The Other Side of Grief is a series about the life-changing power of loss. These powerful first-person stories explore the many reasons and ways we experience grief and navigate a new normal.
A few years after Hurricane Katrina, Oliver Blank, an artist, designer, and musician, was living in New Orleans. In the Bywater neighborhood where remnants of the storm’s devastation remained, Blank recalls walking by a wall and seeing the words “What would you say to the one who got away?” written in beautiful cursive. Struck by the question, he jotted it down in a notebook.
In 2014, Blank was approached by Sarah Urist Green to create an interactive art project for “The Art Assignment,” a weekly digital production on PBS that’s hosted by Green. Recalling the phrase he saw on the wall in New Orleans, Blank had an idea: People would call a phone number, leaving a message with their answer to the question, “What would you say to the one who got away?”
“We expected a few hundred calls, but we received thousands of messages from callers all around the world,” Blank says. Hearing callers’ emotional messages, Blank felt responsible to share more of their stories.
In May, he turned the art project into a podcast, “The One Who Got Away,” and even composed music to accompany each episode.
While the callers leave emotional messages about various types of loss, grief grips most of them as they struggle with how to say goodbye to a lost love.
“You were the one, the one that got away. My perfect man. And someone’s going to get to spend the rest of their lives looking up to your beautiful face. And it won’t be me.” — A caller on “The One Who Got Away”
Going through a breakup can be traumatic. Similar to other traumas, like the death of a loved one, breakups can cause overwhelming and long-lasting grief. But how do we mourn these losses, especially when the person may still pop up on social media or be connected with friends or co-workers?
Before each episode of the podcast, Blank addresses these existential questions. In the second episode, he talks about the meaning of goodbyes and says, “All we ever have is the memory of our time with each other.” He also reflects on his own heartache, sharing that he pushed away the person he loved the most.
Healthline sat down with Blank and asked him how the podcast helps callers process breakup grief.
In what ways are breakups like grief?
Similar to death, we can carry the grief of breakups with us for months, even years.
Around Episode 3 of the podcast, my long-term partner broke up with me. Working on the podcast heightened the experience of what I was going through. I felt a deep loss. I was disconnected, and my grief was amplified. What helped was hearing the messages that callers had left. It reminded me that others had gone through something similar.
When people talk about a breakup, they often use the same language as when someone dies. I think it’s because we have a relatively limited range of words for communication when it comes to loss.
But the podcast illuminated that even if people are deeply wounded and feel broken, they survive.
“Every night you’re in my dreams, and it’s gotten to the point where I don’t want to wake up.” — A caller on “The One Who Got Away”
Is the feeling of the person not existing in your life ever again the same as them not existing at all?
Often, with a breakup and when someone dies, we look for closure because we’re uncomfortable with sadness. In this way, the losses are similar.
We’re losing someone who was embedded in our life. We no longer wake up to see this person’s face beside us in the morning. We can no longer call this person to chat for a few moments in a busy day. Anniversaries take on a new, potent significance. And you may never again visit the places you shared together.
But with a breakup, the suffering can be magnified in a particular way, because you know the other person is still out there somewhere. In turn, we can be drawn to dwell on how our lost love is living without us.
“You’re the first and only person that I’ve ever been in love with, and I’m scared that I’ll never feel that way again. No matter how hard I try, I can’t forget about you. I can’t.” — A caller on “The One Who Got Away”
How does social media make it difficult for people to move forward after a breakup?
My therapist once advised me not to check my ex’s social media feed.
Even when a relationship ends, whether it’s a distant friendship or an intimate partnership, the digital footprint remains. Our feeds become a representation of the person we lost. And yet, in reality, we’re seeing only a curated glimpse of their life. From that glimpse we weave fantasies, believing that our narratives are true.
“It’s been a year, and I can’t see myself with anyone else. I believe that love comes around once in a lifetime and when it’s gone, it’s gone. I want to hate you for doing this to me. But I can’t.” — A caller on “The One Who Got Away”
How does the podcast help people process their grief?
“The One Who Got Away” can be a sort of catharsis for callers and listeners alike. People can call the number, 718-395-7556, and answer the question, “What would you say to the one who got away?”
When they call, there’s often a kind of sharing that’s free and direct. Callers forget about the construct, about me, the show, and the listeners. They tend to speak directly to their one who got away. It’s raw, honest, and emotional. I believe I often hear a relief and release by the end of the call.
I’ve heard from subscribers that “The One Who Got Away” is very different to other podcasts. It’s not something to listen to while running or walking the dog. I wouldn’t mind if it were, but I’ve heard that the show asks a little more of the listener. Even though it’s only 25 minutes long, it’s deeply evocative.
People message me about being moved to tears listening to each episode. Others create artworks and poetry as a response. And then there are some who are slowly working up the courage to call and leave their own message.
Want to read more stories from people navigating a new normal as they encounter unexpected, life-changing, and sometimes taboo moments of grief? Check out the full series here.
Juli Fraga is a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco. She graduated with a PsyD from University of Northern Colorado and attended a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley. Passionate about women’s health, she approaches all her sessions with warmth, honesty, and compassion. See what she’s up to on Twitter.