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About 50 people attend this always sold-out event in San Francisco every month. And today was my day to attend.
“What do you wear to a death event?” I asked myself as I got ready to attend the always sold-out San Francisco experience called You’re Going to Die, akaYG2D.
When I first heard about the event, I felt a kindred attraction and a sudden repulsion. Eventually my curiosity won and, as soon as the email announcing the next event hit my inbox, I bought a ticket.
I dressed in black and sat in the front row — the only seat left.
A big man-child is how I like to describe him. A wholehearted person. He cried, laughed, inspired, and grounded us within minutes.
I found myself screaming with the audience, “I’m going to die!” The fear of the word “die” left the room, considered gone by all for the next three hours.
A woman from the audience shared her desire to die by suicide and how she visited the Golden Gate Bridge frequently. Another shared about the process of losing his ill father through Facebook posts he’d collected. Someone shared a song about her sister, whom she hadn’t heard from in years.
Although I hadn’t planned to share, I felt inspired to also go on stage and talk about loss. I read a poem about my battles with despair. By the end of the night, the fear around dying and death left the room and my chest.
I woke up the next morning feeling a weight off my shoulders. Was it that simple? Is talking about death more openly our ticket to freeing us from what we arguably fear most?
I reached out to Ned immediately the next day. I wanted to know more.
But most importantly, I want his message to reach as many people as possible. His bravery and vulnerability are contagious. We could all use some — and a conversation or two about death.
This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.
How did YG2D get started?
I was asked by the SFSU [San Francisco State University] Graduate Literature Association to do an event that creatively connected students and community. In May of 2009, I lead the first open mic. And that was the start of the show.
But YG2D is actually born out of a long, more complex story in my life. It started with my mom and her private battle with cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 13 and battled cancer multiple times for 13 years after that. With this sickness and the potential death it held over our family, I got presented to mortality early.
But, because of my mother’s privacy around her personal illness, death also wasn’t a conversation made available to me.
During that time, I went to a lot of grief counseling and was in a year-long support group for people who lost a parent.
How did the name come about?
A buddy of mine who was helping with the events asked why I was doing it. I remember simply responding, “Because … you’re going to die.”
Why keep your words or music somewhere hidden, since it’s all going to be gone eventually? Don’t take yourself so seriously. Be here and offer as much of you as you can while you can. You’re going to die.
Things started getting more serious when …
The show mostly took its shape when it moved to Viracocha, a coffin-like downstairs venue in the glowing underworld of San Francisco. It’s also when my wife’s mother died, and it became undeniable for me what I needed from the show:
A place to be vulnerable and regularly share those things that are closest to my heart, those things that define me, whether it’s the heartbreaking loss of my mom and my mother-in-law, or the everyday struggle to find inspiration and meaning by opening to my mortality. And it turns out a lot of people need that — so we get community by doing it together.
How does YG2D work?
You’re Going to Die: Poetry, Prose & Everything Goes happens the first and third Thursday of every month at The Lost Church in San Francisco.
We offer a safe space to dip into the mortality conversation, a conversation we maybe don’t often have in our day-to-day lives. It’s a space where people get to be open, vulnerable, and be with each other’s heartbreak.
Each evening is co-facilitated by either Scott Ferreter or Chelsea Coleman, musicians who hold the space with me. Attendees are welcome to sign up on the spot to share for up to five minutes.
It can be a song, a dance, a poem, a story, a play, anything they want, really. If you cross the five-minute limit, I’ll come on stage and hug you.
What are people’s reaction when you tell them about the event?
Morbid curiosity, maybe? Fascination? Sometimes people are taken aback. And actually, sometimes I think that’s the best measurement for You’re Going to Die’s worth — when people get uncomfortable! It took me awhile to confidently communicate what the event is about with ease.
Death is a mystery, like a question without answers, and embracing that is a sacred thing. To share it together makes it magical.
When everyone says “I’m going to die” together, as a community, they’re pulling the veil back together.
Is there wisdom in avoiding the death conversation?
Mortality sometimes can feel unexpressed. And if it’s unexpressed it’s stuck. The potential for it to evolve and change and become bigger is therefore limited. If there’s any wisdom in not talking about mortality, it’s maybe our instinct to handle it carefully, keep it close to our hearts, thoughtfully, and with great intention.
How do you reconcile this dissonance: When it comes to us and close friends, we’re terrified of death, yet we can go play a game or watch a movie where masses of people die?
When death is not a daily experience for where you live (like in a country in war), then it’s often kept at bay. It’s shoveled off quickly.
There’s a system put in place to take care of things quickly.
I remember being in a hospital room with my mother. They couldn’t have let me be with her body for more than 30 minutes, probably much less, and then at the funeral home for only five minutes, maybe.
Now I feel conscious right now of how important it is that we have the time and the space to fully grieve.
How can someone start changing their relationship to death?
1. Make space to talk to others or listen to others while they’re grieving. I don’t think there’s anything more transformative in life than listening and being open. If someone close to you lost someone, just go there and be there.
2. Get clear on what it is that you’re grieving for. It might be way back, as far back as your youth, your ancestors, and what they went through and didn’t get to shed enough.
3. Create space and openness into that loss and that sadness. Angela Hennessy shared her grief manifesto at our show during OpenIDEO’s Re:Imagine End-of-Life week.
She says, “Grieve on the daily. Make time every day to grieve. Make grieving out of everyday gestures. While you are doing whatever you are doing, say what it is you are grieving and be specific.”
4. Remember that it’s often not the daily stuff you’re dealing with on the surface, like issues with your job, for example. A lot of my life experiences that produced great beauty were born from the work of trauma and suffering. It’s the thing that’s old inside of you, underneath all that daily stuff, that you want to get to. It’s what comes up for you when your mortality is unveiled.
Death offers that practice, that clearing out. When you sit in that truth, it shifts how you relate to life. Death sheds all the layers and lets you see things clearest.
If we talk about something a lot, then it will happen to us, some people say
Like, if I say, “I’m going to die,” then I’ve actually created my death the next day? Well, yes, I believe you’re creating your reality all the time. […] It’s a perspective shift.
Any plans to expand to other cities?
Definitely. I think growing the online community through a podcast this year will make a tour more likely. That’s one of the next steps. That’ll start with more regular curated shows. Also in the works.
If you’re in the Bay Area, attend the next BIG YG2D show at Great American Music Hall on August 11. Click here to learn more about the event or visit www.yg2d.com.
Jessica writes about love, life, and what we’re scared to talk about. She’s been published in Time, The Huffington Post, Forbes, and more, and is currently working on her first book, “Child of the Moon.” You can read her work here, ask her anything on Twitter, or stalk her on Instagram.