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Joyce Maynard on Losing Her Husband and How Grief Has Made Her More Resilient

New York Times bestselling author Joyce Maynard lost her husband in 2016. Their love affair was rapturous. Yet shortly after their one-year wedding anniversary, Jim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died 19 months later.

Joyce captures this emotional upheaval in her latest book, The Best of Us, a work she dove into the night Jim died. In our interview, Joyce reveals how she celebrates and honors Jim’s memory and how grief has made her more resilient. I’m honored Joyce took the time to speak with me while on her nationwide book tour.

For more on The Best of Us (and wonderful photos of Joyce and Jim), watch this video.

Allison: What one memento reminds you most of your husband, Jim?
Joyce: Jim’s black fedora hat. The night he died we had gone to Bob Dylan concert in Berkeley. It took him quite a long time to get ready because he was so ill and weak but he really wanted to go. I had gotten the tickets for his birthday. He managed to look very sharp. He wore his black jeans and his black shirt and his black hat. Jim was always a snappy dresser, quite debonair. When we got home, I set Jim’s black hat on the banister as we made our way upstairs to our bed. He would not come down the stairs again. And that’s where his hat sits, and that’s where it will stay forever.

Allison: Is there anything you do outside of holidays and anniversaries to keep your husband’s memory alive?
Joyce: I didn’t write when Jim was sick, but he knew I was going to write a book about him and us one day. The night he died I began writing The Best of Us. It’s a love story. It’s about finding meaning in what happened. When the active sharing of the book is over, I will move on with my life. I do not believe in living my life as a memorial to my lost partner. I will go and do new things. And that’s how I’ll celebrate him. He wanted me to have a full life. I’ll have one hand in the sorrow pocket and joy in the other. The joy pocket will always be deeper.

Allison: The loss of a loved one can sometimes feel isolating. Have you had to address this experience, and what lessons did you learn as a result?
Joyce: Yes, for sure. We didn’t have children, and while my friends loved Jim, we didn’t have a lot of time to know each other’s worlds. So what I missed is a lot of opportunity to share the loss with others. The way I’m doing that now is by telling our story.

Allison: Being proactive about celebrating loved ones drives resilience and happiness. Have you found this to be the case?
Joyce: I’ve had a lot of losses and I’ve gotten pretty good at survival. I can take grief and use it. I don’t allow it to crush me. I want it to nourish me. Grief has made me more resilient.

Allison: Loss is a great teacher. In what way have you derived greater joy and meaning from life following loss?
Joyce: Grief can make people bitter, but it can also make individuals more compassionate. I understand illness better now. I’ve been a very lucky person with my own health and before Jim died I didn’t have a lot of patience. If people walked too slowly because something was wrong with them, I got impatient. Now I’m aware and walk more slowly. I’ve had to learn that. I now know when a friend of mine has illness not to take their hardship lightly.

In some ways, I’m also more joyful now. I don’t go through life as a brokenhearted woman. I’ve always been a pretty happy person, and that may be more true now because I realize how precious life is. My goal is never to avoid pain. My goal is to experience life. I miss how completely we lived, how we breathed in every moment. I recognize we can’t live that way all the time, but I hold on to that incredible feeling.

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