There are so many different types of grief. In 2017, the internet and social media can feel like a constant bombardment of collective grief – over celebrity deaths, perhaps, but also over political violence, discrimination and systematic injustices which never seem to end.
But folded within these public mournings are quieter, private griefs: the ones that aren’t shared with the world, aren’t discussed, are personal. It took me three years after my sister’s death to start being okay with wearing my grief more publicly – or to realise that hiding it took more effort than showing it – but even as I’ve moved through this year I’ve noticed how bad I am at talking about it. I can say it exists, and I am desperate to talk about it, but I so rarely know how.
Grief is a lonely experience, but also, frequently, a selfish one: occupied with thoughts so particular it feels like no-one else can begin to understand. So how do you even start to take part in the ebb and flow of a conversation?
Grief is a lonely experience, but also, frequently, a selfish one: occupied with thoughts so particular it feels like no-one else can begin to understand.
To fill that space, I’ve found Griefcast: an occasional podcast in which British comedian Cariad Lloyd joins with other comedians to, in her words, ‘talk, share, and laugh about the weirdness of grief, death, pain, and agony.’
Griefcast is my training ground: I get to be part of these conversations while taking no risk myself. It’s practice in listening, in understanding, in realising that we have more in common than we tend to think.
Lloyd released the first four episodes of Griefcast in quick succession in November last year, and an additional seven episodes from April to July. As far as podcasting – the emerging art form that it is – can feel ‘old fashioned’ in 2017, Griefcast does. It doesn’t have the highly produced structure of This American Life and its stylistic progeny Gimlet; nor does it have the act structure of many conversational podcasts, inspired by the Slate Culture Gabfest or Political Gabfest. Instead, Griefcast is a conversation in the simplest sense: it begins, and then, an hour or so later, it ends. Perhaps that’s all that’s needed.
What little act structure Griefcast has comes in the way Lloyd acknowledges the three circling time points around a loss: the life of the person, their death, and the pain that follows. Lloyd largely focuses on the times of grief – both after death, but also the particular struggle and grieving which comes when a loved one receives a terminal diagnosis – but the before is just as important to the telling of these stories.
Lloyd acknowledges the three circling time points around a loss: the life of the person, their death, and the pain that follows.
Lloyd’s guests have experienced all kinds of loss: parents, friends, grandparents, siblings. Often their losses come in multiples: cousins and fathers and grandfathers lost in unimaginably short spaces of time. They’ve sat with their loss for a year, or for thirty years. They’ve lost people after full lives and elderly infirmity; they’ve lost people too suddenly, and too young.
Many guests have made art about their experiences with grief or about the people they’ve lost – dealing with this period through frantic creation, trying to shift their pain outside of themselves. But there are also guests who have been incapacitated by grief, for whom the months pass by in a blur, who even on Griefcast struggle to find the words to speak about it.
Lloyd’s father died when she was a teenager; she’s now in her early thirties. ‘It took me many, many years to be able to express what I had gone through,’ she says in the introduction to each episode.
A podcast is a living – rather than static – object, and over the eleven episodes so far we have experienced Lloyd’s grief change shape: like all grief, it comes out in different forms on different days, constantly morphing and finding new places in our lives. But Lloyd’s life has changed hugely since she began the series – her first child was born after the first four episodes were released – and we listen as she is forced to grapple with the way becoming a parent will change the way she thinks of the parent she lost.
It feels important to listen to someone whose grief has been sitting with her for a long time, as she speaks to people whose grief has existed for just a year, or for decades. Griefcast creates moments of insight into others’ pain, and sharp pangs of insight into your own. I don’t know how many times I’ve cried listening to Griefcast (and I cry so often I hardly need an excuse). But when Jayde Adams says ‘losing [my sister] is the biggest thing that has ever happened to me – and ever probably will’, I feel heartbreakingly seen.
Griefcast creates moments of insight into others’ pain, and sharp pangs of insight into your own.
Like grief, podcasts are private, intimate things; they exist to us largely in headphones in ears. We store podcasts hidden in phones in pockets; they disappear after we’re finished with them. Someone walking around with headphones might be listening to music, or a podcast, or nothing – just creating a barrier against the world, a symbol to say ‘Don’t talk to me right now’. We might see a brief smile flicker across a face, or a laugh or a tear, but rarely is the listening shared. In the same way, we might see a manifestation of grief: a quietness, a cry, a step of remove from the world. But it is so often kept private.
The world is filled with people who have experienced grief. We all will eventually. But it’s rarely noticeable because people go on with their lives. They have other people who need to be loved, jobs that need to be done, lives that need to be lived. At times these tasks are impossibly hard – and not everyone can reenter the world after grief. But most people do, and it sits with them under the surface as they just keep moving on.
Griefcast might best be understood as a new media form of the grief memoir. Grief memoir often focuses on such a vanishingly small period of time. Looking at the year or so in the immediate aftermath of the event, they’re frequently written from and about the state of extreme turmoil. There is something particular about this state of life and the way writers have captured it that I’ve found comfort in. On the page, sentences and paragraphs that resonate can be turned over in your hands again and again. The words become something tangible to hold onto, to remind yourself how connected you are to others in the world.
But this dominant form of the grief memoir means much is left unsaid: grief doesn’t leave after the first year, it morphs and changes. Other life events compound it, or renew it; so occasionally grief memoirs have sequels. The most famous of these is Joan Didion’s Blue Nights (2011), on the death of her daughter, after The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), on the death of her husband; but also works like Abigail Thomas’ What Comes Next and How to Like It (2015), tracing the same grief as her earlier memoir A Three Dog Life (2006).
On the page, sentences and paragraphs that resonate…become something tangible to hold onto, to remind yourself how connected you are to others in the world.
But mostly the grief memoir captures a finite moment. So much is left unsaid. With the internet it becomes apparent how much this form restricts the tracing of change, as we are able to trace someone’s life after publication: Decca Aitkenhead’s All At Sea (2016) finishes the month before she is diagnosed with cancer; Nora McInerny Purmort’s essay ‘I’m Terrible, Thanks for Asking’ published this June – two and a half years after she experienced three losses in quick succession – captures an important story about surviving through grief which her book It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool, Too) (2016), written in the immediate aftermath, didn’t know of yet.
The proliferation of online opinion space gives new access to these short later considerations of grief like McInerney Purmort’s, essays looking at the way it intersects and entwines with our lives years and decades on. These aren’t the personal essays Jia Tolentino traced the end of in the New Yorker earlier this year – writers exploited and discarded – but rather they exist in a more careful space, where writers weave these stories through the rest of their craft: theatre critic Lyn Gardner writing about how theatre helped her through her mother’s death; Kat Chow, from NPR’s Code Switch, writing about being Asian American and what she inherited from her mother’s wardrobe; TV critic Maureen Ryan using a review of The Leftovers to talk about her mother dying of Huntington’s; Ariel Levy stepping outside of reportage for the first time to write about the loss of her son.
These essays become part of a writer’s broader body of work, just as Griefcast takes up just a small, online part of Lloyd’s career on TV quiz shows and comedy stages.
In this new media landscape, something about podcasting and the longform extended timeframe it embraces feels a good fit for exploring grief. While Griefcast will undoubtedly one day reach an endpoint, this won’t be dictated by publishing schedules or page counts. Each episode brings in new voices, new perspectives, and new griefs, but always at their core is Lloyd, and the gentle way she speaks about her own experience.
In this new media form of grief memoir, Griefcast doesn’t solely exist as a podcast. The show’s Twitter account (which exists quite separately from Lloyd’s) is part marketing tool for the show, giving updates on new episodes or reposting old ones, but it is also a small space where grievers gather.
For anyone feeling alone or full of #grief or memories tonight. You aren't. You are loved. You are here. Somehow you are here?❤️??
— The Griefcast (@thegriefcast) July 31, 2017
Twitter, like all social media spaces, can be a hard place for people in sadness and in pain. It’s loud and busy, too often filled with the news – other things in the world which are difficult to handle – when all you want is friendship and laughter. But it can also be a lifeline: a space to exist without having to enter into the world. Turning away isn’t always a healthy option, and Griefcast’s tweets exist as small interventions into the Twitter stream. A word of reminder, of comfort, or sometimes levity and laughter.
— The Griefcast (@thegriefcast) June 5, 2017
One of the loneliest things about grief is the way people who haven’t experienced it don’t expect you to make jokes about it – they don’t know how to react when you laugh at the darkness, find humour in the bleak. But death, like life, is filled with levity by necessity. Through the Griefcast Twitter account, Lloyd creates comedy about grief in a shareable public space: a retweet can make the point you’re not able to say yourself.
I don’t entirely buy Lloyd’s argument that comedians have a different understanding of grief, by virtue of having ‘chosen a career designed to hide [their] true feelings about anything emotional’ – Griefcast is too familiar and comforting to believe a comedian’s grief is particular – but there is something about the implicit permission a comedian gives you to laugh and find levity, or at least irony and frankness, in grief. This framing serves another purpose, too: a shared life experience gives Lloyd and her guests a topic to latch onto when the loss becomes too much. And in this way, Griefcast joins perhaps the most dominant genre of podcasts: comedians talking to comedians about why they do what they do.
Griefcast is a quiet podcast: self-produced, under processed, it’s a podcast I stumbled upon by accident, rather than through social media buzz or marketing clout. Perhaps this is what is most true about grief: it is an experience to be stumbled through; the things that help will be discovered only by chance, only every now and then. The people who understand will be met slowly, never all at once.
Most importantly, I’ve found in Griefcast a series of reminders: that it’s common to feel angry, to lose friendships, to struggle, to move on with your life in fits and starts. The podcast acknowledges that death is common, but it is hard, that it will keep being hard, that the difficulty of it will morph and change. It reminds you grief is a complicated and untidy process.
Griefcast understands the particular aching loneliness of grief, the acute absence that can never be filled – but it also knows that to experience it is to join a community, of so many others who know what this loneliness feels like. The community doesn’t lessen the burden, but reminds you the world is filled with people who have survived, and so you can survive too. Griefcast reminds me that it is okay to feel lonely – but it’s okay to not feel so alone.