we go through that kind of horrible pain and horrible suffering if it wasn’t going to transform us into something new? And something better, hopefully.
Be Inkandescent: Let’s talk about the book, in which you discuss the four aspects of recovery: surrender, trust, accept, and receive.
Kristine Carlson: My experience of grief is that there is no sequence to it. I don’t know that I went through “stages of grief“—that sounds way too orderly for the roller coaster of emotions that I experienced. I just tried to allow myself to heal and give myself permission to befriend my grief. I noticed that befriending grief the way I did was unusual. Most people are terrified of grief. They want to busy themselves through it and hide from it and get through it faster. What happened to me was that I realized that my grief would need to be emptied out, and I didn’t know how much time it would take. I think it is an individual process—we all heal in our own time and in our own way. For me, not fighting the grief was really the easiest path to feeling free again. When I say, “I surrendered to my grief,” I mean that I allowed myself to be fully expressed in the moment. I often would feel my body alerting me when I wasn’t being fully expressed.
Be Inkandescent: Can you give us an example?
Kristine Carlson: Sure. I remember waking up one morning with a stomachache. I asked myself, “What is it telling me?” and then I realized, “Oh. That’s my grief.” My next thought was, “Oh, my God, I want it out, I want it out of my body. Get it out!” I felt that grief was like a cancer that could grow. It’s so painful and awful, and I felt I needed to let it out. I tried to just allow myself to go into my feelings about whatever I was feeling. And I found that the more I expressed my feelings through my body, the more tears I had, the better I felt. That process was a natural indicator—your tummy ache goes away because you allowed yourself the cry you needed to have today.
Be Inkandescent: How long did that go on for?
Kristine Carlson: For me, it went on for the first year, pretty substantially. I think that your psyche has a way of indicating what you’re capable of. My rhythm was three days in and three days out—I could grieve for three days at a time and then I needed three days of a break. My grief was often triggered by the first time I experienced an event without Richard, but I eventually noticed that anticipating an event was far worse than the event itself. I observed and learned so much that year; it was like being in a massive personal growth workshop for a whole year.
Be Inkandescent: Did things get better in the second year?
Kristine Carlson: The second year was still pretty messy. I felt a lot more grounded though and not weighed down as much by grief. I knew I still had a lot of things to learn, and I had to gather the reins on a bunch of stuff—including the business. I was now taking over an international brand that my husband ran. Thank goodness he had included me in so many of his business decisions! For example, I definitely knew how to be an author launching books, at least the way it was done before the Internet, which has changed everything. I’m still learning as I go—like every other author out there. It has been an adventure, a journey and an adventure.
Be Inkandescent: How much were you part of the daily operations of Richard’s business?
Kristine Carlson: Richard kept me involved in everything. I think he knew that anything could happen in our lives. He made sure I was capable of doing this. I didn’t ever really want to write any of the books in the “Don’t Sweat” series, though. We weren’t in a place financially where I needed to write books, but he realized I was a powerful writer, even though I didn’t. My contributions to the “Don’t Sweat” series was his way of gifting me a portion of my life’s purpose; it was as if he were saying, “Kris, come on. Step it up, step up to the plate. You can do this.”
Be Inkandescent: What was holding you back?
Kristine Carlson: I was not seeing how I could manage my life as a mother and my life as his wife and also write a book that turned into another New York Times bestseller and then live that life, too. That sounded like way too much to do to me, but looking back, I learned every step of what it took to run a publishing business. Encouraging me to write was very wise on his part, and I’m glad that he did that.
Be Inkandescent: This book is very touching and so honest. I think people who have lost someone they love will benefit from reading “Heartbroken Open.”
Kristine Carlson: Yeah, they do, and it means the world to me. I have the benefit of hearing from widows and people who have lost somebody through death. Even people who have gone through divorce, women and men, go through the same heartbreak—and they have the same possibilities. I think in some ways divorce might even be more challenging because it’s harder for the person who didn’t want the marriage to end to come to terms with that. Divorce often comes with more anger and bitterness than death, but anger and bitterness sometimes comes with loss from death, too.
Be Inkandescent: What I like most is that “Heartbroken Open” provides a template for healing.
Kristine Carlson: I think that’s because this is a very old and wise model of coping with loss. The mantra—surrender, trust, accept, and receive—was a mantra I learned with Richard way back when we were in our 20s. It’s really an abbreviated Serenity Prayer. We lived by that mantra throughout our lives together. Especially when things were difficult, we repeatedly tried to surrender, trust, and accept.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us about your life today, how your daughters are doing.
Kristine Carlson: In these last few years, I have realized my life’s purpose. I turn 50 this year, and it’s a great time to take stock. I am also a grandmother! My daughter Jasmine is married and has two boys under the age of 3. I visit them every month and if I miss a beat, my grandson calls to say, “Nana, you’re coming to see me?” That keeps me very grounded. Our youngest daughter, Kenna, is finding her next step in her education now. She is 21 and so resilient. I think they’ve healed 90 percent. Sometimes there is some post-traumatic stress that comes up from the dramatic shift and change that they had to go through. It’s hard, but they are strong. I’m very proud of them.
Be Inkandescent: Can we ask you the sensitive question—are you dating?
Kristine Carlson: Yeah, I am. And that has been a journey, too. I was terrified at first. But I have been dating somebody for quite a while, and we might be working our way toward more of a partnership relationship. That for me is imperative to have healing people in my life and companionship and love. I feel that Richard would want me to move forward in my life. If he was sitting next to me, I know he’d want me to find another partner and have fun. I’m good at embracing what comes my way. I’m not a big push-hard person, or someone who resists opportunities. I try to live in the flow.
Be Inkandescent: We appreciate that, Kristine, and look forward to watching your beautiful career and life unfold.
For more information about Kristine Carlson, visit www.KristineCarlson.com.
*To read our review of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Moms,” click here.