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Grieving Loved Ones Lost To COVID-19, A Writer Turns To Books


And finally today, as we've talked about, the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is mounting all over the country. And with so many families grieving, we've been wondering what might be of help right now to people experiencing these terrible, terrible losses.

My next guest, Zibby Owens, turned to books. She is the host of a podcast called "Moms Don't Have Time To Read Books." And she recently wrote in The Washington Post about coping with the loss of two loved ones to COVID-19 this summer, her mother-in-law and her grandmother-in-law, just weeks apart. And Zibby Owens is with us now.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

ZIBBY OWENS: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

MARTIN: First of all, I have to say, we are so very sorry for your loss. I mean, it's just too much. I mean, your mother-in-law was otherwise in good health, only 63. Nobody's prepared for something like this. But just - we're so sorry. This just seems like it knocked the wind out of you.

OWENS: Oh, thank you. It did. We really still can't believe it happened. We just, you know, pick up our phones and go to text or call her. And it's just - the shock of it is still with us, even two months later. It's - yes, hard to process and hard to believe.

MARTIN: And your piece in the post lists 15 books that you say helped you cope with your grief. You were already immersed in the world of books with your podcasts and, you know, a lot of the other activities that you were involved in. Did you seek out books that you thought would help you cope? Or were these books that you had already encountered that came back to you because you were grieving yourself?

OWENS: Some of the books that I included I had already read and went back to because I knew they had themes that would resonate, particularly in the immediate aftermath of loss. Some were about the same type of loss.

So, for instance, Lily King's amazing novel "Writers And Lovers," which I stayed up till all hours finishing, was about how she had lost her mother, but it was more about how she then went back into the world. She was a waitress. She was dating. She was doing all these things but carrying the loss with her. So that was more about the longer-term recovery from the loss. A book like "The Smallest Light In The Universe" (ph) by Sara Seager was more about going through the pain and the trauma of the death. Because I feel like with COVID and the - at least, what happened with my mother-in-law, Susan, there was a lot of trauma. It wasn't just a loss - not that it's ever just a loss. But that was sort of more in the moment going through it with her.

MARTIN: And, you know, I have to say, though, that I was familiar with some of the books on your list. And there were some - there was one essay in particular that you recommended. I remember the short version, the essay version of one of the books that you recommended - "Once More We Saw Stars." And I remember reading this essay years ago. And the fact that I still remember it, you know, tells you just how impactful it is.

But a lot of the people that - the stories that you wrote about or that you recommended were people who something random and unexpected had happened to them or something that people - you know happens to other people, but you don't think is going to happen to you - like cancer, for example. And when it hits you, it kind of hits you, like, so hard.

But, you know, COVID is a little different to me in some ways in that it's random, and yet it isn't. I mean, there is an issue here of a failure of leadership - that it didn't have to be this bad. And a lot of people that we have interviewed and spoken with who were dealing with this - they're not just sad. They're angry. They're angry because they feel that there was a failure of leadership. And I have to wonder whether you feel this way, too.

OWENS: Oh, you know, my anger was more when politicians were using COVID as an election strategy and putting it in the debates as a way to sort of curry favor because I don't view this as much as a political issue, frankly, as a public health issue. No matter what your politics are, this is a major health disaster, and it would have been great to have had it more contained. And yes, I do have some anger about that as well. But I don't know. It's such a huge problem.

MARTIN: You know, I'm just struggling with how to ask this because, you know, I know you from your podcast, and I know you because of books because I also love books. But in reading your bio, I realize that your father is one of President Trump's biggest fundraisers and - which I didn't know, to be honest with you, until I was getting ready for this conversation. So I'm just - I don't know. I just wonder how that sits with you.

OWENS: My father has actually helped the last four presidents. He has helped them in many ways all throughout their presidencies and has been agnostic as to who is in office and what he can do to help. He hopes he can help Biden in the new administration, too. So I think that a lot of the press often twists his involvement and doesn't necessarily accurately depict how. I mean, saying he was one of his biggest fundraisers is just not true. He didn't do any fundraising for Trump, but...

MARTIN: Well, in 2020, he was one of his biggest donors, which was not the case in 2016, but in 2020 from Wall Street, anyway, he was.

OWENS: Right, but he didn't fund - you had said fundraisers.

MARTIN: I heard you say - OK, donors, so...

OWENS: He didn't do any fundraising.

MARTIN: I heard you say.

OWENS: But, you know, my dad is a big Republican, and he has always supported Republican candidates.

MARTIN: Well, how are you doing now? You're a couple of months into this journey yourself after losing your mother-in-law and your grandmother-in-law. And as all of these books point out, and as you've pointed out, it is a process. How are you doing?

OWENS: Oh, I am OK. But things happen that trigger me a lot. Right now, one of my kid's teachers last week found out that she had COVID, so we're all on a 14-day, you know, lockdown until we get enough negative results to leave. And whereas others might not panic, it sort of triggered a huge panic in me before we got tested. You know, is this - are we all going to get COVID now?

And I guess that's really the big question mark. When someone dies of a disease that everyone is currently fighting and then might come after you, it's much harder to put away, right? It's in the news all the time, so we're constantly hearing about it. I am trying to help other people because that makes me feel good.

I'm also raising money for this Susan Felice Owens Program for COVID-19 Vaccine Research at Mount Sinai Health System to try to help find a vaccine to put all of this to an end. So I'm trying to use my time and energy to help others and to help make sure other families don't have to go through the pain that we went through, that we continue to go through, that Kyle and his sister deal with on a daily basis - you know, tears erupting at odd moments throughout the day, the weeks. It's tough. It's really tough.

MARTIN: Zibby Owens is a writer and host of the podcast "Moms Don't Have Time To Read Books." Her piece in The Washington Post this week was titled "After Losing Two Loved Ones To COVID-19, I Turned To Books, And Here Are 15 Titles That Helped Me Cope."

Zibby Owens, thank you so much for talking with us. And again, we're so sorry for your loss and wish you continued healing.

OWENS: Oh, thanks, Michel. It was such a pleasure

(SOUNDBITE OF ARVO TO ME'S "MND WRKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.