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What Mika and I learned about grief after losing our mutual friend

“There's no good way to lose a best friend,” said Mika Brzezinski. “It wakes you up to the tenuous nature of everything in a way that nothing else could."
Tia Garner, left, and Jennifer Folsom, right.
Tia Garner, left, and Jennifer Folsom, right.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

“Morning Joe” co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski and I are bound by a common grief journey. We both lost the same best friend, Tia Garner, two-and-a-half years ago to pancreatic cancer.

Mika and Tia were childhood friends who grew up together in Arlington, VA. They had silly names for one another, like “T-Bird” and “Meek Meek.” Their bond was incredible; they could go months without speaking and pick up right where they left off. It was the trappings of lifetime friendship.

From Left to right: Childhood friends Mika Brzezinski, Laura Erlacher and Tia Garner
From Left to right: Childhood friends Mika Brzezinski, Laura Erlacher and Tia GarnerCourtesy of Mika Brzezinski.

Tia was my MBA internship boss, who I met in 2001. We were pregnant with twins at the same time, and our combined four children were born a day apart. For the next 15 years I didn’t make a single move without her input.

We lived about a mile apart and were both on bed rest for much of our pregnancies. We would occasionally sneak out to see each other and escape the monotony of bed rest. She gave me pep talks on how to finish business school, and I listened to the intricacies of her daughter’s medical situation. We traded pregnancy and twins books and held each other up in post-9/11 Washington, D.C.; a scary place and time to have babies.

Those first six months as new mothers, we spent most of our days coordinating nap schedules so that we could push double strollers throughout the hills of Arlington, eager to get back to our active selves. We went back to work on the very same day, sneaking hallway calls of support to one another. The next 15 years were a flurry of texts and FaceTime calls to share gluten-free recipes, diagnose a weird rash or to simply share in the day-to-day drama of raising four kids at exactly the same age and stage.

Tia Garner with Jennifer Folsom's twin boys.
Tia Garner with Jennifer Folsom's twin boys.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

Tia’s untimely death at the age of 50 after a grueling three-year battle with pancreatic cancer sent Mika and I reeling. The front-seat view to such a brilliant, vibrant woman facing an unjust end led us toward our own battle; this time, with grief.

Grief is a well-researched beast. We know there are five stages and that there are readily-available resources for support. But when you’re living it, day in and day out, and you are the one who has to get out of bed and keep going, it’s another story.

I drank more than I was proud of, was irritable and emotional on the job, and very short-tempered with my children. Mika told me she was exhausted by the double-whammy of losing her father and best friend only two months apart. She even turned to sleeping pills to quiet her mind at the end of very long days – a habit she has weaned herself from over the last six months.

Jennifer Folsom, left, and Tia Garner, right in St. Louis.
Jennifer Folsom, left, and Tia Garner, right in St. Louis.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

Healing has taken, and is still taking, a long time. No matter how much we weren’t feeling it, the show (and in Mika’s case, the actual show) must go on. With families to tend to and work to be done, we pushed forward.

The old adage to “be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle,” rings true for both Mika and I. While Mika was showing up every day on “Morning Joe” composed, made up, and prepared to take down a contrarian viewpoint, she was not keeping it all together.

“Tia’s death felt so wrong. So against the natural order of things,” Mika told me. “I will be working on righting that wrong for the rest of my life so that the kids don't feel forgotten, that her life didn’t mean anything, that she didn’t die in vain.”

Likewise, my Instagram feed full of funny pictures of my three boys and snapshots finding beauty in the world around me didn’t reveal the woman behind the scenes with a broken heart.

I’ve learned a lot about dealing with grief at work – what worked and what didn’t.

In the darkest hours of grief as I circled the vortex of depression, I kept up with my early-morning workouts with my neighborhood girlfriends, even when I was tight-lipped and returned home to sobbing fits. I saw a grief counselor. I opened up about my grief journey with close friends and colleagues who offered empathy and support. I wrote a book and dedicated it to Tia.

From left to right: Childhood friends Tia Garner, Laura Erlacher and Mika Brzezinski.
From left to right: Childhood friends Tia Garner, Laura Erlacher and Mika Brzezinski.Courtesy of Mika Brzezinski.

Mika switched gears to focus on her relationships. “With my father, my mom needed help and my brothers needed navigating. It wasn’t an easy journey, we all had to find our way as adults.” Mika focused on her own health, and recently hiked Mount Kilimanjaro with her daughter, a previously unimaginable feat.

The Way Forward

“There's no good way to lose a best friend,” Mika told me. “It wakes you up to the tenuous nature of everything in a way that nothing else could. I am very much driven to tell her story. To have her kids develop their stories. And to make sure the children know why Tia fought so hard.”

Mika and I, in concert with their father and extended family members, have jumped in to help grow, love, and support her children in a way that we know would make Tia proud. Mika identified with Emilie, who shares a name with her own daughter, and brought new experiences and an internship and travels and even creative support, like college essay brainstorming. William, who at 6-feet, 3-inches tall on a stringbean frame could be a triplet to my own twins, began spending more time with my family. Hanging with “the boys,” going on raucous and testosterone-filled family vacations, and getting text reminders from me to put his phone down and turn in his assignments on time.

“I have loved the circle between you, me, and Tia,” Mika said. “Her friend becomes your friend and we keep legacy alive without judgment, supporting her kids together.”

Jennifer Folsom is vice president of client delivery at Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm RIVA Solutions Inc. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood,"The Ringmaster," will be out Jan. 7, 2020.