An open letter of thanks to the artists who helped me over the last year to process my son’s death

To the artists who have helped me so much in the last year following my son’s death,

I’ve written a lot of fan mail over the years, lavishing praise on actors, directors, and musicians and occasionally begging for an autograph. But over the past year I’ve had a more pressing reason to write to a variety of artists. One year ago today, our son Luke died, and my amazing and inspirational wife gave birth to him two days later. I’ve written about Luke a couple of times, both as a form of release or to relate a special experience, but this letter is for something different altogether. It’s to thank the artists who helped me through this journey with their art. Some of this art is new, some of it is older. Some of it helped generally in ways that are probably very common those who have lost a loved one, while some of it helped me specifically when others might have passed it by.

My wife and I received help, love, and support from so many people in our lives, and I hope they all know how much they have meant to us. Our parents, family, and friends have visited, our church and pastors have prayed with and for us, our extended communities both local and online have reached out, and our support group (the MISS Foundation) has been exactly what we needed. No thank you letter could ever express how much debt we owe to and gratitude we have for those many, wonderful people in our lives, even as our journey continues with the birth of Luke’s little brother in three months.

But this is a pop culture blog and this is a thank you of a different sort. This is for those who have carried me along without even knowing it. This is for the love and support you showed me through your art. So thank you. I can only hope that this open letter somehow finds some of you so you can know the impact your works have had. And perhaps other people like me will find their own healing through the arts, and share their own healing, so we can all feel the power that art can have on the soul.

To Lin-Manuel Miranda

I’m sure you hear from people all the time who were inspired in a variety of ways by Hamilton. We gave our son, Luke, the middle name of Alexander, and while I can’t honestly say that he was directly named after either the founding father or the version of Hamilton you wrote and played onstage, I’d be lying if I said that your play was not on my mind when the name occurred to me. I even imagined singing to him “Lucas Alexander Smith. Your name is Lucas Alexander Smith. And there are a million things you haven’t done, but just you wait, just you wait.” Instead, the line that kept popping up in my mind as I watched my wife sleep while we waited for the induction meds to take effect so she could give birth to our stillborn son was “We are going through the unimaginable.” Along with lines from Beauty and the Beast and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was a recurring, unintentional phrase that played over and over in my head, and it helped capture the shock we were both dealing with. Our son, Luke, had challenges we knew he would be facing, including heart irregularities, a cleft lip and palate, and a genetic microdeletion, but we were prepared to face those challenges head on with strength and love, and we were ready to give everything to him. And in dealing with those challenges we faced a lot of fears, including the fear that we might lose him. But we still never could have imagined what it would actually be like to be told he was gone. Oddly, despite having listened to Hamilton countless times (though we have yet to see it onstage), my brain didn’t even register the opening lyrics of “It’s Quiet Uptown” until days or weeks later. “There are moments that the words don’t reach, there is suffering too terrible to name, you hold your child as tight as you can and push away the unimaginable.” It’s a line I can no longer hear or think about without vividly remembering holding Luke’s body as tightly as I could, giving him all of the love, hugs, and kisses that I could in the short time we could hold him before he was taken away. I knew firsthand how “It feels easier to just swim down” into my grief.

But “It’s Quiet Uptown” is as much a song of healing as it is of grief. The Hamiltons learn to live with the unimaginable, and we have, too. It’s a constant, ongoing struggle, but like Alexander we pray, we talk to our son, and we’ve learned to appreciate the quiet moments together. My wife and I have found a new strength in ourselves and in each other, and the “grace too powerful to name” has touched us both. And as we’re now expecting our second little boy, due in June, I am once again able to listen to Hamilton with the same joy that it first brought me, but now with a greater appreciation for the story of Alexander and Eliza. Thank you for “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which helped me put words to a grief and a feeling I was unable to articulate on my own, and which helped remind me that healing, connection, and forgiveness are equally part of the story.

To Alan MenkenTim Rice, and Emma Watson

2017’s live-action version of Beauty and the Beast was released a week before our son’s original due date, and the weekend before his scheduled induction. We didn’t know if he would come early and we would be unable to see it, but Luke managed to wait and allowed us to see the film in the theater that Saturday. It was the last movie we got to see with our son. Luke loved music, and would kick whenever the choir at our church would sing or during a song would start during a musical on stage. His love of music is one of the few things we got to know about him before he died, and so the memory of our last movie together being a musical is particularly special. But in the days we spent in the hospital after his death and before his birth, one particular refrain from Beauty and the Beast echoed in my head, much as lines from Hamilton did. In the new song “Days in the Sun,” Belle listens to the enchanted objects in the Beast’s castle sing in hope and longing of the day when they’ll be human again and can feel the sun on their faces, and replies in song, “How in the midst of all this sorrow can so much hope and love endure?” I heard that line over and over again in the sleepless nights in the hospital, but while Belle sang it marveling at the positive outlook of those around her despite their cursed situation, to me it felt more like a question of myself. How could I keep hope and love alive in spite of my overwhelming sorrow? It seemed impossible, but that line evolved for me into a reminder of the importance of hope and love in the midst of sorrow, and it has allowed the film as a whole to hold an even more special place in my heart because it was a moment of love and hope in our lives and our time with Luke. It wasn’t until later that I fully appreciated that the line is actually sung to a different tune, that of “How Does a Moment Last Forever,” a song that’s all about how holding onto the love we have allows stories and moments to live on even after those we love have left us. It’s a struggle for Belle throughout the story, but Maurice’s words as he sings to himself early in the film hold the key, and embody the ways in which I try to keep Luke’s memory alive. “How does a moment last forever? How can a story never die? It is love we must hold onto, never easy, but we try. Sometimes our happiness is captured, somehow a time and place stand still. Love lives on inside our hearts, and always will.” Thank you for giving us a film that provided one final special memory with our son, as well as a song and a story that helped me remember that love can be found in even the most sorrowful of places and the love we hold onto is our way of keeping Luke’s story alive.

To Joss Whedon

I’m sure you get tired of people telling you how much “The Body” meant to them. My wife and I are longtime fans of your various works, and regularly watch and love all of your shows. Given the number of times we’ve watched Buffy, it shouldn’t have been any surprise to me that “The Body” would be on my mind through those long days and nights in the hospital, but I was still struck by how much truth you captured in that heartbreaking and iconic episode. Beyond the fact that I kept hearing Tara’s voice in my head saying “It’s always sudden,” there were so many moments from the episode that in many ways prepared me to deal with death for the first time, if only in such a way that things that might otherwise have caught me off guard instead felt strangely familiar. The bizarre relationship with food, and the way getting something to eat or drink seems like the thing to do to “help” when simultaneously you feel like you’ll never want to eat again. There’s the obsession with things like clothes that don’t really matter, the unexpected outbursts of anger or confusion, and ridiculous things like paperwork, all while the spectre of a dead body hangs over everything. Of course, our son was and is more than a dead body. But while plenty of stories deal with death, loss, and grief, “The Body” deals with the parts of death in America that so rarely are discussed. And while the episode is not a guide, it prepared me for so many of those details and oddities that get lost in the larger picture of the death of a loved one. I had never fully understood the brilliance of the episode before a year ago. Thank you for your beautiful, brutal, and honest look at the ways we respond to death, and thank you for all of your art through the years that has inspired and entertained so many.

To Sir David Attenborough and the crew of BBC’s Planet Earth series

My wife and I are huge fans of the Planet Earth series, and my wife even worked with a BBC crew here in Tucson during filming of the Harris’s Hawks sequence in the “Deserts” episode of Planet Earth 2. She has an animal science degree and a love of animals, having worked in wildlife rehab and at a zoo. Many women pick a show they can watch during middle-of-the-night feedings before their child is born, and my wife planned on bingeing the various BBC nature shows hosted by Sir Attenborough. We already had the various DVDs and Blu-Rays stacked up and ready by the television and ready to go. When we got home from the hospital without our son, we found ourselves with far more time on our hands than we had ever planned for. We had family come to visit, originally planned to see Luke and help us out in the first weeks of caring for him, but the most oppressive moments were those where we sat alone in our quiet house. I was home from work, using the vacation time I had saved up for Luke’s birth, and while we had the time to catch up on all sorts of things we had wanted or needed to do we didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm for them. So without anything else to do, I popped inPlanet Earth, knowing full well that it might be a huge mistake and could reinforce what we were missing. Instead, it brought us an immeasurable amount of comfort. The beautiful images of nature were calming, as was Sir Attenborough’s soothing voice. The many stories of plants and animals across our planet dealing with the harsh realities of life and death helped to give us some perspective, and my wife’s physical recovery and our emotional recoveries went much smoother because of it. The BBC’s nature documentaries are always engaging, educational, and simply gorgeous to look at, but they now have a special place in our hearts for helping us through such a rough time in our lives. I don’t know how we would have gotten through those first weeks without them. And now we have Blue Planet 2 for my wife to watch with Luke’s little brother in a few months!

To Jed WhedonMaurissa TancharoenJeffrey Bell, and Henry Simmons

My wife and I have been fans of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since the beginning. I used to write recaps on this site, but moves to later timeslots and just a general lack of time eventually brought that to an end. Luke died and was born right before the final story arc of season 4, which found our heroes trapped in “the framework,” an alternate reality like the Matrix, where most of the main characters were living different lives due to one change from their past. It was a fun storyline, allowing the actors to play variations of the characters we’d come to love, but the story that really hit us was that of Mack. In the show’s real world, Mack had lost his daughter, Hope, four days after she was born, years before he joined the team. Inside the framework Hope was still alive, and he never knew any reality other than the one in which he’d watch his daughter growing up. He ends up joining the resistance against the forces of HYDRA within the framework, but he never fully accepts that the reality he believes is true is actually a fabrication, and he refuses to return to the real world. Even once he comes to realize the framework is a lie, he still would rather live in a fake world than live in a real world without Hope. It was an emotional storyline, wonderfully written and acted by Henry Simmons, but it wasn’t until my wife pointed out how much she could relate to Mack’s feelings that it really dawned on me what I was watching. Suddenly I realized I knew exactly how he felt, and I would have happily accepted a fantasy world if it meant I could have had Luke back and watched him grow up into a happy kid. I’m sure if someone had offered us a framework we would have hooked ourselves up to it without hesitation. But Mack’s story was cathartic, too, because he eventually was left with no choice but to head back to the real world and face the truth that Hope is gone. But in doing so he rediscovered his feelings for Elena (Yo-Yo), and in doing so he found that he still had the capacity to love and to have hope for the future, even while morning the loss of his Hope. It was both imminently relatable to us and our feelings about Luke, but also was a reminder that there still are things to live for beyond the fantasies we create for ourselves. And now, here we are, expecting our second child in a few months. So thank you to the entire SHIELD team for both an amazing show and for telling the story we needed to hear at just the right time.

To James Gunn

I (intermittently) write about movies. They’re one of my passions. I spent much of my wife’s pregnancy with Luke viewing being a father through the prism of movies. I enjoyed every movie we got to see with him while my she was pregnant, both at home and in the theater. I wondered what the last movie would be that we’d watch before his birth (for a while we did a marathon of movies from the year we were born), and what the first movie would be that we’d watch with him after his birth. I imagined when we might first go to the movie theater as a family, probably to a Disney or Pixar film. And as I said above, we hoped he wouldn’t be born before we could see Beauty and the Beast in the theater. Once Luke died, there was little that was as unappealing as going to the movies. But we’re big fans of the MCU, and the first Guardians of the Galaxy in particular, so it was with an enormous amount of trepidation that we bought our tickets for Vol. 2, our first movie after months of grieving. But your movie ended up being a personal milestone for me, despite the mild panic attack I had as the lights dimmed and the trailers began. It showed me not only that it was ok to laugh again, but that I was actually capable of laughter. It showed me that I could survive a story about fathers and sons, about love and loss. It even had an adorable baby Groot that brought me joy when I feared it would cause me pain. By constantly making the unexpected choice, and by willfully disregarding expectations at every turn, your movie helped to remind me that I’m not beholden to anyone else’s idea of how I should act or who I should be. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2was a huge first step for me along my path of grief and recovery, as silly as that may sound. It showed me that I could love movies again, and for that it will always have a special place in my heart. Thank you for giving my passion back to me.

To Brad BirdDamon Lindelof, and Jeff Jensen

I’ve written a lot about Tomorrowland. (I’ve also annoyed writer Jeff Jensen on Twitter enough that I’m shocked he hasn’t blocked me.) It’s one of my all-time favorite movies, and it’s one of those rare works of art that feels like it was made specifically for me. It’s message of weary yet determined optimism, resonated with me more strongly than almost any work of fiction I’ve ever encountered. But after Luke died, optimism was in short supply, and I wondered if I would ever have that feeling again. It was a long while before I was able to watch Tomorrowland again, despite having a digital copy downloaded on my phone at all times so I can carry it around with me, like I do with my Tomorrowland pin. I feared not only an adverse reaction to it, but also that it would simply have lost the connection that made it special to me. Casey’s crucial, defiant question, “Don’t we, like, make our own destiny and stuff?” might now ring hollow as I’ve experienced firsthand that not everything can be controlled. I needn’t have worried, though. Tomorrowland still touches the special place in my heart that no other movie has, no matter how broken my heart might be. In a large part it’s because Tomorrowland’s brand of optimism is colored by an acknowledgment of the state of the world, to show that optimism is easy when everything is bring and sunny, but it’s much harder when there is seemingly no light to be found. It’s in those moments of darkness that we’re called to be the light we want to see in the world, no matter how much easier it might seem to just give in. I still believe that in every moment there is the possibility of a better future, and I’m still and optimist. So thank you for making Tomorrowland, a movie can still remind me to feed the right wolf.

(As a side note, before Luke was born I pledged to myself that every month after he was born I would give a donation in his honor to a charity or group who are fighting to make the world the sort of place in which we wanted him to grow up. Despite Luke’s death, I carried on with that plan, though now in his memory, and it has helped me to focus on the light in the world, about the thousands of optimists out there feeding the right wolf.)

To Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

I was really worried about Coco. I’d been looking forward to the film, as I do with all Pixar releases, for years, but after Luke died I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to handle a story so focused on death. I fully expected it to be uplifting, as almost all Pixar films are, but the theme and the setting could have been massive triggers for me. Instead, Coco was supremely comforting in ways I had not anticipated. Coco’s version of the afterlife, inspired by the beautiful Mexican culture and beliefs that are always nearby here close to the border in Arizona, was not a sad, frightening specter to haunt my dreams, but was surprisingly full of life. The skeletal forms of Miguel’s departed family are not tormented souls but are instead very much the people they were when they were alive, with the same love and concerns that they carried in life. Coco’s afterlife was vibrant and welcoming to Miguel, even if it was bizarre. But what sticks with me the most today is the importance of memory. We have so very few memories of Luke, and I have even fewer than my wife, who had the privilege and pain of carrying him for nine months. But I remember his love of music (another theme from Coco), and the way he would kick and dance during songs at church or in the theater. I remember the joy of watching him at the ultrasound appointments, even as we came to realize some of the challenges he was facing. And I remember holding his body in my arms and looking at his beautiful face, even as I knew his spirit had moved on to a better place. I remember Luke, and through that memory he lives on, much as Coco’s memory of her father keeps his spirit alive in the afterlife. But there is another side to “Remember Me,” the Oscar-winning song from the film. There’s the hope that Luke’s spirit will remember me despite how little time we had together, and that he will be waiting for me when I reach the other side, much as Miguel’s family waits and watches, taking joy in the lives of those still living. Coco reminds us that death is not the end, and that those who have died are not truly gone but instead they share in our lives as though they were right beside us, listening to us sing. That thought and feeling helps me to keep Luke’s memory in my heart, and I thank you for giving me Coco as a reminder.

To Rian Johnson and Mark Hamill

As much as I worried about Coco, I positively dreaded Star Wars: The Last Jedi, despite my excitement for the next film in the saga. The prospect of hearing my son’s name spoken over and over onscreen, and watching the continuing story of the character (or at least one of) that he was named after, made me a bit of a nervous wreck. I’m already on record as loving The Last Jedi, and I even wrote a separate piece from my review that went into my feelings on how the film used Luke Skywalker so magnificently. But in the months since its release, I’m continually struck by how well The Last Jedi captures my current feelings about our Luke. Both Lukes met an ending that no one expected or even wanted. But those endings were not really the end of their stories, because just as our Luke lives through us and our need to tell his story and remember him, Luke Skywalker lives on through the Force and the impact his deeds had on that galaxy far, far away. The impact of a life is not measured in minutes or in victories, but in the way we allow that life to bring meaning to our own. I was inspired enough by Luke Skywalker to (partially) name my son after him, and I am inspired by our Luke to continue to live my life to the fullest and pass on that inspiration to his little brother. And much like Luke Skywalker learns the futility of cutting himself off from the universe, I have learned that I have more to gain and more to contribute by being a part of the world instead of turning away. It’s easy, in grief or in anger, to run or to hide, and sometimes we have to do that for our own protection. But that can and should never be the end of the story. We owe it to each other, to ourselves, and most importantly to the ones we love to step back out again, to risk the pain, and to find a way to make a difference. Stories have all kinds of different endings, and the world doesn’t always oblige us by giving us the one we imagined. But the power of a story doesn’t lie in its perfectly clean and happy ending, but instead in its ability to grow beyond itself and inspire others. It’s one of the metaphors of The Last Jedi, and it’s a truth I’ve found in the story of our own little Luke. The impact our son has had on our lives is so much more vast than the short time we had with him, and through us our Luke will continue to be a force for good on those around us. In that way, much like Luke Skywalker is now one with the Force and inspiring the galaxy, our son lives on in the lives of those he touched. So thank you, Rian and Mark, for giving me a story featuring one of my favorite characters that was exactly what I needed, which helped me to give voice to my own journey.

With love and appreciation for all of the artists out there who make a difference in the world and in the lives of those experience your works,

Love and Thanks,

Josh Smith