In 2022, the American Psychiatric Association published a revised version of its most recent guide, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Included in the latest version is the newest ailment recognized by the APA, known as Prolonged Grief Disorder.
Colin Campbell has a few choice words for the American Psychiatric Association, but we can’t print them here. As the father of two children, Ruby and Hart, who were killed in 2019 when a drunk driver smashed into the back seat of the family car, he’d rather not hear from any “experts” about the proper limits of grieving.
On Tuesday, Campbell brings his cathartic — and surprisingly funny — monologue, “Grief: A One Man ShitShow,” to the Center for Arts in Natick. Proceeds will benefit the Parmenter Foundation, which provides support for bereavement programs and palliative care.
Campbell, who lives with his wife, Gail Lerner, in Southern California, teaches filmmaking and theater directing at Chapman University and California Polytechnic State University-Pomona. For a long time after the deaths of his children, however, that was not how he introduced himself.
“For a while in the very beginning, I resisted my identity as the father of dead kids,” he said recently, on a video call. “Nobody wants to have that identity. But then I embraced it — ‘I am the father of Ruby and Hart, who were killed by a drunk driver.’ ”
In class, he said, he no longer announces the fact that he’s a grieving parent on the first day of the semester. If something about his children comes up in the course of classroom conversation, he’ll let it happen organically.
And if the students ask, “Where are they now?” he’ll respond, “Well, they’re dead.”
His brutal honesty is the reason that his show hits so hard, and so convincingly. Pacing the stage in bare feet, he hauls out a tall stack of books about grief and loss, then tosses them aside, one by one, dismissing the platitudes.
No subject is off-limits — the depths of his despair, his impatience with folks who want to tell him about losing an elderly parent, the feral period of grief-inspired sex he and his wife experienced. Which would be worse, he asks: Watching your child die, or getting a call informing you of their death? Would you rather lose a baby or a teenager?
None of this is comfortable, and that’s precisely the point. Campbell and his wife have retained a close circle of friends largely because they refused to let them avoid talking about the deaths of the children. That’s a big focus of the book he wrote, “Finding the Words: Working Through Profound Loss with Hope and Purpose,” after the pandemic sidetracked his plan to unveil his one-man show in 2020. The book was published in March.
“I have enormous empathy and compassion for people who don’t know how to talk to me,” he said, “because I certainly wouldn’t have known how to talk to me, either. I was grief-averse, grief-ignorant.
“It’s a natural tendency — ‘Ooh, I’m gonna avoid that discomforting thing,’ ” he continued.
“But it causes too much pain to the people who are grieving, to feel like you’ve been abandoned right when you need people the most.”
There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly make him feel worse than he does when he’s grieving for his children, he said. Go ahead and mention “cars,” say, or “drunk driving,” or “children.” No reason to be terrified of saying the wrong thing.
“You can’t trigger me. I’m never not thinking about Ruby and Hart and the fact that they were killed. So don’t worry. You can’t do anything bad to me.”
Believe it or not, there is some comic relief in the show. Campbell lets his anger at the universe fly, and his use of profanity is judicious. He also embraces the insanity of a world that would let such a thing happen, and his own struggle with his mental health in the aftermath. While discussing his and Gail’s sex life (to the soundtrack of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”), he jokes that Hart, who was 14 when he died, would have loved a good penis joke. So he blows up a big balloon and wedges it between his legs.
“I think his authenticity is so refreshing,” said Angela Crocker, the Parmenter Foundation’s executive director. “He brings you along, and he’s able to really get to your emotional spaces. He lets you feel it all.”
Established as a health center in Wayland in 1954, Parmenter expanded into various aspects of health care before refining its mission in 2020. The organization has had events with notable speakers such as Hope Edelman, author of “Motherless Daughters” (1994). But it has never before hosted a performance like Campbell’s, Crocker said.
Campbell began writing what would become his one-man show within a week of the deaths of his children. He explained to his wife then that he envisioned it as a stand-up comedy show — “like, the darkest stand-up in the world.
“And she said, ‘I love it. Keep writing.’ ”
It took him about six months to finish.
“I’ve made some tiny tweaks, but it’s essentially what I wrote back then. So it is [from the perspective of] somebody in acute grief. If I were to write a solo show right now, it wouldn’t be this. I like how honest it is, how raw it is.”
Campbell said he has thought long and hard about forgiveness for the woman who demolished his car and killed the children. She has been in jail since the accident, he said, still awaiting trial on two counts of second-degree murder.
“There can be a lot of bitterness and rage that can eat you up inside,” he said. “I don’t actually dwell too much in bitterness because I don’t think about her that much. Her actions ended their lives, but their lives are separate from her. I’d much rather think about them.”
A few months ago, he said, there was a brief moment in which he forgot the woman’s name.
“It was kind of amazing,” he recalled. “I remember it now, but that was a nice feeling.”
In the show, Campbell tells a story about a visit to his family’s lake house in southern Maine. One evening he thought it might be fun to take the kids to the local cemetery to do a grave rubbing. They were young. At first they were terrified.
But just as he was berating himself for thinking this was a good idea, the kids began laughing. They had each other, and they weren’t scared any longer.
Memories like that are what he has left. “Even though it hurts, it feels good to stretch our hearts,” as he says in the show. “It’s what they were designed to do.”
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @sullivanjames.
GRIEF: A ONE-MAN SHITSHOW
At the Center for Arts in Natick, 14 Summer St. Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. Tickets from $60. parmenterfoundation.org/colincampbell