Posted 1 p.m. Friday, July 21, 2023
UWL student’s collaborative, community podcast explores journeys and resources surrounding grief, loss and mental health
Grace Wittmann remembers the Labor Day weekend when her life changed forever. She was 16 years old, spending time at a friend’s house, a-three hour drive north of home.
One morning of her trip, her mother pulled up in the car unannounced. Walking up to her daughter and wrapping her arms around her, Wittmann felt confused, “What is it?,” she asked.
“Your dad,” replied her mom crying. “He went to sleep and never woke up.”
Wittmann remembers falling to her knees. From that point on, the memories are fuzzy. What followed was a year of time that is a blur except for a few key moments. She remembers the first days of her junior year of high school planning her dad’s funeral. She remembers fragments of her 17th birthday. And she remembers touching her father’s cold hand as he lay in front of her.
“I was very close with my dad. He was my best friend,” she says. “My whole world was flipped upside down."
Grief energy gets some wings
Today, five years later, Wittmann, a UW-La Crosse senior, still experiences grief from losing her dad, but a new energy is building behind it. That energy has come from some unexpected collaborations, including one with a non-profit organization called The Butterfly Path, which provides mental health resources.
Wittmann helped launch a podcast in summer 2022 with The Butterfly Path when she was involved in a Community Health Internship Program (CHIP) internship through Wisconsin Area Health Education Centers (AHEC). In the internship, she was connected with four other women from several other organizations, each motivated around mental health because of their own struggles and knowledge about grief and loss.
“The five of us sat down one day and said we want to work together,” says Wittmann. “We knew we could help people, and we knew we had a voice.”
The Butterfly Path has been the central organization uniting all the women toward a collective goal of helping others who are struggling with grief, loss and mental health — providing them with tools, as well as the sense that they are not alone in their struggle. The podcast, “That Foreign Feeling,” is housed on the Butterfly Path webpage where nearly 50 episodes are available for listeners.
Wittmann came up with the podcast title. She says it resonates with a lot of people who have had mental health struggles that are difficult to understand and identify. For Wittmann things didn’t feel normal for an extended time after her father passed. That first Christmas, Father’s Day and a host of other celebrations without him left her learning to navigate new and not normal feelings.
“I experienced the first everything not having him. I didn’t know how to react,” she says. “It was a feeling that I can’t describe, but I knew it was not right.”
It is scary enough to experience the death of someone close to you, but then to have to learn to live with the aftermath of that loss is another thing entirely, she explains.
“What this podcast means to me, and I hope to others, is a collective toolbox for the things we didn’t ask for, but they can help us get through it and thrive in life,” she says.
Wittmann’s work producing the podcast is brave, says Anders Cedergren, UWL assistant professor and Wittmann’s academic advisor.
“I admire a person who can take something like this that must be tremendously difficult to deal with initially and may require life-long processing and turn it into a creative, positive project,” he says. “Not only is she actively managing her own experiences through her work, but she is also giving of herself to those around her who may be in need.”
Wittmann is one of the podcast hosts, often using her own experiences to guide interview questions with experts surrounding grief and loss experiences and resources. Episodes feature experts from UWL Psychology Professor Ryan McKelley on men’s mental health to her psychic medium, Dawn Matzke and her ability to connect with the those who have died.
“Because of Dawn, I always know that my dad is here with me. It’s like that feeling you get when someone is watching you. I feel that feeling all the time,” she says. “Dawn has given my family peace of mind.”
Where her path leads next
Wittmann will be starting her last year in UWL’s Public Health and Community Health Education program this fall. Her involvement with the McNair Scholars program will help her become prepared to find graduate school opportunities that align with her personal and professional drive related to grief, mental health and end-of-life care.
“Ultimately, I believe that Grace will find success and happiness through her exploration of these topics because her interest is genuine, she is not afraid to keep learning through tough times, and she wants to share what she knows with those around her to make the world a better place,” says Cedergren.
Wittmann says she can see herself walking patients and families through that process of end-of-life care.
“If a person is on life support, I want to have the conversation with the family to weigh their options,” she says. “I want them to know that it is not just a paycheck for me, and that I care about what is going to be best for them and their loved one.”
And, for the foreseeable future, Wittmann plans to keep creating podcast episodes, even though her internship ended one year ago. In addition to helping others, it’s helped her cope.
“Some don’t like to talk about it, but for me it helps. I feel less alone when I talk about it,” she says. “I can talk about how I went through something, and my feelings are validated.”
Get the podcast
Tune in to “That Foreign Feeling” on the website or download the podcast app on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
“That foreign feeling" is a podcast that makes space for conversations around mental health, grief and loss. The struggle with mental health, grief, and loss may be something you deal with on a daily basis or something you have never felt before. You may not know what you are feeling exactly, but you know that something is different. You may not be able to explain it or understand it. All of these feelings are what we call ‘That Foreign Feeling’.”
Learn more about the Butterfly Path.