Grief is a profoundly painful and difficult experience everyone must go through; but how do we transform that feeling into something that can help us grow wiser and more resilient? In this episode, we explore good grief with Holly McIlwain and Amy Hooper Hanna, the co-authors of For She Who Grieves: Practical Wisdom for Living Hope. We dive deep into their book, which explores the effects of grief and the transformative power it holds. Holly and Amy share their personal experiences and how they found resilience in the face of grief. They discuss the inspiration behind writing the book and the process of collecting stories from various individuals who have navigated grief in their own unique ways. Throughout the conversation, Holly and Amy highlight the importance of embracing grief, feeling the emotions associated with it, and finding hope and healing through action. Join us as we explore the depths of grief and discover the wisdom and hope that lies within its embrace.
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For She Who Grieves: The Transformative Power Of Grief With Holly Mcllwain And Amy Hooper Hanna
I’m excited to introduce our next guest. First, I want to introduce their book, For She Who Grieves: Practical Wisdom for Living Hope. This is a collection of stories on the effects of grief and what comes next. My guests are the creators and curators of this book, Holly McIlwain, and Amy Hooper Hanna. I want to introduce both of you. Great to have you, Amy, and Holly.
Thank you so much for having us.
I’m excited to be here.
Your book is very important. I want to dive into your book. First, let me talk a little bit about your book. Grief is painful. It hurts badly, we know. What if we focus on grief as something that helps us grow wiser and more resilient? What if we could embrace grief, at least hold its hand, and look at it closely? This is a book about good grief. Good grief, that’s actually a saying. For She Who Grieves: Practical Wisdom for Living Hope. I’m curious, Amy and Holly, how did you get involved in this process of writing a book? What was the inspired thought and action behind it?
Like all good stories, it starts with tragedy. I personally experienced a moment in my life that left me sitting in bed wondering, “What is the bravest thing I could possibly do?” The bravest thing I could possibly do is get out of bed. I was surrounded by a community of women, who were committed to helping me continue to take brave action.
Amy was in this community. Amy was a woman who I had met by chance and chosen in friendship. Amy and I share a connection through an organization called the Brave Women Project. Through our work in this organization, we began to share our stories and listen to the stories of other women who were choosing to do one brave thing every day. When grief is at your doorstep, it’s very hard to choose the brave thing. I was so fortunate to have a community around me to help me walk through grief. I invited Amy to be on this journey with me, and she is a wild and brave woman who chose to join me.
It’s because Holly asked me. That’s one of the best things. All of the women in our networking group are very involved and supportive. Sometimes when you ask someone if they want to be involved or if they want to contribute, the answer is yes. The timing happened to be right because Holly was experiencing her own grief at the same time that I was going through my personal transformation with grief. We both had completely different experiences. Our grief was from totally different kinds of loss. We were at different stages.
As we spoke about what we were going through and involved other women in the process, we found that hearing each other’s stories was so eye-opening. There were so many a-ha moments in the shares that brought us closer together and made us smarter and wiser and gave us hope. The book is taking all that information and putting hope into action. It’s doing something, making hope active.
Thank you for the introduction to the book. I’m so curious, what led you to write this book? You were talking a little bit about it, about your collective grief experience and how a group of women came together. When did the idea of writing a book come along?
This is when it gets juicy. I had put out my first book before the pandemic hit. Cleverly, I had toilet paper on the cover of my book. I had no idea how popular that was going to become. I met Amy at one of the launches for my book and it was an immediate energy connection. I immediately was connected to Amy. I learned that she and I had such shared passions and intellectual interests that we became very friendly.
Throughout the year, I experienced grief upon grief upon grief. In the compact six months of the beginning of 2020, I experienced the loss of both my father and my father-in-law, a child that I was pregnant with. My husband was diagnosed with a disease that changed the path of our life. All of this in a short period of time.
Let’s be honest, any normal person would’ve gone into bed, covered up with the covers, eaten a whole cake, and said, “I’m done. I’m not getting back up.” I was not afforded that luxury. I have two little boys at home. I have a high-pressure job. I have a household to run. My whole name is Holly Joy. How do you get away with hiding in bed if your name is Holly Joy? You know what I mean?
I looked around and there were women sending me care packages for a home spa or a whole cake from a specialty bakery because these are comfort items. I looked around and I saw these women who were cheering me on, who were calling me, facetiming me, showing up with groceries, showing up with those items to bring me hope.
We created a place called the Brave Women Project, where we supported each other virtually. Amy was the very first person to join the Brave Women Project. I received such incredible encouragement from that action that it allowed us over the next two years to deepen relationships in our community and expand them.
When all this tragedy struck, I found myself lying in bed crying, feeling all of the feelings that are so important and necessary, and starting to write out on my iPad, For She Who Grieves. I started outlining this book. I started telling some of my story, but I knew that my story was a sliver of what women carried. I knew that the grief that I was carrying was lessened because other people came alongside me.
When I shared some of this with Amy, she received me without judgment. She received me in my grief, as a friend, and as an open and safe place for me to be brave. I asked her to think about partnering with me to tell some of these stories and to do it in a very particular way that when you read the book, some of the stories are undetectable at whose story it is.
We wanted to do that because we know that not every story of grief can be shared in a public place, but we wanted to also give validity to some of the stories that needed to be shared because they can bring hope to someone else. Amy, I’m forever grateful to you because of the way that you received my story and the way that you picked up and jumped right in and helped tell. You might have some thoughts on that, too.
It was perfect timing. I’ll say the connection is key and timing is a bonus. One thing that I’ll always admire about you, Holly, is you’re very proactive. After we met at your first book launch, you proactively stayed in touch. Even though there wasn’t anything actively going on necessarily, you would reach out and check in and see what was happening professionally and personally.The connection is key and timing is a bonus. Click To Tweet
When I had offered at your book launch, like, “If you write another book, I’ll edit your next book.” You were like, “All right, cool.” When you had this idea for this book, I know that I was in your mind originally for editing. It so happened that I was at a place in my grief journey, which honestly, I didn’t even think of as grief because it was a journey that has taken place over a decade.
I write, so I journal. I jot. I have notes everywhere and that’s how I process. I had been writing about a trauma that I had experienced that’s still private and it’s still private for safety and security reasons. I had been writing about it because it had left me so extremely affected and confused. I happened to be in a process where I was letting that flow come out. It also happened to be a time when my children were getting older and I knew they were going to ask me about what happened and I wanted to be prepared on how I was going to respond. I had been putting together a letter to my children about my story.
When Holly had this idea for the book and started vetting volunteers and contributions to contribute stories, I submitted pieces of my story. Holly, you called me immediately and you were like, “Can you partner with me on this book? What do you think about partnering with me on this book?” I loved it. It worked out well and we worked complimentary styles and thought processes together. It was very easy and it was a joy to write about grief with Holly.
I liked that you shared the process of coming up with this book, the idea of the book, the genesis of the book, and the ability to come together and collaborate on the book. I’m curious. Other than being in this Brave Woman Project together, which you met, what are your backgrounds? Amy, you shared that you’re a writer-editor. Is that correct?
I do that on the side. My experience is all in corporate communications consulting, organization effectiveness consulting, and leadership behavioral assessment and consulting. I coach and teach managers and employees how to be better leaders and listeners and give people the words and the ways to better connect with themselves and with others. I focus on emotional and social intelligence. In the leadership consulting realm, Holly and I both come from that same area of business, which we did not know when we originally met at her book launch. We found that out through talking. It so happened to be. We were both in leadership consulting and training and things like that.
Holly, do you need to add?
I spent fifteen years in the nonprofit space, building up people, and putting systems in place. For the past few years, I’ve been in higher ed human resources leadership. I love getting people excited about doing their job and doing their job well, and then going home and sleeping well at night. Whether I’m doing it in my full-time capacity or in Winter Partners, the executive search firm that I’m a partner in, I love the business of people succeeding. You will feel that as you read the book.
Amy and I are constantly taking the human element, listening to the stories, sharing them, massaging them, illustrating them, and then immediately flipping them into action. How do you take this experience and suck out the action that builds hope? It’s a book about grief and hope, but it’s a book that is for people who want to get themselves unstuck.
For She Who Grieves: Practical Wisdom for Living Hope is available on Amazon and other online retailers and local bookstores. With that, I want to jump into the content of the book. Specifically, Holly and Amy, what are some life lessons that you learned from the writing and the co-creation of this book?
I’ll start because I’ve got a couple that are at the tip of my tongue constantly. For She Who Grieves, hope is waiting for an invitation to accompany into the next everything. Grief is not a stagnant space that you live in. That’s one that sticks with me every day.
I learned so much from this book. We put so much research into this book, but also hearing the live stories from everybody’s experiences. One thing that was cemented for me, and I know this from experience as well, is you’ve got to feel to heal. That saying is so true. A lot of times we stuff our grief, we hide it. We want to avoid it. We don’t talk about it. We don’t share our stories with people because we feel like no one wants to hear about it. When we avoid the pain, when we stuff the pain and we don’t feel it and experience it, it comes out later in insidious ways that we might not even recognize as being tied to this trauma, pain, or significant loss.
One of the things that we discovered in the collection of stories and the conversations we had is that grief is intensely personal, while at the same time, it’s communal. There’s this tendency that we observed as we were talking about grief with people. There is a comparison of grief of, “This is only what I’m experiencing. This person is experiencing something so much more extreme, intense, or worse.” The comparison was stealing the opportunity to heal. That was interesting for us to study and then try to articulate ways out of that.
We didn’t even realize how we might be judging our own grief, let alone somebody else’s, and how significantly and subtly that can stifle hope. It can stifle people from taking forward action, making progress, and experiencing happiness and joy. It is a significant factor. The other thing that was interesting is we busted some myths for ourselves, too. There are some common thoughts about grief.
One was that grief itself is an emotion. Grief is the emotion. Grief is a whole host of emotions. It’s a whole experience. Also, there’s no timetable. A lot of us have grown up hearing once or twice about the 5 stages of grief or the 7 stages of grief and there’s this model, which is all well and good. Frameworks and models can be very helpful.
What we also realized is that the intention of that model was that people would try to bucket themselves into different phases and then judge themselves. It’s like, “I’m not in that phase, so I must not be grieving. It’s not worth grieving because I’m not feeling this.” That’s not what that’s about. Everybody experiences grief a little bit differently depending on so many different factors, which is why grief is common. It’s universal. We all feel it at some point in our lives, but how we experience it individually can be very unique and that’s valid. That’s fine. However you experience it is your experience. That’s fine. It’s valid.
What I’m hearing is you must feel to heal and that grief is not a stagnant place. It’s a constantly evolving, moving place, and everyone experiences grief differently. When anyone creates frameworks, it’s a way to help people understand life or understand concepts and that’s all good. Know that maybe your grief will expand outside of that framework.
It may not fit that framework. If it’s not helpful to you, it’s not helpful to you. There are things that you can do, and this is what we share in the book. There are choices that you can make even when you’re stuck and grieving. There are steps that you can take to ease your suffering. We’re very clear on what worked for other people and what might work. We’re not prescribing anything necessarily. We’re giving ideas for people to try and to see if it resonates with them. These are things that were helpful to other people and practical pieces of wisdom and action that you can take to move through your reaction to whatever loss you’ve experienced.
Tell me a little bit about the process in terms of requesting or putting out a call for collecting stories for the book. It sounds like some of the stories are anonymous to protect people’s identities.
We did a couple of things. I do a lot of speaking and engagements and so I hear people’s stories constantly. I’ve kept a mental log of the people who had navigated grief over the past several years in ways that I was inspired by. Some of those people I reached back out to and I asked them for permission to tell parts of their story. Their stories are told very clearly and appropriately in the work. We also saw that these individuals have turned their grief into help through concrete action and foundations. We cite those things in our book because we want to inspire people to do something with their grief or to connect.
For other people that we encountered, we asked for a lot of referrals. We asked people to introduce us to the people who were grieving or living hope. We collected those stories. We asked people for permission to share some of those resources and important things. Amy was phenomenal and bold in asking people of significant influence for their stories and to share some of the resources.
One of the things that readers will notice as they page through our book, not only are there lots of citations of the research to back up the content, but there are also lots of pauses to check your mental health and wellness and to use some of the resources that we have for immediate support. If there are difficult things that you’re encountering that you don’t feel you can encounter on your own, we include the appropriate places to get that immediate support. We thought it was important that we were responsible for people’s emotions and grief.
Upon completion, we had it evaluated by clinical professionals. We had it evaluated by behavior therapists. We had people from the mental health perspective review the book and look at it with us and talk with us about the way that we were proposing things because we wanted to guard our readers and protect them from being confused in grief or some of the solutions we were proposing. Amy and I took a lot of seriousness into the research component, but also the wellness component because we intended this book to be a gift.
How long did it take you to write this book and collect the stories and co-create this book?
I wanted to add one of the things that was helpful with people and sharing their stories because it’s not easy to share your grief story. It’s not something that someone’s going to write down on demand. What ended up being helpful is that there were some people that wanted to share their stories but they were like, “I don’t even know where to get started. I’m not a writer.”
We created an interview guide with prompts to help people. I literally would transcribe, interview, take notes, and put together their story. We were very careful about sharing the story back with them to approve it and make edits to it. If it’s representing their story, it’s very precious to a person. We were careful about making sure that what we were presenting, even if it was anonymous, that it was an accurate representation and what they wanted to feel and say about their grief. That was important.
We wrote this book. We both have professional lives, jobs, and other things occupying our time. The two of us put this book together in about 6 to 8 months, 6 months of writing, and 8 months by the time it was published. What’s so amazing about this book is that we wrote when we were in a positive frame of mind, when we were feeling inspired, and when we had a flow. We would ride these waves of inspiration and positive energy and start writing. We’d read what we wrote and then add to it or tweak it and have these wonderful moments.
It was not forced in any way. We were not writing on demand or with deadlines or anything. It was like divine inspiration. We had so many wonderful moments writing it together. You could see little light bulbs of light going off in our heads when we would get together because we would get together in person from time to time. A lot of this we did over Google documents and Zoom calls. It all worked, but it was energetic, positive, universal, another force going on in there.
Comically, there were moments in the book that we’d be reading it and have to call the other person and be like, “I read. This is such a great line. Did you write that?” Amy would be like, “I don’t think I did. Did you write that?” We got to this point and this was our intention. We would write this book and we have no idea who wrote certain sections because we worked together so harmoniously. It also adds, again, that layer of anonymity for some of our stories. We wanted it to be written in such a way that we don’t know who wrote which parts because we collaborated so deeply that the voice of the reader is every woman who contributed and every woman who reads it. It’s written in your voice.
We thought that that was something that sets us apart as creators and it also sets this book apart. When we started reading the Amazon reviews of the book, we were blown away. These are people we don’t know. The things that people said, we’re like, “Oh, my goodness.” People’s lives are being changed because we were brave enough to tell a story and share that with the world. These people’s lives are being changed and their hurts are being healed. That is beyond.
Beautiful inspiration and insights for those who are reading who are aspiring authors, the whole writing process, the creative inspiration process, being able to create that flow of energy of divinely-sourced content many times, and then the process. I enjoyed the story of holding space for the women that submitted their stories and being very careful in terms of the interpretation or the read-back, or what I heard you say back to them to make sure that it was not alarming or retraumatizing for them in that process.
Also, having mental health practitioners review the book to see how it will be received and if it is carefully crafted and delivered to make sure that everyone receives it well. Those are all great stories. I want to jump in here to the speed round to hear what you ladies are creating next. The first question is, what is your legacy?
Grief is complicated, joy simple, and hope is the bridge. That’s my legacy.
This might sound funny and strange but however you do it, it doesn’t have to be through a book, but share your story. You got to let it out of your system. It can do so much for moving you ahead to share your story and it does so much for other people. Sharing your story creates so much connection and it raises human consciousness. That’s what this book is all about. It’s about raising awareness. It’s about raising human consciousness and connection. You realize, “My story is unique. My story is important. I’m also not alone.” We’re all mysteriously connected in one way or another.
I always say that storytelling is the anecdote of so many things. Storytelling is the anecdote of hate, grief, and shame. Being able to share your story is such a connective tissue for humankind. Beyond When She Grieves, what is your favorite book?
I am a huge Colleen Hoover fan, so I will read anything she writes. I read a book in the past few months that blew my mind and it was called, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr. If you’re looking for a crazy book, it’s a good, crazy historical book and historical fiction. I was impressed by it. I’m a bookie. I love books. There’s always about Ted next to my bedside. I am a bibliophile. There’s not even a degree to describe it.
This is interesting because I rarely, in my life, read books cover to cover anymore. I will be honest, which is part of the reason why this book is designed in such a way that it doesn’t need to be read cover to cover. We’ve pieced it out and sectioned it purposely, put white space in, different fonts, and different breaks so you can take a break from reading this. However, I will say that my favorite book of all time is an inspirational book of meditations. It’s through Hay House. If you know Hay House publishers, they’re huge in the personal transformation field. Any book from Hay House is a life changer.
I said Colleen Hoover. She would be my number two. Amy Hooper Hanna would probably be my number one.
I was going to say Holly McIlwain and David Sedaris. I love humorous writers. That’s the other thing. You used the word careful, Alicia, and that’s definitely true. We were very careful in putting this book together. It’s very compassionate and candid. Holly and I like to laugh. We laugh a lot together at a lot of things. There’s a right time and a place for laughter, but there is a place for laughter in the grief journey. We do include bits of humor, fun scenes, clips, and experiences throughout the book.There is a place for laughter in the grief journey. Click To Tweet
What’s the next project? What are you writing next?
We’ve been charged with a book that we are going to write. It hasn’t gotten to paper yet, but we know the name of it. We know the theme of it. We know it’s going to be in this practical wisdom series and it’s going to be a For She Who Something. We’re waiting for the right breathing point and we’re excited about that. I also have a children’s series that I have started that tackles grief from a children’s perspective and covers some other big topics for little people. That’s my fun summer project is to get some of that series underway, as well.
You had asked about a legacy. What’s my legacy? One of my legacy projects is similar to Holly’s. It’s for my kids. It’s soul snippets for the kiddos. That’s going on in the background.
Where can people find out more about the book and more about you and what you both do? Please give some websites and some social media handles.
On our website, it’s www.HollyJoy.info. If you look at the For She Who Grieves tab, you can learn everything about Amy. You can learn about the book. You can check out our speaker package and our media package. There are also a lot of interviews on there, including this one. We’ll get this one on there, too. We have a Facebook page and an Instagram page, For She Who Grieves, where we have loaded it with content that is inspiring and gives people a little bit of a pick me up on a day they might need it. We do little book readings on our Facebook page as well. You could listen to the story read by Amy or myself. Amy, anywhere else you want to point people to?
I launched my new website, Ahha-Consulting.com. There is a whole media section in there that talks about the book and has some different press release information and video interviews and such. It’s more about my business.
There’s another show I did where I interviewed author, Cyndie Spiegel. I don’t know if you heard of her book, Microjoys, but she talks about grief too, especially in the context of 2020. A theme that I’m hearing a lot is about the processing of grief and seeing the joy and hope in life through this lens. With that, I’d love to share both Amy and Holly, what is the last piece of advice you want to leave our readers with, anything from For She Who Grieves that you want to share with our audience at home?
There’s always a reason to celebrate, even in the midst of grief.
Whatever you’re up against, you can do this.
I want to acknowledge both of you, Amy and Holly. This has been a wonderful interview to witness, you acknowledging each other. I could see how special this project was. Not only the creation of the book and the published book that’s available to purchase, but the process of it, becoming friends, connecting with the community, being on the journey, and not focused on that final destination. That’s the beauty. It’s been wonderful to witness you both acknowledging each other and your friendship. It’s been beautiful.
Thank you for recognizing that. Appreciate that.
Thank you so much for having us. This was a delight. Thank you.
There are a lot of women and people who want this type of support right here and now. It is a tender time for a lot of people and we need community now more than ever, showing that and what’s available. Thank you everyone for tuning in to another episode. We will see you next time. Be well.
- For She Who Grieves: Practical Wisdom for Living Hope
- Holly McIlwain
- Amy Hooper Hanna
- Brave Women Project
- Colleen Hoover
- The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr
- Hay House
- David Sedaris
- Facebook – For She Who Grieves
- For She Who Grieves – Instagram
- Cyndie Spiegel – Past Episode
About Holly Mcllwain
Holly McIlwain is the founder and chief cheerleader of the Brave Women Project. She is the author of “For She Who Leads: Practical Wisdom from a Woman Who Serves”, a contributing author of “Twenty Won”, and leads the Talent Development platform at Winner Partners. She is a subject-matter expert in the usage of behavior assessments as part of coaching and development plans, in addition to talent acquisition engagements. As a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach, working with individuals and organizations to build a better world and sustainable business solutions is her passion. What’s not exciting about that? This enthusiasm comes with Holly into each coaching session, team workshop, search opportunity, and speaking engagement. It carries right over into the Brave Women Project (www.bwp.life). Nothing excites Holly more than inspiring women to do brave things. In 2020, Holly created a space for women to do brave things, and the momentum is growing.
Developing leaders who change lives is Holly’s passion and professional purpose. She has studied and written about topics such as: Leadership and Mission, Bravery in Business, and Managing Human Relationships. As a recognized subject matter expert, Holly has spoken at numerous conferences and on Sirius XM Radio. She holds an advanced degree in Organizational Leadership from Robert Morris University, and is certified as a DISC Behavior Analyst and a Driving Forces Behavior Analyst.
After studying with Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation, she invested her time and professionalism in the Pittsburgh region, consistently seeking ways to challenge leaders to become fully engaged in transformation. In 2020 she served as Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation Faculty and became a DDI Certified Facilitator. Holly is an expert in the value of dynamic onboarding as part of the foundation for fully engaged employees and is the Director of Human Resources and Talent Management at Robert Morris University.
Holly invests herself to expand the reach of those organizations she serves and has a long record of engagement in the region. Holly functioned as a lead consultant in Organizational Management and Leadership Development for one of the largest non-profits in the world and spent 15 years in the non-profit sector. Recruiting and developing the talent pool for the non-profit sector soon led her to engage as a full-time consultant, and director of leadership development and talent acquisition for a local firm.
Holly has worked with and served on the Boards of Directors for foundations and non-profits, and continues to be a frequent speaker and trainer on topics of leadership and living at Universities, Churches, Conferences, and Workshops. She and her husband, Kevin, are raising two young boys and residing in the greater Pittsburgh, PA area.
Ms. Amy Hooper Hanna serves as a coach, trainer and consultant in employee communication, people engagement and leadership effectiveness. She consulted with Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 companies in organization effectiveness and communications for more than a decade in a leading human capital firm in Washington D.C., then spent another decade with a leading talent management firm, assessing corporate client leadership behavior and providing developmental feedback.
She established her own independent entity, Amy Hooper Hanna & Associates (AhHA!), which started as a strategic employee research consultancy for employee engagement, retention, communications and marketing projects, and has since shifted the focus to leadership coaching, making people-leadership easier with practical wisdom that works. As a strategist, researcher, communicator and coach, she takes an approach in life and business of asking questions and listening closely, and creating “ah ha!” moments for people that generate positive momentum.
Noted for being unflappable in the face of life’s constant blows, grace (ha!) under pressure, and seeing the humor in the most absurdly horrible, Amy encourages taking a leap of faith, trusting oneself and life, while questioning it too. She created the work flexibility she needs to responsibly be who she wants, and continues to take risks to consciously carve out the “shoulds” and commit to what feels intuitively and intellectually right and light, to live a life of meaning and positive, personal impact.
With family roots in writing and publishing, Amy is proud to produce a first book!
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