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September 19, 2019

Grief and Gratitude

Since its launch  last fall, Sorry for Your Loss has drawn raves for star Elizabeth Olsen while helping put the still-young Facebook Watch on viewers’ radar. But its most startling result has been the outreach from thousands of viewers, also in grief and grateful for the show’s emotional support.

Neil Turitz
  • Courtesy Facebook Watch
  • Elizabeth Olsen (second from left) with Mamoudou Athie, Janet McTeer and Kelly Marie Tran

    Courtesy Facebook Watch

"I just got through the six-month mark of my husband's death. He was 32. Cancer. I'm a 32-year-old single mom and widow now. How did this happen? I could not be more grateful for what has been created here. The timing is perfect for me. Thank you for exposing so many realities. Grief is so confusing. Just thank you so so so so much, from the bottom of my heart!!!"

The realization of Sorry for Your Loss as both a television show and a nexus of support for grief-stricken fans seems like a grand accident. A particular writing sample was shown to a particular executive for a particular staffing job, but it yielded something else entirely — and the whole story started with a moment of panic.

A newlywed woke up in the middle of the night to find her husband missing. She couldn't reach him and started to freak out, but soon everything turned out okay. She dismissed it as one of those little episodes that happen to so many of us. But that newlywed was writer Kit Steinkellner, and she couldn't stop thinking about the feeling she'd had.

"That night really haunted me, and I couldn't shake it," she explains. "I tried to figure out what I would've done if the most important person in my life disappeared and I had to keep going. The more I thought about it, the more I came up with this character, and I built the show around her."

Soon, she had completed a pilot about a young widow, not yet 30 years old, who's trying to put her life back together after the sudden death of her husband (that panicked incident was a key moment in the pilot). Like most television writers, she was looking for a job. Her first TV writing job. Her agent sent the spec script, then known as Widow, to a production company, which is how it reached that particular executive.

Robin Schwartz had been working in TV for years (NBC, ABC Family, Regency), and she'd been the first hire and first president of OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. She was overseeing the TV division at Brillstein-Grey when she read Steinkellner's script and promptly flipped out.

"I read it and said, 'I am going to make this show,'" Schwartz recalls five years later.

Never mind that it was just a sample, and that Steinkellner had not submitted it for consideration as a new project. Schwartz was on a mission. "I called her agent and told her how much I loved the writing, and while Kit didn't get the job, I insisted that I was going to make this show. The agent kind of laughed at me, but I insisted, then met with Kit and told her I was going to make her show."

"The landscape was very different," Steinkellner recalls. "Transparent was a pilot, not a series, so the idea of a half-hour drama was not common. Now it's accepted, but back then, people still weren't sure what to do with it. But Robin just said, 'I don't care, we're going to make this show!' It was too important to us not to make. It wouldn't have been made without her."

"I am almost seven months in. I am 38 with a 15-year-old daughter. I have been watching to coax myself through feelings and have found such great alliance with this show. My husband was in an accident as well, and I will never really know what happened to him. We are all so broken and this episode is one that just invites all kinds of emotion.

"Trying to feel better/normal, trying to understand the unknown, and trying to navigate a life you had not planned. Thank you for helping me in this journey."

It was a hard sell, this half-hour drama about grief, but soon the two partners had a third: Elizabeth Olsen. She was the first and only actor they approached to play the grieving Leigh and, just as the timing had been perfect for Schwartz, it was for Olsen as well. She was going through a major life change and felt the script's power more fully than she'd expected.

"There was something deeply honest and funny and angry about it," she says. "There was so much soul for someone so young, and it was just a smart thing for someone my age, to play with something like this. They're roles you normally don't get as an actress until you're older, to play someone going through such a difficult life change."

So now they were three, and over the course of several years, they took the project around town. Everyone loved it. No one knew what to do with it.

Half-hour dramas were coming into vogue, thanks to the success of Transparent on Amazon, but there weren't shows about grief. Soon, there would be plenty, including acclaimed programs like Amazon's Fleabag and Showtime's Kidding, but at the time, there was pretty much nothing. Things stalled.

Meanwhile, Schwartz had left Brillstein for the indie film studio Big Beach, where she oversees a new operation specializing in auteur-driven television. Part of her deal in departing Brillstein was that she could take Sorry for Your Loss with her. In fact, Steinkellner says with a laugh, "She wasn't leaving without it."

At the same time, Olsen's star was rising, and Steinkellner had spent a year on the staff of the Amazon series Z: The Beginning of Everything. Showtime bought the script and put it into development.

Things were progressing nicely until it became clear that, with Olsen's busy schedule and her duties as an Avenger in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the network wouldn't be able to move forward in as timely a fashion as the project required. So, back to the drawing board.

Then Schwartz had a brainstorm.

"I suggested Facebook Watch," she says, "because I thought it would be the right place. It's a platform about connectivity, where you often find out about somebody's loss, or that somebody is born, and whenever you go on it, you're going to learn something. And Kit was very excited about being the first, being a pioneer."

They left the script with the Facebook team, and soon, the call came: the social network wanted to make 10 episodes of Sorry for Your Loss. While it wasn't the first scripted show on the streaming platform, it was the highest- profile project.

"People have a very intimate relationship with Facebook," says Mina Lefevre, head of development for Facebook Watch. "This show portrayed a very real and emotional story of loss. The thinking was that this would allow people to connect to it in an intimate way."

"I lost my husband a little over three years ago. I rushed back into work and college. I had an injury in May and have had all these feelings coming back. I was so busy before, I couldn't seem to feel much. But the pain is there and so is the anger. I lost two brothers and a sister in the last three years as well so I also relate to Danny. This is an amazing show and it helps too. Thank you."

That connection would soon happen, in a way no one had expected, but first, the show had to get made. Enter James Ponsoldt. In addition to such movies as The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, the acclaimed director had done some TV, including two early episodes of the Emmy-winning Netflix series Master of None. Like everyone else who read Steinkellner's script, he felt a special connection to it.

"My mother was a hospice volunteer my whole life, and I grew up around a lot of death. So it was something I thought about a lot, and it's kind of a theme in my work," Ponsoldt says. "I was really moved by the script, and I knew I wanted to be involved. I thought that if they could pull this off, this tricky combination of trauma and recovery and the nature of grief was something I hadn't seen before."

The show assembled a stellar cast, including Janet McTeer as Leigh's mother, Amy; Kelly Marie Tran as her sister, Jules; Mamoudou Athie as her late husband, Matt (seen in flashbacks); and Jovan Adepo as Matt's brother, Danny. The team made the 10 episodes, with Ponsoldt directing four of them.

The result is a smart, thoughtful series that is alternately dark and funny (sometimes both at the same time), with a lead character who seethes with anger and quivers with loss. Olsen often says and does things that would make another character unlikable. Then the viewer thinks, "Wait a minute: she just lost her husband — cut her some slack."

(Olsen is also an executive producer, along with Steinkellner; Ponsoldt; showrunner Elizabeth Weiss; Schwartz, Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub for Big Beach TV; and Cynthia Pett, Brad Petrigala and Jon Liebman for Brillstein Entertainment Partners.)

Before the show even premiered, Facebook began a Sorry for Your Loss group, which drew thousands of members and got people talking. Once the show dropped in September 2018, something remarkable happened. People began posting about the show and how well it portrayed grief and loss.

Comments like, "Thank you even though it's been a long time and I'm in a much better place now it's still hard. I lost Steve in 2011 then my dad in 2012 then my mum in 2015 the only reason I'm here today is because of my children and grandchildren" and "I'm a recent widow, my late husband Matt died last year on 10/8/17. This hit home for me. Thank you for this series. It's like an extension of my spousal support group" and "I feel your words. I lost my mom in 07 when I was 24. Then my dad in 2012, my husband in 2016 and my best friend in 2017. My daughter is the only light in life keeping me going."

There are thousands more, just like those.

"I was curious about why we would open ourselves up to people on the internet, who can be so mean, but what came out of it was the compassion people have for each other," says Olsen, months later still clearly blown away. "That they can communicate to others what it means to feel this way, it was astonishing to see."

But they didn't just do it on the show's group page or on their own pages. They did it on the page where the show streams, thus giving each episode a running commentary from people who found it cathartic and therapeutic. Grieving folks who had lost loved ones found support from total strangers.

Suddenly, people who had felt terribly alone and isolated felt a sense of community and saw that, actually, they were not alone at all — thanks to this TV show. Because of the show, people have found grief groups and have asked for help with their own depression, thanks to web links and phone numbers offered onscreen at the end of most episodes.

The show employs a psychiatrist, Dr. Scott Irwin, as a medical consultant to ensure accurate portrayals of grief, depression, mental health, addiction and end-of-life issues.

"Today was supposed to be our wedding but he passed away on September 1. This show has been helping me with some of the process."

"It's overwhelming," Steinkellner says with wonder. "I was nervous going in, but the extraordinary thing was how gratifying the comments have been, and how kind people were being to each other. Someone will tell their story, and someone else will respond about how similar that is to their own story, and they can talk if they want.

"To have strangers there for each other, and for people to support each other in such a profound way, is the most beautiful thing about the show."

Facebook Watch hasn't even been around for two years, so there are natural growing pains. For example, it can be hard to find. As Steinkellner and her team prepare for the second season (expected in September), Lefevre says Facebook will use Sorry for Your Loss to help raise the platform's visibility.

Schwartz observes that Steinkellner loves being a trailblazer and experiencing these first-hand responses in a way she probably couldn't anywhere else.

That's why this might be the perfect marriage of show and streaming service. Nothing else offers the immediacy of contact that Facebook does, nor does another show seem to touch people the way Sorry for Your Loss does. Both the show and the platform have done something truly rare: they have genuinely helped people who needed it.

Even if nothing else about the show were working, that would be victory enough. The fact that it has been received so well makes that victory even sweeter.

Schwartz likes to tell a story about the very first comment the show received. It was from a woman in rural Ohio who had just lost someone close to her. She was young and alone and hadn't known what to do, but after watching the show, she googled grief groups near her — and then she found one and wasn't isolated anymore. She was incredibly grateful.

"That one person should be enough," Schwartz says. "It just shows how well it works on this platform. It's amazing how supportive people are of each other. Everybody has such a better understanding of grief and loss than I thought they did, and people are so helpful and supportive of each other. It's phenomenal, and such an amazing extension of what I always thought the show was capable of."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2019

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