New Documentary Explores Why we Need to Get Better at Grief

In our age of technology and digital storytelling, there are more ways to share real stories from real families who have experienced grief from the death of a loved one. However, these stories often overlook the (spoken and unspoken) pressure grievers are put under to “just move on.”

Speaking Grief is a multiplatform project focused on creating a national conversation around grief in our current society of death denial and grief avoidance. It aims to navigate us away from the idea that grief is a problem that needs to be “fixed”.  

This public media initiative will include a television documentary, a media-rich website, a social media campaign, and numerous community engagement events, all aimed at starting a national conversation about grief. Produced by WPSU Penn State with philanthropic support and outreach collaboration from the New York Life Foundation, Speaking Grief officially launched in January 2020 and the documentary, which is being distributed by American Public Television (APT), will begin broadcasting in May 2020 on public media stations throughout the U.S.. There is also a diverse advisory board including our very own Editor, Mandy Benoualid!

The documentary, Speaking Grief, focuses on six families through candid interviews about their stories of loss that range from stillborn loss to suicide.

We caught up with Lindsey Whissel Fenton, senior Producer and Director at WPSU Penn State and producer, writer, and director of this documentary, to ask her more about the project and what she hopes people will take away from the experience.

See here for full list of airdates.

New Documentary Explores Why we Need to Get Better at Grief

An Interview with Filmmaker Lindsey Whissel Fenton

Asia Khan’s mom, Rose, died in 2006. Credit: Lindsey Whissel Fenton



What inspired you to create a project about grief that is so intimate? Why was it so important to make?

People assume Speaking Grief was inspired by my own life-altering story of loss. This is not the case. It was actually born from an idea a former colleague of mine, Patty Satalia, pitched years ago. When I started researching grief, it became apparent how much need there was to bring light to this experience. It amazed me that something so universal could be so taboo. It was devastating to encounter story after story of grieving people who were failed by those closest to them. It also forced me to examine my own shortcomings when I’ve been in a position to offer support to someone. Also, grief is a topic that there wasn’t a lot of existing content on. It took a little while for the project to gain traction and there were a few stops and starts along the way, but we knew this was a story worth telling.

“We love efficiency. We promote self-reliance. We praise productivity. Grief disrupts all that…so we think that if we can figure out how to “fix” it, we can resume our roles as productive members of society.”

This project is in part about the validation of grief, why is validation so important to the process of bereavement?

Because we are uncomfortable with grief, we tend to downplay it and be dismissive without even realizing what we’re doing. This causes so much pain and frustration. Just think about your own experience with grief of any kind—doesn’t have to be death-related. When you get a flat tire and you tell a friend about it, what feels better: having them say, “I’m sorry that happened to you, that must have been upsetting” or “Look on the bright side, at least you have a car”? It never feels good to have your experience dismissed. Having other people dismiss our experience can make us question it ourselves. If enough people send you the message that you should be “over” something and you’re not, you can start to doubt yourself and wonder, “Why aren’t I over this? There must be something wrong with me.” So, now, not only are you grieving, but you feel like you’re failing. I will never forget an email one of my colleagues sent me after my grandma died. All he wrote was, “I’m sorry about your grandma. That really sucks.” It was the perfect thing to say. Losing her did suck and it felt so good to have someone else simply acknowledge that reality. It reassured me that I wasn’t overreacting and that my feelings were valid. 

Exercise has helped Zee Wolters grieve for her mom, who died in 2014 after a seven-year battle with breast cancer. Credit: Christel Cornilsen

Where do you think the idea that grief needs to be “fixed” came from? Why is this wrong?

We love efficiency. We promote self-reliance. We praise productivity. Grief disrupts all that. It makes it hard to function and can interfere with business as usual, so we think that if we can figure out how to “fix” it, we can resume our roles as productive members of society. And, our culture is really into happiness. We spend a lot of time trying to attain, or at least project, our idea of a “happy” life. So, when we are confronted with grief—our own or someone else’s—we see it as an obstacle to that goal and it becomes something we need to “finish” as quickly as possible so we can be “happy” again. 

“When we encounter someone who is grieving, it’s a reminder of all these things that scare us. I think that fear is at the root of why we get so focused on shutting down grief as quickly as possible.”

Why do you believe we are so uncomfortable with grief? Our own grief and that of others? 

We live in a death-avoidant culture. The fact that we will experience loss and grief is inescapable. That’s scary to think about. It can make us feel vulnerable and helpless—and we don’t like feeling those things, so we avoid thinking about the reality that the only guarantee in life is death. When we encounter someone who is grieving, it’s a reminder of all these things that scare us. I think that fear is at the root of why we get so focused on shutting down grief as quickly as possible. 




Grief is also incredibly personal. Everyone will experience it differently. What works for one person may not work for another. So, when you pair that reality with a culture that loves to give prescriptive guidelines (i.e. “the top 10 ways to do XYZ”), there’s a big disconnect. There isn’t a cheat sheet we can look to that says, “these are the top 10 ways you should express your grief” or “here are 20 fail-safe tips for how to support your grieving friend.” That’s really intimidating because we don’t want to cause our people more pain. But—and this goes back to our discomfort with vulnerability—instead of being authentic and telling our person how uncomfortable we are and admitting we don’t know exactly what to do to help, we get so freaked out that we don’t say or do anything. And, we don’t realize how cruel it is; that at the time our people need us most, we turn away and they are left feeling even more alone. 

Ella Jensen-Kane suffered the loss of one of her dads as well as her sister. Credit: Lindsey Whissel Fenton

Why are bereaved children so unseen and under-served in their communities? How is the grief of a child different than an adult’s?

I think one of two things happens with regards to kids and grief. Either we assume they are resilient and, therefore, they will bounce back from their grief with ease, or we think they are too fragile to handle grief, so we try to shelter them from it. One of the most interesting things I learned while working on this project is that kids express grief very differently than adults do. For example, younger kids are more physical in their expressions of grief, so adults see a kid playing after they get some bad news and assume the child is fine, but in reality, they are playing as a means of processing their grief. Children will also mirror the behavior they see from the adults in their lives. So, if their adult caregiver is hiding their emotions from the child, the child will learn that it’s not OK for them to express their own grief. 

What makes this documentary and project so unique?

Working on this project has made me very attuned to how much grief shows up in pop culture, but we don’t usually name it as grief. There’s an element of it in so many movies and books and songs, but it’s in the background. There isn’t a lot out there that puts grief front and center. So, our project is unique in that regard. 

When grief does show up in the media, it tends to be accompanied by some kind of happy ending. It’s presented as this sort of obstacle that a person has to overcome and once they do everything turns out wonderful; life is richer and more beautiful than ever. While absolutely grief can (and often does) lead to growth and positive things can come from loss, the Speaking Grief team was intentional about sharing stories where this wasn’t always the case. Grief isn’t always something that inspires you to make some big life change like starting a foundation or a business or traveling the world or finding true love. While those are wonderful things, it doesn’t mean that if they don’t happen for you that you’re “failing” grief. Sometimes, a person’s grief “journey” is just flat. And it stays flat. And, that’s OK. 

Jack StockLynn shares a meal with his mom, Bonnie, who died in 2013.

Another way Speaking Grief is unique is that we focused on support people– friends, family members, coworkers, etc. We do also work to validate the experience of grieving people and provide resources for them, but we recognized that the real gap that needed to be filled was that support population— if we could help them feel more comfortable with grief and more prepared to offer help in a meaningful way, we were helping creating a better culture for grieving people. 

Another thing that makes this project unique is its multi-platform approach. The documentary is just one aspect of it. There’s a website (speakinggrief.org) with more information about the families featured in the film as well as additional stories and video resources and there’s information and educational resources for both grieving people and grief supporters. We have also been using social media as a learning tool and creating content to generate awareness about the reality of grief. And, we are facilitating screening events so that the film can be a catalyst for conversations about grief.




What do you want people to come out of this documentary with?

First, that grief is a normal, healthy experience. And that however your grief shows up is valid. As long as you aren’t hurting yourself or others, whatever you are doing to get by is probably OK. 

I also want people to understand that grief isn’t a process, it’s an experience. It changes over time, but it doesn’t end. I think whenever you lose someone you love, it changes you so we need to move away from this idea that you grieve for some finite amount of time, then return to your old self. That’s not how it works. And the more we approach grief as if that is how it works, the more we will keep hurting the people we are trying to support.

Director of Photography Christel Cornilsen films the Jensen-Kane family.

Lastly, I want people to feel comfortable expressing humility and vulnerability when it comes to both grief and grief support. I want someone to be able to show up for their grieving person and know that it’s totally normal to feel awkward; that it’s OK to be open about the fact that you aren’t sure what to do, but that you aren’t going anywhere and will walk this road with them despite that awkwardness. And, when you do show up, don’t try to do anything to “fix” your person. Don’t try to cheer them up—it’s not going to work and may even make them feel worse. Be willing to let them communicate their pain and resist all urges to take it away, because you can’t. It sounds easy to say, just sit with them and let them know they aren’t alone, but that’s actually really hard to do. But, as with any hard thing, the only way we get better is through practice. Also, I want people to understand that we have an unrealistic expectation of how long grief lasts. It’s not something that’s going to end after six months or a year. When we suffer a loss, we carry that loss with us forever. So, keep showing up for the grieving person, don’t just come a week after the funeral and then check out.   

One of the people I worked with on this project is Megan Devine, psychotherapist and author of It’s OK That Your Not OK. She has the great analogy she calls the “Fire Drill of Love” in which she explains that the way to get better at responding to catastrophes is to start working on these skills when life is just normally bad. Start paying attention to how you respond when someone tells you something bad that happened to them. This is a lot harder than it seems because we are so conditioned to look for the positive and “fix” the negative. One small assignment I’ve given myself is to try to ban the words “at least” from my vocabulary because they are almost always minimizing. I’ve failed a lot at even this little task, but I’ll keep trying. 




Who should watch Speaking Grief?

I’m a little biased, but I think everyone should watch this documentary. We worked really hard to make it something people could connect with regardless of whether or not they’ve had personal experience with death-related grief. We give some, what I call, “Grief 101” to lay the foundation of what grief is (and isn’t) and we explore some of the ways we can get better at showing up for each other. One piece of feedback I’m grateful to have received from people who have seen it is that, while there are some intense moments because we don’t shy away from the reality of grief, it’s not so heavy that people become overwhelmed and  lose sight of the message. 

Noah Boyd’s dad, Leroy, died in 2015. Credit: Christel Cornilsen

How can I watch Speaking Grief?

Speaking Grief is being distributed by American Public Television and will be airing on public media stations throughout the country. For a list of airdates, visit speakinggrief.org. The site is updated regularly, so even if you don’t see your location listed yet, it doesn’t mean it won’t air. There’s also information about how you can reach out to your local station to request that they air the film. We are also making it available to groups and organizations that want to host a screening event. Then, in January 2021, the full film will be available online. We’re also exploring making it available on other streaming platforms.  In addition to the documentary, there are resources and additional stories and informational videos on the site and we’ll continue to roll out new content throughout the spring. 

Can I plan a viewing event? How?

YES! We want to create a national conversation around grief and encourage groups of all sizes to consider hosting an event. There is a request form and also an event toolkit available on the website. Obviously, a lot of events are on hold right now, but we can still help facilitate plans for events in the future.

Conclusion

People who are grieving need validation for their experiences, and WPSU hopes to help with this validation and guide those who wish to support their grieving loved ones. 

We all will experience grief from the death of a loved one, and we will all experience it in our own way. When it comes to grieving, there is no right or wrong way. By showcasing these diverse representations of grief, Speaking Grief shines a light on how unique and universal bereavement really is. 

Posted by TalkDeath

  1. Outstanding. A difficult topic well done

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