10 Artists on Living and Creating Through Grief

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When Jesmyn Ward was writing her 2013 book, “Men We Reaped,” she could feel the presence of her brother, who had been killed years earlier by a drunk driver. She still talks to him, as well as to her partner, who died in 2020.

“This may just be wishful thinking, but talking to them and being open to feeling them answer, that enables me to live in spite of their loss,” she told me.

While filming the HBO series “Somebody Somewhere,” Bridget Everett, playing a woman mourning the loss of her sister, was grieving the loss of her own. Working on the show was a way to still live with her, in a way, she said: “There’s something that’s less scary about sharing time with my sister when it’s through art or through making the show or through a song.”

One of the many things you learn after losing a loved one is that there are a lot of us grieving out there. Some people are not just living with loss but also trying to create or experience something meaningful, to counter the blunt force of the ache.

We talked to 10 artists across music, writing, photography, film and comedy about the ways their work, in the wake of personal loss, has deepened their understanding of what it means to grieve and to create.

In 2024, we are hardly the first generations to channel loss into art, but coming through the last few years shaped by a pandemic and cultural and political upheaval, it does seem like something is different. It doesn’t feel relevant to ask questions like, Why don’t we talk about loss? or, Why are we so grief avoidant? How could we come through these last few years together and not talk about it, write about it, make films, shows, paintings and songs about it? There are hundreds of podcasts devoted to the topic and Instagram accounts that exist solely to share poetry about loss. The questions now, for us, are how can we talk about death in a more meaningful way? What can we create or watch or listen to that will help us engage with grief as readily and as deeply as we do with love, or joy, or beauty?

The artists we spoke with have lost brothers or sisters, a child, spouses, parents, friends, pets, communities. They’ve moved through the last few years brokenhearted, as so many of us have, but with a deeper understanding of the ways that creating art, and talking openly, can get us through. These are edited excerpts from their interviews.

‘Life is a series of losses, so why would you not always be in some state of mourning?’

Sigrid Nunez won the National Book Award in 2018 for her novel “The Friend,” in which the narrator, after her friend dies, inherits his Great Dane. She is also the author of “What Are You Going Through,” about a woman whose friend is nearing death, and “The Vulnerables,” set during the coronavirus pandemic.

When I write about grief, I feel like I’m writing about something that everybody else experiences. I’m not actually aware of making any conscious choice. I just have characters and situations, and inevitably grief and mourning and mortality and illness and loss. They come in because that’s so much a part of life.

I’m dealing with grief in completely fictional characters, imagining what it would be like for a particular person to experience a loss. When I was writing “The Friend,” I said part of it is about suicide. At the time, I became aware of the fact that several people I knew had this idea in their head that suicide might be how their life would end at some point. One of those people did commit suicide. There are so many different forms of grief. In “The Friend,” I included a story about a dog and I had to think about the fact that dogs also experience grief, often intensely.

There’s the idea that since the narrator is grieving and the dog is grieving, that’s part of their bond, and they end up helping each other in that way and having that bond. When you introduce an animal into a work of fiction, you introduce a certain warmth into the story because animals bring that out in people — a little happiness and warmth. We tend to find animals funny — they are, we’re not crazy. I saw on YouTube somebody had a pet rat and they put it into a sink to take a shower. It was the most adorable thing you ever saw. That’s also why during the pandemic people sought these videos out. The warmth and the humor and the comfort.

I have a friend whose mother died totally unexpectedly, some unsuspected heart condition. There was my friend, just devastated. We were going to get together, and I asked what she wanted to do. She said, maybe we could go to the Central Park Zoo, because she thought it would be comforting to look at animals. And there you go. It’s not that people don’t also help you, but I was so intrigued by her idea of going to look at animals, and it seemed so right.

In the early days of the pandemic, I wasn’t able to write, as people weren’t able to do much of anything. It came into my head, that Virginia Woolf line: “It was an uncertain spring.” I don’t have to tell you why that came into my head. This was in April 2020. I started with that sentence and wrote kind of what’s going on, and the writer talks about taking these long walks. Then I thought I wanted to start another book, and I thought I could start from there. I did end up writing “The Vulnerables” during the pandemic. It’s not a chronicle of those times the way Elizabeth Strout’s “Lucy by the Sea” is. That particular subject matter turned out to be about the pandemic and lockdown because I was writing about what was happening right then. And then I started inventing a story.

We are a grief-avoiding culture, that’s certainly true. But I would think part of the problem is not people not wanting to talk about it, it’s not knowing how to talk about it and not having the language and feeling so uncomfortable about saying the wrong thing. You know perfectly well you don’t have anything good to say, so you’re just going to come up with the same clichés. I’m so uncomfortable saying, “I’m so sorry to hear.” It doesn’t feel good. Sometimes I say, “I wish I had something wise and comforting to say, but I don’t.” I don’t add the “but I don’t.” There’s this famous letter that Henry James wrote to someone who was grieving and he begins by saying, “I hardly know what to say.” Well, if Henry James didn’t know what to say, then how can you expect the rest of us to know?

There is a whole world that doesn’t exist anymore — that’s just what time does. It takes things away from you. Life is a series of losses, so you’re always in a state of mourning to some extent. That’s what nostalgia is, it’s a kind of mourning.

People seem to be forgetting what happened during the pandemic. It’s like this collective repression. That I don’t think bodes well. I don’t think people understand, things should have changed more. In “The Vulnerables,” in the very beginning, I have my narrator say she’s trying to answer a questionnaire, the kinds of surveys that writers get all the time and she’s trying to answer the question “Why do you write.” She then talks about that. She’d read a study of twins and in cases where a twin had died before being born, in some cases the living twin never got over the feeling that something was missing from their lives. I think that is connected to why I write. I want to know what I had been mourning my whole life. I don’t think I answer that in the book and I don’t think I needed to answer it, but it is connected to this idea that grief is so much a part of life, small griefs, huge griefs. Life is a series of losses, so why would you not always be in some state of mourning? That would be something that would make you want to write, to hold onto it, to understand.

‘It bums me out to hear, and I wrote it.’

Conor Oberst is a singer and songwriter best known for his work in Bright Eyes. He has also performed with the groups Desaparecidos, the Mystic Valley Band and the Monsters of Folk, as well as Better Oblivion Community Center, a partnership with Phoebe Bridgers. He has written songs about his older brother, who died suddenly in 2016 and who had inspired him to play music when they were younger.

When major tragic or dramatic things happen to me, my first impulse isn’t to sit down at the piano. I’m usually too depressed to do it, or I’m just numb. I’ve been writing a bunch of songs for the next Bright Eyes record, and I find myself writing about things that happened three or four years ago. The last Bright Eyes record was in 2020, and my brother Matty died in 2016, so it kind of tracks that there are references on that record four years after he died.

There were people that got a lot of work done during the pandemic, like: Now I’m in my home studio recording all the time or writing songs or doing performances via telephone. There was the other side that was just frozen. That’s where I was. I was in my house not going anywhere. It was so surreal and terrifying. I froze up. I was listening to music, but I think I wrote maybe one song that whole time.

Sometimes when I finish a song or a recording I’m like, “What am I putting out into the world? Do I want people to hear it?” It bums me out to hear, and I wrote it. I’m jealous of people like Stevie Wonder who can put joy into the world. Some stuff is just so sad, and some songs I just don’t perform because it’s too much to do it. Whenever I come out with a song that’s more upbeat or has some positive edge to it, I’m happy.

Every holiday since my brother died has been weird. I hate holidays anyway.

My brother taught me how to play guitar. I used to sit on the floor of our basement to watch his band practice. I thought it was so cool. His favorite band was the Replacements, so when I hear them, I think about him and sometimes I cover their songs and think about him. It’s little things, like random places in Omaha that will have a memory attached to our childhood, back when things were simpler. There’s always kind of melancholy in that.

‘Everybody is just an open wound right now and looking for a little ointment.’

Bridget Everett is a writer, executive producer and star of the HBO series “Somebody Somewhere,” which was a 2023 Peabody Award winner “for its combination of pathos and hilarity.” The show, which began in 2022, is about a character who, like Everett, struggles to accept the death of her sister, and finds community in the aftermath of losing her. Everett lost her mother in 2023.

My family and I don’t really talk about loss very much. We’re on our third one down in my immediate family right now, so I honestly think that the show has been a way to properly grieve and still live with my sister in a way. I’ve realized I can barely talk about it or say her name, and it’s the same with my mom. There’s a great comfort that comes with finding ways to honor her or keep her alive via the show. I’m very comforted when we’re filming because I feel like she’s with me. In day-to-day life I sometimes feel like she’s slipped away, so the show is very special to me on many levels for that reason.

There’s so many times while we’re filming where she is there or my mom is there. I also lost my dog during Season 1, the love of my life.

Music was such a common language in our household — it was when we were the most connected. It’s the only time in my life when I feel surrounded by love. Grief has so many different levels, and there’s something that’s less scary about sharing time with my sister when it’s through art or through making the show or through a song, instead of sitting in my apartment staring at my wall and waiting for her to come.

It got complicated in Season 2 because Mike Hagerty died, and he played my dad, and it was like, how are we going to handle this? We’ve tried to find ways to deal with our grief by keeping him alive in the show in small ways. You don’t want to keep rehashing the idea of grief, but you also want to stay true to how it happens in real life.

I agree 100 percent that there is a comfort in sharing grief with other people. It’s a new way to connect with people, and I have a hard time connecting with people. It’s a struggle for me. But I feel like it’s a universal language and not always easy to talk about, but you’re so grateful to have the outlet to share it with somebody.

I feel like, culturally, everybody is just an open wound right now and looking for a little ointment. I feel like my family and I are getting better about talking about it, and the show has helped that. My brothers will text me after the show. My brother recently lost his wife and we have had a lot of loss recently and for us that’s a big deal and it’s nice to have a way in. I wasn’t sure if it’s just this stage in life and I have a lot of friends going through a similar whatever but … the people I would never expect would come up to me and start talking to me about the fact that they lost a sister and I think specifically sibling grief, at least for me, I haven’t run into a lot of people that talk about it. Songs are about everything in the world, but maybe not about losing a brother or a sister. It’s like you’re soldiers together, someone that’s been on the battle lines with you. It’s a different kind of loss.

There was a scene about grief this year where we were making sure we were coming away with the right thing. It’s another stage of grief, and we wanted to fine tune it and make it about not just two people crying in a room, but what are we getting from the conversation. In terms of Midwesterners, it’s a little closer to the vest emotionally, but sometimes the emotions just pop out like a zit. So it’s about having a zit-popping moment about grief. This is The New York Times, what am I doing. …

I don’t know if this sounds bad or not, but I feel like because I had my sister, my mom and my dog — three of the greatest loves of my life — and because I loved them so much, and they opened me up so much, I feel like they gave me the capacity to do what I’m doing. I feel that’s important. It’s kind of heartbreaking that the people who love you the most and that you needed the most are gone. It’s also the best way to keep going. As long as I keep singing or writing about them, or writing music, they’re always going to be here, and that’s not so bad.

‘For me, creativity plays a huge healing role.’

Ben Kweller started his career as a teenager in the indie rock band Radish. He has released six solo albums and runs the Noise Company, a record label in Austin, Texas. He lost his teenage son, Dorian, in the winter of 2023, and he performed a series of tribute concerts that summer. Kweller is working on songs for his new album, some of which are inspired by his son.

Dorian died last February, so that month is forever changed. It’s just a different thing. I’m busy but I’m just trying to feel it. I’ve been doing a lot of crying.

There’s one song I’m writing that’s specifically about my grief. It’s called “Here Today, Gone Tonight.” I started the song when my friend Anton Yelchin died, and so now all of a sudden it’s about Dorian. It turned into something new. There’s one verse I’m really trying to mold, but the song is 90 percent finished and I’m trying to decide which way to go on it, but it’s definitely a heart wrencher.

It’s going to be an interesting album. There are quirky, fun, jubilant vibes, but then there are some extreme lows. It’s kind of got this up and down thing. That’s kind of what grief is, these ups and downs. The second year [without my son] is almost harder for me. The distance from the last time I held him and said bye, had dinner that night. It hurts even more. It’s hard to believe he had so much energy and such a light and where did that go, in an instant? Where is he? I lie in bed with my eyes closed like, Dorian, where are you? It’s harder in a lot of ways.

There’s one song Dorian was writing before he died, and he never finished it. It’s so good, and I’m thinking of finishing it, so it would be a Dorian and Ben co-write, which would be really cool.

I am a believer that you always have to work. It’s a combination of work and luck or whatever the hell you want to call it, the muse or whatever visits you. You still have to work and play an active role. There’s a romantic idea with art that’s like don’t think about it, let it flow. It’s like, yeah, that’ll get me a really cool guitar hook and that’ll get me a cool chorus, melody or line, but it ain’t going to give me a full song to the standards of what I want to put out there.

As far as losing Dorian, when I’m making music, it’s my happy place. I’m fulfilled every day I’m doing it, and it connects me to Dorian deeply.

For me, creativity plays a huge healing role when it comes to grief. It’s a way to get a lot of these thoughts out of me, and it’s like a cleansing ritual to write lyrics and sing melodies and channel the energy of those feelings deep inside. That’s the role for me in my life that music plays with grief now. It’s just this healing thing.

‘I don’t know if he speaks when I write fiction, but I do feel like he’s sort of there, observing.’

Jesmyn Ward has won two National Book Awards, for her novels “Salvage the Bones” and “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” Her memoir, “Men We Reaped,” is about the deaths of five men in her life, including her brother Joshua. Her 2020 Vanity Fair essay, “On Witness and Repair,” chronicled the unexpected death of her partner and the start of the pandemic.

I was trying to find a job when my brother died. He was killed by a drunk driver, and I was away when he died.

Having my brother die was the first time I had experienced death as a devastating interruption. Even though death is the most natural thing in the world, my brother’s death just seemed so unnatural. One thing that I realized that my brother’s death did was it upended the world. The world I thought I knew was not the world that existed, and at the same time everything I had thought was so important before, like going to law school and putting myself into a position where I could work a practical job and make a good living, suddenly that didn’t seem so important.

I remember being on this flight from New York to home and feeling in that moment like death was imminent. I could die tomorrow. So what am I going to do with this life that I have and this time that I have, that my brother wasn’t given? Immediately the thing that popped into my head was: writing. You’re going to be a writer. That was the moment for me where I committed.

When I think about it now, most of my novels are about young people. My brother died when he was 19, and so I think that’s part of the reason that I write young people over and over again, because I want to revisit that time in life with these characters who I think either have some of him in them, or there is another character around them that my brother sort of inhabits or speaks through. It was most obvious with my first novel because one of the characters is named Joshua, and there is a lot about that character, his physicality and the way he spoke and his temperament — he was very reflective of my brother. I don’t know if he speaks when I write fiction, but I do feel like he’s sort of there, observing.

When I wrote “Men We Reaped,” a memoir which was in large part about my brother, he was definitely right there. It’s one of the reasons people ask whether or not I’ll ever write another memoir, and I always say no because that was so difficult. Sitting with the grief and the pain that I felt and the longing that I still feel for him, writing about his life — in a strange way you’re in this liminal creative space where that person lives again. In the course of that memoir I basically wrote him to his death. That was super difficult.

Honestly I have been struggling a lot lately. I think that sometimes when I’m writing about the people who I love that I’ve lost, whether that’s my brother or my partner — my children’s father — sometimes that looks like just crying the whole time, but still doing it, pushing through it and still writing, but crying.

Sometimes it’s stepping away from the page for a moment and talking to them. I still talk to my brother. I talk to my beloved, my partner, my children’s dad, and that helps too. I may just be delusional and this may just be wishful thinking, but talking to them and being open to feeling them answer, that enables me to live in spite of their loss and live with their loss. I don’t know where I would be or how I would be functioning if I didn’t do that.

You never really know how your work is going to be received and the kind of impact it will have on people. I think I was surprised by people who would come to me in tears at events and say, “I feel like you’re writing my life.” It was strange for me. It took me a minute. It was sort of a shock to understand that what they meant was that they felt seen in their grief.

I teach creative writing and one of the things I’m always talking about in my classes is you make something feel universal by telling a specific story about a specific moment in time, and that’s how you can encourage a universal response in your readers.

That was one of the first times I understood that that could happen. It made me glad that I had done that work and told the story that I did. I thought back to when my brother first passed and how I just floundered. I was in my early 20s. I’m sure that there were books or fiction that dealt with grief, but I didn’t find those books. I was surrounded by other people in their early 20s, and the last thing friends or college boyfriends wanted to talk about was grief. That made me feel very alone. Getting that kind of response from readers, I was grateful that I was able to do the work and offer them a story and an experience that made them feel less alone in that experience of grief.

I think artists are wrestling with it in their work across so many different genres. It’s happening in places like social media. I follow this account on Instagram, Grief to Light. They post these really beautiful, evocative, amazing poems about grief by all kinds of poets. I don’t think I saw that 10 years ago. There was nothing happening like that on Twitter when I was on Twitter 10 years ago, but I feel like it’s happening now. I do think that we are wrestling with it, we’re engaging with it, which I’m grateful for. That’s the least that we can do considering the amount of people who have died in the pandemic. So many people have lost people they love. That’s the least that we can do.

‘It helps me understand myself.’

Justin Hardiman is a photographer whose work amplifies the underrepresented side of his community in Jackson, Miss., including farmers, rodeo riders and artists. His continuing mixed media project “The Color of Grief” combines photography and audio to record how loss feels, specifically to underrepresented communities in the South.

“Color of Grief” came about from a group of friends. We’d talk about life and how you never really get over stuff, you just learn to make it to the next minute or the next hour or the next day. We noticed that in some of our artwork, grief was kind of recurring. You can’t get away from it. It’s sad, but it makes you creative, and grief is really a dynamic theme.

We also talked about therapy, and not everybody can afford therapy, so what do you do? I think art is like a therapy. We go into the studio or go outside and talk to people, and create. The grief is not going to get easier, but it helps to have somebody to help you make it through because there’s a lot to unpack.

I know in the Black community there is not a big thing on asking “Are you OK?” We really don’t have time to grieve. Grief can happen in a lot of ways — it’s not just death. You can lose a friendship. There are so many things you can be attached to.

I wanted to give people a space to talk through their grief. Nobody really asks how you’re doing. Or they ask, but they don’t really want you to unpack it all. I’m continuing the project because grief sticks with you. I wanted to let people do a vocal essay, or a vocal journal entry, something people’s kids could listen to or you could look back on and see your progress in life, and it’s important to immortalize those stories and to immortalize the person.

It’s hard to get people to talk about grief, so I had to find people who were comfortable with me. It helped me to think about what I’m going through or what people in my family are going through and don’t want to talk about. It helps me understand myself.

‘I’m always surprised when people tell me my books are sad.’

Julie Otsuka is the author of three novels, including “The Buddha in the Attic,” which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and “The Swimmers,” about a group of people at a local pool who have to cope when a crack appears, shutting down the one place where they find community and comfort. It’s partly inspired by Otsuka’s experience watching her mother suffer from dementia, and it received a Carnegie Medal for Excellence in 2023.

I don’t think of myself as somebody who consciously is dealing with grief. I’m always surprised when people tell me my books are sad. I think I often start from a point of humor, which somehow allows me to get at something a little more subconscious, feelings of sadness and grief that are probably there in many Japanese American families, and any family, really.

There is just a lot of inherited trauma that has been kept below the surface and not really dealt with. I think that’s why I became a writer. There was a lot about my own family’s past that I sensed but didn’t actually know. You just know that something’s not quite right, something big has happened. In “The Swimmers,” I dealt with grief in a much more direct way, writing about a character like my mother. Grief and humor are flip sides of the same coin, really.

I’m a very slow writer, so I was writing “The Swimmers” for maybe eight years before the pandemic. Then I wrote the last chapter during the first year of the pandemic. It was the first time I’d worked that much at home. For 30 years, I was going to my neighborhood cafe and writing there. I really felt the loss of that community space the first year of lockdown.

I think that isolation seeped into the second chapter of the book. In the pool suddenly there’s a crack that develops and the crack could very clearly be the pandemic and then there’s the loss of this community space, which people are in some way addicted to, and that’s how I felt about the cafe. It’s a space where I’d seen these people every day sometimes for 20 years, so like everybody I was grieving the loss of a community. Writing was a way of keeping the awful news of the pandemic in the background. And then it was a way of being with my mother again.

It seems like everybody’s family has been touched by some form of dementia. So many people my age are dealing with parents who are aging and going through this. There is a lot of grief and sadness out there about watching our parents leave us in this very particular way.

I don’t write for catharsis. I write because I love sentences and thinking things through. I’m obsessed with the sound of language and rhythm. It’s not that I have a sad story to tell, so I’ll tell it, and I’ll feel better. If anything, I feel like telling that story opens you up to more grief — yours and other people’s. It’s never-ending in a way.

My father died in January 2021. He was almost 95. I couldn’t go out there before he died, because I would have had to quarantine for days, and the caregiver said don’t come out, we didn’t want to risk getting him sick. Like so many people who lost somebody during the pandemic who was far away, and they couldn’t see them before they died. It was a very unreal feeling, and I think some part of my brain thinks my father is still alive and out in California. I was with my mother when she died — it was very real and vivid in a lived way. With my father, it’s almost as if it didn’t happen, and I can’t really believe that he’s gone.

‘It was an exercise of going inward.’

Lila Avilés is a filmmaker in Mexico City whose 2018 debut feature, “The Chambermaid,” was Mexico’s selection for the Academy Award for best international feature film. Her second film, “Tótem,” is partly based on Avilés’s experiences with loss and takes place during a single day as a girl grapples with the imminent death of her father. It was a 2023 National Board of Review winner and a Gotham Awards and Independent Spirit Awards nominee.

For many years, I wanted to be a filmmaker. But I was always thinking it won’t happen. After my daughter’s father died, I realized life is short, and I needed to take that path. It didn’t happen fast. I didn’t study formally, I had a daughter, so it was not easy. I come from theater and opera and I wanted to be a filmmaker, and I didn’t know then that I would make “Tótem,” but there was a change that happened. In that moment of my life I was kind of a butterfly. I have friends that know the Lila that used to be, and they told me I changed. We change all the time, but that moment told me to follow your heart.

It was an exercise of going inward. I talked to one friend about the script, but that was it. When films are so personal, in the worst moments, sometimes you have to laugh. It’s like when there was the earthquake in Mexico, and obviously there was chaos, but the next day, kids were outside playing soccer with water bottles. Somehow life keeps going again and again, even in the worst chaos. That’s the value of living.

Grief is part of life. Even the small girls in “Tótem” were open, and that’s super important in filming, or in life. I think connection is beautiful, that I can hear you and take your hand and you can do the same. Living in Mexico with its chaos and things that aren’t good, I appreciate that we can talk about anything. Obviously there are times you need to close doors, but I think for films we need to be super open, especially with this film. With the little girls it was important for me to take care of them and talk about everything, even death. I think you shouldn’t put up a barrier, like, oh, these topics are hard. Let’s speak about them like we speak about everything. It’s part of life.

Nowadays with technology and A.I. and TikTok, everything is about going out of ourselves, everything. Everything tells you: go out, go out, go out. I think we need to go in, go in, go in.

For every art, you have to give it time. Grief evolves, and how can people return to their essence and return to who they are? It’s because of art. If you study history, how do people return to themselves? Even in war? By painting or watching or reading. There are moments that are hard and you think you can’t take it, but it’s a matter of time.

‘You hope that your friends will talk about the person that’s died, because that’s all you can think about’

Richard E. Grant made his feature film debut in the 1987 comedy “Withnail and I,” and has gone on to star in “Gosford Park,” “The Iron Lady” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” for which he was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar. His 2023 memoir, “A Pocketful of Happiness,” is about his marriage to his wife, Joan, and the experience of losing her to cancer.

During the Oscar season in 2019, I posted daily updates on what the whole showbiz circus felt like. Sharing the emotional journey following the death of my wife came from the same impulse — trying to make sense navigating the abyss of grief and buoyed up by the response of followers sharing their own experiences.

I had no fear about sharing my first posts, as I’d already established the habit of sharing the joyful moments of my life, so it seemed perfectly logical to express the reality of grief, in all its myriad variations. The very nature of being an actor requires you to be as vulnerable and open as possible to express the emotional life of a character, so social media posts felt akin to how I’ve earned my living.

Grief is so all-consuming and you hope that your friends will talk about the person that’s died, because that’s all you can think about. By ignoring it, it feels like the dead person has been canceled or never existed. Which feels incredibly hurtful. So I urge anyone to talk to the person who is bereaved.

The first dinner I was invited to, three weeks after my wife died, was revelatory. All 10 guests knew her well and each in turn quietly expressed their condolences, with one exception, who determinedly ignored the topic and blathered on about how Covid restrictions were impacting her summer holiday plans. I left before dessert was served and have never spoken to her again. Blocked her on social media and blanked her at a party recently. Cementing my conviction that it is imperative to acknowledge a bereavement, even if only hugging someone if words fail you. But never ignore it.

Acting has always been like tuning into a radio station where you can dare to air anything and everything you’re feeling via the role that you’re playing. It can be a direct conduit to grief or the opposite distraction, forcing you to think and feel outside of yourself. Every job has the possibility of new friendships. Stimulating, entertaining and distracting in the best possible way. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve had so much work since my wife died, as it’s forced me out of the house and to re-engage with the world. I played a novelist in “The Lesson” whose son had committed suicide, and an aristocrat in “Saltburn” who finds his dead son in the garden, and accessing that profound sense of loss and grief was very visceral and cathartic. I count myself lucky to be in a profession where these emotions have legitimacy and value.

‘I’ve been with people who have lost others, but it’s not yet something I’ve confronted.’

Luke Lorentzen is a documentarian whose credits include the Emmy-nominated Netflix series “Last Chance U.” His most recent film, “A Still Small Voice,” follows a chaplain completing a yearlong hospital residency in end-of-life care at Mount Sinai Hospital during the pandemic. The film won the U.S. documentary best directing award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

The pandemic shutdown was a really confusing moment for all of us, but in terms of my creativity, I had just finished my last film, my first professional film, and it was a moment of unexpected success for a 25-year-old. I had been traveling all over the world showing that film, and it all came to an end right as the pandemic started.

I was in this moment of, “How do I follow this up, what do I do next, where do I go from here?” And it was sort of doubled down with the pandemic coming. I remember having a certain anxiousness about how to respond to this moment in a way that kept me working. I rely on myself to create my work and I remember in that moment needing to find something that could be made through this moment in time. I had a couple of ideas I needed to quickly put to the side and the approach was, ‘What can I make now that’s not ignoring what’s going on, but that’s engaging with it?’ That’s how “A Still Small Voice” got started.

My sister Claire was at the time going through a residency in spiritual care, so just being her little brother I heard about the work but also what the process was of learning to do that type of care. I remember her sharing these process groups where the residents share their feelings, and thinking as a filmmaker those seemed like spaces that I could immerse myself in and observe, and not need to interview or extract much but just sort of be there and arrive at a really deep place.

I reached out to maybe 100 hospitals around the country. This was around April, May of 2020, so trying to get in the door is almost impossible. I think it actually ended up opening the door to Mount Sinai. By the time I’d gotten in touch with them, it was summer, and the spiritual care team had sort of held the weight of this pandemic for the medical staff and patients in a way that few others had, and they were still this completely overlooked department in this windowless office. The project was an opportunity for their work to be seen.

I really needed to live the experience of being a chaplain to make this film, and I don’t think I knew that going into it. The more time I spent there, the more alive the material became. That resulted in me being on site for over 150 days, just immersing myself without training or a history of knowing how to do this work. I think that’s why I gravitated toward the residents. I could sort of learn this spiritual care alongside them and take these lessons and use them to care for myself but also to set up the film in a way that was aligned with these core principles.

One of the things I continually grappled with was wanting these to be tight, beautiful conversations, and they would so rarely unfold in a way that I expected them to. The process of making the film was a process of letting go of all of these expectations that I was looking for and letting the interactions be whatever they needed to be, and finding a certain clarity or meaning in the messiness of it all. In giving yourself over to this type of caregiving and in the filmmaking itself, there’s just a feeling of barely holding on. I’m not somebody who has experienced loss in a very personal way. I’ve lost grandparents, I’ve been with people who have lost others, but it’s not yet something I’ve confronted head on, so I think there’s something about not knowing that allowed me to dive into this.

My interests as a documentary filmmaker are in every nook and cranny of the human experience. There is a sort of deep excitement to engage with all aspects of life. Grief, loss, caregiving and witnessing are a huge part of that. In making the film, I was learning fundamental parts of how to connect to the people around me, and I think it’s through these very challenging moments that we’re asked to step up and figure out how to be, how to listen, how to pay attention.

From the photographer:

Since my brother died I make a point of bringing him along with me to places where I think he’d like to be. Not so much a spreading of ashes as a summoning of spirit, just in case spirits are real.

It can be as spontaneous as spotting his lucky bird on a walk or as intentional as traveling to conjure him in national parks, topless jeeps and wolf-flanked ayahuasca huts. Either way, I say his name out loud (sometimes three times in case Beetlejuice is real) and I invite him in.

We’ve shared a lot of dumb and stunning moments the past two years, but bringing him along to a New York Times article about his hero Conor Oberst’s grief easily tops them all. Thanks for that. Noah Arnold Noah Arnold Noah Arnold. —Daniel Arnold