Perspectives on Grieving
Masterpiece of Love
“I had climbed a mountain, and he was still dead.” — Amelia Borealis from Episode 1, Masterpiece of Love
My name is Hal Williams. I’m the creator and host of Masterpiece of Love, a five-part, 81-minute online documentary series that tells the story of what happens to us when someone we love dies.
One of the biggest life insurance companies in the world asked me to create it. So I interviewed four survivors who had recently lost someone — like my friend Amelia, who went on a pilgrimage through the mountains of Europe after her husband died suddenly in her arms.
With each survivor, we talked about how life had been before their loved one died, how that death impacted them financially and emotionally, and how they found the strength to keep moving forward.
I did all of this for one reason: it was my mountain to climb, too.
My father died in 1977. He was 33, and I was 10. At that time, there weren’t places like Imagine to help a little boy like me with grief. So I spent years struggling to find ways to understand what his death meant – much less even knowing how to talk about it.
Almost 40 years later, Masterpiece of Love was my chance to change all that by helping others make sense of what had happened to them.
I worked day and night on this project for 18 months. Many mornings began with me crying in the shower, feeling immense responsibility to those sharing their stories — and still overwhelmed by my own grief.
Nothing had ever mattered so much to me professionally, and maybe even personally. I wanted to make sure that when it was all said and done, I could say that I had climbed my mountain.
And when I did, I realized the harshest truth of all: my daddy was still dead, too.
My last day of work for the life insurance company was the day we finished editing the final story for the series – mine. After that day, it was all over. I was out of a job.
Later that evening, I found one of the last photos taken of my daddy. It’s a summer evening in 1976. He’s wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, cut off jean shorts, bare feet in the grass and smoking one of the thousands of cigarettes that ending up killing him. My uncle is talking to him, but my daddy’s head is turned away. Maybe he’s listening, maybe he’s half listening, but regardless — he has no idea what little time he has left.
And that’s when I really cried.
I had done everything I could do in this project, and yet I couldn’t save him from what’s waiting for him in that photo — and from the past that still follows me around all these years later.
Did I do the right thing in telling his story? Was it right to sell his memory to sell life insurance? Did I do justice to him, much less to all the others in the series? Was I respectful enough, kind enough, good enough, loving enough? Was I?
I spent the next two weeks curled up in bed, barely able to get up. Much less be a husband. Or a father. Or a man.
The summer that followed was a haze of exhaustion, self-doubt, sadness and inaction. I looked for work, half-heartedly at best. The only time I could feel my passion renew is when I’d talk to someone about the series: a friend I hadn’t spoken to in a while, during an interview for a prospective freelance job, to other filmmakers I called for advice. And finally, to Mary Robinson at Imagine.
I’d tell them in painstaking, passionate detail about what went into making Masterpiece of Love. I’d thank them profusely for their time, send the obligatory follow-up email hoping that we’d connect in the future — and, in most cases, promptly dismiss the idea I’d ever hear from them.
I was grieving, all over again. And I was doing it at 50 instead of 10 – with 40 years of interest from the Bank of Sorrow due.
So many people I talked to about Masterpiece of Love told me how proud my daddy would be of me. I hated that. I thanked them politely, but in my heart, I was furious that they’d presume to know what a man they’d never met — much less one dead for so long — would think about his son now having trouble paying bills and looking his family in the face.
He’d be proud? Are you kidding me?
I climbed a mountain and he was still dead. And so, instead of moving forward, I sat on that stupid mountain and quit. What’s there to be proud about that?
It’s almost a year later now. I have a new job that’s very different from Masterpiece of Love. It’s really hard work, and there’s been more than once that I’ve wanted to quit. But if I get it right, I can help make something truly transformative for companies, economies, nations and even humanity as a whole. I am very fortunate.
Yet Masterpiece of Love will always be my baby. I made it for people like you and me — lost in a sea of sadness, feeling completely alone, without a voice, without hope.
If that’s you while reading this, know that you are not alone. I thought long and hard about what I would write for this blog, and I wanted to be as honest as possible. Life sucks, death sucks, and there are corners you will never, ever turn.
You’ll find your mountain. You will climb it. You will get to the top. And you’ll look around and realize it doesn’t change a damn thing. Your loved one is still dead.
So you’ll take all that stuff you’ve been carrying around inside and you’ll throw it everywhere. You will cry and wail and scream at God to change what has happened. And he won’t. He absolutely won’t.
So there’s really only one thing you can do: pick yourself up and walk down that dumb, stupid, ridiculous, unfair mountain. And go find someone who needs a hand climbing theirs.
You’ll find your Masterpiece of Love at someplace like Imagine, where I’m volunteering now. You’ll realize you’re among others who are grieving, you’ll help them find the strength and grace to say “hey, my dad died too” – and you’ll see how that gives you just a little more strength and grace to deal with your own grief.
With some luck – and a lot of love for yourself and others – you’ll find yourself back on top of the mountain. And this time, maybe it’ll be just a little bit better up there.