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Rebecca Feinglos, MPP’17

Rebecca Feinglos, MPP’17, always dreamed of a life in public service and government—and for a while, everything went according to plan: a bachelor’s in political science, history, and Spanish from Duke. Bilingual kindergarten teacher in Dallas-Fort Worth. Leadership coach at Teach For America. Early Childhood Education work in the Mayor’s office in Chicago. And, of course, a master’s from the Harris School of Public Policy.

“There are too many policymakers in education policy that have the academic experience but don't have practical, on-the-ground experience,” says Feinglos, 34. “I wanted both, and that led me to Harris.” Eventually, with her master’s degree and experience in public service, she landed at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, where she did deeply impactful early-childhood policy work.

But there’s an old Yiddish saying: Mann tracht, un gott lacht, which basically means “Man plans, and God laughs.”

On the first day of the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, Feinglos’s beloved father died. And not long after that, her six-year marriage ended. These blows—on top of the lingering scars from her mother’s slow death from brain cancer when Feinglos was 13—could have stopped everything in its tracks. But the Durham, North Carolina, native kept working.

By the end of 2021, she felt exhausted and hollow. “I was 31 years old with two dead parents and was in the middle of a really crappy divorce,” she says. “My dad dying and COVID changing the world shook me and made me rethink what my reality was—and what needed to be true in my life.”

In Feinglos’s words, she blew up her life, quitting her job and embarking on a 12-month “grieve leave” sabbatical to synthesize her layers of trauma and chronicle the process online. “I had this idea that to feel better I needed to confront the exceptional number of losses I had faced which society told me I should not confront in order to be successful,” she says.

She quickly found that her message resonated with thousands of people struggling to express their own grief. In her interactions with grievers, the same concern kept creeping up: This is America. I’m supposed to stop wallowing, pick myself up by my bootstraps, and keep working. “Why have we medicalized this very innately human experience and made it feel like anyone who experiences grief is weird or sick?” asks Feinglos. “The truth is, grief is normal.”

At the end of her year, informed by her policy education at Harris, Feinglos decided to turn Grieve Leave into a start-up that would create a supportive community by attempting to reframe grief entirely. The organization has advocated for policies and training that would make workplaces more grief-informed; has redefined support groups (genre-specific “Meet and Grieve” events, held virtually and in-person); and educated people through interviews, grief guides, and social media images of how we can better show up for people who are grieving everything from death to divorce to, say, a worldwide pandemic.

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Feinglos started Grieve Leave in 2021 as a way to process her own losses

“My mission is to take everything that I have learned in my life up until this point academically, personally, and professionally, and channel it into Grieve Leave,” Feinglos says. “Grieve Leave is my platform to impact public policy when it comes to grief—and we make those changes by changing policy.” Whether the issue is end-of-life care as it pertains to families, questions about power of attorney, or bereavement leave inequities, Grieve Leave is considering every policy angle—an approach Feinglos learned at the University of Chicago.

“I had all of this practical human-centered experience and I'd worked with people all day every day on the receiving end of public policies,” says Feinglos. “But I went to Harris to balance my brain out. I wanted a better understanding of how good policy decisions get made.”

Several things stand out from her time at Harris. For instance, while intimidating at first, Harris is a place where she found mentorship. Feinglos found her first economics class terrifying and humbling. Still, she gravitated toward Ariel Kalil, the Daniel Levin Professor and co-director of the Behavioral Insights and Parenting Lab. “I was trying to connect with female professors,” Feinglos recalls. “Our interests were just very aligned: She cared deeply about early childhood and she is a brilliant woman.”

Feinglos’s time at Harris also translated to real skills she used in her government work, where she says it’s essential to “be able to speak human and speak numbers.” The best policymakers, she argues, are not exclusively data-driven in their decisions. While one should be informed about quantitative data, one should also be able to understand the human impact of their decisions. “You can only get that when you talk to people,” she says. “You can't rely just on data and numbers to understand impact, especially if you're not questioning who conducted the survey. Otherwise, you are doing a disservice to the people you're supposed to be serving.” Understanding this balance is something she credits from her time at Harris.

The fact that she uses her training from Harris in her current career is a testament to the school’s success, says Feinglos. “You can look at your rankings, you can look at how many PhDs you produce, or how many students graduate,” she says. “But I think Harris ought to be judged by the way that its alumni are making an impact on the world—and we are doing that from all different kinds of sectors.”

Feinglos acknowledges that her entry into her current sector was not just born of misfortune, but also of privilege. “I was immensely privileged that I could financially leave the job that I had,” she said. “No one should have to quit their job because they're overwhelmed by their grief.” What they can do, she preaches, is incorporate grief into their daily lives in a way that doesn't overwhelm them, whether through meditation, writing, taking your children to the playground, or driving around with a playlist that reminds you of someone you lost.

 “Millennials and Gen Zers are changing the narrative by recognizing our mental health really matters a lot,” says Feinglos. It is this kind of emotionally intelligent worldview that may better equip the younger generation. “What we are missing are the systemic structures to now support people in that grief.”

As Grieve Leave’s footprint grows, Feinglos herself becomes more of a public figure. A recent story in the Los Angeles Times centered on her Meet and Grieve with striking writers and actors in Hollywood—a very public demonstration of a different type of grief. “This was an angry, frustrated grief,” she says. “But also, everyone's going on strike together, collectively, in their grief. That is beautiful and powerful grief.” Just eight months earlier, Feinglos made international news when she made the singer Adele cry onstage during a concert in Las Vegas. After noticing Feinglos’s sign in the crowd, which read “You got me through my divorce,” the British singer was touched to learn that Feinglos had flown 13 of her best friends to Vegas for the show as part of a “divorce party” to take back the narrative of a “failed marriage.” Feinglos shared the moment on TikTok, where the video ultimately received more than 1.9 million views.

Both were perfect encapsulations of Grieve Leave’s mission to normalize the concept of grief. “I don’t just want the world to talk about grief,” she says. “I want to change how the world talks about grief. It is so human and so normal, and we can't change the fact that all of us will experience loss. But the thing that we can change is how we support each other through those losses.”