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Las Cruces ‘grief party’ lightens the load of heavy emotions

Las Cruces musician and songwriter Randy Lynch performs at the area’s first-ever Grief Party, a show that took place in late February 2024 to help people cope with its namesake emotion. Lynch says he experienced depression in the aftermath of a divorce, and writing and performing songs has been part of his healing journey.
Alexander Antholzner
Las Cruces musician and songwriter Randy Lynch performs at the area’s first-ever Grief Party, a show that took place in late February 2024 to help people cope with its namesake emotion. Lynch says he experienced depression in the aftermath of a divorce, and writing and performing songs has been part of his healing journey.

EDITOR’S NOTE — This story includes mentions of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, the national suicide and crisis lifeline in the U.S. is available by calling or texting 988. There is also an online chat at 988lifeline.org

 
LAS CRUCES – More than two dozen people gathered in a local art gallery. They performed – and listened to – music and poetry. And they enjoyed cake by a local baker.

 On the surface, it might have seemed like a typical party. But if you’d stayed around, for any length of time, you’d have seen it was a gathering of an unusual kind.

 Featuring a lineup of local poets and musicians, the event was part performance and part therapeutic outlet, all revolving around the public expression – and acceptance – of people’s grief.

 Indeed, it was the area’s first Grief Party.

 While death was a source of the grief expressed at the party, there were others, too.

 “It was musicians and poets who performed, and they all had a grief to share,” said lead organizer Liz Liano, a local poet and mental health advocate. “Some had familial loss; some had difficult caregiving situations. My own grief I detailed was that my brother recently went back to prison. That’s been pretty tough. This is how I process that kind of thing. I have a bunch of poems I've written about it.”

The words “grief” and “party” may seem at first glance like they shouldn’t have much to do with one another. Grief is characterized by feelings of deep sorrow, often over a death or other significant loss. And a party is a lively gathering that’s usually celebratory in nature. But local mental health advocates see a connection between the two, resulting in the event earlier this year.

The party, promoted by the Las Cruces Suicide Prevention Task Force, was the first of what organizers hope will become a regular occurrence, offering artists and members of the broader Las Cruces community a chance to further share, process and accept their grief – steps toward better mental health.

Liz Liano
Grief Party host and organizer Liz Liano ordered a custom cake from No Worries Bakery for the event. The confection’s message encapsulates the seemingly conflicting emotions the party brought out in people.

‘Hurray! We’re sad”

The Grief Party created a dedicated, nonjudgmental space where people were not only allowed to share some of their deepest sorrows – but, in fact, were encouraged to do so. Mental health advocates said having that freedom and safety in a public setting is meaningful. The event helped to build social connections, a recognized aspect of resilience, which helps to buffer against the negative effects of heavy emotions and mental illness. Plus, the party was a way to create and express art centered around one’s mental health, a tie that’s shown promising benefits to many people.

“Grief and loss and pain and mental health are all things that are deeply stigmatized in our society,” Liano said. “They don't necessarily have their own outlet or platform. There's not a place people can loudly proclaim ‘I'm sad!’ and feel comfortable about that.”

But through introductory remarks and conversations with artists, Liano sought to strike that unusual tone for the evening. The custom-baked, heart-shaped cake, decorated in black frosting, captured the sentiment in a nutshell. It read: “Hurray! We're sad.”

Las Cruces resident Randy Lynch, a country music singer and songwriter, performed several songs at the Grief Party. Liano is a good friend of his, and when she first mentioned the idea for the event to him, he was immediately intrigued.

“It sounded so different and cool,” he said.

Lynch experienced deep depression in the aftermath of a divorce. One evening, in the depths of despair, he seriously considered suicide. He credits music for not only stopping him that night, but also helping to propel him along his healing journey ever since.

“I saw my guitar on the stand,” he said. “I went over and picked up the guitar. I played all throughout the night and into dawn. For me, that's the way I deal with my own issues, by playing.”

Most people will experience grief in their lifetime over the death of a loved one. And the multi-faceted emotion is associated with other types of loss, too: a broken relationship, a lost job, a decline in health. For most people, grief may be acute for a while but eventually transitions to a tolerable level.

Attendees and performers at Las Cruces’ first Grief Party gather for a photo at the late February 2024 event, which took place at Woody’s Gift Gallery in the Mesquite Historic District.
Alexander Antholzner
Attendees and performers at Las Cruces’ first Grief Party gather for a photo at the late February 2024 event, which took place at Woody’s Gift Gallery in the Mesquite Historic District.

However, about one in 10 people experiencing bereavement will suffer complicated grief, a prolonged, deeply distressed state, according to a 2009 article in World Psychiatry. Those with complicated grief are a greater risk for disease, like cancer and hypertension, as well as suicide and substance abuse. Some people may also experience PTSD or depression in the aftermath of loss. (There is a clinical distinction between grief and major depression, although they can often appear quite similar.)

As the COVID-19 pandemic wound down, many residents across the region discussed in interviews with the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative grief and sorrow stemming from the deaths of loved ones, as well as other pandemic-related losses.

Even before that, New Mexicans struggled in some important mental health indicators. The state typically ranks among the worst for suicide in the nation, and its suicide rate has increased over time. Among men, there were 28.5 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people in New Mexico in 2009, which increased to 36.6 by 2017, according to the New Mexico Department of Health. For women, the rate increased from 8.1 to 10 during the same time frame.

In 2022, New Mexico had the fourth-highest rate of suicide in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Family members and friends who’ve lost someone to suicide, due to the trauma and unexpectedness of the death, often grapple with many difficult emotions. They’re also at increased risk themselves for thoughts or attempts of suicide, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

During the Grief Party, which took place in late February, Lynch said he performed several original songs, including “one of the saddest songs I’ve ever written.” To his pleasant surprise, “Liz and her boyfriend got up and were dancing to it.

“I thought: ‘This is weird and cool at the same time,’” he said with a laugh. “Nobody’s ever danced to that song.”

Lynch found value in not only the opportunity to perform music connected to his sadness, but also to gather with other people in solidarity.

“Everybody was expressing their own experience with grief,” he said. “That was a small part. The rest of it was you supporting everyone else's grief and being there for each other.”

Indeed, the Grief Party fits into a broadly defined approach to preventing suicide: the fostering of positive social relationships and community connectedness. It’s one strategy for countering risk factors of suicide in a person’s life, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.

‘There’s nothing like it’

Anneliese Trujillo, who goes by A Poet Named Grey, is active in the Las Cruces and El Paso poetry communities. She shared a poem at the Grief Party that eulogized her late parents. She said the vibe of the event created a space for people to be vulnerable and connect with one another face to face. It’s something that doesn’t exist in the same way at a typical performance.

“Everyone was there prepared to be sad,” she said. “Who shows up to something and wants to be sad? Most people don't walk into a venue or open mic wanting to cry and be vulnerable. And they all did. We all cried. It was definitely a grief party. There's nothing like it.”

Trujillo said she’s drawn to poetry in part because she believes in the power of spoken words to bring about inner healing. That energy, she said, was cultivated at the Grief Party.

“I don't think there's a stronger medicine,” she said. “You are what you say and what you do.”

Athena Huckaby, a member of the suicide prevention task force, said that group does offer ways for people experiencing suicide-related loss to connect, but many times, it’s in the form of meetings. Not everyone resonates with that format. Other times, she said, a person’s grief is so acute that participating in a meeting is difficult.

“A space like Liz's (Grief Party) allows a whole different kind of participation,” she said. “It's important that people be able to participate at a level they feel comfortable, in a way they feel comfortable. This provides something really unique.”

Each performer presented music or poetry that was specific to their own grief. The space – Woody’s Gift Gallery – was an intimate setting, attendees said. John Burch, chair of the suicide prevention task force, briefly presented about grief-related support resources. Liano took the lead as a host and emcee, helping set the tone for the party.

The Grief Party was a passion project of Liano’s, and several attendees credited her enthusiasm, hard work and compassion for making it a success. Her diverse experiences as a poet, an arts event coordinator, and a mental health advocate grant her a unique skill set that’s useful for planning and hosting such an event. In addition to coordinating artists and booking the event space, she created graphics to promote the event on social media.

Grieving – together

Liano said the Grief Party and other live performances she’s hosted are an outgrowth of her own mental health journey. Years ago, she said, she struggled with alcoholism, and her brother was a drinking buddy. He went to prison, and she turned to alcohol even more so to cope with that sadness. She feels talking about the experience helps to reduce the significant stigma for both the people in prison and their families, as well as the impacts to their mental health.

“With my brother, there's a lot of layers to that,” she said. “He's such a smart guy. He's brilliant. He's hard-working. I want people to know. We need to talk about it because someone out there is struggling with the same thing – on either my end or his end.”

Liano said she’s been in recovery from alcoholism for six years. She delved into poetry – she performs under the creative moniker, Lizard King – and into hosting events as a way to stay focused on sobriety.

“It was a huge catharsis for me,” she said.

Although Liano often hosts mental health-related music and poetry shows, the Grief Party was the first to specifically zero in on its namesake emotion. She’s talked with a number of attendees to get feedback. Several said they enjoyed it; others seemed relieved to have a venue to express difficult emotions.

There was an attendee who hadn’t been on the set list but who asked, on the spot, to perform. Liano said in the future, she might carve out space for audience members to also contribute. She’d likely also set aside more time for people to hang out after the performances.

Given that Liano volunteered so much of her time to coordinate and promote the event, the costs to host the party were negligible. She did buy the cake from a friend at No Worries Bakery.

A potential hazard of speaking about mental health and difficult experiences is that someone could inadvertently trigger painful memories of other people in the room. Liano said that’s something she’s aware of because at a previous event, one performer read a suicide note they’d written in the past. While Liano doesn’t want to censor performers, she said she does ask them “to be mindful of what you're saying.

“It can be sad, but I believe in being resolutionary, no matter how sad or devastated you are,” she said. “What is your goal, what is your mission in saying what you're going to say? I always want people to feel – hopefully – a little more uplifted and encouraged.”

Trujillo, who performed a poem in honor of her late parents, said it was tough to do, and she told Liano: “I'm not going to say that again.” At the same time, she said, there was some relief that came, too.

“When you express yourself, and everyone is willing to accept part of your grief, you definitely feel healed and lighter afterward,” she said.

For Lynch, the country music artist who performed, the party felt like striking a balance “between the sadness and the joy that was there and not forgetting one over the other.” He felt the group showed strong support for everyone expressing grief.

“When you’re sitting there celebrating it, in some ways you’re kind of letting all that weight go,” he said. “It was a total blast. I would go back and do it again anytime.”

Some of New Mexico’s mental health stats, like its suicide rate, can seem overwhelming. Can a grief-focused party help to make a difference? Attendees believe it can – for those who participated at the first party and those who join future happenings. There’s immense value, Lynch said, when people realize “you’re not alone” in their grief. Plus, he said, change can happen incrementally.

“Point me to an event that will heal hundreds or thousands of people,” he said. “That's really not how healing takes place. Most of that healing happens one-on-one, at least at the start, so, small is not a bad thing.”

Burch, the chair of the suicide prevention task force, said he was at first reluctant to attend the party because “I’m a sunshine and rainbows person” and thought it’d be too sad. But he wanted to support Liano and so did go. Rather than being overwhelmingly sad, he found it to be an inviting and supportive event. He said he felt it created the possibility there’s hope to move past intense grief.

“The vulnerability and the power in the storytelling, the poetry, the expression of music – it was so amazing to me,” he said.

For more information on the Las Cruces Suicide Prevention Task Force, visit: https://www.lcsuicideprevention.com/

Diana Alba Soular is the project manager and editor for the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, covering COVID-19 and pandemic recovery from a solutions-reporting lens. For more info, visit SouthNMnews.org or surNMnoticias.org

Diana Alba Soular is the project manager and editor for the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, covering COVID-19 and pandemic recovery from a solutions-reporting lens.