Complicated Grief and Complicated Love

with Paulina Porizkova

Supermodel Paulina Porizkova has been in the public eye all her life. But it has been a rollercoaster of soaring successes and deep heartache. Grief and pain comes to us all, and in those moments, we need our shared humanity (and not our super-anythingness) to build a bridge back to others.




In this tender conversation, Kate and Paulina discuss:

  • How to show up to friends in unsolvable pain
  • Why “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” is just plain wrong
  • Why the assumptions we make about one another are untrue

CW: Spicy language

Paulina Porizkova

Paulina Porizkova is a Swedish-American model, actress and author, best known as a former judge on the television reality show titled America’s Next Top Model. Born in Czechoslovakia, she faced a very difficult time during her childhood. Her parents fled the country following the Soviet attack and moved to Sweden. Paulina reunited with her parents only after she turned 10. At the age of 15, she received an offer from a Parisian modelling agency and began her modelling career in the early 1980s. Her career blew up immediately as she appeared in magazines such as Sports Illustrated and New York Magazine. Soon, she was seen on covers of magazines such as Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour and Vogue etc. She also featured on the advertisements of companies such as Hermes, Christian Dior, Chanel and Versace, along with walking the ramps for many big designers. Starting from the 1980s, she has also been making regular appearances on films and television. She as authored two books A Model Summer and her most recent No Filter: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful. Paulina Porizkova had met Ric Ocasek, the American singer of the band named The Cars, while shooting the music video for their song titled ‘Drive’. They began dating and ended up getting married in August 1989. The couple had two sons together, before getting separated in 2017.

Show Notes

Learn more about Paulina’s interesting childhood in the Cold War Conflict on the Digital National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library.

Read Paulina’s memoir No Filter: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful.

Instead of sharing a terrible cliche with a friend in need, here Kate shares 6 Things To Say (or not) To a Friend in Need.

The blessing at the end of this podcast is “for when you need permission to change” can be found on page 50 in the book The Lives We Actually Have. You can get a copy here

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Discussion Questions

Discuss this episode with a book club, friends, or bible study group. Here are some conversation starters:

  1. Describing her experiences of loss, Paulina says that grief felt like being “in an ocean at night in a storm.” How does this metaphor resonate or not resonate with you? What other metaphors have helped you name your grief?
  1. The book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a time for everything, including times for weeping and searching, tearing and mending (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). What does it feel like to know that Scripture acknowledges difficult seasons and life full of before and afters? How does it legitimate our tough encounters with an ever-changing world?
  1. In this episode, Kate says that it takes a particular kind of courage not just to live through a horrible thing, but to keep going and growing amidst it. What keeps you going when life keeps being changed around you? 
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Kate Bowler Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Today we’re talking about change, our changing bodies and our changing relationships, our jobs that change or hobbies that we grow out of. Our changing identities as our kids don’t need us as much or our parents need us now more than ever. The change that happens when our relationships have ended or when we are in deep grief. Who are we over time? And how do we learn to reconcile it? All the good, the bad, the beautiful, the terrible, all we lose and gain along the way. And I have someone really special to talk to about this today. Her name is Paulina Porizkova, and she’s a really incredible person. So you might know her from the lovely famous shiny parts. She is like a world famous model. She’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated swimsuit. Like, not just once, but twice. And I think she’s been the face of every single commercial I’ve ever seen from Estée Lauder. She’s also an actress and a writer. And in the background of all of this is a story of what she’s gained and lost, as she’s simultaneously always been living with other people’s expectations. What you might not know is that she’s really been a face everyone recognized since she was just four years old. It’s a really awful thing that happened to her. It’s when her politically active anti-Soviet parents fled their home country of Czechoslovakia to live in Sweden, leaving Paulina behind with her grandma. But they weren’t then allowed to return to her. So they staged a hunger strike in front of the Czech Embassy in Stockholm, their new home, to get her back, which was all over the news. So for five years, the Swedish press camped outside of Paulina’s grandmother’s home in Czechoslovakia, where she lived until she was nine and then was finally reunited with her parents. But by the time they were back together, nothing was really the same. And soon after, at age 15, she became a model and then a supermodel. And her career really took off from there. She has lived a life with many twists and turns. She has loved and lost in big and small ways. And she’s written a really beautiful memoir called No Filter, which is a very open hearted account about her very rare life, her personal grief, and even how we understand aging in our beauty-obsessed culture. I think you’re really going to enjoy this one. Oh my word, Paulina, I feel so lucky to be talking with you today.

Paulina Porizkova How about I feel equally lucky to be talking to you because you’re a wonderfully empathetic and brilliant soul and you don’t get to speak to people like you every day. So thank.

Kate Thank you. You had this incredibly surreal experience that shaped your childhood, like the kind of event that made headlines. You and your parents were trapped on opposite sides of a Cold War conflict. Would you mind taking me back to your childhood? And what something that difficult to describe must have been like?

Paulina Well, you know what? I think what people here in the United States would really like to hear about is the deprivation of living, you know, in a Communist country and the hardships of of life under communism and all this. The fact is, when you’re a child, you have no comparison to anything else. So you don’t know that you’re being deprived. You know, as long as you get food and you have a roof over your head and most importantly, love, you don’t think about it. It’s actually not that important. I say in my book that, you know, for Christmas we would get a banana and a bag of peanuts. And one of the line editors, when they were editing the book, they underscored it and they went and they changed it to “bananas.” And I was like, No, no, no.

Kate Single banana.

Paulina And I thought, how interesting that in our country, you can’t even begin to imagine that, you know, that I would be talking about a single banana, that somebody just took it upon themselves to to immediately assume that that was a typo. Yes, I found that interesting. But, you know, the fact is that when you get a single banana for Christmas, it’s a wonderful Christmas and it’s an amazing banana. You know, bananas are the greatest thing in the world that you’ve ever eaten. You get them once a year and it’s magical.

Kate My dad is a historian of Christmas, so he will absolutely love the single banana story. It sounds like the heart of the heart of the heart for you was you had this grandma that loved you and made you feel safe and protected in a beautiful, sacred way that really stayed with you.

Paulina Exactly. I had somebody that I had that one person in my life that loved me unconditionally and that made me feel safe because I guess I didn’t realize what it felt like to feel unsafe until we left when I was nine years old. And then I had a pretty good idea of, you know, before and after. Also, I had as many bananas as I wanted on the kitchen sink or in a basket. And yet I was a lot happier in my childhood with the one banana.

Kate Yes. Abundance but loneliness versus scarcity and love. Doesn’t sound like that was a trade off.

Paulina: And isn’t it funny how, in our society, it’s just assumed that with that abundance, material abundance makes up for pretty much everything else.

Kate You do such a beautiful job at describing our young selves that can’t put all the pieces together. But then you’ve had these wildly different chapters of your life that I imagine it’s sort of difficult to make them into a single story because in each you went from being young kid and then immigrant kid and then young model and then wildly, wildly successful model. You also have like such a intensely open heart in which when you fall in love, you just when you were 19, you fell in love so unbelievably, deeply with a literal rockstar. I wonder if you could tell me a bit about that absorbing love and what it was like?

Paulina I write in my book about about how we met and how I sort of had a crush on him before I even ever met him. So it truly was kind of like a teenage girl’s wet dream. You know, I had a crush on this rockstar who was in this video, and I had just gotten my MTV. And unbeknownst to me, he happens to be in the band that now wants to do a video with me. And I sort of go along and they have no idea. And then I end up in a hotel room with the band The Cars, and this man that we are waiting for walks out of the adjoining room. And it’s that guy that I have a crush on, the one that I sat in front of the TV and thought, if I ever get to meet a famous person, I really want to meet him, you know, because I thought I was going to pass out. And in fact, this is what he told me later. When he first knew that he fell in love with me was that moment when he sat down and I looked at him and I said, “I’m really sorry, but I’m so nervous I might pass out.” And he thought, “Wow, she’s beautiful and she’s courageous. She’s brave. She’s vulnerable and truthful.” And and that’s when he thought, “Oh, I’m in trouble now.”

Kate Oh, my gosh. Though I love that description, though. Beautiful, courageous, and honest sound like the trifecta that have been a really helpful throughline as you’ve been trying to figure out all the different ways of.

Paulina Definitely courageous and honest. Beautiful, eh. You know?

Kate When you look back on how your understanding of how you experience love has evolved, how would you compare it?

Paulina We spent 33 years in a relationship. 30 years, married, 35 altogether. So this man was my entire life.  And I think when we met it was, yeah, I was a child and he was a grown up. But aside from that, we fulfilled each other’s needs. It made me feel so special to have found a person who was somewhat narcissistic but loved me. So it was kind of like our childhood scars fit just right at that time. They, you know, they didn’t overlap each other. They just fit in between. And as I grew, they started rubbing instead of fitting into the right spot. They started rubbing and causing pain.

Kate How can you tell? How could you tell that your sense of self was growing beyond your marriage?

Paulina Well, I think it’s slowly boiled frog, right? Don’t wake up one day and go, “Oh, dear God, I’ve outgrown him.” It’s too little by little by little. And I always thought of myself as a feminist. And so I thought when we have children, there will be equality in minding our children, in dividing the household tasks. And then the children arrive, and the next thing you know is like, “Well, you’re the one with the boobs. So bye, I have a video game to play.” I was a little upset by it at times because I thought, oh, I didn’t realize that my husband and I were just going to sink into this weird, 1950s vibe of, you know, me making sure dinner’s on the table and the children are dressed for bed and that it was somehow going to suddenly all be up to me because I still wanted to work, especially in movies, and my husband didn’t really want me to. So there was a there was a quite a bit of tension that came with that. But as I noticed that I was able to do all these tasks, all the child-rearing tasks and taking care of other people and taking care of everybody’s emotional health and taking care of a household and also working at times— while my husband could only do one thing — I grew contemptuous of it. And I think my contempt then pushed him further away because it emasculated him. And that’s a good way to start the dissolution of the marriage.

Kate Yeah. It’s such a perfect word too. The “holding it all together” feeling is so common and so intense for women who are trying to just add another layer of themselves instead of ever being allowed to like, put a burden down. You’re like working successful model actress and mother of two and devoted and excited wife, and … I imagine it just kept building and building and building.

Paulina Yeah, I think looking back now, I can see the slide beginning. That’s when I started growing up and feeling like, Whoa, I’m capable of all this. And he’s not. And that sort of, you know, that unbalanced us. And I think while he was still working a lot and producing records and doing his own records and all of that, I could still look to him and go, well, he’s wonderfully talented and brilliant and he’s so good at what he does. And that sort of equaled the balance a little bit. But, you know, with time, he did less and less of it, but he didn’t do more and more of anything else. So I think that’s where our ages caught up with us.

Kate So interesting. We don’t usually know who we’re becoming either. I imagine you’re like, “Oh, I’m actually a very well-rounded person by this point. I didn’t realize I had this many dimensions.”

Paulina It’s true.

Kate We have a lot of people in this community who understand complicated grief and complicated love and that there’s very few “pure” forms of love or grief. And your situation became I mean, it was just it was very unexpected and it was such an avalanche. It sounds like he died so suddenly. And so many terrible things followed in its wake.

Paulina First of all, yes, we were getting divorced. Yes, we were separated. Yes, I was actually dating another man, but we still lived together. I was in this clearly in this alternative universe where we were best friends, where we were family. I was taking care of him after surgery. And I just went to give him a cup of coffee in the morning because I thought he was sleeping in too late. Having the experience of finding the man that you’ve loved your whole life dead is…

Kate Unthinkable.

Paulina So that’s like not easy right there. Having to tell my children. So you have the trauma of that and then the grief of losing the closest person to you in the world. And then followed up with, Oh, guess what? Two days later, there’s a will and there’s a memo on the front page of the will that says, I will not provide for my wife because she abandoned me. It was just so much all at once that I think I’m still processing aspects of it now. It’s three years later and I think I’m still processing grieving aspects of missing my husband now. I think I thought I was doing it like a year later, but I think I was still actually kind of angry. But boy, flipping between the sort of the shock, that the trauma, the grief, the anger, I kind of feel like I blacked out, like I can’t remember parts of that year. And, you know, and this was simultaneous to obviously my children. You know, we needed each other. But we’ve always been a like a really strong unit. So it made it really difficult for me to console my children when their father just left me in this situation.

Kate And you have your whole lives and families to suddenly manage in an onslaught of paperwork. And then grief, and then publicity, and I imagine it must have just been…

Paulina It was so enormous. It was so many feelings tied into that, that it was so enormous that I just felt like I was drowning. I was in an ocean at night in a storm. And I was just treading water because I didn’t know what else to do. Like, there was nothing for me to do. Obviously, and there’s no way that you can get out of it either. It’s definitely not like your friends can come up to you and go, “You know, he’s in a better place and maybe this is a good thing that happened because you will rebuild yourself better and stronger than ever.” I remember people saying things like that, and I wanted to just punch them in the face. And I guess what came out of that was my understanding, that I wanted to share with other people, not to be that person, to see somebody who was in grief. Grief counseling is not about the grieving person. It’s really about the people that are supposed to hold them. You know, because there’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing you can do about your grief. It’s just going to be there. It’s just going to keep gnawing at you and eating you up until it just loses some of its strength. There’s no way to make it feel better. You just have to keep treading water. But it sure is a lot easier to tread water when you know, if somebody is in the boat nearby holding a candle, right? And going, “I’m here. When you get tired, I’ll hold you for a bit. And you can you can see me. I’m here.” Just the presence of somebody being nearby is what makes all the difference.

Kate Yes. It’s so intense. Like the great lie of pain is that “you will be alone forever. It will hurt this terribly forever.” But like, if someone isn’t there to remind us, that lie will be louder than any possible reality.

Paulina Yeah. Yeah. Because time sort does a weird thing and it starts looping backwards and forwards. And if I may, what’s your grief story? Because you seem to know a lot about it.

Kate Yeah, when I was 35, I was very suddenly diagnosed with stage-four cancer. And so we didn’t think I would make it through that first year. And so when you describe the “it could have been a minute, it could have been a week” feeling, the way that nothing is realer than the impossibility of what you’re in. That made a lot of sense to me. And then just how much you worry about your kid. You know, when I was diagnosed I had a two-year-old, just barely two. Everything about him has always been like, so beautiful, it just breaks you. Right? It’s just like when you look at your kid, you look at their stupid little chubby cheeks, and you’re like, that’s it. That’s everything beautiful poured into a little thimble.

Paulina Oh, my God. That’s so difficult. I’m so sorry.

Kate Thanks. I had a whole plan before of, like, I was being a very serious academic, but now I just want to be brave in a different kind of way, where you don’t expect the world to turn out, but you have to live differently inside of it. And so I just love being able to talk to other brave people.

Paulina The kind of courage that you didn’t really want, didn’t ask for. It’s like, no, no, I didn’t sign up for this!

Kate Yeah, I don’t want, I don’t need this perspective.

Paulina “Oh, it’s gonna make you a better person.” But I didn’t want to be a better person!

Kate No, I didn’t want to be a better person! I was less interested in being “better.” I think one of the weird parts, too, is, when you said, “It just keeps going.” What kind of courage is it that it takes to not just go through the horrible thing, but then keep growing even when you just get waves and waves? Like, I’ll never be entirely over cancer. And I don’t think anyone ever entirely gets over grief. So I loved your descriptions of how we just how we have to keep aging unwillingly into different sorts of identities. And how do we do that beautifully?

Paulina Oh, yeah. I’ll let you know when I figure it out. Actually, my stepfather was an oncologist, and he’s retired now, but he reads every medical article in the world because he’s just like a information machine. And he came over one day and sort of victoriously wanted to tell me about this article he just read because it was this one like little argument that we were having about “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” And I always kept going, I don’t feel like that’s the point. Like, it sounds wrong to me. And he said, “P, you were right. It is now scientifically proven that what doesn’t kill you mostly kills you.”

Kate I got a tank top made that I do on little runs that says, “What doesn’t kill you will try again tomorrow.”

Paulina Exactly. That’s it. And I was thinking about it and I was like, but it is true that when we were faced with these tremendous difficulties in our lives and we don’t die, we keep going. That it’s not that that you grow stronger, but that you understand what your strength is. It’s kind of like going to the gym and knowing how much you can bench press or whatever.

Kate Totally.

Paulina You’ve been put to the test and you know exactly how much you can bear. And if you add on one more thing, you might break. But knowing that you can do, say, 50 reps of 50 pounds or whatever. It provides a kind of comfort because then when somebody hands you a weight or a bag or something, you go, Oh, I know I can do this. Oh, I know I can do this too. Yeah, I can do this 15 times, only done it ten times. I’m still good.

Kate That’s right. You have this lovely quote. I wish I had the exact quote, but like, what doesn’t kill you grows your heart in a particular way.

Paulina If you allow it, it can expand your heart.

Kate And it’s stitched together. You said, like it’s embroidered with gratitude. Lovely. Lovely. Because I think it’s so hard to thread the needle. There’s so much pain that is purposeless. There’s so many terrible things that will have no lessons for us and will only, you know, leave scars. And also, I do think we know something about ourselves that we wouldn’t have known before. Like, yes, would not have chosen but wouldn’t have known. And there’s kind of an intensity about it in which I’m like, I could carry that.

Paulina When I was going through my separation with my husband and I was really incredibly depressed and sad and lonely and, you know, just felt awful about myself as a woman. I had lunch with a TV producer about a TV show that I was either on or, you know, seeing if I was going to be on. And he asked me how I was doing. And for some reason, I was opening up and being very vulnerable and very honest, because that’s just what I do.

Kate I love that.

Paulina Know, and I said, I’m kind of lonely and I’m trying. And I think I said something like, “I feel really terrible about myself as a woman. I’m 52 years old. I don’t know if any man is ever going to look at me again. I feel so insecure and I feel ugly and I feel invisible.” And he and his reply was, “But you were on the cover of Sports Illustrated…twice!” I guess that was supposed to last me for life. My bad.

Kate Oh, sorry, I forgot that the inwardness of existential angst and pain is not visible to you.

Paulina And I guess in so many ways I wanted to write my book to clue people into that reality, that making assumptions about somebody based on the way they look or their income or their career or whatever, actually making any sort of assumptions, how damaging that is. To the world, to the people that you make the assumptions about. And it’s not it’s not just mates, it’s anybody. It’s, you know, you bumping into somebody at Starbucks that pisses you off and you go, “fucking asshole,” you know. “Hope he gets run over when he walks out of here, whatever.” Now if we can just take that little tiny moment to remember that we all suffer. We are all human. What we have in common, in fact, is our suffering. I think the most universally held emotion is our suffering. Our pain feels the same.

Kate I totally agree. I totally agree. I do wish we had, especially in the States, which is so caught up in stories about bootstrapping and overcoming and cheerfulness.

Paulina And fixing. You know, you fix grief, you can fix your friend’s grief, you can fix your friend’s cancer. But, you know, it’s all an attitude, right? “Hey, you go warrior.” Cause, you know, if the cancer gets you, then, oops, I guess you weren’t strong enough and you weren’t good enough to beat cancer. Everything is a fix, and everything is a quick fix. And that includes my wrinkles. Like, that’s something, you know, age needs to be fixed, apparently, because now you don’t get to be 57 and look 57 without being told that your face needs fixing. Like, how fucking lucky am I to be 57 and to be relatively healthy? You know, really? This privilege is something that I need to make look like it’s something else? Apparently, yes. Welcome to our culture 2023.

Kate You’re right though. I mean, because what we need then is not a fix. We need courage. Like courage to embrace change. Emotionally, relationally, spiritually, emotionally. You want us to be more courageous.

Paulina I think that’s it. I think the courage to accept change. Because change is coming every day. Tomorrow is going to be a different day from today. The change is imminent. What’s going to happen? We don’t know. And you know what? It fucking terrifies me. And I have to be honest, I’ve been actually thinking about this a lot recently. I’ve been realizing how I take refuge in living in the past in my brain, even though it’s so tremendously painful. It’s in some way more comfortable than living with what’s going to happen tomorrow? I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. It might be worse than today.

Kate Right, right, right. Oh, my gosh. I love that you said that, though, because it’s so wonderfully like … I think the best and the worst thought I have is that I already know what’s going to happen and maybe, wouldn’t I? I mean, it makes me scared to not know. But also, in the best and the worst way, everything can change and letting myself be surprised by that might be a little braver than the things I’ve chosen. I feel like you’re pressing me into a new way of life. It’s like, Paulina, you are an absolute delight. Thank you so much for having this conversation with me.

Paulina Oh, thank you. And likewise. You’re a delight.

Kate Some days we find ourselves aging out of our previous identities, aging out of careers we loved, out of friendships that held us together, out of marriages that no longer work the way they did before the kids, aging out of various seasons of parenthood, as your kids need you less and less, being changed by the grief and losses that come with time. As someone who almost died, of course, I don’t ever want to be the kind of person who complains about aging. And at the same time it is so strange to be in bodies and relationships and jobs that just will never stay the same. So here’s a little blessing for that feeling. It’s from Jessica and my’s book of blessings, it’s called The Lives We Actually Have. And it’s a blessing for when you need a little permission to change: Blessed are you, dear one, when the world around you has changed. Everything is different now. Your body, your age, your relationships, your job, your faith, the things that once brought you joy. The way you existed in the world. The people you loved and trusted and relied on. Things have changed and it would be silly to imagine you haven’t altered with them. You are not who you once were. Bless that old self. They did such a good job with what they knew. They made you who you were. All the mistakes and heartbreak and naivety and courage. And blessed are who you are now. You who aren’t pretending things are the same. You who continue to grow and stretch and show up to your life as it really is. Wholehearted, vulnerable. Maybe a tiny bit afraid. So blessed are we the changed.

Abby from Virginia Hey Kate, this is Abby from Northern Virginia. I saw a post on Instagram where you said, What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And you asked us to re-write it. And I just have one I wanted to share. It was, “What doesn’t kill you today tries again tomorrow.” That’s all.

Dana from Dallas Hi. My name is Dana Golnik. I’m from Dallas, Texas. And I often cringe at the quote that “what does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’ve often re-thought of it as “that which does not kill us, often makes us wish it had.”.

Anonymous “What doesn’t kill you makes you overrun with medical bills.”.

Anonymous Hi, Kate. In answer to your prompt changing the cliche, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I’d like to offer “What doesn’t kill you is still painful.” Thanks.

Jana from Texas Hi. This is Jana Baxter, and I’m calling from Boerne, Texas. “What doesn’t kill you hasn’t killed you.” And that’s all we know for now. So hold on.

Kate This episode of the Everything Happens podcast was made possible because of our generous partners Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and Leadership Education. And of course, nothing is possible without the wisdom and expertise of my absolutely fabulous team, Jessica Richie, my heart, I love you. Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Hope Anderson, Jeb Burt and Katherine Smith. This really is my very favorite kind of group project. So if you want to know what else we’re up to, head over to so you don’t miss a thing. I would really love to hear what you thought about this episode. Would you consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify? It means a ton to us when we hear what you liked or who you want to hear in conversation next. Also, we really love hearing your voice. Feel free to leave us a voicemail. We might even use it on the air. So call us at 919-322-8731. All right, lovelies. I’ll talk to you next week. But in the meantime, come find me online, @katecbowler. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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