A new solo show by actor/writer Tatiana Hotere is a personal work looking at how to survive being newly widowed in your 40s – a reality Tatiana experienced when her husband died when she was 42, leaving her and their two daughters behind. Tatiana talks to Capsule about the physical realities of grief, the pain of ‘skin hunger’ and how surviving the next five minutes got her through the hardest year of her life.
As we grow up through the different stages of adult life, it’s natural to look around for role models to show us how to do whatever next life stage or challenge we’re about to come up to. But when Tatiana Hotere was widowed at the age of 42, there was no such role model to find. Her beloved husband Jason died of a heart attack at age 50, leaving Tatiana and their two daughters to find a way through. Staying alive through such a shock is already a challenge, but parenting through that level of grief is a staggering undertaking on top of that.
“I lived that first year five minutes at a time.”
So how did all of this come to be a dark comedy play about grief, sex, love, dating, masturbation and religion? Well, it takes a force of spirit, a unwavering depth of creativity and an ability to rewrite a life’s plan on no notice. When you lose your life partner, Tatiana says, your everyday life and everyday goals go out the window. “You are building the bike as you ride it,” she says simply. The first year was about simply surviving each day. “The only way to that was to ask myself, ‘What is the next practical thing I can do in the next five minutes?’” Tatiana says. “I lived that first year five minutes at a time.”
Those five minute increments saved her, she says. Get up, get dressed, brush her teeth. Make a cup of tea. Drive to work. Each inch forward would be punctuated by a wave of grief, but she kept going. The first year bled into the second, into the third. At 42, there were no widows her own age that could show a way forward and all the examples of people living with grief showed two distinct paths, Tatiana says.
“One group of people felt like they were still cloaked in grief – that was it for them, there was no life in their existence,” she says. “And then there was the group of people that denied their grief; they were pushing through, but you could see the cracks. I didn’t want either of those realities for me – and I didn’t want either of them for my girls, either. So how could I, as a mother, find my way through this and show my daughters a different way of grieving?”
“How could I, as a mother, find my way through this and show my daughters a different way of grieving?”
On a whim, one night just a few weeks after Jason’s death, Tatiana had taken to Facebook to write a post about how she was feeling. It all came out – no filters and no pressure on how to respond from other people. Parts of that post would eventually become Skin Hunger, her play that is about to hit the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival after a successful run in Auckland that saw Tatiana win several Auckland Fringe Awards, including Outstanding Performance. Tatiana had always kept a journal and had previously written a play as a way of processing what had happened, for her eyes only. But she knew that she had the power within her to create something that could help other people in her position.
Originally, the title for the play was going to be Crazy Grief – the name of her podcast – “because grief and mental distress really do feel like they go hand-in-hand for me,” she says. But the physical impacts of the loss were just as violent on her body. The pain, she says, went right down to her bones, her lungs were struggling to allow her to breathe against the literal pressure of grief. Her body broke out in a full rash, her rosacea flared up and yet… well, her libido was going through the roof. “I was like, ‘Okay… nobody has prepared me for THAT?’” she laughs.
When Jason was alive, the pressures of working and raising two children had meant that sex was often quite far down the to-do list. But now, the yearning to be touched was all-encompassing. Tatiana recalls being at a friend’s house and her friend gently cradling her face as they were getting ready to go out. “I burst into tears because I realised nobody had touched my face like that in two years.”
“I burst into tears because I realised nobody had touched my face like that in two years.”
She realised that her body was literally craving human contact. A deep dive into the world of ‘skin hunger’ helped Tatiana discover two things: One, this was a very real condition and two, she had her starting point for her play. “I created this character that goes on lots of sexual escapades because she’s skin hungry, but deep down what she wants is real intimacy,” she says. “It’s kind of like eating popcorn – it doesn’t matter how much you eat, you’re never going to be fully satisfied. So all those situationships that she goes through never leave her satisfied, because what she wants is the full meal that she had with her husband, that comes from years of communion and love. And she knows that she can never get that.”
Originally, Tatiana had written Skin Hunger as a three-person show as she says she wasn’t emotionally strong enough to get through it on her own, bringing on two trusted friends to share the stage with her. But a lack of funding moving forward meant either putting the show to rest, or making it a solo show. And the feedback she’d already received meant she knew she had created exactly what she had aimed for – something to help people going through the same journey. Since she started performing Skin Hunger, Tatiana has been recognised in the mall, at a coffee shop – had women confide in her that the show had helped with their grief, or empowered them to learn more about their own pleasure (one woman whispered to Tatiana that the show had led to her buying her first sex toy).
“I needed to figure out how to grieve on my own. So I wrote myself a permission slip.”
Early on in her loss, Tatiana said she found so many of the ways that she was ‘supposed’ to grieve suffocating. Being originally from Brazil, Tatiana also now found herself in a culture that grieved very differently to what she’d grown up with. People wanted her to be positive, her church wanted her to know that Jason was in a better place. There was nothing that validated the raw reality of being widowed at 42 – of losing her life partner, her co-parent, her financial stability, the warm body in her bed at night. “I needed to figure out how to grieve on my own,” she says. “So I wrote myself a permission slip. In that permission slip, I wrote that I had the right to let my grief show up, however it needed to. That I had the permission to be sad, the permission to be a mess. And that’s what I wanted to bring to the play for others – you have permission! It is okay, not to be okay. You have permission to figure it out as you go.”
“I wanted my audience to get that sense when they leave the theatre, that grief is messy. And it’s unfixable. But also, in the middle of that grief, there are moments of joy. So don’t discard those moments, because they’re so precious and without them, you can’t create a new future,” she says. “I wanted to die, but I chose to live. And in giving myself the permission that I didn’t need to have it all figured out, I knew that I could still create a life that was worth living, even though it may not be the life that I had chosen for myself.”
Skin Hunger is part of the Hawke’s Bay Art Festival and will be performed by Tatiana Friday 27 October at 6pm, visit here for more information.