From Grief Comes Growth | An interview with “Permission to Thrive” author Susan Angel Miller

Susan Angel Miller’s first book packs a punch many may not be ready for, but she’s going to tell it anyway. She swoops in and takes you by the hand as she traverses with you through the most harrowing experiences of her adult life. After the sudden death of her eldest daughter Laura from a brain tumor to her own brush with death, this story grabs onto your soul and refuses to let go until you’ve exhausted yourself into a box of Kleenex. It’s vulnerable, heart-wrenching, true, and a bold, yet needed, stance on grief and how we put ourselves back together after the fact.

It teaches its readers, if they didn’t already know, that death is permanent yet survivable. That we shouldn’t take it lightly and that it is necessary in times of crisis to talk about our feelings, even when others may not understand. Permission to Thrive is a tour de force for surviving and thriving after the death of a loved one. A must read for all parents who have experienced the loss of a child. Susan Angel Miller keeps you on the edge of your seat till the very end.

The Arts STL caught up with Miller by phone in advance of her upcoming appearance on November 4th at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival (details below).

The Arts STL: Everyday I ask my family these next four questions, they are really quick and easy. 1) What was the best part of your day so far?

Susan Angel Miller: Well, it’s only 10:30 in the morning, so I will have to go with drinking my cup of coffee and eating breakfast. I’m one of those people that needs to eat within 20 minutes of waking up. It’s my favorite meal.

2) What was the most challenging thing you’ve experienced today?

Waking up without my phone by my side. I forgot to take it home with me after visiting my mom in the hospital.

Yep, I could see how that could be a challenge for sure given today’s environment. 3) What good thing have you done for someone else today?

Okay, so this is an easy one. Today I have an especially good answer, I’m at the hospital with my mom who’s recovering from an operation.

4) What are you grateful for today?

That my mom is recovering well, and for our strong relationship. She raised me with a very practical attitude to accept life as it comes and to be resilient in the face of the things you can’t predict or prevent.

I would love to know how the title and your tag line for your book came about.

So the subtitle came easier to me than the title. I knew that I was on a journey and the concept of Post Traumatic Growth I knew would be a significant theme throughout my story, but I didn’t want to use Post Traumatic Growth in the title because I didn’t want it to sound too academic, like an academic book. Instead I wanted it to be a personal and vulnerable story of confronting our worst nightmare and surviving. The title didn’t come until I realized that I was still feeling guilty for being more than okay even after my daughter had died. And that didn’t seem right, but I had to realize that I was the only one who could give myself permission to grieve and recover in my own way.

I keep reminding myself that I should be proud of myself for having survived, that there is nothing to feel guilty about in defying society’s expectations. I created expectations for myself that felt right and had to give myself permission to do what felt right for me. So then the way I came up with the title, you know how we all write down lists of baby names? When we are naming our children, and you put down the first, middle and last name in different combinations. That’s what I was doing throughout the book writing process, and I finally landed on “Permission to Thrive” and knew immediately that that was the right title.

I think it is SO good! It literally was the reason I grabbed your book. And then I saw the tag line, and was like, “Okay, I’m in.”

Aw! Thank you.

Grief is such a touchy subject for most people. It never goes away and I know you can’t grieve wrong. What advice would you give people who are fresh in it and neck deep? What advice do you give to the people who don’t know how to help the grieving?

I would say talk, talk, and talk, and then talk some more. And if you don’t find that helpful, find something that gives you even the smallest bit of joy so that you can wake up each day and take each minute and hour at a time. You have to create a whole new set of expectations, a new identity after someone in your life has passed away and that’s not easy. It takes time. For the people that don’t know how to help the grieving, I’d say show up and don’t ignore them even though that is our natural instinct.

Listen and sit with the person, and be with them in their pain. You don’t need to say anything. Don’t judge or try to fix the problem. You can’t bring the person back and the mourner knows that. And probably the most important piece of advice is to bring up the deceased person’s name and ask the mourners to talk about them. People were afraid to mention Laura’s name for fear of making me sad. I was already thinking about her 24/7 and maybe I needed them to bring her name up and maybe I would be sad, but at least I would have someone that I knew cared about me and could be sad with.

Yes, absolutely. If you could share one grieving technique that helped you through your loss what would it be?

I’d like to give three.

What advice do you give to the people who don’t know how to help the grieving?

I would say talk, talk, and talk, and then talk some more.

I was blunt about telling friends and family what I needed and accepted their help. I confronted and talked about my feelings rather than suppressing them or minimizing them. And I brought up Laura’s name even when others were afraid to. I knew that somehow that I needed to decrease the overwhelming awkwardness that followed me throughout the town and acknowledge the elephant in the room. Our family had morphed from being the private family to the very public family that had lost their daughter suddenly to a brain tumor. And we needed to navigate that reality in order to keep living in our town. We also had two other daughters to raise that were 9 and 12 at the time. So we had to be out in the community.

Yes. I have three daughters of my own, so I understand that thought.

Yes. The time doesn’t stop ticking even when someone so important in your life has died.

Sharing your story about organ donation is such a great way to show how a positive can come out of the worst possible situation ever imagined. I was wondering what your thoughts were on donating your own organs when the time comes?

Well, I can’t think of any good reason not to become an organ donor. I have seen the miraculous effects that have come from donating Laura’s liver, and the blessing Laura’s life has become and the life that it has saved. It’s been an incredibly healing process, for our entire family to actually meet the organ recipient and develop a relationship with her. When I’m buried in the ground I won’t need my organs anymore and according to Judaism, saving a life is considered to be the highest Mitzvah. You save a life, you save the world.

I agree wholeheartedly.

Basically I believe in what our 12-year-old daughter Sarah asked us, She understood it at 12 years old when she asked us, “Mom and dad, why wouldn’t you donate her organs? They could save a person’s life.” I’ve learned that the answer to that is there is no reason.

What information/advice do you have for people who struggle with the thought of organ donation?

I would say learn as much as you can about the topic. Talk to your close family about their wishes as well.  No one should feel pressured to make a decision that they aren’t comfortable with, so become educated and talk with your family. We never believed in a million years that we would be faced with this unfathomable decision. We thought that tragedies just happened to other people, not to us, and we were wrong. So I would say, it’s better to talk about it. No one ever wants to confront their own mortality, so the topics that surround it are very difficult to deal with, but it’s important to talk about what your decisions are. It’s easier for your family if that tragedy occurs.

After you gave yourself permission to thrive, which I found to be beautiful beyond words, what key factors about your own journey did you find most important? Was there one moment that stands out more than any others?

So even with what I’ve gone through with both Laura’s death and my own brain tumor diagnosis and surgery, I feel incredibly fortunate. I understand the power of community and supportive relationships and I have found unexpected and incredible meaning and purpose in my life as I talk about my experiences. I have learned that everyone is searching for that meaning and purpose in life and I feel that one of the unintended consequences of our struggles has been that I now know what that purpose is for me.

The one moment that stands out to me was when I participated in a short mindfulness retreat and realized that, even when we were required to be completely silent for an hour, I didn’t feel uncomfortable being with my thoughts. That I had struggled so much with the grief and figuring out the meaning of all of the events that had happened to me that I could be comfortable with being myself, comfortable in my own thoughts. So, I guess in general, I’m more fearless about pursuing my dreams without worrying about what others may think of me or failure. And I have found purpose in educating people about what I’ve learned about grief, empathy, and the miracle of organ donation.

No one wants nor ever wishes to endure what you have had to go through in your life. How has sharing your story with others helped them express their grief in ways they never expected? Do you have a time when you’ve witnessed the power of sharing in the state of grief?

Well, each time I share my story, whether it’s at a book club, in someone’s home, or at a religious organization, or a spirituality club or gathering, I’m finding that I am creating a safe space which gives people permission to speak their own truth. And I’m making them feel like they are not alone in their struggles. No matter how perfect someone’s life may appear on the outside, we are all experiencing loss and trauma, we just don’t talk about it. Our society doesn’t do grief well and I feel fortunate that I can bring up the topic and try to dispel some of the awkwardness around it. The conversations when I’m signing books are the most interesting ones and I wish I could take more time to spend with each of the people. During my grief I became addicted to people and the vulnerable conversations that I have had with friends, acquaintances, and with literal strangers, like the clerk at Trader Joe’s…

[giggling] Yes! Yes!

[giggling] That poor clerk will never ask me, “What fun plans did I have for the weekend,” ever again.

But, in the countless conversations I’ve had with people when I would lower my emotional guard and share my challenges, the person sitting across the table would almost always tell me their challenge. They would say, “My situation can’t compare to yours, but,” and then they’d tell me about their recent divorce, their newly diagnosed illness or a parent who had recently died. I’ve learned that grief isn’t just about death, it’s about the loss, a dream, a marriage, or a vision of how you thought your life would be.

Agreed. Yes, stress, trauma, grief it’s all wrapped into one isn’t it?

And it’s everywhere…

What makes you want to get up in the morning and live your life to the fullest going forward?

I want to continue living the life that I loved before my daughter Laura died. I still have a very supportive loving husband and I have two healthy daughters and I have realized that Laura would not have wanted us to sacrifice our lives in memory of her. And we weren’t willing to sacrifice our daughters’ futures for what couldn’t be undone. What makes me get up in the morning is meeting new people, and changing people’s attitudes and behaviors surrounding grief. And also to give more people goosebumps when I tell them about how Laura saved a life.

Your book includes a wonderful list of places to help parents grieving their children. Have you found any new organizations since your book has come out that you would like to add for grieving parents who have lost a child?

Each death and each person’s emotional needs surrounding death are so unique that I hesitate to mention any one group above another. For us, our synagogue, friends, the organ donor association, and my therapist provided the help that I needed. The resources are out there for some wonderful organizations and resources. If you search them out or ask others to help you find them. That’s the best advice I can give.

They will find you. If you are meant to find them, they will find you.
Exactly, people have people who gave us some resources that we ended up using, so asking the people that you know for advice. You’ll never know where that good advice will come from.

Book festivals are a great way to get your story out to the world, what has been your favorite memory of sharing your book with others?

Oh gosh, it’s the small stories from the people who have read my book, or have heard me talk. Their behavior that has changed because of it. They have learned to make a meal for a family who lost their son, instead of ignoring them out of fear of saying the wrong thing, or intruding on their privacy. I just heard of a woman who called her cousin in Denmark on the death anniversary of her son and told her that she was thinking about him. I’ve had a conversation with one of Laura’s friends who had just read the book and she told me more stories about my daughter Laura that I’d never heard before. And these are the stories that I treasure and because I wrote the book I now am hearing them, and that makes writing the book incredibly worthwhile. And then, talking, I’ve spoken at a few hospitals and talked to doctors and organ transplant surgeons, and it’s sharing our donor family story and how healing it has been for our family that I hope it will encourage more organ donations to happen and more lives to be saved.

Your story is incredible. Thank you so much for sharing it.

Thank you for reading it and taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

Our private conversation lasted another 10 minutes and it was wonderful to get to know Miller past these questions asked above. If you’d like to know more about Miller’s story, please feel free to join her at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival on November 4th at 10:30AM at the Staenberg Family Complex, 2 Millstone Campus Dr. in Creve Coeur. | Keva Bartnick

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