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Expiration Dates on Grief – S2 Ep. 2

Episode Summary

In this episode of Room at the Table, Betsy Cerulo talks with Miranda Quinn, a professional dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York City. They both share their individual, complex experiences with grief in their personal lives, how they have coped, and how grief translates to their professional lives.

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About Miranda Quinn

Miranda Quinn who is a professional dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York City. Miranda first started dancing at her late-mother, Donna Wienecke’s studio Mid Atlantic Center for the Performing Arts as a young child and now continues her mother’s legacy dancing around the world for one of the most prestigious modern dance companies.

Episode Transcript – Expiration Dates on Grief

Betsy Cerulo: Welcome to Room at the Table, an opportunity for you to join me, Betsy Cerulo and my guests for conversations about creating equitable and inclusive workplaces where leaders rise above mediocrity and our teams thrive. Pull up a chair, there's always Room at the Table. 


Welcome to another meaningful conversation on Room at the Table. I am Betsy Cerulo, your host, and welcome to my guest today, Miranda Quinn, who is a professional dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York City. Miranda first started dancing at her late-mother, Donna Wienecke’s studio, Mid Atlantic Center for the Performing Arts as a young child and now continues her mother's legacy, dancing around the world for one of the most prestigious modern dance companies. Today, we're talking about grief in the workplace, and how we navigate it for ourselves and within our professional lives. So pull up a chair, enjoy your favorite beverage, and let's get started. Welcome, Miranda, thank you so much for being here today.


Miranda Quinn: Thank you for having me. Very nice to meet you.


So, Miranda, I was reading your bio and learning more about you. We share a common loss, having both lost our moms. And what I see is, regardless of one's age, background profession, grief has a way of finding us when we least expect it. And the process can be magnificent, and it can be difficult, all at the same time. So I'd like to ask you a couple of questions about your process. So how long ago did you lose your mom?


So I lost her in the summer of 2010. I was actually just about to leave for a dance competition. So I went to the hospital, held her hand, said goodbye and waited with her until she passed. And then the next day I had to leave to fly to Florida to compete with my dance team, and then fly home midweek for the funeral and fly back to finish the competition. So there was a lot going on. And grief did take actually a few years, I think, to actually hit me. As you said, it was unexpected and surprising. Even though she had a very long-term illness, it was about seven years of her gradually declining from a disease similar to Parkinson's disease, except for that, it's not treatable. So I figured that I had just, maybe, already done my grieving in that period. And that's why nothing had hit me. And then it wasn't until a few years later, in college, that everything sort of fell apart.


So, you leave to get on a plane to go dance immediately after she passed away. How was that experience for you that next day in your performance?  Were you still numb to it in shock? Did you channel anything? What was that like?


I think I was still pretty numb to it. But I didn't realize that I was because, of course, when I showed up, everyone had their condolences and everything. And I remember there being a lot of praise for how well I was handling things, though, now, I realize that's because I wasn't handling them at all. So at that moment, just returning to a normal schedule and staying as busy as possible was a way to stay numb.


In the corporate world, and I don't know if that's the same for you in the creative world, but there's the coined three days off, sometimes five days off. And it's almost as if -- because I have heard comments over the years -- it's almost as if it's a badge of honor that it appears that you're finished grieving, or if you don't fall apart, which is just absolutely not true. I think, sometimes, there's this discomfort and there's this expectation in the world of work, whatever our work is that, okay, once you come back, you're ready to go. I think what the world needs to better understand is once you come back, the reality really starts to set in. For some people, it's right away. For some people, it's delayed, and how did you finally come to that part of you where you knew, I have to start facing this now and grieve? What happened for you? 


Well, there was definitely a point during my senior year of high school when, for a while, I just knew something wasn't right. And it had been brought up, the idea of seeing a therapist, and so finally, I was like, I think I would like to try that. I think it wasn't really until I started working through things with my therapist, then, that I was able to unlock the grief and sort of identify it in different ways that it was showing up that I didn't realize. I think, also, part of finishing out my life in Maryland before leaving, there was a large sort of pressure to, I guess, hone in on her legacy, and that I was dancing for her. And for a while, that felt really important to me and powerful for me. And then, I think, there was a point at which I wasn't really identifying with that anymore. And it still comes and goes, but I think that's the point at which I realized that it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, the missing her. Sometimes, it became difficult to continue dancing and relating to her in that way, because of the grief.


Now, I understand dance has been a part of your life for a long time, as you're sharing, and your mom had a dance studio. So when a parent has a legacy, sometimes, we go in a similar direction. And sometimes, we go in the opposite direction for career choices. So a kind of segue of what you're sharing, how has her legacy shaped you now, as a dancer, or has it shaped you?


Oh, it absolutely has. It not only has shaped me, but I think it has allowed me to have a continued relationship with her in some ways that I felt that I had missed out on by not making it to adulthood with her still in my life, and having those more adult conversations and being able to understand her more as an individual, apart from just being my mom. But yeah, I think it continues to unfold in ways that are very surprising. For instance, being with Alvin Ailey. This is not a company that I had on my list of places to audition originally. It sort of just happened to work out. I've found that our mission there and all of the core values and beliefs within the company and the organization just screamed to me, my mom's energy. So that's sort of a nice little, almost, secret that I carry with myself, like a secret connection that I have to the company. Because again, also, now having entered the professional world, and having left Maryland, there's another layer to the grief in terms of, yes, dance is such a huge connection for us, but now I'm in a space where I still have dance, but none of the other people know her or knew her. 


How long have you been --


I hope that answered your question.


It does. It does. How long have you been with Alvin Ailey?


This is my fifth season.


Okay. I can reflect back to when my dad died when I was six. He was a banker, a very respected banker. More importantly, a very loved banker in our hometown in Jersey. And he was, because I will still hear stories sometimes when I go back, he would be the banker that would give loans to people of color and people who were rejected at other banks. A lot of these businesses that are African-American and Hispanic-owned, those families still have those businesses when I go home. That was one thing that I learned about that, probably as I got older, maybe in my 20s, and I was like, wow. So I think of who I am today. I am very much an activist and advocate not just for the LGBT community, but for all diversity because we deserve to have the same opportunity. So I think about that. I did go into banking after I graduated college. Oh, I was out of there so fast. It was like, "I am not doing this the rest of my life, nuh uh." So I didn't carry on that legacy of his but I felt like I carried on a bigger legacy of embracing people and giving people opportunity. He was so loved to work for there, and I do my best to keep that memory of him alive. Now, my mom, on the other hand, died at age 98. And she was, oh, she was just fierce. She had to keep five of us in line, she never remarried, and there were parts of her personality that, definitely, I would not want to emulate. So in some ways, it's almost like a reverse legacy where, okay, Mom, I so miss you but there are parts of you I'm not going to behave that way. So it's interesting because there are parts, like what you're sharing about your mom, and I think so many of us that have lost our parents, we do a lot of reflecting back to who they were, the good stuff, maybe not some of the bad stuff. It helps to shape us so then we can create the next legacy. So there's a lot of, I think, there can be a lot of beauty in grief. It's almost like you have permission to feel sad, permission to stop when we let ourselves -- now, women, we're not always good at that. We keep on going. So, that leads me to my next question. Many people deal with grief with creativity. And with you having a creative role, did you channel your grief into your craft, or were there other hobbies that you took up to release the creativity and also release the grief?


I think that similar to the grieving process, and its ups and downs, and all over the place, movements have had times in my life when that is the main way that I'm able to release any kind of emotion, whether that be grief or anything else. But again, as I said, right after her passing, I think it was more so something to help me numb rather than to help me express. I think as I get older, I'm more so tapping into using it almost always to release and express the continued grief or explore the ways that I can continue to connect with her memory. I also love -- no surprise -- crafting, another creative outlet. I remember, so she was sick for most of my life, I can remember us being together -- and the few memories I have of her before she began to lose motor control and all that sort of stuff are memories of us making things. I have a small tea set that we painted together. It's not very pretty, but things like that still give me a lot of joy. Yeah, she was very resourceful, and sort of similar to what you were saying about your dad, she always found a way to give, even if she didn't have, so I think there's something in the creation of making things with whatever you have that connects to the grief and the whatever connections are there emotionally.


It's interesting because I'm at a time in my life that I recognize that when I do feel sad for her, my yearning, I'll stop myself and say, "Okay, it's my turn now," because I watched my grandmother be sad for her mother, my great-grandmother. I watched my mother's sadness for my grandmother. My grandmother was just my absolute light. And I think, "Okay, now this is my time to honor my mother's passing, my mother's life." My mother was very, very creative. She was a beautiful writer. She was an amazing, closeted artist. I found a lot of her sketches when we were cleaning out her things, and I think that's how she channeled a lot. I would call her MacGyver. She just had a way of making things work when it didn't work. Sometimes, I would ask her, "How'd you learn that?" And she said, "Well, after your father died, I had to learn how to figure out a lot of these things myself." So whereas some, I'm not even gonna say women, but some people, if they've been dependent on the spouse, they just find a replacement. My mother was very industrious. She would go take classes. This woman was very feminine, always dressed with her dress shoes, her jewelry. She learned how to change her oil in a car. So over the years, she would say to me, "I don't want you to get dependent on a man. I don't want to have happened to you what happened to me. So I want you to learn to be very independent and self-sufficient." So, of course, over the years when she'd comment about my sexuality, I would say, "Well, you did tell me not to depend on a man." She would say, "Well, I didn't mean it that way." But, I was really grateful for that lesson that she taught me because I learned, as well, how to do certain things myself. But creativity comes in many forms. It comes in dance, it comes in writing. I also look at myself as a business owner. My craft is entrepreneurship. So, there's a lot of ways that people can channel grief. I'll just tell you, there were times over the years when my grief was not placed in the right places, or where I would squelch it or numb it. I found that when I stopped the numbing part of it, my life really started to open up, whether that was no alcohol or habits that one may use to numb. I just was able to face grief a lot quicker. You know what? It doesn't mean that it's right or wrong, it just is.


My mother was a single mother, just her and I. Though we never really had that conversation, we had a very similar dynamic. I very much relate to that in my life now in finding my autonomy and having moved away from home and sort of shaping my own life, without her current influence. But with that hindsight, now, seeing how independent she was, and how much of that is also in me.


But, see, there are lots of gifts, and in the grieving process, sometimes we can see the gifts, we can feel the gifts. It took me to finally have to slow down so that I could start identifying them. I was the youngest of five, or I am the youngest of five, and there was a seven-year gap between my brother and I. And so it was always she and I. I was the baby, the youngest girl. So there was a song, I don't know if you're familiar with Helen Reddy, not everybody may know some of the singers from the 70s, but she did a song called "You and Me Against the World." I still cannot get through that whole song without crying because that's how it felt. It was my and I because my brothers were off in college, and my sister had gotten married, so it was just she and I for the most part. It was really a glorious time when she wanted to go into New York City, we would go to the opera, we would go see plays. Living in New York City, there's just such a wealth of things to do. So I would be her sidekick. I was going to operas at age eight, nine, and ten because she didn't want to leave me home. I have no idea what they were saying in the opera. She would sew a dress for me because we didn't have a lot of money. I would just be clapping, and I had no idea what it was clapping about. But if Mommy was clapping, then so was I. So when I hear opera now, I just smile, because I just think of her.


That's really amazing that she was able to share that with you and open you up to that art form. It was a connection for both of you. 


Absolutely. That CD will go off and then you'll hear my disco music. So, I have a wide breadth of music tastes. But yeah, I smile whenever I hear it. So let me ask you, and we start to talk about this in the beginning, so society likes to put a timeline on how long people are allowed to grieve. And I don't agree with that notion at all. I lost two of my brothers in a span of a year and a half, and then both of my parents. I will always miss them and I will always grieve them. So can you speak about your experiences with prolonged grief and your feelings on society's view of having an expiration date on grief?


That's a total lie that there's an expiration date. I think we get that notion, especially from -- there's always a rush to prepare the funeral and all of the things and clear out their stuff. There are sort of other markers that kind of do have expiration dates, if you will. But, I think, especially losing someone when you're very young, of course, the grief is continued not just because you're always going to miss them, but you miss them as the different people that you become throughout the stages of your life. I mean, my grief, now, is totally different from what it was. There are things, now, that I grieved that I didn't know back then that I would be missing until I got to this stage in my life. So yeah, I think grief for everyone, it just makes sense that it's a lifelong thing because we are evolving humans for our entire lives. So why wouldn't our relationships to people here and not here also evolve with us?


In your workplace, well, you've been there for five years, and I know by that time, your mom had been gone for a while -- do you feel that it is honoring? Because you probably see other people along the way that have had losses, important losses? Have they been, I'll say, more sensitive to loss? Are they getting better?


Yeah, absolutely. Again, I have never worked outside of the performing arts. So I'm not sure if it's because of the fact the room is full of creatives and that so much of our work is connected to our emotions and anything personal. We are displaying all of that and mixing that with others. Actually, there was one time when I came into work and it was the anniversary of my mom's passing. It wasn't a special year, and there was no real reason why my reaction, I guess, was different that day. But I was really upset. And actually, I think it might have been the first year that I was working at Ailey. I think that's when it really hit me that I finally made it to the profession that I had always dreamed about and that my mom had groomed me for and hoped that I would have. And now, she wasn't here to see it. But I remember going in, and I could not stop crying. So I told our rehearsal director and he was like, "Do you want to go home? Like, whatever you need is totally fine." And I was like, "You know what? I think what I need is to be here and to be dancing because taking the time away, it's not actually going to help." And I'm glad that I stayed that day because I think that was something that was, again, a distraction and a way to connect to more of the happy memories.


I understand. This summer, my wife and I moved. The house that we had previously lived in, we were there for 23 years, and both of my brothers and my mother had spent time there. So I noticed when we moved here, which was something I was so happy to move to the area that we are now, I was really sad because there were no memories here of them. Everything was confined to boxes that I'm still unpacking with cards or things or whatever. It took me a while, and I'm still adjusting to that, because anywhere I look in the house, I have no memory of them because they've never been here. And because I do believe in energy and spirits of loved ones and you can feel a person's presence, I can't quite feel that yet here. I think as I'm starting to find boxes of remembrances, it's almost like I open up the box, and seriously, I feel like I open up the box and these beautiful butterflies come out because there are these beautiful memories and their energy. So I struggled, and once I came up to that one year, I felt like a big weight had been lifted this year. But it changes because I may get off this call and later on be -- boom -- hit with emotions. It's ongoing, it's ongoing.




So Miranda, as we bring our conversation to completion, is there anything more that you'd like to share about your mom or yourself or your process?


I think it's very important that, and I should listen to my own words, that we recognize the importance of grief, not only as a catalyst for growth, for change, but also just self-discovery. I've been thinking a lot about how things seem brighter if you have the extremely dark. So I think the more that we raise and lower one end of the spectrum, the more capacity we have for the other side as well. So I think embracing grief, at least for me, personally, has also allowed me to feel the most joyous emotions and just indescribable feelings that make me understand what it is to be alive and the purpose of life. I can't imagine why we would want to put a stopper on part of that, which would be grief.


And that's absolutely beautiful. I appreciate you leaving our listeners with that thought. So I just want to thank you so much for your time today, for sharing your heart and your soul and sharing about your mom. I appreciate the space that you also gave me to be able to share because I definitely went way off script. So I appreciate and thank you. I appreciate your flexibility. And I know over the next couple of months, I will probably be up in New York City. So hopefully, we will have an opportunity to meet in person. 


Yes, that'll be lovely. 


So Miranda, thank you so much. I appreciate your time.


Thank you very much.


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