New documentary puts a spotlight on grief — and how to talk about it

The creators behind a new documentary set to air on public media channels across the country in May want to start a national conversation about a topic that many shy away from — grief.

The goals for “Speaking Grief” are twofold: to validate the experience of grief through the stories of those mourning the death of family members and also to make it easier for the rest of us to support the grieving.

So many times, says Lindsey Whissel Fenton, the senior producer at WPSU who is producing, directing, and writing the documentary portion of the multiplatform Speaking Grief initiative, friends, neighbors and coworkers want to support those who are grieving a death, but don’t know what to say or do or how to help.

“People are left without tools and, unfortunately, that often leads to them disappearing because they fear saying the wrong thing or because they feel ill-prepared,” she says. “We felt the biggest value we could add was to help educate people who find themselves in a support role. We wanted to address those feelings of discomfort by giving them a basic understanding of grief as well as suggestions for how to go about offering support, so they can show up for their people even when they feel uncomfortable.”

Universal interest

Although Fenton has experienced death-related loss, there was no single, life-defining personal experience that spurred Fenton to make “Speaking Grief,” though, she said, many people assume she must have a profound grief story that sparked her interest in the topic. A now-retired colleague, Patty Satalia, originally came up with the idea years ago, and it took a while to gain traction. 

But people’s assumption that a personal loss story is the only reason Fenton would focus her creative efforts on a topic so many would prefer not to broach is telling, Fenton says. “What is interesting is that people come at this with the assumption that somebody would only care about grief if they are directly affected by it.”

In reality, she said, we all will struggle with grief at different points in our lives — and we all will grapple with how to help a close friend or family member who is mourning a death.

“Eventually, it will affect all of us,” she says. “And even if you haven’t personally experienced it yet, it’s something we all have a stake in and need to get better at.” 

Different places, varied experiences

The hour-long documentary, produced by WPSU Penn State and distributed by American Public Television (APT), highlights a collection of people from across the country who are grieving a family member’s death. “We wanted to show people who are at different places in the grief journey in terms of when the death occurred,” Fenton says.

Some have just experienced a death in the past year or two. For others, it’s been longer. Either way, Fenton wanted to demonstrate that grief is an ongoing experience — not some one-and-done process with a finite timeline.

At the same time, the documentary highlights different kinds of losses as well — a son who died in a car accident, a boy and his grandmother who died in a fire, a stillborn baby, a husband and father who died from brain cancer — to illustrate how those experiences can shape the grief experience.

Throughout the documentary, Fenton uses commentary from grief professionals to provide some clarity to the themes featured in each of those personal stories — such as explaining how children grieve in unexpected ways and why secondary losses, like when friends or family vanish because they don’t know how to provide support, occur.

“When you realize what people go through in addition to the actual death event, it’s shocking and sometimes difficult to hear,” Fenton says. “On top of losing someone you love, you experience all of this other loss. You experience the loss of friends, the loss of financial security. All of these things that you might not realize if you haven’t gone through this type of experience yourself.” 

Bringing all together

“Speaking Grief” is a multi-platform project that also includes social media campaigns via Facebook and Instagram and a website that will feature a growing number of personal stories, videos and resources. The film’s trailer was released in January. 

Just the launch of the trailer has already generated positive feedback from people from around the world, says Cassie Marsh-Caldwell, project manager. “The amount of people who just simply took the time to email and tell us a little bit about their own personal story and say thank you” was surprising, she says. So were the groups who reached out — grief organizations, along with nursing colleges, educators and funeral directors, among others. 

Plans originally included in-person premiere events in April though those plans have changed because of the need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. Public media stations across the country also are scheduling broadcast dates for “Speaking Grief” starting in May and continuing throughout the year

Fenton is hopeful the documentary and web content will bring together both those who are grieving and those who are seeking to support them, providing a safe space for each group to learn from the other.

“It can be a very emotional space, but we want to create the kind of dialogue where people can ask questions and not be afraid to make a blunder in the interest of learning, so maybe the next time they are confronted with grief, they can feel a little bit more prepared,” she says. “We need everybody to engage in this and think about the role they can play in helping all of us get better at grief.” 


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