Laugh at My PainFinding the Humor in Being a “Black Widow”

Leslie Gray Streeter, author of Black Widow (Photo credit: Riisa Miller/Balance Photography)

Imagine this: You’re 44, married to a great partner after dating a few duds, writing a popular humor column for a newspaper, and in the process of adopting a child. And then, your entire world gets turned upside down when that great partner dies suddenly and unexpectedly from a cardiac event—while you’re making out, no less. This wasn’t an imagined scenario for Palm Beach Post columnist Leslie Gray Streeter, who lost her husband, Scott Zervitz, on July 29, 2015—just five years into their marriage. Streeter recounts the moments before and after Zervitz’s death in generous detail in her recently released memoir, Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like “Journey” in the Title.

Though Streeter and Zervitz had known each other in high school—and according to a conversation she had with Zervitz’s friend after his death, he’d been crushing on her the entire time—they reconnected decades later while their graduating class was planning a reunion. In many ways, they seemed destined to fall in love, but neither of them could’ve predicted their love story ending so tragically soon. Black Widow not only recounts how Streeter and Zervitz came together but also how she put the pieces of her life back together in the face of his untimely death.

While grief is a difficult subject to both write and read about, especially as a pandemic changes every facet of our lives, Streeter handles this love letter to her husband in a way few memoirists have or could: with a lot of humor, a lot of grace, and a lot of honesty. Streeter talked to Bitch about the never-ending grieving process, learning to balance sadness and humor, and how this ode to her husband honors him and their marriage.

In the book, you write not only about the history of your marriage but about how you, as a person, got there. Your family relocated to Saudi Arabia when you were in middle school. How formative was that experience for you?

[Moving to Saudi Arabia] is one of those things people always talk about as the butterfly effect—part of a small thing that causes a big ripple, not only in your life but in someone else’s [life]. I know I’m a different person than I would’ve been [if we hadn’t moved]. We [went] from that little house in Baltimore, Maryland, to Saudi Arabia and then right back to that house two years later. And also, [moving to Saudi Arabia] was everything: It was the distance, the culture, the time. It was the early ’80s, and [me and my twin sister] were 11 when we left and 13 when we came back. [When we returned to Baltimore], we were in the last year of middle school. Middle school is awful, stupid, and weird no matter where you do it—and I went to three different middle schools. And in fifth grade, I actually went to two different fifth-grade [classes] because my parents wanted my sister and I to know what it was like to be separate. Between 1981 and 1985, I went to six different schools.

All of the moving—even if it was down the street or across the world—made me different. [Moving] formed my identity as a woman, a Black person, and an American because when you travel you learn that Brown people are the majority in the world. When [my sister and I] would walk around with our mother in Saudi [Arabia]—because women couldn’t drive—we would see Kenyan women. They’d come up to us, greet us, and say we were their sisters. There was this powerful connectivity with people of color from around the world. So to go from being mostly a majority in a majority-Black city [to being] a minority as an American was so much more important to me as I got older because I understood that I was learning to be whoever Leslie was and to define my Americanness, my femininity, and my Blackness [rather than relying on] other people’s definitions.

I love Grown-ish. I will never be as cool as Zoey (Yara Shahidi), but her experience and Rainbow’s (Arica Himmel) experience on Mixed-ish [resonate with] me. Though I’m not biracial and I wasn’t on a commune in a cult, [my sister and I] came back to [Baltimore] and were thrown into being adolescents—liking boys, figuring out what [our] style [was] and what music [we listened] to, and all that stuff at 13 or 14, the time when you’re awkward anyway. [Couple that with] this whole other piece where everyone’s telling you what you’re supposed to be. So much [about Mixed-ish] is fun to me because that’s the music [we listened to] when I was younger. [Those were] the jelly shoes, tops, and the acid jeans [we wore]. But I had a Jheri curl briefly. I’m so sorry.

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You and Scott knew each other in high school and he attended college with your sister, but you didn’t reconnect until you were adults. Do you believe that’s coincidence or fate?

“Bashert,” a [word] in Yiddish, means “meant to be,” and I truly believe that. That’s one of the titles of one of the [book’s] chapters. I truly believe that some things happen because they’re supposed to. Though we never thought this part of [our journey] was meant to be, I believe we were in each other’s lives for a reason. I thought the time [would be] longer, but I believe those seeds of [our relationship were planted in] being raised in the same place and same time in the same city. Though we didn’t know each other very well, Baltimore was and is its own thing, and we got each other on that level. I always say Baltimore [has its own set of] values, so when we connected again, we both had a strong connection to family and a strong connection to crab cakes. I’m vegan now, but if someone offered me a crab cake, I would probably go in the back and eat it.

We had a strong connection to Baltimore sports, and we talked about Stefano (Joseph Mascolo) on Days of Our Lives on our first date. We were that connected. I was just a person who figured out how to be herself, and he was a person who figured out how to be himself. And we fit. There’s a line from Untamed Heart with Christian Slater and Marisa Tomei where she says, “He doesn’t make sense. I don’t make sense. Together, we make sense.” That’s how I felt. We were each other’s kind of weird. I was looking at an interview today with Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell, and they were talking to Katie Couric about how they were on each other’s nerves during the quarantine. It was hilarious to me because they seem like such a cute couple and they [make sense]. But the fact that even these people can get on each other’s nerves is so reassuring to me because I know Scott would be so annoying [during the quarantine].

He was often in his own head and he had a great sense of responsibility. I think that’s a guy thing; I have it too because I’m the head of household now. But guys [think they’re] supposed to be the person that takes care of everything. I take the lack of ability to definitively take care of anybody right now in stride because, having been through widowhood, I’ve learned to [let] go. I’ve gotten through things. We’ll knuckle down and get through [coronavirus] too. [Scott] was such a protector and he wanted to make things right for people, so [living through a pandemic] would’ve been very hard for him. It would’ve resulted in him wanting to watch wrestling, play Xbox all [the] time, and being really difficult for me [to handle].

In many ways, Black Widow feels like a love letter to your husband—a way of reflecting on the very best parts of him and of your relationship. What did you want readers to know about Scott and about your marriage?

I’m a columnist, so I write a lot in the first person and I’ve written a lot of open letters.  But when I wrote the book, I [knew I] couldn’t talk to Scott, though there are so many things I’d like to say to him. Grief makes us instantly form regrets: Was I talking to him the last time I saw him? Were we mad at each other? Did I do enough to let the person know how I felt about them? We were kissing at the time he died, so we were in a good place at that moment. I feel good about that. It’s a horrible thing to say, but we weren’t fighting. You read about those things [where people say], “If I had just called her back and apologized, [or] if I had just answered the phone when they called me.”

Part of writing the book [was being able] to say the things I hope he knew. I hope he knew how much I loved him. I think he did. But I want everyone else to know [how I felt about Scott] because I was in the difficult position of trying to make people miss someone they never met. I could never do justice to the crazy, whirlwind, beautiful, sweetheart person that he was because you’d have to see him. He was so much easier to [understand] in person. I did the best I could, but it has meant so much to me [for] the people who knew him to say, “That’s him. You nailed it.”

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Scott went on a year-long sex break to accommodate your decision to remain abstinent until marriage. Were you at all concerned or afraid about writing about your decision to wait until you were married to have sex? If so, how did you move through that fear to tell your truth?

That was big for me. But I knew I couldn’t tell our story without that [part]. Because that decision was so indicative of who he was. [Scott was] an almost 40-year-old man who was willing to deny himself for a year because the person he [loved followed] a religion he [didn’t] even follow. When we first got married, I was thinking about writing something [about waiting to have sex], but he was very embarrassed. I think that’s a man thing. What would his friends say? Will he be seen as being soft or having conceded too much? That’s [the reason I] write in the book, “I’m sorry. You can yell at me when I see you.” I felt like he understood what [waiting for sex] meant because he was the one doing it. I understood what a sacrifice it was and how cool [it was that he made it]. And he’s not here to tell me no, so I’m telling that story.

People use the word “virgin” as an insult. When [people] say “40-year-old virgin,” you see Steve Carell with a 1987 haircut and a polo buttoned up to his neck. You think [virgins] are weird and closed-up people who [have] never had the opportunity. That’s not who I am at all, and there are so many people I know who are like me. Had I planned on being 38 years old? No, I had not. I [thought I] would’ve gotten married before then, but it just happened the way it happened. I know there are people who would take [my decision to wait] as not being sex positive, not being true to myself, being buttoned up. I don’t see it that way at all. Any decision you make concerning your sexuality is yours—and it’s beautiful. It’s soulful and personal, and it’s who you are. I have no judgment for people who express themselves in any way that’s hopefully safe and honoring the person they’re expressing it with.

I don’t need anyone to feel sorry for me. I didn’t feel like I was locked in a box. I was dancing a lot, doing a lot of bourbon shots, doing Sex and the City tours, and pretending to be Régine (Kim Fields) from Living Single. I never felt like I [fit the stereotype] of a 38-year-old virgin. If you’re abstaining until marriage, you don’t have to be a withdrawn, uptight person who never talks to people and doesn’t wear short skirts.

You’re delving into a very sudden and unexpected death and its subsequent grief. How did you manage to balance such a serious topic with humor?

People who try to be funny are the least funny people in the world. If you say, “I’m going to tell a joke to lighten the mood,” you’ve already thought about it too hard. Some of the funniest things that came out of that experience were at the funeral. Some people might ask, “Why write about that?” Because it happened and it was funny. That’s what I tried to honor in the book. I will talk about experiences, like being hungry and dazed in the graveyard and dropping potato chips on [the graves of] dead people because that’s where I was [at the time].

As a columnist, I remember details. I write things in my head all the time. I wrote that first chapter maybe a month or so after Scott died; it was still so fresh in my mind that I remembered things [like] the chips and the whole absurdity of my husband dying at 44. I’ve always filtered things through humor. I went to a funeral when I was a teenager, and my cousin’s baby pooped and peed in the middle of the funeral. Because that’s what babies do. Everyone laughed because it broke the tension and it was a reminder that life [was still] happening. Those are the kind of stories [I wanted to share]. The rituals we create to get around the shock and the grief are funny.

So, I just wrote [the book with humor] and hoped people wouldn’t see it as disrespectful, forced, or me trying too hard. I reject the idea that there’s one way to grieve. If you’re really having a horrible time and nothing is funny to you, that’s okay. But because I’ve always written funny, my brain picked up on stuff I wanted to remember.

Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like Journey in the Title by Leslie Gray Streeter (Photo credit: Little, Brown and Company)

There are literal parts in the book where you start writing about a really painful memory, like seeing Scott in the hospital after his death, and stop yourself. You’ll write, “Stop. Stop. That’s awful. Stop.” Was that an echo of your writing process?

Yes, that’s how I felt at that moment. Even five years later, I remember almost every part of that morning. As I wrote that chapter about saying goodbye to Scott [at the hospital], I literally thought, how do I end this? I just wrote, “I don’t know how to end. I don’t know what to say. It’s too hard.” That seemed like a good way to end it because that’s how it felt in that moment. There was nothing clever about the moment. There was nothing fun or profound to say. And after trying once or twice to find a beautiful, prosaic way to end that sentence, I was just like, “I can’t.” There was no poetry in that moment. It was just awful.

In the immediate aftermath of Scott being taken out of your home and put into an ambulance, you write “this thing—whatever it is—is happening without my permission, and I’m so powerless that I can’t even drive myself to the hospital.” You write about having memory lapses, designed to put you in a “cocoon of bubble wrap” until you can better process it all. How did you piece those memories back together to write this book?

I think a lot of it was just writing down how it felt to me. I remembered that I [called] both my mother and my sister. I called [my friend] Lauren, and I talked to [my friend] Elizabeth, who came and stayed with the baby. So [as I wrote] I called all of those people and said, “Here’s how I remember it. How do you remember it?” I wrote it the way I remembered it. Those moments were really hard for me because I didn’t want to hurt people. My sister has never told me exactly what I said to her when I called her, and I don’t want to know.

There were people I remember telling in kind of snappy ways, and I had to go back and apologize. I’m a pretty nice person, but I snapped at people. That’s the bubble wrap. That’s the thing our body does so we can get through this because we’re in shock. [In the book], I tell the story about the gentleman I’d interviewed whose wife had died. I kept apologizing, and he said, “No. I’m not going to be able to do this in two hours because the shock will have worn off, and I’ll really understand my wife is dead. I’d like to tell the story about her. So if you’ll allow me, I’ll tell the story.” I wanted to recreate how that feels. Everyone’s lost someone, so everyone has a moment in their lives where they hit the ground running and kind of [fly] until [their] bodies ground [them]. 

You wrote about a lot of the unhelpful stuff people told you in an attempt to comfort you. For instance, someone on Facebook told you that Scott is “happy in eternity.” How can we provide comfort to grieving people without being patronizing, overbearing, or awkward?

I think grief is so hard to talk about because if we relate it to us, we go, “That girl is my age and her father died. What if my father dies?” And then you just blurt out something. I always try to think: What would you want someone to say? You can’t go wrong with “sorry for your loss,” particularly if you don’t know the person super well. You shouldn’t mention your faith tradition because it might not be theirs. You shouldn’t mention families in specific ways if you don’t know what a person’s relationship was with their family.

I deeply resented any phrase or expression that tried to make sense of [Scott’s death]  24 hours after it happened. “Well, God called [him] home.” Well, I wish he wouldn’t have. I kind of needed [Scott] to be here watching this movie with me. [Those kinds of phrases] don’t help at that moment, particularly when it’s something that happened suddenly. My dad got cancer, and he’d previously been incredibly healthy, a vegetarian, a runner, and an athlete. And then he got sick and he died. So, when people would say at the end of the four years when he finally passed away, “At least he’s out of his pain,” I would go, “Yeah, but he shouldn’t have been in pain in the first place.” That’s not comforting.

People try to find beauty in pain because it makes them feel better. But it’s okay to admit you don’t have answers. When my cousin called [after Scott died], she said, “This sucks.” That was beautiful to me because she didn’t try to make it anything beyond “I know you’re going through the worst thing that ever happened to you, and I’m here for you.” In that moment, she was not going to say anything to me that tried to diminish [my feelings] or get me to skip to the end of my grieving, which I think we often do to make ourselves feel better. We expect the grieving person to acquiesce and make us feel better.

[There are] moments where someone who wasn’t as close to the family would come up to me and start crying in an over-the-top way that made me feel as if I had to console them. I hate that. You don’t get to do that. You’re a grown-up, so you can control yourself for five minutes so this person doesn’t have to deal with this grief on top of their grief.

People try to find beauty in pain because it makes them feel better. But it’s okay to admit you don’t have answers. 

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You write, “Grief doesn’t just break your heart—it breaks your brain. It dents your body, hobbles your ability to take full breaths.” I lost my grandfather very suddenly in September, and grief still sneaks up on me. Does grief still come on unexpectedly? How do you navigate that?

We misunderstand the difference between grief and mourning. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. Grief is a thing that will live, in some way, in our DNA and our body and be triggered by the wrong song or the wrong turn down the street where you see someone that looks like the person you lost. The further [you progress], chronologically and hopefully through counseling and therapy and spiritual healing and stuff, [the more] you [start to heal]. But those moments have lessened, and the intensity and frequency of those moments have lessened. But there are still moments.

[Recently], I was talking with someone who had a partner, and I had a moment where I felt really lonely because we’re in this weird coronavirus situation. When I hung up the phone, I felt really alone. It was very intense, and I hadn’t cried like that in a very long time. It felt so good to not hold on to that and to talk to God openly about this sucking. This keeps happening to me. My book came out the week [social distancing began in the United States], so it’s like, my husband dies and then my book comes out and it literally gets swallowed. I know the pandemic didn’t happen to ruin my book launch, but it felt really good to be able to grieve and be selfish and ridiculous at 3 a.m. in the comfort of my own room.

So, grief sneaks up on you. I’m sure you’ve had moments after your grandfather died where you were having a great day, and then [you see] someone you hadn’t seen since they died, or someone said something to [you], and then [you were] right back in that moment. [When that happens] I want to get back in bed and not come out again. It puts me right back in that moment. Admitting that you’re not okay is the first step to being okay. We try to be okay so fast. After the week of mourning, when everybody goes home, the chicken’s put away, and you go back to work, you’re [supposed to be] okay. But you’re not. You’ve just entered your usual process without that person who was so much a part of your life.

To me, when you go back to your routine is when it really starts. You gotta start all over without this person. It was hard the first week, but it was harder to come back to the house [alone]. I had no choice because I didn’t have anyone else to do it for me. But [it’s important] to not beat yourself up for having a normal reaction to your world being shattered. Give yourself a break and explain to other people that you need a moment.

When Scott died, you were in the process of adopting your son, Brooks. How has the grieving process worked for you as a parent?

It’s so interesting because he was almost 2 when Scott died. If he had been 6 or 7 when Scott died, we would’ve had to do the work of explaining things a lot sooner because he would’ve been able to process more things. He’d have more organic memories. So much of it has been a balance of not keeping a shrine or being weird and  never saying anything about this man. But there are pictures everywhere. He knows who Scott was and he sees pictures of the two of them together. Five years later, I don’t know how many of those memories are organic or how many of them have been strengthened or [bolstered] by pictures. But he knows he had a dad who loved him. 

As I wrote in the book, the pediatrician [told me Brooks was] too young for therapy, but if I’m okay, he’ll be okay. He’ll take cues from me: How long do you grieve? Do you panic? Do you rely on him too much for emotional response? How are you processing this? He’ll have his own journey through this and through other losses in his life, but my job as a parent has been to protect him. You can’t lie to [your children].

He’s lost a very important person in his life, and there have been a couple of other relatives in our lives who have died since then. My dad’s sister died last year, and [Brooks] really loved her and she loved him. He knows that death happens. I don’t have to lie to him and tell him that people went to a farm. He knows people don’t come back, and I’m so sorry he knows that. But I also believe that moments like that aren’t easy, but he’s going to have to process them. I don’t envy parents having to explain [to their children] that people are going to die. You want to protect kids from that, but I didn’t have a choice but to explain death to my kid.

Was writing Black Widow cathartic for you in any way?

Yes, in every way. Sometimes, writers feel like the words are in [our chest’s] and we just have to get them out. I literally needed to get that first chapter at the gravesite out of my head because it was so scarring to me. It was incredibly cathartic. When I [started going] to therapy, my therapist asked, “Have you considered journaling?” I said, “Yeah, I’m writing a book.” That was my way of journaling. My book is a very long, public journal.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.