An Interview With Kelly Cervantes, Author of Normal Broken: The Grief Companion...
Last updated: November 2023
Kelly Cervantes is an award-winning writer, speaker, and advocate. We had the privilege of interviewing her in light of her upcoming book: Normal Broken: The Grief Companion for When it’s Time to Heal But You’re Not Sure You Want to. Normal Broken documents her experience of immense grief after the passing of her medically complex daughter, Adelaide.
Social Health Network: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, Adelaide, and what led to you writing Normal Broken?
Kelly Cervantes: I was raised in Omaha, Nebraska, went to college in Boston, and then moved to NYC to pursue an acting career. While in NYC I met my husband, Miguel. We were both auditioning and hustling and working side jobs to make ends meet in between acting jobs. His career began to take off and I was becoming increasingly less and less fulfilled by my own. When I was presented with the opportunity to run an events department at a Tom Colicchio restaurant, I figured having a salary and health insurance would be a nice change and it allowed Miguel and I to start a family. We had our son in 2012 and then Adelaide was born in 2015.
Miguel had been in and out of Broadway shows for several years at this point and was thinking about moving on from musical theater, “unless Lin-Manuel Miranda called.” He didn’t but Miguel’s agents did with an audition for Hamilton which had just opened on Broadway several months earlier. The same week Miguel booked Hamilton was my last week working for Chef Colicchio’s restaurant group, I was going to start a new job the following week. It was also the same week that my daughter, Adelaide was diagnosed with epilepsy.
I would end up leaving my career behind to become a full-time caregiver to my daughter and to support my family emotionally and logistically as Miguel stepped into the role of Hamilton on Broadway for one month and then in Chicago for what would be a three-and-a-half-year run. Miguel once described those years as holding on to a rocket in one hand while grasping a parachute in the other.
Adelaide’s health was like a chicken dance--two steps forward, three steps back. We added additional diagnoses: mast cell activation syndrome, dysautonomia, and different seizure types. She had a g-tube placed, then a Vagus Nerve Stimulator, and eventually an IV port. We never received an overarching diagnosis during her lifetime for what was causing her many ailments. I became an expert in all of Adelaide’s various ailments and would joke that I had a PhD in Adelaide.
Then in the Spring of 2019, it was determined that whatever was causing Adelaide’s issues, was neurodegenerative and there was nothing else the doctors could do. She would enter hospice by the end of that summer, and she passed away on October 12th, 2019. Five days before her fourth birthday.
Adelaide was nonverbal, nonmobile, and never developed physically much past a three-month-old, but cognitively she was further along. She loved Frank Sinatra, going for walks, any kind of movement, and being read to. She loved cuddles until she didn’t, at which point she had no issue swatting at you to give her space.
When Adelaide died, I didn’t just lose my daughter, I lost my career, my purpose, and my very bizarre normal. Everywhere I turned I felt like people were trying to make me feel better, to heal me, but I didn’t want to heal. I wanted to grieve my daughter. I was afraid of healing because I thought that meant getting over her in some way or forgetting.
I had started a blog chronicling our adventures with Adelaide a couple of years before she passed away and continued writing even in the darkest days of my grief. It was incredibly therapeutic for me to get all my emotions out of my head, onto a computer screen, and out into the world where I could relate with other people. So, when I started to think about what I wanted to do with this next phase of my life, writing felt natural.
After Adelaide died my mother sent me stacks of grief books, but I couldn’t connect with any of them. They were too clinical or too religious, too aspirational, or too generic. I didn’t want a guide or step-by-step directions; I wanted a companion: someone to sit in the dark with and tell me that they got it.
So, that’s what I set out to write.
SHN: I imagine that revisiting so much of what you went through with your husband and Adelaide was profoundly painful. What was the process of writing Normal Broken like? How did it feel, emotionally, to write the book?
KC: Thankfully, I had my blogs to look back on and reference so there was a framework already created for this book. That made it logistically easier, but emotionally I was still a mess. But it was good emotional if that makes sense. By writing the blogs the first time I had already processed a lot of my emotions, but revisiting and seeing what I had struggled with most and acknowledging how far I have come was like a much-needed rinse and repeat cycle.
What do you hope Normal Broken is able to provide to readers? Were there any valuable resources you turned to in your grief, or did it feel like there wasn't much out there that truly got at your emotions and needs?
I hope Normal Broken is the friend that those experiencing deep grief need. Peer support from people with shared or similar experiences is so vitally important to our health and healing. But sometimes meeting people in person can be overwhelming, terrifying, or inaccessible. This book can be that friend that is there when you need to feel a little less alone – a little more normal in their brokenness.
To that end, I acknowledge that we all grieve differently. That no two people’s grief journeys look the same, even if they are grieving the same loss. So, with that in mind, the book can certainly be read cover to cover, but it can also be taken out of order. The chapters are titled: “When Getting Out of Bed Deserves a Medal,” “When You’re Facing Anniversaries Or Other Meaningful Dates,” “When You’re Ready to Be Okay,” so that people can flip to the chapter that they need at that moment.
Also, because writing has been so important to me, I included writing prompts at the end of each chapter for folks to give it a try themselves. That said, if it doesn’t work for you or interest you then by all means turn the page. People aren’t going to connect with everything I write in the book and that’s ok, I don’t expect them to! But I do believe there are many commonalities that grievers experience and that is where I hope I can connect with people so that we can all feel a little less alone.
What advice would you give someone who has just experienced a loss?
In those early days, weeks, and months, the most important thing to do is survive. Do what you can when you can and relieve yourself of as much guilt as possible. You may not want to hear it, I didn’t, but it does get more manageable eventually.
Could you talk a little bit about the concept of "competitive grief?"
Oof, yes. Grief is hard enough on its own, but we keep finding ways to make it that much more difficult. I don’t know how many times people have said to me that they could relate to my loss but said that the loss of their father or sister wasn’t as horrible as my loss of a child. There is no grief hierarchy, no ranking system for whether someone’s loss is worse than someone else’s – nor should that be taken into consideration for how we treat someone who is grieving.
Diminishing your own loss is not going to make your loss hurt less. Conversely, validating your grief by deciding that your loss is worse than someone else’s, thereby diminishing the other person’s experience, is not going to help you out either.
Mark Twain said, “Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.” Basically, loss is loss is loss is loss.
Is there anything else you hope to share about Normal Broken?
Normal Broken: The Grief Companion For When It’s Time to Heal But You’re Not Sure You Want To is available now, wherever books are sold! If you want more information about my book tour, our family, and future events, you can sign up for my weekly newsletter at www.InchstonesByKC.com or by following me on Instagram or Facebook: @kellygc411.
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