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‘Something just shut off’: Minnesota author’s memoir details the all-encompassing impact of ‘complicated’ grief

Until she discovered the research of Columbia University Professor Katherine Shear, author Andrea Gilats felt like she was the only person who had been stuck in a seemingly endless grieving process.

In 1998, when Andrea (Andy) Gilats’ husband Tom Dayton died, she felt like she had lost her voice.  

“Something just shut off in me,” she said. “For most people, that doesn’t happen, even in a hard loss. But for me, it was like I had nothing left, and no way to communicate that.” 

While she knew other people who’d lost loved ones, Gilats somehow felt that the impact of Dayton’s death to cancer at age 52 was different, that it had shaken her to the point that she might never recover. For more than a decade, the St. Paul native was overwhelmed by a deep sadness that impacted every part of her life. 

Until she discovered the research of Columbia University Professor Katherine Shear and the Center for Prolonged Grief, Gilats felt like she was the only person who had been stuck in a seemingly endless grieving process. But Shear’s work gave her experience a name — complicated grief — and helped her to understand that she wasn’t alone. 

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Slowly Gilats moved into a different, and happy, life. Because she felt that sharing her own story would help other people living with complicated grief understand what they are going through, she wrote “After Effects: A Memoir of Complicated Grief,” a sometimes brutally honest account of her years of struggle — and of the complex and fulfilling turn her life has taken in the years since. 

“After Effects” is published by University of Minnesota Press, and will be released in February. Advance copies are available for preorder now, and a launch event is scheduled for February 10 at St. Paul’s  Subtext Books.  Recently Gilats and I spoke about her grieving process, about the healing power of memoir and her advice for others living through painful times. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

MinnPost: Was it painful to work on this book? You are so honest about how Tom’s death touched every aspect of your life.

Andy Gilats: By the time I started writing, enough time had gone by so I could talk about things that I never spoke about in the first decade after Tom’s death. Partway through writing the book I had some really good advice from one of the people I thank in the acknowledgements, literary agent Laurie Harper. She said, “Write everything you can that will help  your reader understand your experience of complicated grief and don’t write anything that doesn’t help that.” 

Andrea (Andy) Gilats
Photo by Brad Stauffer
Andrea (Andy) Gilats
Because of that advice, I kept saying to myself, “This is my memoir. I’m free to say whatever I feel I must say.”  For me, honesty and fidelity to the truth was uppermost in my mind. The writing was cathartic even after so many years. 

MP: Can you explain the difference between “normal” grief and complicated grief?

AG: With complicated grief, you reach a point where you know you’re not supposed to be grieving anymore but you are still stuck in your grief. That shuts you up even more. 

Normal grief runs a course that is customary for one’s culture. In Western culture and dominant cultures in Europe and the US “normal” grief is grief that is expressed and felt within the bounds of ones’ culture and customs. Psychologists say that normal grief can last about six months to a year. Even when they lose someone who is terribly close to them, most people really begin to recover after a year. I’ll put in a qualifier now, though, because of the pandemic means that the situations and circumstances under which many people have had close loved ones die are not customary. People have lost loved ones to COVID without saying goodbye to them, with no customs like funerals or memorials, so their grief may also be prolonged. 

Normal grief also allows you to function while you are grieving. Complicated grief is prolonged. It goes outside the bounds of one’s customs and culture. My own experience of grief lasted well over a decade. 

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You are less likely to be vulnerable to complicated grief if you could say goodbye to your loved one, if your loved one died in a normal way, perhaps of old age. Some deaths are not as fraught as others. The other difference is you’re more susceptible to complicated grief if you have that uncertainty about what happened to your loved one when they died in isolation in a hospital. The other thing that makes you vulnerable to complicated grief is if that close loved one was murdered, committed suicide or died of an accident or if they died in the prime of life. 

MP: Do you have any theories about why you experienced complicated grief? 

AG: I think that because Tom and I were so close I felt that when he died I had lost a lifeline, not that I didn’t have close friends, but my closest friend was not even in Minnesota. I’m close with my sisters, but my family did not know how to help me or to be with me. 

There were no children. People who are lucky enough to have a loving spouse and children, they have more left after a loss, more that remains and is intact for them. Another kind of loss that might set off complicated grief is disruptive processes, things like your loved one dying of COVID and never being able to have a funeral. 

MP: Do you think mental health care could have helped you with your grief? In your book, you don’t mention ever seeing a therapist after your husband died.  

AG: I thought about that a lot as I was writing the book. I think the answer is yes. I reached out to no one at the time and because of that no one reached out to me. It never dawned on me to seek any kind of help. My family was at such a loss of knowing what to do for me. No one ever suggested it. I hid my feelings, especially at work. 

Only one or two people saw that I was different because my grief was so far beyond normal and because I did such a good job of hiding it. People had no reason to think something was wrong. I was dedicated to not giving them a reason to think so. I knew I had to carry on. 

The research that has allowed people to get help for long grief disorder only came into its own in the early-to-mid 2000s, so chances are that in 1998, or 1999, when I most needed help, the kind of help I could have gotten might not have been as effective. That is why, when I started writing the book and I ran across the research and writing of Kathy Shear, that just opened the door for me. It only took 17 or 19 years, but finally there it was, staring me in the face, someone who really understood what had happened to me. 

I was well on my way to healing by then, but that recognition was like being separated at birth from your twin and finding her 30 years later. 

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MP: Was that a kind of a lightbulb moment for you? 

AG: It was, yes. You can imagine after talking to me I’ve always felt like I had words, but with the muteness that happened because of Tom’s death, I became not myself. I knew I wasn’t myself. I didn’t know I was experiencing abnormal grief. I just thought this was grief and I had to wait it out. When I read about Kathy Shear’s work I saw that I wasn’t alone, that what I had been feeling was more typical for someone experiencing complicated grief.

MP: In a way it seems like you and your husband were kind of your own self-contained biodome, so when he died, it threw your entire world out of whack. 

AG: Yes. That was fodder right there for complicated grief. 

MP: Eventually, you sold the house that you and Tom had lived in for most of your marriage and moved into a condo near the Mississippi River. Was that a turning point in your grieving process?

AG: Moving was the turning point in my grief. In my book I talk about why it became harder and harder to live in the house after Tom died. A big part of it was that I didn’t feel safe there anymore. Tom was such a big physical presence. He was the Great Protector. I never worried about my safety when he was alive. I lived in a safe neighborhood. It wasn’t that so much. I just felt like without him I didn’t feel safe or protected anymore. The house is old and had a lot of problems. It was getting to that point where I had to pour money into it. That’s where my family came in and said, “It’s time for you to move.” 

Once I moved into my condominium it was almost instant. There was such a difference in the physical ambiance of the house. The condo is all windows and I’m high off the ground on the fifth floor. I feel very secure up here. That alone felt like a weight had been lifted from me. I began to feel much better. I stayed in our house for nine years after Tom died. I almost cringe when I think of that. 

MP: Have you met other people who have experienced complicated grief? 

AG: No one that I know well enough to find that out about, but I certainly have met many women who have lost their husbands, even a couple of my neighbors in my condo building. Now that I’m in my mid-70s, I have to use both the fingers on both hands to count the friends who have lost their husbands in the past two or three years. How the course of grief will be for them I don’t know. At least in those cases their husbands lived a fuller measure of life. 

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MP: Are there things that you look back on that felt particularly helpful to you during your hardest times? 

AG: I think reading memoirs written by people who have experienced grieving can be one of the most healing experiences. When I was writing “After Effects” I came across a story in a scholarly journal where 16 grief counselors were asked to list the most helpful books they would recommend to their clients. Virtually every one of them said memoirs. Of the 16, 12 recommended “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion. That gave me a renewed interested in memoir as kind of self-help. There are lots of other well-known contemporary memoirs about grief, Including “A Widow’s Story” by Joyce Carol Oates and “The Light of the World” by Elizabeth Alexander. In the case of these three classic, widely read books, they cover a year, then it was over. I thought, “Wait. There is another experience.”  

MP: Do you ever get tired of talking about grief? 

AG: One thing I do think about more now is my own aging. “After Effects” has been put to bed  for a long time now, since Summer 2020. I reached a point finally about a year ago where I thought, “I need to continue my writing practice.” I knew that what I wanted to do was write about my own aging. I’ve been working on that manuscript for a long time now. 

What I find myself thinking about now is what comes after this life, if anything. It’s not that I think about being lifted to the sky and I’ll find Tom there in heaven. It’s not so much that as a sort of perpetual presence of all those we have ever loved. I honestly think that now that I am done grieving, it helps me to talk about it. And maybe it helps others. I love the thought that I could be helpful to others. 

MP: Do you think other people who are experiencing complicated grief will come forward when they hear about your book? 

AG: I hope so. Grief is one of those wounds that doesn’t show. It’s not like you have a cast or a bandage or something that other people can recognize when you’re out in the world so they can treat you more gently. It would be nice to know other people who are going through the same thing so I could help them.