a photo illustration showing facebook reactions and the characters of "Sorry For Your Loss"
Facebook Watch / Klara Auerbach / The Atlantic

The TV Fan Club That Became an Intimate Grief Group

Sorry for Your Loss, which returns for a second season this week, started as a candid drama about losing a loved one. And then it grew into something much bigger.

On August 7, Sharyn Friedman, 57, packed her bags and drove 350 miles west, from her home in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, to Clarion, Iowa, a town so small—“itty-bitty,” she remarked to me later—that it had only one grocery store. She was heading there to visit Christine Farrell-Espe, one of her closest friends and someone whom Friedman had never met in person.

The two women had been speaking to each other almost daily until then, moving from direct messages to texts to calls to videochats. Farrell-Espe, 54, lives 2,000 miles away, in Southern California, but a visit to her mother-in-law in Iowa brought her into a manageable visiting radius for the plane-shy Friedman.

And so, that day—a warm Wednesday, with highs in the upper 80s—Friedman drove for five hours, eager to make it to Farrell-Espe before the eighth.

Because the eighth, for both of them, was a bad date: It’s the date of their husbands’ deaths.

Farrell-Espe lost hers on March 8, 2017. Mitch had texted her that morning to wish her a happy International Women’s Day, promising to bring dinner home, but collapsed at work of a heart attack—the “widowmaker,” as it’s known. Friedman’s husband, Steve, died exactly one month later: He’d called to check on her the afternoon of April 8, and had a fatal heart attack sometime afterward, at home.

Friedman and Farrell-Espe, two women in their 50s, widowed a month apart for the same reason, became each other’s confidante in their worst times. Their friendship blossomed in a remarkable way: through, of all things, a TV show that aired on, of all places, Facebook Watch.

The women initially met online in a popular grief group on Facebook called Option B. But when Sorry for Your Loss, a drama starring Elizabeth Olsen as a young widow, debuted in the fall of 2018 on the streaming arm of the social-media giant, Friedman and Farrell-Espe became fans and active members of the series’ official Facebook group.

The private forum was created to be a dedicated space for viewers to talk about the show, but it’s nothing like a typical fan community. The group’s discussions largely revolve around remembrances of loved ones, as opposed to “shipping” or theorizing about future plot points. The show’s administrators rarely chime in, but the members interact constantly, filling the page with raw accounts of how they’re feeling, along with heartfelt messages of support and photos of the deceased. In short, the drama’s official fan club—Facebook creates one for every Facebook Watch series, though viewers don’t have to join—has transformed into an intimate, deeply personal grief group.

The group also bonds over its love of Sorry for Your Loss, which returns for its second season today. The show, which drew critical acclaim for its poignant and humane observations of grief, is a major reason members like Farrell-Espe and Friedman became—and remain—inseparable.

“It almost feels like someone’s been watching me. I can’t explain it. [The show] feels so close to home,” Farrell-Espe told me over the phone. As she watched Sorry for Your Loss, she’d check in with Friedman: “I would go, ‘What’d you feel about this?’ or ‘Oh my God, I’m sobbing, I just watched Episode 3,’ and then we got closer and closer.”

“Everything I’ve seen is, like, real,” Friedman explained when we spoke a few hours later. “I thought, Who the hell wrote this show, and how did she get it right?

Six days after Friedman drove to meet Farrell-Espe, I arrived on the Los Angeles set of Sorry for Your Loss during the last week of shooting for the second season. There I found the person who could answer Friedman’s question—Kit Steinkellner, a playwright and the series’ creator—curled up in a room near the stages where the cast was filming the finale.

Steinkellner had conceived of the show after waking up one night to find her husband missing. Though he turned out to be okay, Steinkellner had imagined the worst and couldn’t shake her worry afterward, so she channeled her anxiety into a story about a woman named Leigh (Olsen), who grapples with life after the sudden death of her husband, Matt (Mamoudou Athie). In the first season, Leigh moves home to live with her mother, Amy (Janet McTeer), and sister, Jules (Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran), but despite their support, her anger threatens to upend the family’s delicate balance. She embarks on a journey of small, hopeful victories—such as attending her grief-counseling group without losing her temper, stepping back inside the house she’d shared with Matt, and celebrating her birthday without him.

For three years, the project hopscotched from network to network. “When I first started trying to make this show, I heard so many executives and producers say, ‘Well, we’re just afraid this is going to be depressing or bleak, and people aren’t going to want to see that,’” Steinkellner told me.

In January 2018, Facebook Watch picked up Sorry for Your Loss—and now the series is about to launch its second season. Steinkellner likes the word launch; in her mind, she thinks of Leigh’s story as a spaceship that crash-landed on an alien planet. If Season 1 was about Leigh just trying to survive after the crash, Season 2 finds her attempting to piece together her vehicle so she can depart the planet entirely.

That’s easier said than done when it comes to actual emotions. On set, I watched as Olsen’s Leigh veered from maniacal laughter to crippling sorrow to quiet placidity in the span of a single scene from the season finale, as she debated her next steps with Tran’s Jules. “I feel like I’m just waiting around for the next bad thing to happen to me,” she moaned, hands over her face.

(Sorry for Your Loss / Facebook Watch)

Afterward, Olsen reflected on the turbulent scene, hinting that in the second season, Leigh is itching for escape. “She needs to get out, and I feel like that’s what really happens in this finale,” she told me. “We’re shaking the Etch A Sketch. There’s still residue, but there’s going to be a new architecture that’s going to be taking up the space.”

But going back to Friedman’s question: How did this show get grief right? Even Steinkellner isn’t completely sure. Again, she speaks in metaphor: Plenty of shows, she says, are snow globes, where “it’s happy and warm and comfortable and safe. And of course I want to feel those things [while] watching this show even, but I want to feel all the things,” she said. “I want to see my pain and my confusion and my feeling so weak and figuring out how to be strong. I want to see that in a show … When you put it on-screen, all of a sudden people pop out of the woodwork and say, ‘I needed this. I want this.’”

Nearly 20,000 people have joined the official Facebook group, with many of them sharing their own stories—a fact Steinkellner is still wrapping her head around. “It’s overwhelming,” she admitted. “I’m so grateful to be a part of something that’s meaningful for people, but it’s a little hard to hold it all in your brain. When you’re just trying your best to make art good, to make a story feel true and right, and then it ends up actually being important to people?”

She shook her head, remembering a comment from a viewer who discovered the existence of grief groups by watching Leigh attend one on the show: The commenter now participates in a group and shared that “it’s been helping.” “I mean, that just …!” Steinkellner trailed off, unable to find the right word.

Olsen, too, has seen some of the intimate conversations bubbling up around Sorry for Your Loss. A producer sends her screenshots, because she isn’t active on her Facebook account. She doesn’t much like “crowds” online, she told me apologetically, but has been impressed by what she’s read.

“I was really surprised, because I was actually really scared of the comment aspect of this streaming service,” she admitted. “I was like, ‘What does that mean? That people can just, like, troll? And say horrible things?’ Because that’s how I think of comments. I immediately go to the negative.”

In the world of social media, Facebook practically takes up an entire hemisphere of real estate. With more than 2.4 billion monthly active users and nearly 1.6 billion daily active users, the company is an online behemoth—and the source of myriad debates over data privacy, user profiling, and the proliferation of fake news. Depending on whom you ask, Facebook either threatens to swallow the internet and its denizens whole, or is just one more scandal—and congressional testimony—away from splintering apart.

Within Facebook, however, original series remain relatively new territory, a frontier it began traversing with Facebook Watch in August 2017. The platform provides a home for live events, reality TV, and scripted programs, with some uploads from partners that earn a percentage of the ad revenue. Its goal, according to Ricky Van Veen, Facebook’s head of global creative strategy, wasn’t simply to be another streaming service, but to be a streaming service that incorporated its social-media identity.

That meant linking official groups to each piece of original programming. “There are lots of players out there putting out a lot of great scripted content, and just trying to compete with all that, we don’t have a particular competitive advantage,” Van Veen told me over the phone. “But when it comes to the combination of content and conversation, that’s where I would say Facebook can shine.”

The strategy’s paid off so far, especially for reality series: Red Table Talk, the roundtable show spearheaded by the actor Jada Pinkett Smith, saw its official group balloon so quickly (it counts almost 600,000 members), administrators created a series of subgroups organized by region to keep up. Returning the Favor, a reality series about “do-gooders” from the television personality Mike Rowe, yielded a group called Returning the Favor Effect, in which its more than 164,000 members nominate do-gooders from their own communities.

The Sorry for Your Loss group seems paltry in comparison, but the conversation within the group is incredibly active and affecting. “If you give people a prompt, then they’ll open up,” Van Veen said, adding that he noticed the depth of discussion as soon as the series’ first trailer dropped. “Underneath you could see this process start, of people sharing their stories, connecting with each other, and getting support from strangers … Clearly there [was] a need for a larger discussion forum in the form of a group.”

(Sorry for Your Loss / Facebook Watch)

Indeed, Facebook has become a popular platform for emotional-support groups, but some of the most prolific ones have run into serious trouble. In November 2017, a group for people dealing with addiction was revealed to have been run by the marketer of a rehab center, who used the group to fish for potential clients. In July 2018, a group for sexual-assault survivors with thousands of members was suddenly changed into a forum for erotica, leading to harassment. (In terms of Sorry for Your Loss, Van Veen pointed out that human moderators “look at every comment and post and make sure it’s a safe space, which is crucial.”)

On top of that, discussing something as personal as grief requires more vulnerability on Facebook than it might elsewhere on the internet. A user can’t post anonymously on Facebook; there are no usernames in groups. Though every group is “private”—searchable, but with content and membership viewable only to members—joining one is relatively easy: For Sorry for Your Loss, the prospective member has to answer three questions pertaining to the series and its themes, and then wait for moderators to approve the request.

Carol Conrad Schwachenwald, a 71-year-old widow in Indiana, was one of the first to join the group after her son, who works on the show’s post-production team at Facebook, introduced her to the series. Her husband, David, had died of a tumor on his spinal cord in August 2018, two months before the show premiered, and she felt uneasy about posting. “At first, I was a bit reticent,” she explained to me when we spoke in September. “I can be a pretty private person. And these are complete strangers.”

Farrell-Espe, too, spent a full year lurking in the group, interacting through comments and reactions. “I tend to be a stalker,” she said. “I am kind of just out there looking at other people’s stories. It makes me feel less alone.”

Unlike other emotional-support groups, though, the Sorry for Your Loss community was created in conjunction with an official television production—and in that sense, members I spoke with say they feel safe, even if they’re talking about deeply personal issues in a group meant for discussing and promoting a TV series. “[The show] gave us that peace where we already felt that ‘belonging’ to something, because the show actually makes you feel understood,” Farrell-Espe said. “There’s something about that that made us all come together.”

That’s why Friedman, for one, didn’t hesitate to share her story when she joined. “Immediately,” she replied when I asked how soon she felt comfortable talking about Steve to a group of strangers. Yes, she knows it’s Facebook, and yes, she’s aware of the headlines, but “I’m like, ‘Don’t even go there,’” she said. “Don’t look at the evil; look at the good.”

Shortly after we spoke, Farrell-Espe finally shared her first post: a touching tribute to Mitch, accompanied by a photo from their wedding day. Members flooded the post with heart emojis and messages of support—messages that blanket the discussion page overall. “Can I just be real here?” a new member wrote in mid-September ahead of a lengthy post about her fury over losing her husband. “I mean nobody really knows me here right?”

“This is probably the best place ever to be angry and vent,” a veteran member responded. “We all need to.”

Most of the group’s participants are women, but not every member is a widow. Barbara Chalmers Crocker, 51, lost her mother in 2015, an experience that hit her hard. She joined the group in December 2018 after bingeing the show in two days. Being in the group has helped her put her grief into perspective, she said. “When [I read that] a young woman has lost her husband, and they’ve only been married five years, or [about] a woman who lost her child, I think, Oh, what I’m going through is not as bad. I should be grateful I had all these years with my mom,” she told me. “There’s a comparative aspect to it [that] I feel, and yet we’ve all gone through loss, so I think everyone’s understanding when I say, ‘I’m really struggling this week, and the memories are too much to bear.’ Even that’s enough for people to say, ‘I’m with you.’”

Friedman often leaves thoughtful comments like that. “Take your time,” she responded to a member who said she had a story to share about her late father but didn’t feel ready yet. “We aren’t going anywhere.”

With me, Friedman is just as open. She explained her lingering sadness about the day of Steve’s death: how her daughter had found him and tried to perform CPR, even though he was already gone. “If I could change anything about that day except for the outcome,” she said, “the only thing I would change would be the fact that I found him instead of her.”

I suddenly wished we weren’t speaking over the phone, but instead online, where perhaps I could take a little more time to react. “I don’t know what to say,” I told her. “That’s okay,” she replied generously. “Nobody does.”

It’s true: Nobody knows how to talk about grief, and though I’d had the urge to put a screen between Friedman and me, being online doesn’t make it any easier. Despite how much people already share on social media, opening up about loss remains tricky. Will a post about someone who’s gone come off as exploitative or appreciative when it pops up in a friend’s News Feed? Is it better not to post at all? What’s the best way to react: with a direct message? A comment? An emoji?

Four years ago, I’d gone down the rabbit hole on the subject for The Atlantic, when my News Feed began surfacing a page memorializing a stranger, thanks to a quirk in the site’s algorithm. I chalked it up to Facebook being a massive business with inevitable blind spots, but it was eerie: Here was the digital memorial for a woman I didn’t know, nestled among mundane status updates. It made the whole idea of posting about death and grief seem trivial, just a series of 1s and 0s programmed to spread terrible news.

But that’s why Sorry for Your Loss’s official group is so unusual: It’s a sliver of the internet that feels distinctly human, filled with people being vulnerable and honest. Fan communities have become notoriously prickly, but in this space, strangers with only two things in common—loss and an appreciation for a TV series—made a home for themselves.

“I’ve got a tribe now,” Schwachenwald told me. “That’s what we call ourselves: a tribe.”

That does, of course, place a little pressure on the series itself. When Steinkellner worked on the first season of Sorry for Your Loss, she didn’t have to think about the community that has formed around Leigh’s story. Now, she conceded, “A part of me worries. I have this thought every day: Are people going to be angry [if things change]?... I don’t know if everyone’s going to agree with the decisions our characters make.”

Whatever happens on the show, Steinkellner can take solace in how fans like Friedman and Farrell-Espe found one another through the series and its platform, and developed something neither the storytelling nor Facebook’s algorithm can change: a true, lasting friendship.

“Christine has become my person,” Friedman marveled to me at the end of our conversation, a month after she met Farrell-Espe in person that August afternoon in Iowa. “Because I lost my person.”