Grief, Growth, and Orange Shag Carpet: A Talk With Author Abby Hegewald

You wouldn’t expect a book about grief to leave your ribs sore from belly laughing, but that’s exactly what you’ll get from Just Smile by Abby Hegewald.

And it’s certainly not because the memoir holds back in the darkness and distress departments. Despite its title, Just Smile isn’t about smiling your sadness away. Instead, it allows joy and humor to coexist with crushing despair. Since losing her husband to cancer in 2011, that’s been Abby’s reality.

You’ve already shared a lot of Kevin’s cancer battle with family and friends in your blog (No Mountain Too High). What made you decide to tell your story to a wider audience?

Abby: In the beginning, I don’t know that I could envision my audience. But I could imagine enlarging and sharing my story. The blog was created with the purpose of keeping family and friends informed of Kevin’s situation. When Kevin passed away, so did the need for my blog. But what didn’t leave was this new found love of writing. I was hooked. Writing our story healed me. And in the process, I learned that my audience was no longer just 43-year-old widows. (Thank goodness. That would have sold one book.) But almost everyone can relate to grief, disappointment, dashed dreams. The story is mine, but those struggles are universal. 

You’ve mentioned that when you wrote the book originally, you focused on Kevin’s battle with cancer and death, but after feedback from a friend and mentor you included more about your background and pre-cancer relationship (with lots of hilarious details and anecdotes, of course). What does the backstory add for readers, and what was your experience as you reflected on your whole journey with Kevin?

Abby: The opening chapter in my first attempt at a manuscript began with Kevin being diagnosed with cancer. Worst beginning ever! I was told I needed to first introduce myself. Writing about myself was so much harder than writing about Kevin! But I made an incredible discovery: the book was actually about me, not Kevin. By adding my childhood upbringing, hopes, dreams, expectations, struggles, weaknesses, etc., as well as my early relationship with Kevin, the reader better understands why and how Kevin’s death affected me. Writing this book was such a therapeutic experience. I am so grateful that I could look back on our life together and find beauty and humor. 

You’re also preeeetty honest about your relationship, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think it’s pretty tempting to sugarcoat when we talk about loved ones who have passed on. Did writing this way come naturally for you? What reactions have you gotten from family and friends who knew and loved Kevin?

Abby: Hah! My kids’ least favorite chapter is “Orange Shag” (where I describe our marriage as hanging by a shoestring). I am so grateful that after 11 years of being a single mom, I could introduce my kids to what a real marriage looks like! You can definitely thank Autumn McAlpin for my vulnerability. She kept encouraging me to go deeper and darker. She assured me that the more honest I am, the more people will not only find me relatable, but will actually love me more. And that’s the exact reaction I have received from family and friends who have read it. They love me and Kevin more.

In the book, you talk about the chair in your closet where you went to get your tears out in the mornings. Do you still have it? How’s the crying chair doing these days?

Abby: I still have it! It made the move to Salt Lake City with me, but now it’s in my garage! I can’t seem to part with it. I have way too much history with it. But I’m grateful I don’t need to depend on it anymore.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to readers who want to show support for grieving friends or family?

Abby: Just show up. Think of one thing that you can do. Write a letter, drop off Kleenex, send a book, bake a treat, weed their garden, deliver dinner, send a gift card. There are a million little things that feel like big things to the recipient. It doesn’t matter what you do; just do something.

Just Smile is now available for purchase.

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