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My husband died unexpectedly seven years ago due to complications of multiple sclerosis and West Nile virus. West Nile virus is contracted by mosquitoes, so to simplify, Joel died of a mosquito bite. Crazy, right? Or maybe that’s just the grief talking.
Joel had just turned 50 when he died. I was in my mid-forties when I became a widow and our daughter had just turned 13. She is an only child; I became an only parent. (I write about all of this in my recently released memoir, Widowish.) I did not know how I would survive this loss.
Joel was my person, my partner, my everything. Our daughter became my focus, she had school, a schedule, activities … and her own grief that I was determined to help her through. I was grateful to have her to focus on, it took my mind off of my own sorrow. Some days, the most I could manage was walking the dogs around the block.
But there’s a three-mile mountain trail near my house in Los Angeles that my friends and I call the Clooney Hike. Clooney as in George. He has a home that you walk past no matter if you’re starting on his street or ending there. “Want to do Clooney?”, we’ll text each other. After 20 years of “Doing Clooney,” the once cheeky phrasing no longer renders even a giggle.
In my early days of grief, doing Clooney was a reprieve. I could be alone with my thoughts and my sadness. I would breathe, put one foot in front of the other, and climb.
Often times I’d pass Harry Hamlin at Clooney, whose wife, Lisa Rinna was another salve to my condition via her show, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. This was the kind of program my bereft brain could handle — completely mindless. If I missed a dinner party confrontation at the Beverly Hills Hotel or some dialogue between the women as they planned their girls’ trip to Amsterdam, it really made no difference. The “unscripted” drama soothed my real-life drama, which wasn’t actually that dramatic. It was just that my husband had died. That’s all.
I sometimes saw Rinna at my yoga studio, but I was either too starstruck or more likely, too bereaved, to actually speak to her. Even my Bravo TV “mazel” sweatshirt, the last birthday gift I received from my husband, which I wore everywhere all the time, didn’t act as an icebreaker. I thought we would kibbitz about it, Andy Cohen, and the NY Times essay I wrote that he read aloud on his SiriusXM show, but no such thing ever happened. In those dark days, simply managing down dog seemed miraculous.
Sometimes while “Doing Clooney,” I’d listen to Joel Osteen podcasts. Yes, the evangelical preacher’s sermons who I otherwise would have paid no attention to had my husband not died, suddenly resonated with me. I stumbled upon his radio show one day while in my car and felt compelled to keep listening. I liked that his name was Joel, like my husband’s. I appreciated that he was full of positivity and a messenger of love. He advocated trusting in something bigger than ourselves while preaching an attitude of gratitude — these were concepts I found hopeful and could wrap my mind around. Still, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What’s a nice Jewish girl like me doing in an evangelical church like this?” But I knew the answer. I was searching for my husband everywhere. I wanted to keep him close and couldn’t fathom where he was. Somehow, Joel Osteen bridged that gap … and also, grief makes no sense.
Along these lines, my daughter at 13 years old, loved Keeping Up With the Kardashians. This was pre-Kimye, even pre-Caitlin. At the time, she didn’t know any kids her age who had lost a parent, but Kourtney, Kim, Khloe (and Rob) didn’t just talk about losing their father (the late attorney Robert Kardashian) on the show, they also celebrated him with what would have been birthday celebrations and anniversaries. They watched videos of them all together, when their father was healthy and alive. They ate his favorite foods, invited his friends over to reminisce — something my daughter and I continue to do as these are the things that keep her father/my husband, alive.
The Kardashians’ discussion of their loss and all of the emotions that came with it gave my daughter something to relate to. This was a balm to her tender heart — she didn’t feel so alone. My daughter and I both grew up in L.A., so we are no strangers to celebrity culture and know quite firsthand that A-listers are in fact, “just like us.” But my daughter’s grief was normalized by the Kardashians. Mine was soothed by reality TV and George down the street. Yes, I’ve written on some high-profile TV shows but somehow “doing Clooney,” namaste-ing with Rinna, and attending church-radio kept me grounded and moving forward.
These were the milestones of my grief journey. A life, a profound loss, and a newish beginning. Only in LA.
Melissa Gould is an Emmy-nominated screenwriter who has worked on such shows as Bill Nye the Science Guy, Beverly Hills 90210, Party of Five, and Lizzie McGuire. Her new book, Widowish: A Memoir (widowish.com) is published by Little A Books.
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