After losing one of my best friends, Jason Klefisch, to suicide in June 2018, I was left with a type of grief I had never experienced before. My whole body ached. My heart was so heavy, I could feel it in my feet. Jason and I had been friends for 12 years. We had gone through many ups and downs, but he was the one person I could call in the middle of the night, for a ride home, an ear to listen, or a “you deserve so much better” pep talk. He believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. On top of that, he was my mental health ally. Losing him was devastating.
Jason and I both lived with mental illness. Our stories were different, but we could understand each other in a way that others couldn’t. I live with PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression. My journey with mental illness began in my early 20’s. Jason lived with bipolar disorder and depression for most of his life. As adults, we understood that our past falling outs were growing pains, and we needed time to stand on our own two feet. When going through a mental health episode, you’re spiraling and don’t even know how to love yourself. How could we be good friends to one another when we weren’t even friends with ourselves? But we’d always come back. We’d catch up, and laugh, and reminisce, and talk about the future.
In addition to being a great friend, Jason was an incredible writer and actor. His personality was larger than life, and he thrived in the creative world. Jason was able to live through characters on paper and on stage to mask what was going on inside of him.
Losing Jason was a huge wake up call for me. Life is so fragile, and we can so easily overlook that. We get caught up in the small things, and we forget about what is really important: the people in our lives. I knew that my life was changing again whether I was ready for it or not. I needed to do something to help others -- people like myself and like Jason who live with mental illness -- people who deserve to live.
In January 2019, I felt compelled to do something to honor Jason’s legacy. I needed something that combined the performing arts with mental health, and I stumbled across This Is My Brave. I felt like I hit the jackpot. This Is My Brave is a national nonprofit that puts on storytelling events across the country. Local community members share their stories of mental illness or addiction through the creative arts to show that you can live a fulfilling life despite a mental health condition. Through these performances, the cast feels seen and heard, audiences learn more about living with mental illness, empathy grows, and stigma and shame begin to shrink. If Jason had known about This Is My Brave, he would have been on stage in one of those performances. It could have been his moment to stop hiding and inspire everyone around him.
I immediately reached out to This Is My Brave and asked if I could bring a show to Saint Louis. Heather, Jason’s mom, and I furiously dug into this project. We would make this performance a reality. In August 2019, I began working full time for This Is My Brave. My grief had turned into action, and I knew Jason was right there beside me.
Unfortunately due to COVID, our Saint Louis This Is My Brave Show was postponed from its original April 2020 date. We were all crushed. I had a group of 16 Saint Louis and Illinois community members who became so devoted to this show and to sharing their personal experiences publicly, to end stigma and help others. This little community that was once made up of strangers was now an integral part of each other’s lives. With four other shows scheduled around the country, so many This Is My Brave storytellers were feeling the same sense of loss.
We at This Is My Brave scrambled and pushed through because we know that now more than ever, these stories need to be told. Instead of canceling the season, we decided to transform shows into a virtual performance series, airing throughout October 2020.
It may not be what we expected. We won’t get the invigoration of telling our stories in front of a live audience, holding hands as we bow as the first ever Saint Louis cast, and hugging audience members in the lobby after the show. But at the same time, loved ones who don’t live in Saint Louis will get to hear and experience our stories, we may touch even more audience members’ lives, and one day we will be back on stage.
Isn’t this so representative of living with mental illness in general? We have to go with the ebb and flow of life. We are tossed curve balls on our worst days, yet we continue to show up. We’re resilient.
During this pandemic and through my work with This Is My Brave, I am constantly reminded of the importance of community. In Jason’s words, “Be good to one another, and hold each other close.” For at the end of the day, each other is all we have.
This Is My Brave Saint Louis 2020: Stories from Home will premiere on YouTube on Sunday October 11, 2020 at 4pm CT. Registration is free. For more information on the Saint Louis show visit https://thisismybrave.org/event/this-is-my-brave-saint-louis-virtual-livestream/
Connect with This Is My Brave:
- Facebook: @thisismybrave
- Instagram: @thisismybrave
- Twitter: @thisismybrave
- YouTube: youtube.com/thisismybrave
About the Author
Katie Grana is a St. Louis native who works as a Program Manager with This Is My Brave. She was diagnosed with PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression after being robbed at gunpoint in 2010. Not really understanding how trauma can have such powerful mental and physical effects, her tipping point was losing a friend in a car accident the following year. She spent her 20’s redefining herself and learning to heal through trauma. When a full time position opened up with This Is My Brave, Katie knew it was time to move from the corporate world back to her roots in nonprofit. Katie enjoys spending time with her two dogs, friends, and family - especially her niece and nephew. You can connect with Katie on Instagram @kegrana