Toni Lepeska is a 32-year veteran of newspaper journalism with a career-spanning desire to reveal the human story behind the news. She has worked as a newspaper obituary writer, crime and court reporter, and neighborhood and suburban reporter. After 16 years with The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal and following the deaths of her parents, she began penning personal stories to offer encouragement and perspective to those experiencing loss and grief.
A Memphis native, she is a contributor to two books including Grief Dialogues: The Book, and Toni was a guest on a community TV station to promote the book. She was awarded honorable mention in the inspirational category two years in a row by judges of the Writer’s Digest national contest. More recently, Toni authored several articles on the COVID-19 “grief pandemic” for The Daily Memphian, where she is a regular contributor.
While on the board of directors for New Salem Cemetery Corp., she served as secretary and stepped out of her comfort zone to measure plots for burials. (She’s not very good at numbers, and thus at measuring, but no one ever complained.) She is a University of Mississippi graduate married to a Memphis Tiger, Richard. They are dog parents to Tuffy, aka, Sir-Licks-A-Lot.
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Suggested Interview Questions
You were a full-time newspaper reporter for 21 years before you set out to tell your own grief story. What was in your background that led you to that decision?
I grew up in a family that didn’t go to funerals, but I always felt any type of loss deeply, like a breakup. My first permanent job at a newspaper was writing obituaries. Each day, I wrote an “extended” obit that required I speak to grieving families. And then as a crime reporter, I was exposed to fresh, raw grief at murder scenes. I talked to people who’d lost husbands, parents and children. I dated a widower in my 20s. But that was all from the outside. After my parents died, I became intimate with grief. It was a whole different thing. Writers tend to write from their hearts. My heart was bleeding. So, I pulled up to my computer and started typing.
You’ve written about loss from an outsider’s perspective and from your personal experience. What would you say is the greatest misconception about grief?
The greatest misconception about grief seems to be centered around the intensity of emotions surrounding loss and the passage of time. Understandably, we want to get over the deep pain as quickly as possible, and our friends want us to be happy again, too. Grief can be a terribly uncomfortable place for everyone. We may distract ourselves or shove our emotions under the rug. The truth is, grief lasts as long as the love. As we learn to make that loss a part of our lives, grief transforms into something that we can shoulder much better as time unfolds. How much time is individual and depends on several factors, such as the closeness of the relationship.
Is there anything that speeds up the process or promotes healing?
That is a tricky question. I’d say yes, that’s been my experience, however, you cannot force grief’s hand. You cannot force a timeline on it. Successful grief – that’s grief that begins to move toward healing over time – requires us to feel the feels. And to express the feels, either through things like conversation or artistic avenues. As we express, we process. As we process, we begin to adopt new perspectives. We have aha moments. But if we suppress our feelings and their expression, that would definitely impede healing.
What do you mean by healing? Can someone “get over” the loss?
No, I don’t mean that at all. In fact, I frequently precede the word healing with toward. In this life, we don’t get complete healing. We get bits and pieces. We move closer to a state of peace, but there are still times that blast us like a rocket. Like anniversaries. And Christmas – that’s still a tough one for me, 15 years after losing my dad.
How did your parents die?
My dad had Parkinson’s, but he died of a heart attack at his home, my childhood home, in July 2006. I became my mother’s caregiver. She had the lung disease COPD. Three years to the month Dad died, she fell at home while I was away. She broke her hip. She died 11 days later, four months after my wedding.
What was that like, losing your mother not long after getting married?
Well, I’d always gone to her with my boy or men problems. Not that I followed all of her advice – to my detriment – but I couldn’t use her as a sounding board anymore. I wish I’d been able to share that new-wife state with her. As our grief ages, we end up re-grieving our parents as we hit new stages in life or come against new obstacles. I’ve probably missed my parents’ advice as much during the pandemic as I did as a newlywed.
How is American society as a whole handling grief now in light of the pandemic?
There’s certainly more public awareness and publicity about loss and grief. And because it’s more likely people you know have lost someone, if you lose someone, there’s more acknowledgement of the lingering pain of loss between friends and associates. On the other hand, people can end up minimizing their experience. We may think, “Well, they’re in pain, too” and that may choke expressing grief. I think grief will always be isolating in many ways because while we experience commonalities, we also are having a unique experience. One-of-a-kind. And that’s where I believe the all-knowing God is the best source for our hurts.
How did God factor into your stepping toward healing?
Oh, he was huge! I got mad at him when Dad died. I told him, “You took my daddy, at least you could give me a husband!” I was single and suffering the ending of a romance only a few months after his death. And I yelled at God. But even when we are angry or don’t understand, the important thing is to keep talking to God. He gave me perspective – showed me things even years later – that helped me process my loss. Early on, I was traumatized that I wasn’t with my mom when she died. I’d left for home. God whispered in my ear, “she didn’t know either.” Now, if she didn’t know she’d die that night, how could I know? Things like that. He’s amazing.
One last thing. What do you hope to give people who connect with you on your website via your blog or newsletter or at speaking engagements?
I want to encourage them and empower them. I want them to gain confidence that they are their own best experts in their grief. I’m here to guide, and I’m here to point them to the all-time, universal best guide, God, but people typically sense what they need. They need to listen to themselves, to be authentic with their feelings and experiences, and to invite God into that journey. You cannot go wrong with that last one. God wants us to experience a beautiful life again. And we can get there, we can find healing through grief.
Video – Grief Dialogues