Dialogue

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kathryn Schulz on love, grief, and how to live with loss

A family hug as they look at names on the National COVID Memorial wall in London, Tuesday, March 29, 2022. Alastair Grant/AP Photo.

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kathryn Schulz about her thoughtful and profound book, Lost & Found: A Memoir.

They discuss the depths of love and grief and the way the two are intertwined, how to navigate loss, and the importance of joy.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues, I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Kathryn Schulz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the powerful new book Lost and Found. Today’s conversation is a bit different than usual—rather than our typical topics of economics and public policy, Lost and Found tells Kathryn’s profound yet beautiful story of losing her father and ultimately meeting her wife. Kathryn, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

KATHRYN SCHULZ: Thank you so much for having me on the program.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve distinguished yourself as a writer by your extraordinary range, including Thoreau’s Walden to early Muslim immigrants to Wyoming to stinkbugs. Yet, Lost and Found is a deeply personal book. It eschews width for depth.  What was it like writing about yourself? 

KATHRYN SCHULZ: You know, it was very interesting. You’re right to point out that although I’ve kind of tromped around a lot of different subject matters in the past, I myself have never really been that subject matter, at least not at any depth. So, it was interesting to turn my attention to my own life. Although, of course, the book is only kind of a memoir, right? I’m using these two very intimate and very momentous moments in my life, of losing my father and falling in love, to look at these kinds of broader categories of loss and discovery and certain kinds of common human experiences. But of course, I do really get into my own life in detail, and, you know, for the most part, it was actually quite fun. It was fun to turn the tools that I’m used to using on the natural world or on a piece of literature or on reporting to my own life, and frankly, somewhat easier since I could do it all kind of sitting on the couch.

SEAN SPEER: Kathryn, a common narrative in our popular culture is the story of people overcoming bad childhoods and bad parents. There are very few books that paint a positive picture of one’s upbringing and home life. I guess, two questions for you. First, why do you think that is? That is, why are we drawn to these stories of estrangement? And two, what made your dad such a great dad?

KATHRYN SCHULZ: Well, you’re absolutely right. I mean, I think that this memoir is about loss and grief. But the secret subject of this book is happiness, I think, and happy families in particular. And there are a shortage of those and an abundance of memoirs that are about—either they’re about exceptional lives, they’re about grief or trauma or dysfunction, or they’re about celebrity, and I was very interested in the unexceptional because my life, it’s very precious to me, but it’s not particularly exceptional. And I think even for those who are living exceptional lives, long stretches of them are ordinary and I’m interested in ordinary life and what that feels like.

As for why my father was such a wonderful father, it’s related to this question. My dad was a really incredible guy. So, my father, the very brief version is he was born in Tel Aviv in 1941. By the time he could walk, he had lost almost his entire maternal line to Auschwitz. He and his family were then kind of kicked around the globe by the combined forces of poverty and geopolitical violence until they got refugee visas and landed in Detroit, which is where my father spent his teenage years. By then, understandably, his parents had been through a lot and the home life wasn’t a particularly happy one either. There was a lot of violence and dysfunction at home as well.

And yet somehow, my dad emerged from all this as just the most brilliant and joyful guy you could ever meet. I mean, he was truly brilliant, kind of in both senses of the word. He spoke seven languages; he had a photographic memory; he was unbelievably astute about the world around him and unbelievably curious about it. But he was also brilliant in the way that the sun is brilliant. He just made every room warm or people gravitated toward him. It was such a gift to grow up in that kind of light and to be invited into his curiosity and invited into his joy about the world. It was never a glib joy. I mean, my father obviously understood about trauma and suffering. But when he could, he took the side of happiness, and he took the side of humour, and that’s also, I think, the heart of this book. It was a real pleasure to write, to try to write the way my father lived, which is to not ignore suffering, and not ignore pain, and to really truly reckon with the role of loss in our lives while also just turning as often as possible to what is joyful and meaningful and what there is to be grateful for in life.

SEAN SPEER: I should just say as an aside, the book is a beautiful tribute to your father. You can’t read it and help but feel that you’ve missed out by not getting the chance to meet him and be in his presence, and so on that front you’ve succeeded masterfully.

Because your dad had a long illness, at some level you were intellectually prepared for his death. But when he finally passed away, what would you say surprised you the most about this experience that you described as “bearably sad?” How would you describe the grief that you felt in the immediacy of his passing and then over time?

KATHRYN SCHULZ: It’s such a good question because it turns out that describing grief is complicated. When I set out to write this book, I was very aware that I was writing about grief and love and I am not the first person to do this, to put it mildly. And so it seemed to me like it was really incumbent on me to try to get past what we think we know about the experience and really sit down with what it’s like.

Grief—and love is this way too—but grief, above all what it is, is changeable. It’s incredible what a different texture it can have every hour and every day. Sometimes it will just level you and sometimes it’s just annoying. As I write about it in the book, quite often it’s frankly kind of boring. I feel this is an underappreciated aspect of grief; it’s a strange word to apply to it. But it’s very dull to be bereft all the time. It’s like having back pain or having financial stress; you wake up in the morning and your back still hurts, or you wake up in the morning and you still don’t know how to pay your mortgage, and you wake up in the morning and your father is still dead. And it’s true every day. And on some level, you just want out from under it. You want your happy life back, but you don’t quite know how to get there. So it’s really a variable state, I would say. And certainly, there are moments in it that are surprisingly joyful and surprise you with a sense of connection to the person you lost or to the cosmos and do leave you feeling nothing but gratitude.

SEAN SPEER: As a parent yourself, Kathryn, how did your father’s passing affect the way you think about being a parent or your relationship with your kids?

KATHRYN SCHULZ: Well, above all, and I’ve always known this, I think, I would love to be half the parent to my daughter that my father and my mother were to me. Certainly, the birth of my daughter was quite representative in a way of my book, part of which is about this kind of inescapably entangled nature of love and grief, because it was just such a wonderful experience. She brings me joy every hour of every day.

But, of course, it was a new kind of grief to know that she would never meet my father and my father would never meet her. On the other hand, it’s quite delightful. You know, my father’s name was Isaac, which means laughter in Hebrew. When my daughter was a little over two months old, she went down for a nap, having never laughed a moment in her life, and she woke up from that nap laughing. And she’s never stopped and it just brings such joy to me and it does feel to me like it will be easy and beautiful to make sure she knows about her grandfather and has this quality of recognizing life’s darkness but finding laughter and joy within it.

SEAN SPEER: That’s beautiful, Katheryn. As a relatively new father, it certainly hits close to home.

As you mentioned, though, the book is about far more than losing your father. It’s also about finding your wife. Why don’t we just start with some basic details. How did you meet your wife, who you call C in the book?

KATHRYN SCHULZ: We had a mutual friend who, at some point, sent us an email to the effect of, you know, “You guys should really meet up someday you would adore each other.” She was not trying to set us up, she just thought, authentically, we would have fun and be good friends. And that was a very sweet thought, but my future wife and I lived three states and several hundred miles from each other and it was not at all obvious how we would act on this hot tip. So months go by, and then at some point, my partner—I do call her C in the book but it’s not meant to be a mystery, I’ll call her Casey on here, that’s her name—she was on a road trip from her home down in Maryland, up to Vermont. And by chance, the little Hudson Valley town where I live was kind of a convenient midway point. So she wrote and asked me if I wanted to get lunch, and I said, “Sure.”

Then in the way of these things, when that day actually rolled around I was on deadline for an article I was working on. That’s actually kind of a euphemism; I was wildly behind, like a week behind on a piece I was supposed to have turned in. And I remember very vividly waking up that morning and thinking “Ugh, this lunch.” And I kind of talked myself into it, right? “Like, well, I have to eat lunch anyway and I don’t want to be a jerk to this friend of my friend. Fine, whatever. Forty-five minutes, tops, in and out.” And then I walk into town, and I am standing there on Main Street, literal Main Street of this town where I lived, outside the cafe where we’re going to meet up and I look up and I see this woman walking toward me, kind of in defiance of normal 21st-century behaviour. I hadn’t Googled her anything. Why would I? I thought I was just having lunch with a random person. So I don’t even really know how I was so certain it was her when she was walking up the street toward me, but some little inexplicable inner chime went off in me and sure enough, we go into the cafe, and we get lunch, and we go sit outside, it’s this beautiful spring day. It was one of those quite rare conversations in life where just right away it was all substance and felt deep and connected and kind of dazzling in its range. Forty-five minutes? Four hours later, I think, we kind of just stumbled out of this cafe and heaven knows when I turned in the piece, but it sure was worth the delay.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned the challenges in communicating or conveying the essence of grief. Let me ask about love. How did you know that you loved Casey? And how would you describe that feeling to someone who hasn’t loved before or may not know it?

KATHRYN SCHULZ: I knew because there was just this absolute sense of “Yes” that rose up in me. And it was constant. It wasn’t just the first kind of “Wow.” All I wanted to do was say “Yes” to her. You know, “Yeah, let’s go do that thing.” “Yeah, I want to read that book you’re talking about.” It’s just this sense of endless assent—not in the rising up sense, although that’s kind of also it—but in the sense of assenting to something.

I guess the main thing I would say to someone who hasn’t had that experience and hopes to, is what was dazzling to me—and I still find this so shocking—I was somewhat older when I met Casey and I was a little lonely. I had been looking, although pretty half-heartedly, because it’s turned out to be very difficult to look for love, as I write about in the book. But what was incredible to me is, it’s not there, and it’s not there, and it’s not there, and then one day it just is and it changes everything, almost immediately. Which is just to say, hang in there if you’re hoping it will happen. When it does it’s sudden and out of nowhere and absolutely unpredictable and so joyfully life-altering.

SEAN SPEER: How much of your intuitions about love derive from observing your parents’ relationship? Kathryn, it was hard not to be moved by the fact that as your father’s body deteriorated, one of the last voluntary movements he retained was his ability to kiss your mother who he adored. What was their relationship like? What was it like to grow up seeing these two people so in love?

KATHRYN SCHULZ: It was profoundly sweet, of course, but in ways that, to some extent, were only evident in retrospect. I mean, I knew my parents had a very happy marriage, and I had a very happy childhood under their watch. But, you really have to be deep into your own adulthood to appreciate your parents, not just as adults themselves, which comes at an earlier stage but to appreciate them as two people who met and fell in love, hopefully, and got together and had a relationship the way you yourself do.

One of the really wonderful things about falling in love with Casey is I did find myself seeing my parents’ relationship in this entirely new light and having the moment of like, “Oh, yeah, you know, like they had their Main Street moment.” I mean, my mother proposed to my father on their second date. So they had a kind of similar—I don’t mean to suggest all love works this way, I don’t think it does. But like Casey and me, they knew very early on that they’d found the right person. It’s such a gift to me that my parents modeled for me what an enduring and tender and loving relationship looks like. My sister said this beautiful thing that I think about all the time about my parents. She said, “They gave us the love of ideas, but also the idea of love.” And that is such a gift to your children.

SEAN SPEER: Well said. As you said at the beginning, Kathryn—maybe to step back, we’ve been talking about some of the specifics of your story. But the book operates at another level as well, describing in metaphorical terms, the relationship between grief and love, and sadness and joy. Do you want to talk a bit about the relationship between these seemingly contradictory experiences and emotions?

KATHRYN SCHULZ: Sure. I think grief and love, although in terms of the quality of emotion that attends them can seem starkly different, they’re of course remarkably similar. Not least because we only grieve what we love. So love is always at the heart of grief. And conversely, grief is always lurking there somewhere inside of love in the sense that when you really love someone, when you fall in love—at least if you’re wired the way that I am, which is to kind of contemplate mortality to some extent—there’s no getting away from the fact that you found this remarkable person and you adore them and all you want to do is spend eternity at their side. And, of course, at least in my cosmology, and to the best of my knowledge, that’s actually not an option. So you’re always living with both in a certain sense. I write in the book about that kind of entanglement.

I think they’re also both similar in the sense that although they are the most intimate experiences, profoundly personal, losing someone you love, or finding someone you love, they really bring us into a confrontation with the nature of existence, right? And with this kind of mystery of our own tiny lives set against this sweep of the cosmos and the terms by which we happen to be here. With grief, that’s quite obvious, because losing someone you love and being unable, absolutely, to kind of wrest them back from the fabric of the universe, there’s no getting away from this force much stronger than us that has profoundly changed our lives. But, love feels that way, too. You meet someone, and you just think “There’s all this space, and there’s all this time, and yet, kind of astonishingly, here we are and we found each other and that’s miraculous and that’s marvelous.” So yes, to me, they do feel like kind of shockingly similar experiences.

SEAN SPEER: In the book, and throughout our conversation, Kathryn, you’ve used the word joy and joyful. Why joy? Why is joy a better descriptor than happy or fun or some of the other words that are part of our kind of day-to-day lexicon?

KATHRYN SCHULZ: I hope for everyone that their love story is also happy and fun, I know mine certainly is. But you’re right to note that joy has a kind of potent and ongoing presence in the book. At one point, I actually Ctrl-F’ed to see “How often am I using this word?” And “Is it too often and are they coming too close together on a page or in a paragraph?” But the truth is, it feels like the right word to me because I think of joy as the specific kind of happiness that is connected to this sense of the cosmic sweep of things I was just talking about. It’s not mundane, in the sense of not quite Earthly. It connects us to just this wild improbability of our existence and the wonder of it all. And to me, it truly is one of the most beautiful and meaningful feelings you can experience. So yes, I think this book is, to a significant extent, about joy, which is to say about the kind of endless mystery of being here, of existing.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s wrap up with a final question. I know that you’ve been on a relentless book tour over the past several days. How are you doing now? Your father passed away in 2016 if I recall correctly, so there’s been some time that has passed. How do you continue to honour his memory? And how are you doing as a family?

KATHRYN SCHULZ: We’re wonderful. It’s kind of you to ask. Right at this exact moment, I’m experiencing the truly excruciating longing one feels when you have, for the first time, left your child behind. I think it’s safe to say, I significantly underestimated how hard that was going to feel even though I was unbelievably mindful it was going to be hard and had quite a lot of dread about leaving her. But yes, it turns out it was. Although the travels and the book stuff is wonderful—I love to meet readers—that part actually has been really difficult, which is to say that the homefront beckons because the homefront is really wonderful. I do like to think that my father is quite embedded in it, insofar as he can be while not being here. My daughter is so little, she’s just eight and a half months old, and yet you know we already show her pictures of her grandfather and talk to her about him. Even more than that I just think becoming a parent inevitably connects you to your parents. You summon parts of your childhood you’ve forgotten, you summon ways your own family operated. And so in that sense, my father feels quite present to me and I’m just so glad about that.

SEAN SPEER: The book is Lost and Found, and the author is Kathryn Schulz. Kathryn, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues and get home and give your daughter a hug, and good luck on the ongoing book tour. I’ve no doubt listeners will want to read the book after hearing today’s conversation.

KATHRYN SCHULZ: Well, thank you so much. It’s been lovely to talk to you.

Sign up for FREE and receive The Hub’s email newsletter.

You'll get our daily newsletter featuring The Hub’s thought-provoking insights and analysis of Canadian policy issues and in-depth interviews with the world’s sharpest minds and thinkers.