20. How Do I Go On After Losing My Partner? With Tembi Locke
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Tembi Locke was 41 years old when she lost her husband to a long illness, leaving her to parent their young daughter alone. Tembi wrote about her journey rebuilding and reimagining her life in her memoir “From Scratch,” which has just been turned into a limited Netflix series. But how are you supposed to move on and find meaning when your partner in life is no longer here? This episode’s practice is about grieving loss and reflecting on the moments, people, and phases of our lives that shaped us into who we are today.
Resources from the show
- Read Tembi’s memoir “From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home”
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Tembi Locke, Claire
Hi, I’m Claire Bidwell Smith. Welcome to NEW DAY. So I start every episode of this podcast by asking how my guest is really doing. And so today I’m going to tell you how I’m really doing, which is not great. This week is really hard. The anniversary of my mother’s death was yesterday. And this year it marks 25 years since she’s been gone. Every year, I think it won’t be a big deal to move through the state. And every year I’m surprised by how painful it is. How can it still hurt this much so many years later? I think one of the reasons it surprises me is because I’m generally really happy. I love my life, my work, my kids and family, things are good. So how is it that I can also carry so much pain underneath the surface? Those of us who have been through big loss understand this strange dichotomy, especially my guest today, author and actress Tembi Locke. Tembi was 41 years old when her husband died after a long illness, leaving her to parent their young daughter alone. She wrote about her journey in her memoir from scratch, which has just been turned into a limited Netflix series. In today’s episode, you’re going to hear us talk about grief, love, resilience, writing, and how it really is possible to carry sadness while still living a beautiful life.
All right, so hi. Welcome to NEW DAY.
Hi, Claire. Thank you. It is a new day.
Always, always, always. I start every episode of the show by asking my guests how are you doing? But how are you really doing?
The loaded question. I mean, look, we are all in it. And of course, you know, we are sort of in the height of the ongoing epidemiologic epidemiological madness from this mankind right now. But within that, I mean, I think if I slow down, I’m doing fine. Like if I slow down, and really like bring it down to like the basics. Am I well, am I fed? Am I housed? Am I loved? I’m okay. But I have to like really do that kind of inventory on a regular now, in a way that was more episodic before. Like, I’d be like, Oh, my God, I’m for the front. Let me just call now. But now it’s like, oh, no, no, no, no. My feet hit the ground. Like, okay, you know, what feels good in my body? Oh, okay. That’s good. You know, it’s asking, this time is asking new things of us. And that’s uncomfortable. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But I imagine this time in your life in particular, too, is a lot. And I was thinking about how we met. And just the journey that we’ve both been on since then. But mostly you Oh, my gosh, the last five years. Like, do you want to tell listeners how we met or what you remember about that time?
Yeah, I love the story of how we met. So we met in Los Angeles in Silverlake you were hosting book salons with Gillian at the time. And we have a friend in common Shawna Keaney, was one of my teachers and is now a friend at UCLA. And she said, you know, I think you should come to one of these salons and she was like, they’re hosted by Claire. And so I you know, I looked you up, I had not read your book. I really didn’t know anything about you. But I was fascinated. I was like, okay, hold on, I get to meet this person. And at that point, I was so not in the book world and literary world. I was just, you know, newly widowed mom, actress in LA, who took writing classes, and had a kind of a dream that maybe my story I could capture inside of the pages of a book. And so you represented someone who had done like you had done it. And I just wanted to be around people who had done it because I thought maybe by osmosis, and a few direct questions. I will figure it out too. Yeah. And so I got invited. And that was five years ago.
God so much has happened in five years for you. I mean, for both of us, but oh my god. Okay, so for listeners who aren’t familiar with you and your story, what was the story you wanted to write in this book that you’ve not written?
Sure, absolutely. So I was married to an Italian chef. my late husband’s name was Sato. We met when I was a college student. Studying abroad, fell in love, I’m not giving anything away, because this is all in the book. And we went on a beautiful arc journey, love, growth, together that included a life changing diagnosis of cancer, halfway through our marriage. And I became his caregiver for a decade. And in 2012, he passed away. And so I initially thought I have a lot of things to share about what that experience was like, right? And often I would get asked, by friends, people who, you know, like, oh, so and so you know, their mom or their sister husband was diagnosed, do you have any tips. And so I sort of thought that was sort of this the world I knew and could speak from, and to some degree, I thought, maybe someday I could write a book about that. But as a newly widowed person, and the mom of a grieving child, and also, as I was trying to find my footing, in a whole new world, and in a world I didn’t understand that I mean, the world of my own life, like the actual, like ground beneath my feet, I did not understand. And my husband asked something of me at the end of his life that I decided to fulfill, which was to return his ashes to the place of his birth, Sicily. And that set me on another kind of journey. And a relationship with his mom, my mother in law, my daughter’s grandma. And the book that I eventually wrote was not about caregiving from scratch is a memoir about those first three years, first three summers, specifically, after Sato passed the summers that I took my daughter to Sicily, to try to rebuild my life, and to try to maintain some connection to him. And to try to see if you know, I’m thinking of Joan Didion right now, you know, the center cannot hold. I think I wanted to know, if the center of the love that I had built could hold. And Sicily was the testing ground for that. Could I still have a relationship with my mother in law, which the book tells a lot about was fractured from the beginning.
Can you say a little bit about why it was fractured?
Yeah. The why was it complicated, but also quite simple. My husband married outside of his culture, outside of his race, outside of his station, outside of everything that they thought their son should have, right? And so they didn’t come to our wedding, which and we got married in Italy. Let me just say that enough, like in Italy, but you know, that’s surface of it. But beneath that, within their family, there had been a fracture long before I came. So I was not the inciting incident of that rupture it pre-existed me, I became the icing on the cake. And it played out in our early marriage.
How did it play out between you and Sato?
You know, for him, he was willing to sort of make an uncomfortable peace with the distance and the fact that he lives in another country, and could build a life here. And he wasn’t he was like, we were in Sicily, you know, living a block away. So he could compartmentalize that anyway, I think I was the person was like, I think you can, I don’t works that way. It’s not gonna feel right. And so I was really nudging more. And that comes a lot from I think I can now really say, it’s just kind of a part of who I am. But it certainly is like a part of the family I come from, like, we claim people, you know, we seek that I at least thought they have to meet me once. And then if they’re not into me, or just at least I know, like, I met them, you know, like, they just can’t, they can reject me, but I can’t quite sit with them rejecting the idea of me. So I nudged it. And also I saw his pain. I saw you know, when you love someone, you see their quiet pain. And I write about this that, you know, I think there was a point and I was in my 20s at this time, like really, really young, you know, and I but some part of me understood like, if that phone call rings one day, and he’s never spoken to them, and he hasn’t seen them and someone is gone. And I have never met them. I can’t even I’ve never even been to their home. What is our marriage going to be like? How can I support that? So it was like somewhere in the back, not in the back, the forefront of my mind. I had that and that’s a part of what also pushed me to push him.
What was it like to finally write it. You know this, everyone knows this, I’ve written my own memoir, and I’m now writing another one. And it’s so interesting to take your life and turn it into a narrative and a story and put it on a page. How did it change the story for you? Positive, negative, you know?
Tembi Locke 10:19
I think writing the book changed me because I set forth to do something I didn’t know. I didn’t know if I could really do it. But I was willing to do the best I could. I said, you know what, I’ll just write the best book I can. And anytime you do something like that, in life, like you give yourself permission to follow the thing that is most in your heart, you come out the other side of that, a little ballsy, like, you’re just like, I faced a fear, to the best of my ability. I tried to meet the moment and do the best I could. There’s a part of me that was freer on the other side of just saying, you know, hitting the end and say, like, yeah, and it stopped there, I would have evolved. In my time on the planet, for having done that thing. It changed my understanding of my story, because I suddenly had to go back and take inventory of my life. And I had to hold the joy. I had to hold the sadness, the shadow. And the things I didn’t understand, they couldn’t make sense of on the page. So I had to kind of be not just take inventory, but then be willing to have a truthful conversation with myself about what all was there. I started having more compassion for my younger self. Like the young part of me, I was like, who is that person that at 20 got on a plane, went to another country passport, like the ink wasn’t dry. You know, I’ve never done that no one in my family had done that. I think what I had to learn early on is what wasn’t in the book was as important as what was in the book. I was surprised by the parts that I wanted to withhold.
Now this book. You put it out into the world. And it was like this immediate runaway train of just wonder. Reese Witherspoon picked it up as a big book club pick. And then you’ve just finished turning it into a Netflix series with your sister writing it. And you spent all summer in Italy filming. Okay.
I know. I know. So yeah. So the book got in the hands and early version of it got in the hands of the people at Reese’s book club. And I felt honored, quite frankly, that it was even worthy of a read. You know, that to me felt like a huge win as a first time writer. But when that got the call that yes, indeed it was going to be a book club pick. And that there was interest in an adaptation. I was of all the feelings, right? And my sister who is a accomplished and award winning and New York Times bestselling.
The name you will hear often from my mouth. She, in fact, was my early cheerleader in the writing of the book, was seminal and helping me get into like, or the idea of it in front of some key people who said, no, let me help you craft this and shape this, you know, and maybe we can sell it. So she’s been along with me. And of course, she’s like my best friend. And so she was along with me for many of the events of the book. And she is a screenwriter, also and a producer. So it was very clear that she would be a part of the process. So we decided to team together that was well received. And we just followed, like, what was right for our hearts. And if it was going to be blessed to have a platform as large as a global streamer. What are those universal touch points that are within the story that we’d want to bring to screen? And we pitched that. Netflix got it. And then we started writing it with a team of five other writers or seven of us in the room, seven brains. So it’s eight episodes.
So like a limited series.
It’s a limited series, so there won’t be like a season two or season three. You know, it’s those eight episodes and, and then of course the pandemic happened and everything shut down and we didn’t know we were well, and for me, I thought, personally, you know what? We wrote those eight episodes. At that point, actually, we’ve written 10, because initially was going to be 10 episodes, I thought maybe it lives and dies there. And maybe that was what this whole thing was supposed to be in my life. And so when Netflix came back some six months later, and so the world is beginning to open up, we’re beginning to film, congratulations. We’d like to go forward with this. We’re going to change it a little bit went from 10 to 8. And then the train shot out of the track. And I’ve been like playing catch up ever. Learning a whole new job, a whole new career. Like it’s like, every growth, you can imagine. I mean it professionally, personally, with my sister, I mean, to adapt something and to go on this journey with me. You know, it’s beautiful, because it’s about our family. Wow.
Wow. You were also falling in love again. And you got married. I came to your zoom wedding during the pandemic.
Tembi Locke 16:05
I love it. I love it. Yes. And talk about new day. The emergence of a new day. And it’s interesting, because that was a very slow, like, washing over me, right? Because it first asked of me, I had to sort of know in myself that I was open to this. And that took me a long time to say, okay, because I will tell you, like Sato and I had a beautiful, profound, deep, like, rock solid, life altering marriage. And I will say, I thought, well, that was a good run. That’s ever happened to me. Like, that’s not a thing. Like, how does that happen? You know, and I remember having long conversations with my sister. And she was one thing of saying she was like, you know, I’ve heard that, if you can fall in love once, and you can partner well once, you can do it again, because you’ve know sort of the ins and outs of what it takes to be with someone in an intimate relationship. So just know the possibility, right. And I just let that hang out in the ether, right? I didn’t do anything with that for the longest time. And then when I was ready, Robert walked into my life. And it’s been a beautiful heart opening, expansive journey to watch my daughter open her heart, to a new person. And watching Robert, who is having to partner with someone who mean, I don’t know that I have it in me like to partner, it’s a thing to partner with someone who’s lost a spouse. I mean, that’s just it’s own path and their whole life. It’s a very particular thing. And so, I’m very blessed and honored and happy every day that lifestyle fit. And I was willing to walk into it.
Was there anything particular that you and Robert needed to do in order to incorporate WQ6O into your relationship or into your lives?
every day, every bit like I will say very early on. He brought it up first. They might say it, meaning the person in the room, got in the room. And he said, whether we go forward or not, you know, in a relationship, he said, I just hope to be someone that Sato will be enjoy is that we know each other when he read the book. And I was terrified of him reading the book. Mostly because I did not want him to feel like oh, now he’s got to like live up to all yeah, it’s a loaded thing. And he took his time. But the one of the beautiful things he said was, this book is a gift to me. Because it gives me a template for your heart. Wow. But I think that’s what it means to be partner after loss. The person has to understand that the template of your heart includes a big broken piece that you are forever healing, forever reengaging forever. There’s not a day that Sato not in every fiber of my being Now does that mean you know and is that in inside my daughter’s heart and inside of my heart and so that’s the field. That’s the field so you have to decide, is that a field you want to walk into and be within and feel like you can move around and and talk about or not?
You know, I’ve heard so many stories about loss and grief. And, you know, we’ve talked about this before. I love the way that you move through grief. I love the way you move through life, but through grief in particular, you still have this open heart, you have this sense of wonder, you have this, you know, we’ve talked about the word resilience, which I have a tricky relationship with, you know, I don’t like that word. Because I never want people to feel like it takes away from their ability to grieve like that they have to only be resilient or only sad. But it seems to me that you really made some choices to just continue to be in your life and figure out how to do it. Even though solder wasn’t here physically anymore. Where did that come from for you? What did that look like?
I get emotional thinking about that. Because one of the places, it’s not the only place, but one of the first things that leaped to mind was something actually he said, and maybe that is key for me, because he gave me a kind of permission. And I don’t mean like I can I say this, what he said to me as my best friend, my love, father of my child, like life partner was I’m seeing beyond this moment, this moment we’re in right now. And I want what is best for you, I have chills, and he was able to kind of articulate that in a way I was not able to hear didn’t want to hear didn’t deeply take in. But after his passing. I couldn’t unhear that, you know, grief, especially early grief that first year, the first month, the first hours, minutes, days, weeks, it’s like a, a, it’s like a case of vertigo. The world is all over the place. And nothing makes sense. And so when I could see clearer to see the horizon line. So if I just walk that direction, one moment, one bit at a time, I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know what’s gonna look like when I get there. But maybe there’s something there. And that was not like a fully formed thought that had in my head. It’s just kind of now I can see in retrospect, what I was doing. And I also had a lot of family and friends who gave me permission to let the ship, excuse me all hang out.
To let it be messy, let it be nonlinear. Let me be as repetitive as I needed to be. Because grief is repetitive. You know, I circled certain events, certain stories. And I had a circular thinking for a very long time. So I think the combination of Sato’s words, the people I had in my life at the time, my kind of innate sense of like, I got to pull myself forward. And then as I write about in the book, those trips to Sicily became a way that I was like, there is a lot of living here. There’s a lot of living still here. And I wanted them for my daughter. So sometimes on my worst days, it was just sheer, the maternal instinct. And even if the maternal instinct was just to hand her off to someone else, yeah. Because I couldn’t show up for I mean, really, I’m going to be just honest, I couldn’t show up for so I was just like, I have enough of a presence of mind to say, this is not the day. I’m not great today, may not be great by the end of the day, or even tomorrow, who around me can help. And I think I only knew how to do that in grief because I’d had to do it for 10 years as a caregiver. If I had met life as a widow grieving person without that 10 year experience prior and all the griefs and anticipatory grief that was embedded in that 10 years, I don’t think I would have been the same person as a newly I don’t know that I would have had I would have been learning those things. But I kind of I think came to the table with some of that.
I’m hearing what must have been an enormous amount of self compassion through this whole thing. Was that always present? Was that something you had to work for?
No, I’d work for that. I never I was not so combative. To be very frank, I mean, that was, you know, like, you know, if I look back at my 20 year old self, I read my journals because I had to write the book. I was like gosh, lady, kid, Wow, you’re so hard on yourself like, so those are hard pages to read like hearing the my, you know, the way that I beat myself up over the second year. So I don’t know. And maybe by the time because I was 41 when Sato have passed, and so at 41 sure, I move the needle a little bit in the self compassion category. But I did sometimes see myself through the eyes of sorrow. And what I mean by that is, people would say to me, what would Sato want me to do right now? He would want me to rest would you go rest. So even if I couldn’t do it, like if I cast myself in the eye, like, oh, he would do a loving thing for me right now. And I’ve had 20 years with him in my life where he had done many, you know, like, decades of loving things. So I knew like, oh, when people framed it that way, I had gave myself permission to actually do the self, the self compassionate, or the loving thing for myself.
I imagine that this is true. But have you heard from a lot of other widows and widowers, since you put this book into the world, and has it informed your ideas about grief or widowhood in new ways, having heard from so many people, like I know, when I wrote my book, I went into it knowing my grief. And then I had this giant echo back to me or not echo but this, you know, all these voices came back to me with their grief. And I saw it and understood it in a new way.
Yes, I think the surprise that I got instantly, was what I thought I was writing was my own story. And I did, right? But what I had no idea is that I was touching on everybody’s story, and what it activated in the shares, and I got physical cards in the mail. You know, people telling me firsthand, that reading the book, gave them permission, I had a letter from a man who lost his wife a decade prior. And he said, you’re helping me understand a part of myself I did, I’m only beginning to understand now. And he was in his 70s. And so suddenly, I felt like the hardest thing in the world for me, like the worst moment in my life that I thought would kill me and slay me to share and it caused blood, sweat and tears to put on the page. But in the sharing of it, a gift came back to me, I didn’t feel alone, in quite the same way. I feel alone in my own singular experience of losing Sato, right? Because no one else lost to know what else was his wife? So that’s a singular experience I have. But I have a universal experience. And I’m in great human community, with a lot of hearts. And that I did not know what happened.
That’s beautiful, isn’t it? I’ve had a similar experience. And it’s just changed everything about the world I live in, you know? What happens next for you? What is it going to be like to turn on Netflix and see the series on the actual screen up on your TV in your house? Like, I’m sure you’ve seen pieces of it now are all of it. But yeah, I’m
seeing it every day, because we’re in editing right now. And so I am re engaging with the story I’m using this time, on a personal level. And I say this, because I’m both trying to sort of parse it out for myself what the experience is like for me re engaging with it in a new way. Because once I wrote the book, and I read it for the when I recorded the audiobook, I was very clear, I will never read this book, again cover to cover, meaning I might do readings from it or excerpts from it. We’ll talk about it. But the idea of me sitting with my book, page one through the end, I don’t envision that ever happening again in my life. So in a way, I could compartmentalize. And that was I got to be in charge of that experience. And so I’m trying to apply a similar process to this stage, because I am watching the material over and over again as we edit and we refine and we have music and all the things that it takes to get a series on a global platform.
And I’ve begun now to see, oh, wait, this is gonna be on everybody’s computer screen. And you talked earlier about self compassion. So I’ve started recently asking myself what is the most self compassionate thing I can do for myself? To make this next leap, because once it’s there, it will live for perpetuity, how to the world and it might, I might, I might be at the hair salon one day, 10 years from now and it like pop up on the screen here like, you know, I don’t think you know. And so I don’t have a hard answer for that, because it’s it’s something that is evolving, and I’m working with it, I just know that. It’s essential for me, that I prep my heart, and my soul and my daughter’s heart and soul for the sharing. And I also see that there’s a beauty that there will be I don’t know what it’s gonna look like. But there’s a beauty in this next kind of release. We all should give ourselves the gift, especially after a loss, because you are rebuilding yourself. You’re reemerging. You’re reformulating and you are not the same person you were before. And it doesn’t mean everyone needs to write a book. But to take the time for yourself the self compassion to use your word of feeling into what that is honoring that, and it can it’ll look different for every person. Yeah, there’s a value in it.
Tembi, thank you so much. It is always inspiring to be with you.
Hope that conversation left you feeling as inspired as I felt? I always think about the word effervescent when I think about Tempe, she is one of those people who just raises the vibration around her wherever she goes. So this week’s practice is about resilience, and reflecting on the moments, people and phases of our lives that shaped us into who we are today. You don’t have to write a memoir to reflect on your life. But maybe these writing prompts can help remind you of your growth as a person. Here’s some journaling ideas to put into practice. Think about who you were 10 years ago versus now. Have you changed even within the last year? What’s the hardest thing that’s ever happened to you? Write about who you’ve become since both good and bad. Write about a challenge you and your family went through? How did it affect you? What did you learn? Is there someone in your life that you’ve lost? Try writing them a letter and telling them how much you missed them, or journal about what grief has taught you. Remember that reflecting on moments and phases help you stay in control of your life and help you build an even more positive future for yourself. As always, thanks for listening. And if you get a chance to try one of these weekly practices, I’d love to hear all about it. Call me leave me a voicemail at 8334-LEMONADA That’s 833-453-6662, or email me at email@example.com
Oh, it’s such a pleasure. Thank you so much. This has been a joy. I always love talking to you.
NEW DAY is a Lemonada Media Original. The show is produced by Jackie Danziger, Liliana Maria Percy Ruiz and Erianna Jiles. Kat Yore is our engineer. Music is by Hannis Brown. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Jessica Cordova Kramer, Lily Cornell Silver and Claire Bidwell Smith. NEW DAY is produced in partnership with the Well Being Trust, The Jed Foundation and Education Development Center. Help others find our show by leaving us a rating and writing a review. Follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms, or find me at clairebidwellsmith.com. Join our Facebook group to connect with me and fellow NEW DAY listeners at facebook.com/groups/newdaypod. You can also get bonus content and behind the scenes material by subscribing to Lemonada Premium. You can subscribe right now on the Apple podcast app by clicking on our podcast logo and then the subscribe button. Thanks for listening. See you next week.