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Gut Wrenching Grief with Mira Ptacin

In her memoir, Poor Your Soul, Mira Ptacin explores the grief associated with losing a baby which is often hidden behind closed doors. Instead, she cracks it open and shares all the heartbreaking details of her grief. Just like our conversation, her book moves fluidly through time and shares another profound loss that shaped her family’s life. The particularly tender way her family grieved openly and continued living is profound. If you’re grieving, her honesty about how consuming grief can be is really validating. We also look at how grief and the stories we tell evolve over time, how Mira uses ritual in her own life, and even discuss her next book about the long-standing Spiritualist community in Maine and their take on the afterlife. 

You can find more of Mira’s recent writing and her two books at


[00:00:00] Sarah Cavanaugh: Hi, I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit. Every episode, we explore death, dying, and grief through stories by authors familiar with the topic. Writers are our translators. They take what is inexpressible, impossible to explain, and they translate it into words on a page. My guest today is Mira Ptacin.

We're talking about her first book, Poor Your Soul. It's a memoir anchored by two really profound deaths. She writes honestly about grief, and doesn't spare any of the specific gut wrenching details. You really get a sense of how her grief showed up in her body, her mind, and her relationships. And if you're grieving, her openness about how consuming grief can be is really validating.

In this conversation, we also explore the act of writing as a tool for exorcism, as Mira says, and the tricky role memory [00:01:00] plays in our lives. We talk about the passage of time, how the stories we tell also evolve with us. Because a substantial amount of time has passed since the personal experiences that Mira wrote about took place, this conversation is its own reflection on grief, and time, and healing.

Welcome to Peaceful Exit.

[00:01:24] Mira Ptacin: Thank you.

[00:01:25] Sarah Cavanaugh: Before we get into your memoir, I just wanted to acknowledge everything going on in your world. And I so appreciate you showing up for this conversation. Um, given the mass shooting this past October in Lewiston, Maine, it required you and your family to shelter in place for a few days.

And then right after, it's Halloween, it's back to life, time to celebrate. It doesn't feel quite right. So, I know you created a ritual to help acknowledge what you had all gone through. How did you come up with that? [00:02:00]

[00:02:00] Mira Ptacin: So we were told to shelter in place. It felt like COVID all over again. We were sort of used to this cabin fever.

And I think my family did feel somewhat safe because you have to take a ferry to get to Peaks Island, but still it was frightening. And after it was all said and done, the island just folded right into Halloween and it felt awkward. And we've already sort of lost the meaning of what Halloween is. So the idea of,

even just a 30 second acknowledgement of the moment of slowing down and pausing things and giving it some kind of meeting kind of popped into my head and it was awkward to do and it didn't feel as like beautiful and triumphant and graceful. But what we ended up doing was having an open invitation primal scream where we gathered around a fire pit.

And some neighbors came, some kids who were trick or treating were there when it [00:03:00] happened. And we just stood around together and we said, you know, on the count of three, we're going to scream and we're going to let it out. And then we're going to stop. And then we'll move on to the next part of this ritual where we write down our fear on a piece of paper or any fear we have.

And then you place it in the fire and you burn it. So we did just that. And it was a strange choir of screams. And then we wrote down our, our fears on a piece of paper and burned them. And then we could move on to the sort of meaningless candy collection, but again, it just, it just sort of punctuated everything and it was like this physical act of hitting the refresh button or kind of ending a chapter in something.

And I don't know neurologically what that does to the brain, but looking back on it now, it, it did close off this sort of chapter. of violence that we experienced for two days. And we also kind of took control of the narrative, so we could end that chapter on our own. Yeah, [00:04:00] yeah. But I do feel it's really important to slow down and, and savor certain moments for growth and perspective.

[00:04:07] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah, I feel like this is a muscle. It gets stronger the more we use it. I am so curious. How do you get kids involved? Was it difficult? Was it easy for your kids? Is this something you talk about at home?

[00:04:22] Mira Ptacin: Surprisingly enough, it was very smooth. I think that when they see us slowing down, not doing chores, and doing something sort of quirky and, and, and physically active, they're really game for it.

[00:04:42] Sarah Cavanaugh: Well, let's jump into your memoir. I loved your book. Loved your book. As you can see from all the tabs, I was really on this ride with you. Meeting this new guy, Andrew, getting pregnant unexpectedly, deciding to get married after just three months, [00:05:00] getting excited about the baby, and then the devastating news that the baby wouldn't survive outside your womb.You were five months along?

[00:05:10] Mira Ptacin: I found out the baby was inviolable, the visit where the doctor can tell you the sex of the baby, I think that's approximately five months. It was awful. It was awful.

[00:05:21] Sarah Cavanaugh: I just want to thank you. You shared so much of the grief and loss. And there's so much wrapped in fertility and family planning that is really kept behind closed doors.

I just can imagine that it validated a lot of people's feelings and experiences. Did you, did you notice that when you, did you do a book tour or?

[00:05:41] Mira Ptacin: What shocked me the most was how so many people sort of came out of the woodwork, like friends or acquaintances or friends of my mother or of Andrew's mother or his sister.

All these people started telling me, Oh, I lost a child. I had a miscarriage too. And I [00:06:00] had no idea. And I mean, this I'm 44 now, and this was when I was 28. And I was furious after the experience. It was a horrible experience. It was very physically rough. Also, after I lost Lily, we named her Lily, I didn't find any books.

There was one book by Elizabeth McCracken. I think it's called An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. That's the one book I could find that was a memoir about child loss. And everything else was either on the feminist literature section of the bookstore or library or I don't know health and body issues.

But even then there weren't any really books about abortion. And abortion was talked about, it's commonly talked about using the wrong terms. Like this procedure I had, I thought it was called the late term abortion, but that's just a term that was created by anti-abortion activists. [00:07:00] to sort of tinge the reaction or response of hearing that word.

And you're just like, hey, late term, who would do such a thing? So it's just like really infuriating. So since there were no books, since people weren't talking about it, that kind of fueled my drive to write about it. But the biggest thing was that if I didn't write about it, it would be stuck inside and it would weigh me down.

And I really needed to exercise like ex. O R, exercise, the exorcist, exercise out of my body.

[00:07:31] Sarah Cavanaugh: So I was talking to Eirinie Carson about her memoir. And one of the things she shared with me is when you do create this tangible thing out of grief and memory, that it becomes something separate from your own personal grief.

And you're now selling a book and it's a commodity and it becomes kind of separate from, did you feel that when you were, uh, did it give you that buffer? [00:08:00]

[00:08:00] Mira Ptacin: It did feel like I was putting a tombstone on that part of my life. And I, I love this book because it's really my truth. When I was writing this book, I had an instructor, a professor, his name's Vijay Shashadri, and he advised me to write this in present tense.

Like the main narrative of my experience losing the baby and meeting Andrew and getting married, all that stuff, it's all written in present tense so that the reader will feel like they're right there with the author. It's just like, this is what happened, and this is what it felt like in the moment.

This raw, wild emotion and this roller coaster of our emotions, immediate responses. So I put it out into the universe, but that itself was a hellscape because trying to get a first book published is very hard, especially when it's a memoir that has abortion in it. And so [00:09:00] the majority of the rejections I received were responses like, there's not a market for this.

We don't know how to do PR for a book about abortion. And so that fueled my fire even more to get the book published because I knew people needed this book as a companion.

[00:09:17] Sarah Cavanaugh: Well, I'm so glad you did because I think our culture has lost nuance around our conversation about abortion.

[00:09:24] Mira Ptacin: Oh my gosh, it totally has. Yeah. Oh yeah. And it's so important to to look at each abortion story, if you want to call it that, individually, because you cannot all generalize. Everyone has their reason.

[00:09:40] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. Sometimes these tragedies tear people apart. You and your husband's grief timelines didn't really sync, um, and physically, of course, you didn't think you had to survive this procedure.

After losing Lily, how did you stay connected?

[00:10:02] Mira Ptacin: We didn't. We really didn't. So, I didn't know what to do. Andrew didn't know what to do. We were doing, like, meaningless actions to us. But then when things got really bad. That's when we started to take action. Um, one of the things we did was move from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

And we thought that that would be like a more pastoral life, which it wasn't. We lived near a park, but it was still New York. Things got really bad. He had to work every day. He had a normal person job where he would get on the subway and go to work and come home late. And I would be writing or working at a bakery.

And then at nighttime, he would come home and I would leave to go to poetry readings or book launches, sort of networking kind of things. And we just really drifted apart. I was so angry at him all the time. I really resented him for just not being in as much [00:11:00] grief as me and just still moving on. And he probably resented me for not contributing to this like newlywed life.

And there was one point where, I mean, I, I did things to have, like, plates were thrown. That's the Polish in me, the hot-blooded Polish person. Um, but we got to a point where he said, if we don't leave New York City and start fresh, our marriage is going to fail. And we're going to get a divorce because we're both so much hurting and this is not a healing place for us.

So we picked a date and we had maybe a thousand dollars at our bank account. And we rented a U Haul and we moved to Maine. We stayed in a Super 8 motel for, I don't know, a week until we found jobs. Then, you know, one thing led to another and we found this rental on Peaks Island and we moved here and everything fell into place.

We tried to have children and it worked. And, Yeah, [00:12:00] I think if we hadn't moved here, I can't imagine. I think I would still just really be focused on my career and he would too.

[00:12:07] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. Yeah. Backing up a little bit, how did you start the conversation about having another baby? I can imagine that was really hard to navigate.

[00:12:17] Mira Ptacin: So Andrew is very special. I still experience depression. Um, I still am living with reverberations of trauma. And so he knows this and he if that dark cloud comes around, he says, you know, we have to drop everything and we have to prioritize you. And I remember driving with him or walking on a dirt road on the island recently, and he just said, you are the most important thing in my life.

And then our children. And that's all I care about. That's all I live for. So when I brought up wanting to have children, because I did, it was like a primal urge to want to [00:13:00] create a baby, which I hadn't had before. I hadn't had that in New York. It was an accidental pregnancy, but I think he wanted to go along with it because he wanted me to heal.

And I think he felt that if I had a baby, I would feel as if my body works. Or he just let me take the reins and decide what we were going to do with our family planning. It was always very spontaneous with both kids, like, let's do this. Let's just do this. We were never equipped to do it. No one ever is. And there's no good time. But we, we went for it.

[00:13:32] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. So you write about your brother and it's really moving. He was just 14 when he passed away, tragically, in a car accident.

[00:13:42] Mira Ptacin: Yeah.

[00:13:43] Sarah Cavanaugh: When I got to this part in the book, my heart just dropped. And then you go on to describe the experience of planning Julian's funeral and how your family muddled through figuring out how to carry on.

What did that time feel like?

[00:14:01] Mira Ptacin: Oh gosh, it was awful. It felt like we were underwater and it felt like sleepwalking. It felt numb. We were all sort of adrift as a family. It was really horrible. And I remember, I remember one like really poignant or just powerful thought that haunted me for so long was each day that passed would be another day that Julian was dead and eventually it would be a hundred days or eventually it would be 15 years and how could I still hold on to him or remember what it felt like to be around him, what it smelled like, how guilty would I feel to sort of move on or have a life, but it was it, it just slows everything down.

And then when [00:15:00] you finally, I don't know, maybe years later or a year later, six months later, when you get back into life, life doesn't feel as real. It feels sort of like you're acting. And it just sort of always stays with you. I think, I don't know. It just makes you sort of like you have a crack in you, but you're, you're more sensitive to things.

You're more sensitive to the pain of others, maybe, or, or just, I don't want to sound corny, but just like the beauty in life and the sadness of life. And it's okay to find sadness. Life is tragic. Um, and sometimes there is no meaning to be found. But it was, it was really bad timing for me. I was in my senior year of high school and it was the worst year and I didn't care about anything.

And you said something about families getting divorced or marriages splitting up. I asked my parents like what kept them going and they dropped everything and prioritized [00:16:00] their marriage and healing. My mom retired. She sold her business. They went to counseling and they just prioritized one another and they grieved openly.

Often. Instead of sort of just not talking about it or making it taboo. But it was the worst time of my life, I think. It was worse than, it was a different flavor, but it was worse than losing the pregnancy, for sure.

[00:16:23] Sarah Cavanaugh: You were talking about how this book is really your truth, and I would love to read a little passage.

[00:16:29] Mira Ptacin: Sure.

[00:16:29] Sarah Cavanaugh: And have you talk a little bit about how memory is a special kind of truth. And I love, I love how you write about your mother in this book. My mother died 21 years ago, so it's just, it really brought up a lot of wonderful memories.

Mom says that people always remember things the way they want to remember them instead of the way it was, because it was never just one way. That memory isn't what happened, it's what happens over time. My memories of you are [00:17:00] a special kind of truth. And then you go on to talk about Julian. Why is memory a special kind of truth?

[00:17:07] Mira Ptacin: I think that when we hold on to certain memories, we're creating a narrative that we want. And that narrative, it corresponds with sort of our motives at the time, you know, because life is not a story.

This book, there's so many different perspectives I could have taken. I could have written it now, 20 years later, and it would be completely different. I think maybe I would have been more compassionate to myself. Some memories I have about Julian are completely blocked. Yeah. Memory is a really tricky thing.

It really does correspond to our motives or if we don't want to hurt someone's feeling or how we want to see things. One thing Andrew would say to me a lot was, you're right and you're also not right and I'm right and I'm also not right. And it drives me [00:18:00] crazy how diplomatic he is about it, but we all have our own stories to tell.

I mean, imagine if Andrew had written this, Lord bless him. I can't imagine what his book would be like.

[00:18:10] Sarah Cavanaugh: He has his own lens.

[00:18:14] Mira Ptacin: Oh, yes.

[00:18:15] Sarah Cavanaugh: With all these losses you've experienced, how have they changed the shape of how you think about life and death?

[00:18:21] Mira Ptacin: Before Julian died, I was in my rebel years as a teenager. So I, you know, I ran away and lived with my boyfriend when I was 17 and never went to class and just was a total jerk.

But after that happened, after Julian died, I felt like if only I had been home or if I only had, you know, kept him and my father home five extra minutes, this wouldn't have happened. And also after Julian died, I felt like I should never cause any of this to happen again. trouble or trauma or distress in my parents.

So for a really [00:19:00] long time, I just tried to be perfect and had trouble adventuring out. And my parents, they didn't want me around just staring at them all day. They had a life to live too. But another thing that Julian's death did was sort of, um, it makes me a little more YOLO. Like with my kids as a parent.

If we don't get enough sleep, that's okay for me. Or if we, you know, I, it's, it's tricky to find a balance, but it pushes me closer to, um, you know, we only live once, so let's just go big.

[00:19:35] Sarah Cavanaugh: How old are your kids now?

[00:19:36] Mira Ptacin: Theo Julian is 10. And Simone True is, she just turned eight.

[00:19:43] Sarah Cavanaugh: Oh, you're in it.

[00:19:44] Mira Ptacin: It's a wild ride. It is a trip.

[00:19:46] Sarah Cavanaugh: Love that. Well, speaking of parenting, the title of the book, P O O R, Poor Your Soul, is inspired by your mom.

Mira Ptacin: So one of the main characters in this book is my mother because she is a [00:20:00] main character in everything with her existence. And when she was raising my sister and my brother and me.

This phrase came out only if we were going to be in big trouble. And poor your soul meant your poor soul is going to hell. And she would point her finger and say, poor your soul. So you know, if I catch you watching TV on a school night, poor your soul. And we knew that translated into your poor soul is going to hell.

And she used the term sparingly. So we knew it. It was the real deal. And one funny thing about my mom is she learned English from watching American soap operas. So her English is very dramatic and very pointed. You don't mess around with her.

Sarah Cavanaugh: That's so great. That's so great.

I love the epilogue to this book. And I love that you named your running adventure Good Grief.

[00:20:58] Mira Ptacin: Oh, yeah.

[00:20:59] Sarah Cavanaugh: You know, the [00:21:00] words were so short and simple, but the road to get here was not. The question isn't when will I stop grieving? The question is how you will keep on living.

[00:21:08] Mira Ptacin: Yes.

[00:21:09] Sarah Cavanaugh: What are the kind of practices, including running, that sort of popped you out of that deep, deep depression you were in?

[00:21:17] Mira Ptacin: Running, definitely running. Because that was, you know, as a physical chemical produced that makes a person feel good, but it also showed me that my body is not broken, even though I thought it was very broken and flawed. So that was a big saving grace. And I think one way I work is just doing really big things.

Like if I say, I think I'm going to start exercising more, I'll just sign up for a marathon. Or I think I'm going to write more, I'm going to start a new book. So, um, it's good and it's bad, but I think, you know, running and signing up for a marathon was one thing and leaving. [00:22:00] And sort of deciding to quit the hustle, quit networking and trying to be at the top.

Moving to Maine was a biggie and really making a conscious decision to evaluate what we value and what our principles are and then just start living it. So yeah, reevaluating our system and therapy has been super helpful and talking about it, talking about the ugly stuff. And we, we also try to talk about Julian frequently, so his legacy continues.

[00:22:35] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. So I wanted to touch on your second book, The In-Betweens, about the spiritualists, that community at Camp Etna in the woods in Maine. You write that the spiritualists believe that the bereaved deserve more than just a funeral and the occasional gravesite visit. I'm all about reimagining our practices and rituals around death and grief.

So I'm really curious what they do. Like, what do the spiritualists do?

[00:23:05] Mira Ptacin: They do kind of what other people do where they have like a life celebration. And it's again, for those living. But one thing I would hear them say when I was at Camp Etna, they would just casually throw into the conversation that someone is talking to them or someone's there, like, but it would be someone who had already died and they would just speak about them as if they're still in the room and they hadn't really gone anywhere and it was normal to be hearing from them as they're in the room.

And it was, it was really, really hard for me to just kind of go with the flow with that, without seeing it myself, which was really tricky. So then I would say, you know, I just wish I could see what you're seeing. I just wish I could see a ghost. [00:24:00] And this woman, Carleen, who's since passed, would say, be careful what you wish for, because it'll change your entire life.

And that was very validating. And it made me trust her a little bit more. But they also weren't worried about dying because they had proof that this isn't the end when you die and the veil is very thin and nothing was taboo.

[00:24:24] Sarah Cavanaugh: Did it change at all the way you think about Julian or Lily?

[00:24:28] Mira Ptacin: Um, I think what it did instead was have me really evaluate how, how little I know.

I never had anything happen where I felt like Julian was there, but when women from Camp Etna would talk about Julian or say that, yes, yes, Julian's here. Yes, that's Julian. What it did was make me think about him. And it forced me to think about him and, and [00:25:00] pause my day and acknowledge Julian and, and sort of honor his, his existence.

[00:25:06] Sarah Cavanaugh: So what do you make of the New York Times review that says your primary point with your second book is the very human hope that life is more than a handful of years on a lonely planet?

[00:25:18] Mira Ptacin: You know, I don't think that was the point of the book. I think the point of my book was that it's so important for a person to trust their intuition despite it sounding bonkers to other people.

These women did not care if people thought they were crazy or not. And I think the secondary point of the book, with the history of spiritualism, was to show that there are other ways of coping with grief, and people have invented practices of coping with grief. And there isn't just this one way that, this [00:26:00] really common way that we have in the United States of, you know, the, the funeral a few days after and then the burial and then you move on.

We are allowed to create our own grieving rituals and create new ones whenever we feel like it, rather than just keeping these traditions going. But, um, yeah. I don't know what happens after we die. I will never know, but I'm not afraid and from what the women at Camp Etna have told me, it's a good thing and it's a lovely thing and it's a peaceful thing.

What it feels like is just returning to love and that sounds great. Sign me up. Not anytime soon, but sign me up. And I think the thing I've learned is that life does not stop moving. You know, the world has not stopped. My life has not stopped since losing Julian since losing Lily. And it's just, we have to be responsible for taking care of ourselves and taking care of other [00:27:00] people too.

[00:27:00] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yes. I'm going to ask you my last question, which is a question I ask in every interview. What does a peaceful exit mean to you?

[00:27:11] Mira Ptacin: Oh boy.

I think a peaceful exit would be the act and the feeling of letting go and the acceptance of really not having control. And that being. of really a good thing and an enjoyable thing and a pleasurable thing and a, like a warm, comforting thing, whether it's the end of the day or when your time has come.

And I think just hearing the word peaceful exit, it's, it's a reminder to just sort of always be ready for the exit, which means just try to be at peace as often as possible. Because, you know, [00:28:00] tomorrow could be the exit and it doesn't matter that someone hasn't cleaned the cat litter. It sounds cheesy, but that quote, don't sweat the small stuff, is so true.

It's so true. Yeah, I think the peaceful exit is letting go and enjoying it. What have other people said in the past?

[00:28:21] Sarah Cavanaugh: I'm starting to pick up threads. Common threads. And I think oftentimes it's what you're saying about accepting and letting go. It's also about having people they love around them. It's also having, uh, resolved relationships that might be difficult or saying what you need to say to the people you need to say it to.

Um, but there's lots of common threads, I think, in our human experience of death.

[00:28:49] Mira Ptacin: Um, I'm really, really honored that you read my book. You never know where it is in the universe and if it's ever being read.

[00:28:57] Sarah Cavanaugh: Where it lands. Yeah.

[00:28:59] Mira Ptacin: [00:29:00] Yes.

[00:29:00] Sarah Cavanaugh: I definitely read it, and it really resonated with me. And thank you for being so honest in your writing.

We really need more people sharing honestly about how hard grief is, what it actually looks like, what it feels like. Otherwise, we're just gaslighting people about how this universal experience feels. So thank you.

[00:29:23] Mira Ptacin: Oh yes. Oh yes.

[00:29:29] Sarah Cavanaugh: Thank you for listening to Peaceful Exit. I'm your host. Sarah Cavanaugh. You can learn more about this podcast at, and you can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram @apeacefulexit. If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know. You can rate and review this show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

This episode was produced by the amazing team at Larj Media. You can find them at [00:30:00] The Peaceful Exit team includes my producer, Katy Klein, and editor, Corine Kuehlthau. Our sound engineer is Shawn Simmons. Tina Nole is our senior producer, and Syd Gladu provides additional production and social media support.

Special thanks to Ricardo Russell for the original music throughout this podcast. As always, thanks for listening. I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit.


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