I am not an academic or someone with advanced degrees. I’m not a researcher in the clinical sense. What I am is a playwright and an observer — an observer of life.
About ten years ago I experienced three deaths in one year. Although I was more than willing to share my stories of those losses, no one wanted to hear them. It was as if death was contagious. So, I channeled my grief into writing a play. My early love of theatre and acting, since age 13, allowed me to pivot easily to playwriting. I drafted an early version of ‘Til Death, originally titled Hospice, when I hit a writer’s block on a particular scene.
To overcome this block, I wrote a separate scene, an epilogue of sorts, between the two sisters in the play, a scene I never meant to include in a full-length script. I showed this ten-minute script to a couple theatre friends who encouraged me to submit it to various short play festivals. Surprisingly, at least to me, the show won several of those festivals. Most notably, it enjoyed a six-week run at the Group Rep Theater in North Hollywood.
Each time I attended a performance of my short play, and people learned I was the playwright, the audience gathered to talk to me. They didn’t want my autograph or even to congratulate me on my play. They wanted to share with me their own stories of grief and loss. Those stories ranged from funny to tragic, often times both. Occasionally the loss was recent. Other times it happened years ago — the grief still lodged in their throats as they spoke of their loved ones and the circumstances around the deaths.
This realization was both humbling and inspiring. I realized my play held healing power not merely in the dialogue but in its ability to create a visceral response within those watching the production.
If my story could bring this much shared experience over death and grief, think what the addition of other people’s stories could provide audiences. I then contacted a number of playwrights, and together we assembled an evening of short plays depicting various scenarios of dying, death, and/or grief, which launched my non-profit Grief Dialogues, and ultimately Grief Dialogues: The Play Cycle.
In 2020, Honoring Choices PNW, a Washington State non-profit, commissioned me to write a stage play about end-of-life planning. I wrote the play Honoring Choices based on the story of my own father’s terminal diagnosis. We performed the show live during the organization’s February 2020 conference and on Zoom throughout 2021. Again, audience members shared their stories of loved ones and their end-of-life trials and regrets. The play clearly resonated, and more people shared their stories about advanced care planning. The demand for the play sparked interest in creating a film, and in 2022, I studied the art of screenwriting to create the film version.
My personal artistic/creative focus is theatre and now film. But theatre is not the only art form that helps us understand our emotions. Recent studies demonstrate the intrinsic benefits in all types of art including visual media, music, and movement. The World Health Organization (WHO) studied the effects of art when navigating illness or injury, processing trauma, and recovering from disease since the 1940s. For decades they demonstrated how the arts can reduce stress, prevent or slow the progression of a range of medical conditions including mental illness, and effectively treat depression and anxiety.
What is art? To be fair, there is no one agreed-upon definition of art. Its interpretation varies throughout history and across cultures. I prefer to describe art as an activity that involves a creative process — one that demonstrates emotional power and/or conceptual ideas.
I see how engagement in any creative process bridges our body, mind, and spirit, building into an art form. I also see how creating art out of our anguish and loss is profoundly cathartic. It reinforces our resilience whether we share our creation or not. I also see how many artists use their personal sorrow and adverse experiences to create some of their greatest work.
In short, grief is an incredibly intense, all-consuming feeling, and feeling drives art. Art in turn gives the invisible, hard to articulate inner experience, a tangible physical presence.
In two weeks, my play Til Death opens Off-Broadway at the Abingdon Theatre on Theatre Row (410 W 42nd St, New York, NY), putting on full display my theory that indeed Out of Grief Comes Art.