Death and Grief: Creating Community Through Shared Stories (Josh Neufeld, Featured Bee)

HiVE member and photographer Josh Neufeld. (Photo courtesy of Josh Neufeld.)

This month, we got to have an intimate conversation with HiVE member and photographer Josh Neufeld to hear about how he’s creating community and healing through his passion project Grief Narratives.

Tell us a bit about yourself—who you are, your work, and why you’re passionate about it.

I’m a photographer here in Vancouver. I shoot a lot of portraits, headshots, and marketing content for businesses. I have an end-of-life photography side of my business, as well. I’m very curious so I like learning about the person, the business, or the cause that I’m shooting for, and then using the camera to create imagery that helps share that story.

How are you involved as a HiVE member?

I do some photo and video work for a foundation here called Gathering Voices Society. Our goal is to create environmental stewardship programs for First Nations communities, to give them stewardship over the lands that they traditionally owned. 

You created a beautiful website called Grief Narratives. Can you tell us what it’s about and why you created it?

Grief Narratives is an online community resource where people can read stories, and hopefully share their own, about grief and loss. 

In 2015, I lost my dad rather suddenly to cancer and I photographed the last 19 days of his life. I wrote an essay to go with the photo essay, and put that out on my personal website. In doing that, so many people reached out and shared their own story. 

When you go through a very significant loss, grief really takes a hold of you. It feels like you’re in this deep, dark pit of despair, and that nobody can possibly understand what you’re going through. There’s truth to that, because it is your own experience of it. At the same time, if you just reach a hand out in the dark, you’ll find that everybody’s down here doing it with you—and I find a lot of beauty and comfort in that. 

I thought it’d be cool if there was a space to be able to do that, and to experience what I experienced by sharing my story. So I built griefnarratives.com.

Dietmar, Josh’s dad. Read the full essay at https://joshneufeldphotography.com/essays/meetingmortality/. (Photo courtesy of Josh Neufeld.)

How can people share their own stories on Grief Narratives?

They can write in their stories. It doesn’t have to follow a certain story structure. Some are relatively journalistic accounts of what happened in the days leading up to it. Others are more philosophical ruminations of grief, death, and loss. And others are just really simple takes on what the feeling of grief is. So it’s quite broad.

At some point, I want to have a multimedia aspect to it where people can send in songs, etc. I don’t want people to feel boxed in on what they’re feeling in their grief, because everybody feels it so differently.

Why do you think it’s important for people to share their stories about grief and loss? What happens when we don’t share?

To me, there’s beauty in experiencing the whole breadth of emotion that life has to offer. I think in sharing, it’s a very cathartic process.

But while people really want to talk about it, there’s no outlet for it. People don’t really bring it up because they’re uncomfortable to hear it. My cousin lost her mom—seven years later, she told me that people don’t ask her about her mom anymore, or ask her how she’s doing. She’s like, ‘I want to talk about my mom, because I want to hold on to that connection I have to her.’

I think there’s a lot lost by being intimidated to share stories, both in the connection to that person and that connection to whatever you’re feeling in yourself.

You wrote that your sister whispered to you during your dad’s last hours, “Dad is teaching us how to die,” and that is a lesson you will always be grateful for. Can you share what you learned? 

It was to die how you live. Which, for my dad, meant being gracious, grateful, intelligent, caring, and comforting. Like I had friends come by, and one of my buddies had put his dog down a few months before. And when he walked into the room, my dad said, ‘Hey, how are you doing? I heard you had to put Juno down. Are you okay?’ He was on his deathbed, and died ten days later, and all he tried to do that whole time was try to comfort us and the people who came to visit him. 

He just took it all in stride. He’d get sad, but that’s going to happen. And he’d say openly, “This is not what I expected,” and talk about cold and lonely nights. But he said, ‘Whatever’s out there, whatever happens next, whatever it is knows that Diet’s [Dietmar’s] been good, and I’m going to be fine.’

Josh on assignment. (Photo courtesy of Josh Neufeld.)

How did this project about your dad change you as a photographer and how you do your work? 

Before my dad got sick, my uncle was facing a terminal illness. And after a conversation with him, I had the idea for doing this kind of shoot. I thought I would volunteer at a hospice, create this kind of imagery, have these kinds of conversations with people, and then be able to distill that down and give it to people. And then my dad became the subject, and that just changed everything. 

I’ve always wanted to do documentary photography, but now it’s just become a bigger purpose. In photographing my dad’s story and sharing it with people, it’s given me a reason to show people that this is an option for them. It’s not going to be for everyone, but for whoever wants it, I can offer them this. I can also give people suggestions, like what I would have done differently.

What’s one thing you wish you would have done differently?

Video. Grab your phone, film. Or even just record sound—’cause you can look at photos, but you end up missing the way they talked, the sound of their voice, the language they use, all of the little mannerisms that made them them. That’s one for sure. 

I also wish I would’ve taken one-on-one time with my dad sooner. The hospital staff were super pushy, in a good way, about taking one-on-one time with my dad before it was too late. I should have listened to that more, because by the time I did, he was fully hallucinating from being on more and more drugs.

What is your mission for Grief Narratives?

My hope is that Grief Narratives gets shared often enough that there are constantly new stories coming in. I think everyone’s experience of grief and loss is different, but there are always little similarities that you can attach to. 

Probably the second year after my dad’s death, I had been feeling this weird thing in my gut, this kind of sadness. I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t have words for it. As I was collecting stories for the website, I read one where a friend of mine spoke about her aunt. And as soon as I had read what she missed about her aunt, and what that said to her about grief, it hit me. That was exactly what I had been feeling. It gave me words for what I was feeling, and then also gave me comfort because she felt the exact same thing.

Are there any last words you’d like to leave with our readers?

Give people who are going through it an outlet, because at some point they’ll want to talk about it. And I can promise you, if they do, they will feel better for it. This whole process has given me comfort. I’ve interviewed 22 people and we’ve shared many of the same stories—that brings me happiness. But all of that feeds into the larger belief that we should be able to talk about it, and to change the whole conversation about grief and loss.

What are some ways that others can get involved with you and your work?