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An Artist Creates a Place to Grieve on Twitch During Holidays in Lockdown

“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, would I have visited you? Could I have gone to your funeral?” “You haunt my dreams. Every time I wake up, there are five seconds where I think it’s real, and then I remember it’s not. I miss you.” These are two of the grief-filled messages that Bay Area artist Oliver Blank has received during his live call-in show on Twitch, The One Who Got Away.

Amid the pandemic, we’re all experiencing collective sorrow. Millions of people have lost loved ones to the novel coronavirus, and millions of Americans remain unemployed. And even though the holidays are upon us, COVID cases continue to surge, which makes celebrating with friends and family members in-person ill advised.

Blank hopes his show helps people weather this bleak time. “As the lockdown came into effect, people confronted the loss of their futures. The show is a place where we can reflect and feel our grief together,” says the artist.

Artist Oliver Blank. (Oliver Blank)

The live show is Blank’s latest version of the project he started in 2014 for the PBS show The Art Assignment. Blank set up a phone number and voicemail for people to call and leave an anonymous message with their answer to this question: “What would you say to the one who got away?”

Since the phone line opened, thousands of callers have left messages for “their one who got away.” In 2018, Blank adapted the project into a podcast, and not long after the pandemic began, he started the live show.

In the past nine months, callers have spoken about their pandemic-induced grief. Blank says most messages are directed towards friends, family members or lost loves. “We all have a relationship or opportunity that got away from us, and the pandemic is democratizing grief and loss for everyone,” he says.

Blank begins his 60-minute show with a short introduction: “This show is a place to feel what we need to feel. This show is for all of us,” he tells listeners. Then he plays some of the older phone messages and hears from callers who want to share a message with their “one who got away.”

Messages from callers are often laced with regret, “I would say, I think of you every day. My only regret is losing you,” one caller shared. “I’m sorry I wasn’t as brave as you were,” another person said. Callers also express their shock and anger: “I don’t know what to say. You left the most damaging wound.”

Whether it’s regret, sadness or a plea for forgiveness, each person’s message illuminates the universal emotions that accompany grief. “I don’t select the phone messages beforehand. With the audience, we’re listening and feeling the experience together,” Blank explains.

After playing each message, he takes the opportunity to remind listeners that it’s never too late to speak their truth: “Take a step and reach out. It’s okay if you missed your chance,” he says.

Researchers state that COVID-induced grief may result in “prolonged grief disorder” because traditional rituals like funerals and sitting Shiva haven’t taken place, which has erased the chance to say goodbye. Hearing about another person’s loss, however, can remind us that we’re not alone, which can foster healing.

Listeners might categorize Blank’s show as a form of “self-help,” but the artist says The One Who Got Away isn’t meant to replace psychotherapy. Still, he hopes hearing other people’s stories helps people turn regret into self-reflection and instills them with a sense of closure.

“Closure means something different for everyone,” he says. “It might mean saying goodbye or finally getting to share whatever you need to say.”

Copyright 2020 KQED