Rarely do I meet someone I instantly want to know deeper, let alone via Zoom. During Covid lockdown I was introduced to Katie Swenson when my daughter invited me to the virtual launch of her book In Bohemia: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Kindness. I felt embraced and welcomed when Katie opened up an intimate conversation about her grief and how she loved her way through to healing after the sudden death of her fiancé. Her prose, which began as journal entries penned in their “Bohemia” third floor loft, gets to the heart of what we are often fearful to speak of. Katie inspires us to be our best selves and be present in the shared human experience of grief and loss. Peeling back the layers with me in this interview, she’s allowing us the space to do the same.
What brings you joy right now, what lights you up today?
My bicycle! Riding through the city, I feel this pulsation of joy, I call it my joy chakra, if such a thing exists. Three years after Tommy died and my youngest child left for school, I moved back to New York City, a place where I’ve always felt a profound sense of belonging and personal freedom. It helped me reintegrate into life after a period of grief. I have countless reasons to be grateful and many sources of joy, but I really light up when I’m on my bike.
This joy seems to come from the experience of being in motion, the tangible and thrilling sensation of moving through space, and the vibrant texture of the city. I moved to the city during the pandemic, and got to really perceive the shape of the city – the streets, architecture, and the distinct qualities of each neighborhood. And now, as the city bustles with people again, it’s infused with a unique energy and vibrancy.
I want to start by thanking you for opening up a conversation about grief and loss. It’s a topic we never feel comfortable discussing, yet we all experience to varying degrees. By sharing your voice it’s as though you’re allowing us to be with our feelings and heal at our own pace. Do you see it that way?
Grief is so lonely, so I am happy any time people feel comfortable actually talking about it! When you are deep in grief, people will say to you, “Everyone grieves differently.” While that phrase aims to validate individual feelings, it inadvertently suggests isolation during grief; it maintains distance, and difference. This contrasts sharply with how we approach other major life changes, such as becoming a parent or adapting to an empty nest, where there’s a clear acknowledgment of their shared nature. But grief is a universal human experience, arguably among the most profound, and perhaps the most common.
My writing, which began not as a book but as a survival strategy, was a way to process the shock of Tommy’s death and find a way to sustain my love for him amidst the profound sadness of his sudden death. While it is deeply rooted in my own experience, it also incorporates the wisdom of others, reflecting my search to learn about life, death, and grief itself.
As a memoir of love, loss, and kindness, your book In Bohemia is such an intimate reveal of how you met grief with compassion. It never started as a volume of work, yet sharing the threads of your feelings sort of brought you back to wholeness. Can you walk us through how your healing journey began?
This period was extraordinarily intense. Tommy’s unexpected and fatal heart attack happened while we were still deeply enveloped in the process of falling in love, a time when our relationship was incredibly vibrant. Our two-and-a-half-year journey together had led us to a significant milestone: engagement, moving in together and wedding planning. We were experiencing the novelty of a new beginning and the depth of a strong commitment, which came with a profound sense of wholeness. The idea of entering a second marriage and seeing your children embrace and love this new person in your life felt enchantingly perfect, almost too idyllic to believe.
I was in shock, I see that now. In the days after the memorial service, I spoke with my dear friend, Holly, and she said, “we get to keep the gifts they gave us.” I had those words on a loop in my mind, and I think they provided the seed of healing, although of course I didn’t know that then. I started writing, needing somewhere to go to make sense of it all. Writing gave me the space to begin figuring out how to bear my grief.
I write about that first night in the book. My daughters Bliss and Sophie were sleeping with me at that time. I had that phrase in my head, “we get to keep the gifts…” and I was writing madly, tears streaming down my face. My daughter Bliss, who was 13 at the time, was trying to comfort me, saying “It’s okay mommy.” But I pushed her away, because I had this thing swirling in my head that I had to get out.
I slept just a few hours, and the next morning, I posted what I had written on my Facebook page. I didn’t really think about it, or how it would be received. It was just part of what cracked open.
I went to my early morning yoga class, and on my mat, I felt the next idea start to form. In the fog and chaos of grief, I could grab onto one little piece, an idea, a thought, or a memory, and I would ‘write it’ in my mind on my yoga mat.
That started the process for me. I’d come home from yoga, and before I even got in the shower, I would sit down with my computer and write as fast, and as thoroughly, as I could. I wrestled with these impossible questions. It wasn’t something I thought to do, it was just pure instinct. If I could get these thoughts out of the swirl of my mind and onto the page, I felt better, if even for a minute. It gave me some relief.
How can you go from having someone be so fully present in your life one minute to having them be seemingly so fully gone? There are all kinds of losses that people endure. When the person with whom you would process such a loss is the one who leaves, there’s a huge emptiness. I’d lost that person. Who else would I process it with, but him? So I wrote.
How did your writing become a book?
One of my friends who was reading on Facebook was a photographer friend with whom I was collaborating with on our book, “Design with Love: At Home in America.” I was behind on that project because I was so overwhelmed. He suggested I share my writings with our editor.
During our conversation, I began to see my writings not just as a personal catharsis but as part of a larger narrative. I spoke about the trailblazing women who lived in my house, the Scarab, a century before me, the interplay of architecture and identity, and the top floor room, Bohemia, where their lives and loves intertwined with mine.
The editor’s response to my submission was more encouraging than I could have hoped for. She saw potential in my unedited 80,000 words, noting its blend of magic, pathos, history, and hope. She found the story compelling – a tale of profound loss and moving forward, of a relationship that brings out the best in each other, and of a house with a mesmerizing history. Her feedback was clear: there was a book in my writings, though it would require editing.
It was an incredible moment. But I was also like, whoa, I’m not ready! I knew I needed to continue writing through that first year. I also grappled with the idea of turning these intimate reflections into a book. Beyond the emotional considerations, I was aware of the practical challenge of transforming my stream of consciousness into something engaging for a wider audience.
So, I continued writing for several more months, pondering over what I wanted, what Tommy would have wanted, and what publishing this book might mean. Gradually, I crafted the structure of the book. The realization that I indeed had a book in my hands was both exhilarating and daunting.
How can we best support a loved one who is grieving? Can you share what offerings from friends and family helped you most?
My experience of grief was emotional and psychological, but I wouldn’t have known how physical it is too.