Honoring the Heroes of Hospice: For Elizabeth Gilbert, It’s Personal

By Steven Libowitz   |   September 14, 2021
Elizabeth Gilbert is the keynote speaker at the 9th Annual Heroes of Hospice virtual event on September 22

Hospice of Santa Barbara (HSB) could hardly have found a more appropriate keynote speaker for its 9th Annual Heroes of Hospice than Elizabeth Gilbert. The author best known for her memoir Eat Pray Love about her year-long globe-travelling journey to heal from a devastating divorce more recently penned Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, revealing her own process for fostering creativity. Both books serve as personal primers on transformation and resilience — timely themes for HSB, the nonprofit that provides care to those experiencing the impact of a serious illness or grieving the death of a loved one, but has also taken on the role of virtual community program presenter during the pandemic.

At the event, which has transitioned from hybrid to fully virtual with the surging COVID-19 caseload due to the delta variant, HSB will also honor Mi Vida, Mi Voz with the Partnership Award, the Beloved Bear Program with the Volunteer Award, Santa Barbara County Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso with the Medical award, and Home Improvement Center owner/philanthropist Gary Simpson with the Legacy Award.

Gilbert shared snippets of her own hospice experiences and insights from her work as an interviewer and writer over the phone from her home in New Jersey. 

Q. I’ll just start off by saying I’m aware of being a bit intimidated to talk to you because you’ve been giving life advice to millions of people ever since Eat, Pray, Love, and you interview authors yourself. So, I’m wondering, what do you wish journalists would ask you? How do you like to be interviewed?

A. Let’s try to get over that (intimidation) speed bump as fast as we can. I do love the question. I get intimidated before every single one of those interviews that I do for my book club because they’re people whose work I respect and admire. I have my own bouts of imposter syndrome … What right do I have to be asking these questions? What I’ve learned is that writers really want to talk about their work, their craft as artisans, and not so much about their personal lives. So, I make sure that I’ve read the hell out of their work. Writer to writer, that’s what ends up being really fun for me too. That said, though, I will answer any question anybody asks. 

What made you decide to accept this invitation to speak at the benefit for Hospice of Santa Barbara?

Everybody who has anything to do with hospice is a hero to me. And that was true even before our experience with hospice when my partner, Rayya Elias, was dying of pancreatic and liver cancer. They brought a sense of security in a time of deep insecurity, and I was moved by the professionalism, the compassion, and the prioritizing of what the patient wants. For Rayya the priority was not a longer life, but as good a life as possible for as long as possible. An enormous amount of pain and suffering was not something that she was willing to sign up for. We really appreciated that they understood that. 

Also, my mom was a private duty geriatric nurse for most of my adolescence and she worked really closely with hospice and held them in the highest regard. I inherited that from her too. With HSB I feel like I owe them because I was given so much, so it was an easy yes. 

Did HSB ask you to talk about those experiences? 

No. It was a very open invitation. I’ll probably talk about creativity, because it’s a universal human experience, yet not experienced by enough humans, universally. I want to democratize creativity and invite people to think about the ways that they can have more in their lives at every stage. I’ve got video footage of Rayya recording one of her last songs about five days before she died. It was important to her right up until the end to be a musician and to keep creating. I believe that we can all do that. It’s a good intersection with the work that hospice does. 

Almost four years later, what stands out about that time, whether in terms of hospice or otherwise?

It was brutal and grueling for me. If I knew then what I know now, just about life in general, I might have been able to make it slightly less brutal and grueling simply by not trying to control so much. I work hard at life. I researched my books heavily because I want to be in control of the material, so they are a lot of work. The sense of being at least somewhat in control, and prepared for interviews, makes me feel less like there’s no ground beneath my feet, which is a feeling that I hate… Let’s just go ahead and name it: I brought extreme control freakishness to my partner’s death. I thought it would help keep the terror at bay. But I wish I hadn’t tried so hard. It’s not like I could have escaped the grief or even the trauma of it, but it was a good instruction for me in general about how to suffer less is to try less to control and accept more. I’m working on it. 

“We fear what we don’t trust,
and we try to control what we fear. So, the more fear-based you are, the more you try to control, which is how I ended up such a controlling person.”
— Elizabeth Gilbert

I know you wrote about creative living beyond fear in Big Magic, and in my world fear and control are closely related. So, as a fear-based person, how do you control less and accept more?

We fear what we don’t trust, and we try to control what we fear. So, the more fear-based you are, the more you try to control, which is how I ended up such a controlling person… It’s about retraining the neural pathways from fear to trust, and that’s a spiritual lifetime work. In my case, it goes far beyond psychology. With the trauma of what happened or didn’t happen to me in childhood, the only way I can actually relax into the ground of being is spiritual, because the fear that I walk around with is beyond human help. (Laughs.)

I have to turn the spiritual power grid on, and that’s a lifetime process of figuring out what that means and finding my own way of working with that mystery. It takes tremendous compassion to learn how to befriend fear, or at least have the sense of the one (in me) who is afraid and reach across the void in a loving way to be kind to the one who is suffering.

Well, since we’ve been spending time in the personal realm, let me return to what you said authors like talking about and ask you about your writing process. What do you do to deal with fear and feel safe enough to be effective on the page?

It is scary. I’m working on my 10th book right now and it’s no less frightening than it was 30 years ago. The day I start writing is scary, the day a book is published is scary, and the editing process in between is scary. The creative process demands so much vulnerability from us and I think it actually creates a schism in the brain, because with any kind of self-expression you’re entering into a realm where we cannot know at the beginning how it will look at the end. And the only job of the fear part of the brain is to not let you do anything where we don’t know what the outcome is. So, it wants to shut you down, because it doesn’t understand the impulse to create — which is why it can feel like life or death. It takes a lot of compassion and conflict resolution and negotiation skills for me to be in the internal self that navigates between those two parts and have them gently explain rather than being at war. 

I think you might have just eased some of my own terror with writing. But I’m also surprised because you are one of the most quoted writers out there with lots of readers and people looking to you for guidance on how to lead a brave, authentic creative life. What’s that like? Awesome? A burden? Something else?

I have to admit that I love telling people what to do, even a bit of a character defect of mine. It’s just so tempting, so delicious, so seductive to look at other people’s lives and tell them what they should do. I know it’s partly because it makes me not have to focus on the parts of myself that I need to. I’m still trying to figure out how to show up in the world without abandoning myself. At least I’ve learned not to give unsolicited advice, except in the area of creativity, because I’ve given a lot of thought to it, and I produced a lot of stuff in my life.

One of the other themes of the HSB event is about coping with and emerging from the pandemic. How have you been dealing with it?

I definitely love being with myself in a quiet room, which is a good thing for a writer. So, I didn’t suffer a lot of social separation and angst that other people did. It’s been more trouble coming out of it. Now I’ve got to navigate humanity again.

For Your Information

The 9th Annual Heroes of Hospice event takes place online at 6 pm on September 22. For tickets or more information visit www.hospiceofsb.org/heroes or contact Cheryll Puyot at cpuyot@hospiceofsb.org or (805) 770-5291.


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