When Janice Tosto's best friend, Bill Lottmen, died just three months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2021, Tosto was left swimming in grief. She'd lost loved ones before, but this pain was different and all-consuming.
"I just went into shock. Those first few weeks were so hard," she said. "I would say, 'I just want to die.'"
In her search to comprehend the depths of her grief, Tosto, 57, of Philadelphia's Germantown neighbourhood in the United States, dove into reading everything she could about death, mourning, and loss. As she did, one thing stood out.
"A lot of grievers were saying they wanted the opportunity to continue to talk about their loved ones. People were saying they felt shut down, or they should be over it," Tosto said. "But there's no timeline to grief. We want to continue to honour and talk about the people we've lost."
And so Tosto, a volunteer at G-Town Radio, a Germantown community radio station, proposed a programme to do just that: Give ordinary people a platform to talk about those they've loved and lost.
"It's about giving people the mic so they can say, 'I lost my son. This is who he was and I want to talk about how he lived,'" she said.
Tosto's monthly Grief Journeys programme, which marked its first anniversary in February, has featured those who've lost loved ones to gun violence, car accidents, cancer and heart attacks. The show is about the everyday moments our loved ones remember when we're gone.
But above all else, it's a show about how grief – at its ugly, messy, gut-wrenching core – is love.
"That's how I look at it, we're having a conversation about love," Tosto said. "I don't say loved with a 'd', because even though the person is gone, we still love them."
Tosto grew up in the Bronx and started regularly visiting Philly 10 years ago. She fell in love with the city's "attitude and grittiness" and moved to Germantown in 2018, after getting a job with Bebashi, a nonprofit that provides health and social services to Black and brown people.
Tosto currently works as the agency's hunger relief supervisor, running its food pantry and distribution programmes.She started listening to G-Town Radio shortly after moving here, and began volunteering with the station by doing one-off stories and interviews.
G-Town – which is run completely by volunteers – airs from noon Wednesday to midnight Sunday on 92.9-FM, a low-power FM service that broadcasts in a three-to-five mile (4.8km-8km) radius around Germantown. It also airs continuously online at gtownradio.com.After attending a workshop and training held by station manager Tom Casetta, Tosto proposed her Grief Journeys programme.
"It was different. It was a show you don't really think about doing," Casetta said. "Grief is something people don't talk about a lot, so I thought there was something there. And she exceeded our expectations."
Tosto began by interviewing people she knew who had lost loved ones, including her neighbour, whose son died of a heart attack at 44, and her coworker, Alvin Royster, and his wife, Ja'Nelle Parsons, who'd lost her son Quinton Folston, 24, to gun violence.
In that episode, his family shared stories about his life that were poignant, funny and heartwarming. Little was mentioned of his death, except the pain it left in its wake."I'm just so glad to have the opportunity to talk about him today. This was just so therapeutic," Parsons said to Tosto during the show.
"I think a lot of times people don't want to mention it to me because they don't want to upset me... but I can't think about it anymore than I already do."
As people heard about her programme, they reached out wanting to talk about their dead loved ones, too. Later this year, Tosto is featuring someone grieving an estranged parent. She hopes to delve further into often-unspoken aspects of grief in future episodes.
"I want people to come on my show and say, 'I'm grieving this person, but in real life I couldn't stand them,'" Tosto said. "Those are the conversations we need to have, around those rough edges of grief."
Before every interview, Tosto asks guests who their favourite musical artist is and then incorporates songs from that musician into the episode.
The show is comforting, cathartic and a reminder that no matter how isolating death can feel, grief is a universal experience.
"It's not like memorial radio, or tombstone radio, it's really touching stories that go beyond just a remembrance," Casetta said. "It often becomes these wonderful personal tales of connection. It's less grief and more joy."
On the anniversary of Lottmen's death, or "deathaversary", as she calls it, Tosto shared her own grief journey, interspersing her thoughts with songs from her favourite rock group, Queen.
She played voicemails from Lotteman, whom she had known since childhood, and talked about their friendship and what it's been like to go on without him. Then, she spoke directly to her listeners.
"Dear griever, of course you're sad, tired, cranky, jealous, furious at the world. Of course this takes a long time. Of course your emotions are all over the place. Of course you're a mess. Someone that matters to you has died. Why wouldn't that make everything in your life feel out of whack?" Tosto said through tears.
"The thing that is broken in you is your heart. Why wouldn't that make anyone feel a little crazy? Dear griever, give yourself some grace. You're not losing it. You're grieving."
Then, she ended the show as she ends every episode, by saying "Bill, you're still my best friend," and playing You're My Best Friend, by Queen. – The Philadelphia Inquirer/Tribune News Service