Maria Shriver Talks to Oprah About Vulnerability and "Marinating in Grief"
For much of her life, Maria Shriver has felt defined by the roles of daughter, wife, mother, and all things Kennedy/Shriver. But after some monumental losses—the deaths of her parents and uncle, the end of her marriage—the now empty-nester sees chances for a rich new chapter.
Photo: Rob Howard
Before I go to sleep at night, there are a few books I turn to for calm and comfort. Recently I added a new volume: Maria Shriver's I've Been Thinking: Reflections, Prayers, and Meditations for a Meaningful Life. It's a big-hearted chronicle of her personal journey toward a deeper understanding of what she's been put on earth to do. Yes, as blessed as Maria's been, she struggles, like the rest of us, with how to step into the unknown with courage and openness. I've been friends with Maria since 1978, when we worked at the same Baltimore television station, so sitting down with her felt more like a girls' night out than an interview, as we compared notes on aging, grief, identity, politics, and her evolving definition of happiness.
Oprah: Maria, as I prepared to talk with you, I reread every page of your book. It's so beautifully conceived. I love the way it unfolds from nugget to nugget: "I Am Who I Choose to Become," "Seeing the Jewel Inside," "Working on 'Intestinal Fortitude,'" "The Power of Letting Go." You've been doing a lot of reflecting!
Maria Shriver: When I travel around talking to people, I realize that everybody seems to be thinking about, or is in, transition—they're contemplating big questions just as I am. They tell me they've just graduated from high school and they're anxious about what's next. Or they've just finished college and don't know what their passion is yet. Women tell me they've left careers to raise children and aren't sure who they are anymore. If later they want to get back into the workforce, they're not sure they'll be able to. Like me, some have recently lost parents or separated from spouses. Or they're concerned about what's happening in the country. There's a huge upheaval, and people are wondering how to make sense of it.
OW: People are seeking direction. They're looking for the rod and the staff.
MS: What's good about all the turmoil is that it's producing great conversations. People want to talk, they want to connect—they want to feel the joy in that.
OW: You told me you did an event to promote the book and were shocked by how many people were there. You thought you were in the wrong place! That surprises me.
MS: I'm used to crowds, but not crowds who are there for me. I'm more accustomed to being invisible in a room.
OW: What do you mean, "invisible"?
MS: Well, in the past I didn't give up much of myself. I've spoken on behalf of others—I urged people to vote, to cure Alzheimer's, to work for the disabled. But I didn't say "I have anxiety. I worry about this or that. I'm grieving." In the book, I've shared more of me. It's hard to make yourself vulnerable, but it also feels good.
OW: Why do you think that is?
MS: I felt lost a lot growing up because I was always a "Kennedy," without a first name or my own identity, really. People would ask me, "Which Kennedy are you?" I always felt that they were more interested in the things that came before me than in getting to know me. I was determined to become Maria.
OW: Your mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, struggled with some of that, too. Her brothers got all the attention, no matter the great things she was doing. She passed away in 2009. What was it like being her daughter?
MS: It was awesome, because she was. And it was challenging, because she was a force of nature. She thought everyone could change the world and had no interest in you unless that's what you were doing. She dressed like a man and always had pencils stuck in her hair. She smoked cigars, carried a briefcase, and went to the office every day. She loved power and respected people who worked nonstop. It forced me to perform at a high level.
OW: You spoke to your mother every single day. Gayle was the same way with her mom. I would wonder, What can they be talking about?
MS: I didn't make a move without her. Talking stuff through with her calmed me as nothing else could. I'd heard people say that you're not a full-fledged woman until your mother passes. From the time I was little, I worried that I wouldn't be able to survive without my mother, but I have. I'm proud that I'm standing—and that I'm softer and more open, too.
OW: I remember in 2004, when the tsunami in Indonesia was all over the news, I was on vacation in the Bahamas; you were on holiday in California. I was lolling on a boat, and suddenly there's a woman furiously paddling out in a dinghy, wearing a bathing cap. She grabs onto the side of my boat and says: "You have to do something for these people! No more time for vacation. You and Maria could be putting together a fundraiser." It was your mother.
MS: I told her I couldn't believe she did that! She called me to say the same thing: "You and Oprah need to get moving on this!" Growing up, we didn't take real vacations. If we went anywhere as a family, it was on a service mission of some kind. It was both fascinating and exhausting.
OW: You write about the losses you suffered in quick succession: your mother and your uncle Teddy in one month in 2009, your father in 2011, and also that year the breakup with your husband.
MS: Yes, it all brought me to my knees. I describe that period as "marinating in grief."
OW: What got you through it?
MS: I have four children. I want them to see me as someone who can survive anything because that's what they're going to have to do.
OW: Is it important to talk about your pain?
MS: We're a grief-illiterate nation. Listening to others and sharing the depths of our own suffering helps us feel seen. I want to do more of that, as I've begun with my new nonprofit, the Women's Alzheimer's Movement.
OW: I've seen you become an even more solid friend over these last few years. You check in with me regularly just to see how I am.
MS: I'd depended so much on my mother, but after she died, I had to reach out more to friends and say things like, "Can I come over for dinner?"
OW: You talk about how, in this dark time—all the divisiveness, the meanness—we have to look for the light in the cracks. Have you ever thought about running for office?
MS: I used to feel my mother wouldn't think I was great unless I jumped in and ran, like the boys. But I don't feel that now—it's just not in my heart. I have a voice, and I think I'm using it effectively. I feel very alive now, at age 62, which is a surprise to me.
OW: What does it mean to you to be happy?
MS: I call them "yippee!" moments. I feel them inside. They're different now; they're quieter. As we get older, we have to appreciate the less momentous things. My kids come over for dinner. Someone invites me somewhere. A person tells me I've helped them. It's not Disneyland. It's when a friend calls just to say hi and I realize how much we mean to each other.
OW: Maria, I'm right there with you. Yippee!
To hear Oprah and Maria Shriver's full conversation, subscribe to Oprah's Super Soul Conversations podcast.