Joseph Alvaro understands that it’s not life’s challenges that define someone, it’s how that person responds to them.
In a span of 14 months in 2009 and 2010, Alvaro lost Frances, his wife of 25 years, his daughter, his father, a brother-in-law and an uncle by marriage with whom he was very close.
At the same time Alvaro’s friend, Matt Seitz, who had been introduced by Frances, was also finding his way after he lost his wife. After a long conversation, Seitz asked Alvaro, “How do you deal with this?”
“I told him, it’s not about ‘woe is me.’ I’m not that kind of guy. I don’t feel that,” Alvaro said. “I was lucky to have been married to Frances for 25 years. A lot of people don’t get to have that in their lives. I was one of the lucky ones.”
Seitz had heard that phrase from people in his bereavement group and now, hearing it again, it resonated anew. The two thought there might be something they could do to help others who are grieving.
Alvaro, who graduated with a theatre degree from University of Detroit and had a long career in directing TV commercials, music videos and theatrical productions, and Seitz, a longtime television critic and the author of several books about television, realized they could do something together that might help others grieving the loss of loved ones.
Taking Alvaro’s 2017 memoir I’m One of the Lucky Ones, the two created a pilot for a television show called The Lucky Ones. The show consisted of interviews with people who had lost their spouse. The stories they told were not sad — in fact Alvaro tells people who agree to be interviewed that they cannot cry — they celebrated the lives of a person they loved.
Responding to suggestions, they added interviews with people celebrating the lives of friends and other family members and started showing it to television executives.
“They all loved it, but they didn’t know what to do with it,” Alvaro said. “It didn’t fit any category.”
So they looked at their options and re-edited the pilot and put it on the web. It won Best Web/New Media at the Ridgeville Guild International Film Festival and now lives on the web at luckyonestv.com.
On the site are more than 100 stories, a mixture of longform videos, written remembrances and person on the street interviews in which Alvaro asks people from all walks of life whether they have lost someone special and would they share a celebration of that life.
“It’s kind of cool how many people say yes,” Alvaro said. “They talk about grandparents, uncles or aunts, brothers and sisters. You’d be surprised how many young people, like 21 to 30 years old, who have lost friends.”
Why does it work? Alvaro has a theory.
“It’s a cathartic experience,” he said. “In our society we don’t want to talk about death because we don’t want to make others uncomfortable. But people still want and need to talk about these people. What I say is these remembrances are not about death, they are about what these people did with their lives up to the point of death. Our death does not define who we are; our life does.”
He also says he hears from people in the depths of grief who find hope in the stories on luckyonestv.com.
“They see people smiling as they talk about someone they loved who has died and think, ‘Someday I’ll get there, too,’” he said.
COVID-19 has all but put a halt to filming new videos for the website, but people can upload their own stories and photos there. During the lull, Alvaro is working as a general contractor and bringing attention to the website through national and international interviews. He and his team hope they can go back to shooting by summer.
“Eventually someone’s going to pick it up,” Alvaro said. “I think it’s a valuable thing.”