Becky Bolich loves to talk about death.
She didn’t always feel this way. Like many people, she used to be uncomfortable going to viewings and funerals and didn’t quite know how to relate to people who had lost a loved one. But after her 18-year-old son, Nathan, was killed in a car accident on his way to work in July 2017, everything changed.
Now, she says, “I am so comfortable talking about death and being around grieving people, I could be a funeral director.”
Bolich says she leaned heavily on her strong Christian faith to get her through the dark days immediately following Nathan’s death, eventually realizing that she needed to focus on helping others and “making my life count.”
Last year, she and her husband, Steve, decided to move from Bellefonte to Hershey to become house parents at the Milton Hershey School, where she says they are able to use their own experience to relate to the children they now mentor, many of whom have had very traumatic childhoods.
Bolich also hopes to help people by sharing her family’s story in Speaking Grief, a 60-minute documentary currently being aired by public television stations across the country. The documentary is part of a national initiative created by WPSU that aims to help our society “get better at grief.”
It’s a lofty goal, because the topic of death and grief has generally been considered rather taboo in modern American culture.
“It’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about,” Bolich says.
“In our culture, we don’t necessarily talk about death, yet it’s inevitable,” says Katie Kostohryz, a member of the Speaking Grief advisory board and licensed professional counselor who also teaches a grief and loss counseling class at Penn State. “Grief can be very lonely. So having people witness your story is really important. Honoring, holding, and witnessing your story – there’s power in that. This documentary is giving voice to people’s stories, and in doing that, it invites others to explore their own grief and loss, and to make it less taboo to talk about and connect to one another.”
As the producer and director of the documentary, Lindsey Whissel Fenton discovered early during her research that many people were longing for someone to bear witness to their stories of loss. Long before filming began, she spent countless hours on the phone interviewing people who had lost a loved one.
“These would be very emotional phone calls. I was obviously asking people to relive some painful things, and because we’ve been taught that that is a bad thing, I would apologize for stirring up these feelings, and everyone would say, ‘No, I’m grateful. I never get to talk about this.’ That was a real learning experience for me,” she says.
(Photo by Alex Yaker) Producer and director Lindsey Whissel Fenton interviewing a documentary participant.
The Speaking Grief project, which was largely funded by a charitable grant from the New York Life Foundation, is not only designed to help those who are grieving, Fenton says.
“There are some great educational resources out there for people who are grieving, but one thing we found was there was a gap in terms of educating people to be supportive,” she says. “Nobody teaches us how to do grief, and nobody teaches us how to show up for other people. So we wanted to broaden the support base that people may have, and help people feel a little more confident in showing up for their people.’
In fact, the importance of “showing up” is one of the things Fenton hopes people take away from the documentary.
“We need to recognize that just the act of being present is a real thing that you can do for people,” she says. “The simple act of listening and letting someone experience their feelings without trying to fix it is such an incredible act of love.”
In making the documentary, Fenton traveled across the country during the spring of 2019, interviewing people in 15 cities.
“One of the core themes we tried to address through this project is that grief is a universal experience, but also one that’s unique. So we were intentional about finding grief stories and grief experiences that addressed that,” she says. “We were looking for geographic diversity, and we were looking for diversity in terms of people’s identities and also in terms of their grief experience. We wanted to give people as many opportunities as we could to find a story they could connect with and something that would resonate with them.”
As a result, the stories in the documentary cover losses ranging from stillbirth to suicide and more. In order to keep the scope of the project manageable, the film focuses on people grieving the loss of a family member. But Fenton is quick to acknowledge that there are many other kinds of grief.
“Even if we haven’t lost a person, we all grieve something. There’s grief related to divorce, or job loss, or pet loss. … There’s just no way we could address everything in the documentary, but that was by no means intended to invalidate all these other grieving experiences.”
Fenton hopes that because the Speaking Grief project goes beyond the documentary, it will be able to address other kinds of grief as it grows.
“The documentary is just one of the pillars of the larger project. We look at it to be the thing that gets people’s attention and lays a foundation, and then having more on the website for people who want to delve deeper,” she explains.
The website features additional video content – including interviews with experts and families that are not included in the documentary – as well as information about grief and links to bereavement support resources. A robust social media campaign also plays a big role in the project, Fenton says, as it seeks to educate people via Facebook and Instagram.
The final piece of the project is outreach, which initially was intended to take the form of community events. New York Life Foundation and WPSU awarded mini-grants to 27 organizations to support their own grief-related events, many of which have been either postponed or forced to go virtual due to the pandemic.
Fenton says Speaking Grief has become a passion project for her and for her team, and she is excited to see where it goes from here.
“We are committed to working on this through the next year. We realize there is such a great need for this and we really struck a chord,” she says. “We’ve received a lot of good feedback, and it’s become clear people are very hungry for this content.”
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.