In Katie Overy’s podcast, That Grief Relief Podcast, people do not shy away from injecting lightheartedness into the conversation – even as they talk about the darkest period of their lives.
“People just want to share their stories,” she says. “People are so hesitant about talking to someone who has been bereaved because they think it’s too upsetting for them but in fact – and this surprised me, too – people are thankful for the chance to talk about their lost loved one. There is a huge grief community on Instagram, which I never knew about. We’re not joking about grief, we’re not making light of it but we can discuss it in a way that is lighthearted at times.”
That Grief Relief was born out of Katie’s own losses. In 2010, her mother died suddenly after suffering a heart attack. In 2012, her father passed away from cancer. Three of her friends have died in the last 18 months, two of them by suicide.
Then in March last year, Katie lost her job at Heart Radio in Dubai. Looking for something to do during lockdown, she decided to record herself and her two brothers talking about the loss of their parents. As a professional broadcaster, she already had the equipment at home, so they went ahead. They called themselves the Dead Parents’ Society, which gives you a clue about the tone of the discussion. Her sister-in-law was also roped in, forming a sub-group called the Dead Dads Club.
They discussed everything about their experience, openly, including whether it was preferable for someone to pass away suddenly and swiftly without suffering, as happened with their mother.
“It’s good that she didn’t suffer,” says Katie, “but there was so much admin to deal with! We nearly lost all her savings.”
Katie’s father, however, died five months after being diagnosed with a brain tumor and planned his own funeral, right down to what food should be served at the wake.
“We literally sat round a table with him and he told us we had to have mushroom vol-au-vents,” she says. “It’s not a proper funeral without them, apparently.”
The first episode of the podcast went out last October, with no plan to extend it beyond her own family. But then, when out with friends for dinner one evening, Katie got talking to a woman who said she would love to talk about losing her sister to cancer at a young age.
That recording became episode 5 of That Grief Relief. After a few more episodes, people began contacting her, wanting to explore other kinds of loss. “And things just snowballed from there,” says Katie.
“Episode 11 is about Dominique, whose mother left the family to start a new life with someone else. Dominique just couldn’t forgive her and they didn’t speak for a long time, so Dominique was mourning that lost relationship.
“There is a sort of happy ending to that story. Dominique sent the podcast to her mother, who called back and now they zoom every week. It isn’t always easy but at least they are rebuilding their relationship and Dominique says it would never have happened if she hadn’t told her story.”
Katie finds many of her guests via Instagram. “There is a huge grief community on Instagram. Would you believe there are five podcasts called Dead Parents Society, with people just talking about their parents?”
By searching hashtags like #dealingwithgrief Katie was introduced to different aspects of the experience, such as ambiguous, disenfranchised and anticipatory grief.
Diana, for example, (episode 17) cares for her mother, who has a rare form of dementia, which has robbed her of her personality. “That’s ambiguous grief because although her mum is still alive, Diana has lost the relationship they had and she is also anticipating the grief she’ll feel when her mum passes away. She said, ‘Every day is like tiny paper cuts – I’m losing a little piece of her every day.'”
Alex (episode 18), on the other hand, is experiencing disenfranchised grief, because she is mourning the loss of a nine-year relationship.
“With disenfranchised grief, society feels that you have no real reason to be grieving,” Katie explains. “People say things like ‘everyone gets their heart broken’ and ‘plenty more fish in the sea.’ They might mean well, but inside Alex feels like she’s dying.”
Another example is the woman who has just retired from competitive gymnastics after 18 years. “People assumed she must love not having to train, but she really misses it,” says Katie.
Different cultures approach bereavement in different ways. As a long-time resident of Dubai (she arrived in 2008 from the south of England to join her brothers who had already settled there), Katie’s observation is that grief in the UAE and the wider Middle East is either treated as an extremely private matter or something to be brushed under the carpet.
However, in episode 14, Lara, who is Lebanese, talked about mourning the life she has lost since her fibromyalgia diagnosis. Katie hopes soon to interview an Arab man who has started a foundation in honor of his late daughter, and a woman from the GCC mourning the leg she lost as a child when she stepped on a land mine.
In general, though, Muslims are simply not comfortable talking about death and especially not in a way that seems flippant, says Katie.
“It’s getting easier but one has to be culturally sensitive. My hope is that if one person talks, others might.”
Men from any culture are often notoriously bad at expressing their emotions but Katie has found it gratifyingly easy to find male guests for her podcast.
One is a 31-year-old man, originally from Kerala, who lost his father four years ago and has now decided to cut all ties with his mother and brother.
“He was at rock bottom but felt he got no support back from them,” says Katie. “He says he was not allowed to grieve for his father but as the eldest son, he was expected to step up and carry on paying all the bills, so two years ago, he decided to cut them out of his life, which is obviously huge in his culture.”
A British Indian Sikh has talked about the cultural confusion he feels since losing his father six months ago. A Sri Lankan man discusses his loneliness after moving from Malaysia, where he grew up, to Dubai.
“His parents have now gone back to Sri Lanka but he can’t go back to Malaysia because of visa issues. He feels lost in Dubai and is grieving for the life and friends he had in Malaysia.”
From the north of England, a 33-year-old shipyard worker whose wife had miscarried their baby wanted to talk about the online support group he has started for other fathers bereaved through miscarriage.
“In those cases, the sympathy tends to be focused on the mother but the child was as much his,” says Katie. “He said he just didn’t know what to do or how to care for his wife and he just wanted to talk to someone who had been through it.”
She makes a point of not asking her guests for details of their story before recording. “I want it to be as if you just met them in a coffee shop and they told you they were grieving and you would want to ask lots of questions but daren’t because you can’t do that with a stranger. Well, I will ask the questions. I will ask whatever comes into my head.”
One guest did give her pause, however. “He was an African-American man who had lost all his grandparents, his parents, his brother and his son all within a short period of time. He also used to be in a gang and lost lots of friends and had planned his own suicide. My podcast is supposed to be lighthearted but when I heard his story, I must admit I panicked.
“But we ended up laughing – not about his loss, but we were lighthearted. My guests give me permission to be lighthearted.”
After arriving in Dubai in 2008, Katie worked in sports marketing. She discovered a flair for broadcasting when she was invited to a panel discussion on Dubai Eye radio. She did so well that they kept asking her back. She then “made a thorough nuisance of myself” to land a job at Dubai 92 at weekends and eventually went full time. She also comperes events and works as a voiceover artist – listen out for her as the voice of National Westminster Bank’s new AI function.
Talking about grief within one’s own circle is one thing, but what made her want to do it publicly?
“I’m in the broadcast industry, I’m very open, I love talking about my parents and I thought it might help people. One of the points of the podcast is to highlight the benefit of counseling and therapy. I used to be very anti-counseling – my response would usually be, ‘Excuse me, I’m British, we don’t do that!’ I was persuaded to go for one session and I entered the room like a petulant child. Three sessions in and I still hadn’t spoken once about my dead parents but I realized I had suffered a lot of trauma in my life.
“My parents went through a very bitter divorce when I was eight. My mother remarried and divorced again. My house burned down in 1997. I was made redundant from my job, then I moved to Dubai. Lots of people have thanked me for talking about therapy. I get messages from people who’ve been seeing a counsellor for a year but are too ashamed to tell anyone. I always stress that I am not an expert myself but I can point them toward someone who is.
“Some of the feedback I get gives me goosebumps and I’ve realized that I didn’t grieve properly for my parents. I’m not a fan of support groups, but through the podcast I have sort of created my own. The guests keep in touch. I firmly believe that every day you have a choice to be happy or sad.”
For more on Katie Overy, her podcast and her career, go to katieovery.com
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.