An Interview with Karolina Waclawiak - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Karolina Waclawiak

by Hayden Bennett
August 12th, 2020
Author photo by Rosson Crow
“All of us are trying to avoid pain in different ways. So how do we organize our lives not to feel it?”

Three summary keywords provided by the AI transcription service:
Grief
Death
Mother

Karolina Waclawiak’s Life Events is a masterwork in pleasurable dread. It’s a book that one-ups the faceless, gloomy, self-seriousness a dictionary usually associates with the word, and turns it into a fun interrogation of a feeling that every living person will one day confront: death, and our anxiety of it. You will die; I will die; we’ll all die; and Evelyn, the protagonist of Waclawiak’s book, helps people through this process by becoming a death doula and volunteer Exit Guide. Life Events isn’t just a humane book but one that, if America cared about the quality of citizens’ life, would ship to every home with the note: Whether you read this or not, it is about you. You are going to die; but until then, you’re going to live! Enjoy.

Karolina was Essays Editor when I started working at this magazine, and has since gone on to become the executive editor of BuzzFeed News’ culture vertical Reader. I’ve always admired the amount of selfless work she’s done: quietly helping bring attention to Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Sarah Marshall, Leslie Jamison, and many others, even when she had to teach and hold down a desk job to do it.

We met in early March, in the back corner of an empty cafe patio in Silverlake, Los Angeles. The waitress recommended us an orange wine. The mood at that time was already rife with ambient anxiety, a mood that in many ways fits the book. We knew change was coming, but there was no way to know exactly what it would look like. 

—Hayden Bennett

I. Big Moments

KAROLINA WACLAWIAK: After my mom died in September 2019, I only wanted to talk to people whose parents had died. My friends were really amazing and reached out and wanted to help me, but I felt like my feelings were so out of control. I am the type of person who wants to know what’s going to happen. The feeling of walking through this world and not knowing if you’re gonna collapse from grief or not—or, like, one minute feeling completely numb and the next minute you’re sobbing hysterically is so antithetical to how I’ve lived my life. It does make people uncomfortable. 

I found myself reaching out to friends whose parents had died to say, “Hey, is this normal?” You read books and convince yourself like, “These are the normal stages of grief,” but allowing yourself to be a beginner in grief and not knowing what’s gonna happen and being okay with that, and really, like, for me—and I know grief is different for everyone—I really have felt like I’m only a couple steps away from completely falling apart and so I’ve almost gone the complete other way of trying to cope too much. Because I’m scared of the day that I’m going to wake up and can’t move. 

BLVR: Yeah, that’s real. Do you feel like there’s a lack of articulating what it means to be a beginner in grief? 

KW: Because my own mother was sick when I was writing the book, I felt like I was trying to pre-grieve, like, outsmart grief. I wasn’t reading or seeing anything that was specifically like, how do you prepare, which is such a crazy thing to say—because, can you prepare? This book to me is an attempt to preserve the inevitable. 

The way I wrote Evelyn was hyper-focused on being afraid of what was going to come, but knowing it was coming soon. 

My personal experience of grieving my mother is so different than that—that person’s gone forever, you know, the person who is anticipating the bad thing. Now, it’s like the bad thing has come and you have to live with it. It’s a whole other experience.

BLVR: I finished writing a book about my mom dying three days before my brother died, and it was similar. It’s such a specific time capsule. Now it’s very distant.

KW: Yeah, it’s interesting. I don’t know that I could write Evelyn now, because I’ve gone to the other side. That ambient fear that you live with every day of a phone call, or like, you’re going miss something. 

BLVR: The narrative of illness is also just never what you expect. Do you think pre-grieving is an attempt to prepare?

KW: Yeah, I think it’s like trying to wrest control out of an uncontrollable situation. I think that that’s what I was trying to work through with Evelyn. That was absolutely her reasoning for wanting to work with terminally ill patients to desensitize herself. It is this, like, let me feel all the pain, so I feel nothing. It doesn’t work. 

BLVR: A lot of people in the book are trying to control the situation. There was a fixation especially with moments—being there for someone’s last breath, for example. 

KW: I think we’re obsessed with like, the big moment: the last big conversation, the last breath.

BLVR: Why is this? Movies?

KW: I think so. As a society and as a culture, we have an unrealistic view of what death looks like. I also think it’s interesting in American culture, specifically, we hide death and dying away. In Poland, you take care of your parents as they’re dying. Here, I think it’s hidden away. We have an unnatural relationship with death in America. You don’t see how long it takes. You don’t see someone’s decay. Watching that happen is really painful. But when you don’t see it, you sort of think, like, there’s that final day on the deathbed, and there’s a big exhale after, and everybody has tidy conversations about what’s next for you. I’m proud of you. I love you very much, and goodbye. That big goodbye moment has been dramatized so much. 

BLVR: A lot of people attach so much importance to it.

KW: With my mom, we talked every single day. The moments when I miss her come from when something happens, and the first person I would call is her, or I would see something that I knew she would be obsessed with that I can’t share with her. The small moments that matter more. 

BLVR: A lot of the people in the book who choose to die: some seem healthy, some are mentally all there.

KW: They’re all trying to control in a way, right? Like Daphne I think is trying to reckon with the fact that it’s her body that’s failing her, and that her mind is behind. And I think that happens and you’re trapped in a shitty body. 

And so, how does it feel to be trapped? Choosing to die is a way of saying I’m actually going to take back control here and not continue to be trapped in this failing body.

I think a lot of Evelyn’s clients really wrestle with loneliness. Lawrence is a perfect example of that. He’s hidden away in an apartment. He peaked at a certain time. And now he’s sort of waiting for the end, and tired of waiting.

BLVR: They’re alive, but it feels like…

KW: They’re waiting to die.

BLVR: Are there real analogues to the Exit Guide service?

KW: Well, there are final exit volunteers that work in different countries. I was fascinated with that work because it is so controversial and there are so many moral and ethical questions around this. The right to die movement in general which I think is really interesting, and then there’s, you know, the death doula movement. They’re all different variations of wanting to die with dignity. It’s all about trying to pull the curtain back on this thing that has become very hidden and taboo. 

BLVR: How did the idea of writing this as fiction come to you? Might just be me, but I haven’t found much fiction so direct about this particular form of grief.

KW: I can be more honest when I’m writing fiction. It’s sort of like a layer of protection. I was able to go there without having to feel a fidelity to tell the truth about my mom, you know, it just felt like this is a universal thing. And by making it fiction, I can take it away from my personal story and what made me write it. It was a way to say: we are all dealing with different levels of grief. And this is how one person is trying to navigate her pain.

BLVR: Is the autobiographical connection, something you feel comfortable promoting it with and talking about?

KW: No. In all the fiction I write the feelings are real. And yeah, the rest is fiction. Writing the book was a really painful experience for me. I felt like I could prepare myself for the inevitable by writing a book about preparing myself for the inevitable. [Laughs

My attempts to do that feel much more boring than what someone like Evelyn would do. She plunges headfirst into pain all the time, but is self-aware enough to know she’s doing it. It’s like, let me feel the pain and then let me self-annihilate. Let me feel a different kind of pain.

BLVR: A balance. 

KW: She’s managing it and controlling it, calibrating how much to give herself.

BLVR: Is there a point at which you think she loses control?

KW: I think that Daniel, the last client of hers, really was the closest she was going to losing control. And then she ran. Like she is a person that feels like someone’s gonna get too close to her, or test her, or put her over that edge. She’s gonna run.

BLVR: Is loss of control tied to loss of boundaries? Evelyn’s relationship with sex is also tied up in all this.

KW: Well, the two inevitables in life are sex and death—right? I feel like they’re always intertwined. And they’re both really primal.

I took a class in college, at USC, called sex and death. For some reason that class completely blew my mind. We were looking at advertisements and culture and looking at how like sex and death is all around us. And I think it’s Evelyn’s obsession, because both are about power and loss of power. I think that’s a central concern.

BLVR: By the end of the book, Evelyn entirely pared down her life. 

KW: So much of her journey is getting rid of attachment. That also comes from a place of fear, right? If I don’t have anyone in my life that I love, then I won’t feel pain. That’s another way she’s trying to control the situation.

II. Full Doomer

BLVR: Evelyn just broke up with her husband. Do the end of relationships feel like a kind of grief to you, too?

KW: Yeah, because it’s caring about someone enough to start to be worried about what’s gonna happen to them.

BLVR: Which is another kind of loss of control.

KW: Yeah. I think ultimately, Evelyn’s problem is that she’s afraid to be vulnerable. She spent her life trying not to be vulnerable, so that nobody can get her and she can outsmart that, too. Feeling vulnerable with her husband or with Daphne or Nathan or any of these people feels dangerous. Even looking at why it feels dangerous to have relationships with other people is really interesting to me. 

BLVR: Do you feel like it falls into the same category of grief as death? I’ve always wondered kind of about using that word for relationships, too.

KW: I think it’s loss. You had expectations and hopes. And they’re gone. There’s a breakup and you never see them again. It’s almost as if they’re suddenly dead. You can’t have access to them. You’re in this really weird destabilized space where you start to question like, did that happen? Like how could I have spent all this time with someone and then never interact with them again. They’re taken away from me. 

I don’t know what’s going on with their life unless I’m looking around on social media I think there is grief there. Of course, it’s not the same kind of grief like someone dying, but if they’re out of your life, they’re out of your life. You reorganize your life based on that loss.

BLVR: Which is another small thing that’s maybe hard to narrativize a lot of the time.

KW: Yeah. I mean, I think too, if somebody dies, small things become painful. And so you reorganize your life to avoid feeling that pain. That might be never going to a certain place again, or avoiding things that remind you of that person. I think that is a case when you’ve broken up with somebody, too. All of us are trying to avoid pain in different ways. So how do we organize our lives to not feel pain? 

BLVR: One definition that helped me was from The Year of Magical Thinking: grief is passive and mourning is active. There’s not a lot of mourning in the book. 

KW: Evelyn hasn’t suffered that loss yet. She’s not in the active feeling of it yet. It’s passive because she’s waiting. She’s waiting for the bad thing to happen. She’s feeling all the feelings, but she’s not willing to move through them because it hasn’t happened. 

BLVR: What does one do in that period?

KW: I don’t know. She’s biding her time. Which is also like a weird thing to have in a book, a passive narrator. She’s doing things but, again, it’s like things are happening to her.

BLVR: That’s what this book had that I just haven’t seen elsewhere—it’s so focused on the waiting and pre-grieving. So much about mourning is about honoring the specific person or ritual. A lot of French books were what I turned to—memoirs about the direct story from a parent’s illness to death. There aren’t many of those.

KW: I read Barthes’ Mourning Diary right after my mom died. And then I read The Year of Magical Thinking again, and Didion’s other book, Blue Nights. It’s like they’re asking, who will make sense of this?

BLVR: She tries.

KW: She tries. But it’s all about the aftermath. I hadn’t really read anything about the what happens before. Especially when you’re dealing with somebody who has an illness for a long time. It is so slow, but you’re always feeling terrible. And then you have moments of fulfillment. 

I started calling it ambient grief. The haze you live in and you can’t escape. Even when they die in a sense you’re like, feel relief for their suffering, but you don’t feel relief for yourself.

BLVR: I did for a minute. When my mom died—because I’d been so anxious, there was a moment leaving the hospital when I had a crazy feeling of clarity. It was like, “Oh, this is what matters.” And then the ambient grief fog came back.

KW: After my mom died, I specifically went to rewatch the Bojack episode of his mother’s funeral. And it’s so simple. He says something like my mother’s dead and everything is worse now. 

And I couldn’t verbalize how I was feeling. And then he just kept saying it over and over again in the episode. I’m like, “Yeah, that’s it. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be more complicated.” 

This person has gone, everything is worse now. At first, I felt like I didn’t have to be afraid anymore. The worst thing in my life has happened, and I’ve let go of that feeling. But then as you go on further and further, and you just feel that accumulated loss every day, and then you forget for a minute that they’re gone. And then you’re like, oh, fuck. 

BLVR: It’s worse when it comes back—all of it compounds.

 KW: Yeah, and then that clarity of like, “None of this shit matters.” But you still have to do all the shit. I laugh with my co-workers because they’re like, you’re such a nihilist now. You are full doomer. And I’m like, because none of this matters.

BLVR: That doesn’t sound like nihilism to me.

KW: It’s clarifying. All you can do is try to live in a way that brings you some joy, because this is it. In that way, it’s clarifying. The anxiety of everyday life, things that don’t really matter—completely fallen away. I just don’t care. I think the fact that I don’t care about a lot of stuff anymore, I think is scary to people who don’t understand the freedom of not giving a shit.

III. A Very Don Draper Situation

BLVR: How did you come up with the questions that Evelyn asks her clients before they die?

KW: In the research that I was doing, I was looking at death preparation rituals now, and the way people are going about having people who are dying prepare for their deaths, and, essentially, leaving without regrets. There are questions where you essentially reckon with yourself, often reckoning with your life and facing it head-on. Making amends I think is huge and that is a big part of recovery, too, as you’re trying to grow you make amends with yourself and how you lived in this world and so you can leave without regrets. It all feels very much like a personal reckoning, which I think a lot of people are not brave enough to do.

BLVR: There’s no real cultural space for it either. There’s definitely no real shared language or grief in a big way. Your work sends flowers and you’re supposed to come back in a week, two weeks. Less, for so many people.

KW: It’s not particularly humane to make people come back to work and act like nothing happened after something so seismic happens. I mean, how are you supposed to go on and act like nothing’s wrong and like file reports and go to meetings? I mean, I just found myself staring out the window. Most of the time, it was just like, I don’t care.

BLVR: Was there a flipside where you found new things that you did care about? 

KW: I really care about what I’m doing at work. Storytelling is really important, but the bureaucracy of the way we live doesn’t feel important. I also think that it’s made me less afraid of life. Because the stakes are low. I used to get really worked up about like, oh god, I can’t do this. I can’t take this risk because, what will happen? Now it’s like, I’m not gonna die. Or if I die, who cares?

BLVR: I’ve had a similar thing with control. I’ve had a gradual letting up of control in my life. Grief has been a big part of it. 

KW: Yeah, I really let go of so much and realize I can’t control anything. I can control how I react to things. 

BLVR: Now I’m in this place where I wonder: how do I get any of the ambition back? 

KW: I think that’s really fair. If nothing matters, what matters?

BLVR: You almost need to to—if not become religious, just sort of understand what it is that you want.

KW: Yeah, how do you navigate grief if you don’t have religion? And you don’t throw yourself into the ritual of grieving and finding meaning through religion, what do you find meaning in?

BLVR: Yeah, my mom was not at all religious. So there was just nothing and then she was ashes. There was a party and that was it.

KW: What does anything mean anymore?

BLVR: Well, you get to choose.

KW: Yes. 

BLVR: Which is why it doesn’t feel especially nihilistic to me. 

KW: Although I feel like half the day is spent thinking I’m just gonna get in the car and drive away. It’s become a very Don Draper situation.

BLVR: That sounds fun.

KW: After I watched the final season of Bojack, I watched the final season of Mad Men. They were very similar in many ways. You build and wreck your life. But then what do you do? You flee. And I think that’s, Evelyn’s mindset, too. You just keep driving. But what are you fleeing? 

In the American imagination, the hope is that on the endless road to nowhere you’ll eventually find yourself at the end of the road.

BLVR: How Evelyn doubles back is funny—she’s already as far west as she can go. Now she goes east. It was arbitrary in the first place.

KW: Think about how many people have come to California to reinvent themselves. Find religion, find meaning, Esalen, whatever. It’s the end of the road of America and you stop and you expect to have some big epiphany and at the end of the day, you’re still left with yourself. And this is where the personal reckoning comes in. All you have at the end of the day is yourself. And can you live with yourself?

BLVR: Yeah, if you don’t have those practices, I think it becomes way harder. You have to have your own practice. 

KW: Yeah. If I wasn’t writing fiction, I would be in a much worse place. Because I go to fiction to try to answer or at least raise the big questions of like, how do we do this? This book has no answers, but at least I was trying to tease out the question and figure out like, we’re all in this experience together. We’re all going to have to deal with death. No one escapes it, even if you’re a Silicon Valley billionaire trying to Ray Kurzweil yourself out of dying. I mean, death is the great equalizer. So how are you going out? Who are you as a person?

IV. Eighteen Months

BLVR: From what I’ve read, death is always kind of active.

KW: I’ve taken care of my mother as she was dying. I took care of my grandfather as he was dying. There’s so much fear. That is active, that anxiety and that fear of the end—I’m sure there are people who died peaceful deaths. And, you know, I hope that’s the way I go out, but it’s extremely active to die and it’s terrifying to watch. But it’s a privilege. A friend of mine said, “Your mother brought you into this world and she asked you to bring her out.” And that’s a profound moment.

BLVR: You were there when she died. I really wanted to be there when my mom died. I definitely fetishized looking right at the moment, but I had left the hospital room to get my two brothers. In the thirty seconds I was gone—that’s when she died. 

KW: Do you think she was waiting for you to leave for her to die? 

BLVR: She was super avoidant of most things, and especially avoidant of ever going to the hospital. She basically said: only take me there to die. And five hours after we took her, she died. She really wanted to get out of the hospital bed; she was fighting to get out of it, and then ran out oxygen.

KW: Yeah, there is that rejection of what is happening and fear. You have a primal reaction to what’s happening.

BLVR: I always think about how dogs go away to die alone. And there are so many stories of people kind of waiting for family members to leave the room. My mom was just in a different place—not entirely present, but fighting to be. It’s hard to say.

KW: I feel like my mom was waiting for me to come home because I had been away for work for a few days. She called and asked where I was. I came home and I was with her. It really felt like she wanted me to be there. Or maybe that’s what I tell myself.

I think that’s also to why I find what Evelyn does is so beautiful. That idea of dying alone and being alone as you’re dying. It feels so awful to me.

BLVR: They’re volunteering to carry the trauma. 

KW: I think Evelyn’s mentality is that she can handle it and I think so much of the book is like, I can endure, I can endure. She’s accumulating this trauma. So then when it’s people that she loves who are dying, she thinks she’ll know what to do and how to feel and not feel as much, which, of course doesn’t work.

BLVR: I used to look at surgery videos, because I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I just like, if I watch this blood and gore, I’ll be fine. I’ll get used to it. Not how it works.

KW: No, it’s not. It’s interesting, because before I wrote this book, I went to a number of funerals. And they were like, the wakes were all open casket. Italian wakes. The bodies look like life was never in them. I was thinking about that: what does it mean to go and be around death, does it impact how you react to death when it’s actually happened to someone close to you? 

BLVR: Evelyn was willing to go to these strangers, but she didn’t want to treat them like strangers. She almost wanted to become intimate with them so that the deaths had more meaning, which is exactly what she wasn’t supposed to do. But, having a lack of boundaries…

KW: That’s exactly right. She wanted to feel more than a random person would with another person dying.

BLVR: That feeling builds until she just has to run away from it, too.

KW: It’s too close. Yeah. I think she has no boundaries. That’s the problem, right?

BLVR: That’s something a lot of people have to learn through stress-testing…

KW: Yeah, what does it mean for her own well being to not have any boundaries? Again, it’s this weird endurance thing.

BLVR: If you have desensitized yourself you might need some sort of extreme pain to feel something.

KW: There’s a difference between emotional pain and physical pain. It’s interesting that women, when asked, would only think about emotional pain and the men would ask, like, do you mean physical or emotional when they’re asked how to avoid pain.

BLVR: I really love that onslaught—when the Exit Guides ask one another: How do you avoid pain? How do you avoid pain? they ask it over and over again, until they crack.

KW: I think asking that for five minutes would probably push anyone into a deep anxiety attack. [Laughs]

BLVR: I could stand about thirty seconds, yeah.

KW: You have your immediate responses and then you have to start really digging deep about like, how do I, how do I avoid pain and why do I avoid pain in that way? You almost get into a fugue state of trying to figure out our coping mechanisms, or just how we move through the world. We’re trying to avoid pain at all costs.

BLVR: You mentioned Bojack—was there anything else that was really helpful? That’s one special thing about grief books: they really have like a function in your life. 

KW: There was one snippet in Mourning Diary that that made me think: Oh, this is a good guide book, where he said it takes eighteen months to mourn the loss of your mother and father.

BLVR: That’s exactly when I wrote about my mom. Weird.

KW: Yeah, I was like, Oh, thank God. Now I know when this will be over. It’s different for everyone. And Joan Didion investigated how your brain tells lies to cope, which was helpful to read. 

Because I just felt like I was going insane.

BLVR: I didn’t read Blue Nights, but it seemed like she just couldn’t give up the control. 

KW: Yeah, but what does grief look like to a person who can’t give up control? It’s a whole other experience.

BLVR: Have you read Annie Ernaux? Two of her books: I Remain in Darkness and A Woman’s Story—the latter was written maybe like ten or twentyyears after her mom died, and one was written while she was dying. That’s really fascinating to see.

KW: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting because my mom died while I was editing the book. I had to turn in my copy edits right after the funeral. I ended up putting things in the book around the death. Because I felt like oh, I had no idea. I couldn’t have written this book unless I was going through this experience because you just don’t know. You don’t know anything. And I just didn’t want to not tell the truth about what this felt like.

BLVR: Have you ever returned to any like more California-type practices like you mentioned Esalen, or…

KW: I mean, I meditate every morning. [Laughs]

BLVR: It helps. I was just hanging out with a friend, and it was really the most refreshing thing when he was like, I want to recharge. Can we meditate for fifteen minutes?

KW: I love that [Laughs]. Yeah. I meditate every morning—or I try to. I hike a lot and take walks.

BLVR: Doing dishes and podcasts are the two most helpful ways for me not to be in my head. 

KW: I’ve been listening to a lot of music, but I find that I’ll drive really fast and listen to speed metal. And then all of a sudden Nick Cave for thirty-six hours straight. It’s just like, I need someone else’s sadness right now. The fact that Ghosteen came out right after my mother died…

BLVR: That album was so fucking painful.

KW: I just have been listening to Ghosteen on a loop. I buried my mother right when it came out. I was reading Nick Cave’s blog about grief. Which I highly recommend. It’s incredible. I was reading like every entry. And that gave me a lot of comfort. Again, it’s like seeking out people who understood this experience so I could feel less alone. I’m hoping that the book does that for people who are waiting for this impending doom to happen to them too.

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