Tembi Locke has spent a decade as an advocate for greater grief awareness and the issues facing caregivers. Now, after having written and adapted her memoir From Scratch for screen, she also speaks about the art of beginning again, rebuilding, and reimagining after loss. We had the joy of learning more about Tembi in advance of her appearance at the End Well Symposium on November 16th in Los Angeles.
Q: Death is often considered taboo. Was there a defining moment in your life that ignited your passion to discuss and address end-of-life experiences openly?
At thirty-one, my husband was diagnosed with a rare soft tissue cancer, leiomyosarcoma. I would spend the next ten years as his primary caregiver, a defining and purposeful decade of my life. However, to my surprise, when the final months of his life approached, I was wholly unprepared for what care came next at the exact same time I had entered the medical industrial complex. In this new phase of caregiving, it was hard to navigate systems not designed for whole-person care or our family’s needs and priorities. This became another defining moment as I realized how little I knew about end-of-life care or how to best support him while navigating these institutions. After his death, the fatigue of a decade of caregiving converged with deep grief. I wrestled with making sense of the unnecessary suffering that accompanied his final weeks.
Eventually, I decided to commit myself to sharing my story in the hopes of improving the end-of-life care experiences for both patients and their families. My memoir, “From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home” is a personal narrative that was adapted into the Netflix sensation “From Scratch” which I co-created and executive produced. As a storyteller, writer, and producer, I invited readers, listeners and viewers to consider how we can make the most of our final days.
Q: Given your unique background, how does your work intersect with the end-of-life and grief conversation — and please give us a preview of what you’re talking about on the End Well stage.
My work is first and foremost that of a creative professional, a storyteller committed to uplifting, inspiring and activating humanity toward a more loving and compassionate world. In that sense, I use my own personal experience to reflect universal experiences and ignite conversations. I have spent a decade as an advocate for greater grief awareness and the issues facing caregivers. Now, after having written and adapted my memoir From Scratch for screen, I also speak about the art of beginning again, rebuilding, and reimagining after loss. It is a topic people are hungry to know more about, particularly after the pandemic and a time of unprecedented global change. We are having to bring conscious awareness to the emotional and internal processes that enable us to rebuild and remake our lives.
Q: Cultures around the world have different practices and beliefs surrounding death. How has your cultural background influenced your perspective on the end of life and grief?
I was raised in an African American household in Texas. I attended funerals and wakes as a child. We had family reunions which included visiting the cemeteries where my ancestors were laid to rest. I vividly remember my grandmother’s annual church homecomings, which were not only an invitation to return to a spiritual community, but also an occasion to honor the deceased. Yet, despite these public gatherings to honor those who had come before, personal grief was still a private and individual matter. It wasn’t until I spent many summers in rural Sicily with my mother-in-law after my husband passed that I learned about active, ongoing communal grieving, and death rituals as powerful healing tools. Today, my life and work are informed by the intersection of these two cultural approaches to grief.
Q: In your experience, what is the most significant societal norm or belief about death and dying that needs to be challenged or redefined?
The most significant societal norm about death that needs to be challenged is the misconception that talking about death will only cause greater suffering for the dying and for their families. In my experience with long-term illness, grief begins well before death, for the patient and family members. So, making space to discuss those feelings can be vitally important for the patient and for those left to navigate the long arc of grief after death. It can even be life-affirming and comforting.
Q: How do you hope various professions and disciplines can come together to create a more human-centered approach to end-of-life care and experiences?
I work in Hollywood as an actor, writer and producer. With the power of global storytelling comes the power to change public awareness and, thereby, change public engagement around the topic of end-of-life care. The more honest we are in the stories we put on screen, the more we empower patients, caregivers and medical practitioners to redesign the current care model to center patients and their families. I hope that because of conferences like End Well, people across various professions will join ranks in service of human-centric, empathic care that will change policies.
Q: Is there a book, movie, piece of art, or another form of media that profoundly impacted your views on mortality?
Strange as it may sound, as a child, I watched Terms of Endearment many many times. (It was filmed in my hometown of Houston and on a childhood friend’s street. For that reason alone, I watched it over and over.) All that viewing imprinted me with an unflinching portrayal of family dynamics at the critical moment of a terminal diagnosis. The film shaped me in ways that I would recognize later in my experience as a cancer caregiver and then again even later as a TV producer making From Scratch. The film modeled honesty, compassion, humor and intense vulnerability in the face of mortality. Death could plunge us into grief, but it could simultaneously give us an opportunity to laugh and heal wounds.
Q: Fast forward a decade. If the objectives of the End Well Project are realized, how do you envision society’s attitude and practices surrounding the end of life experience
In a decade, I would love to see that Palliative Care is easier for patients and families to access. I would like to see Hospice activated earlier for patients, not just in the final few days. And equally important, I want to see a federal bereavement policy that allows for more time off for families to make funeral arrangements, process the initial shock of death, and tend to their own physical and emotional health. Today, bereavement leave is five days. That is a stark contrast to Family Leave that allows workers to take up to twelve weeks of time off to welcome the birth of a child into the world. How wonderful would it be if Americans could have the option for at least half that time, six weeks of paid leave, to mourn the loss of a family member.
Tembi Locke is the bestselling author of the memoir From Scratch, and an actor, producer, and screenwriter with a passion for connecting with an audience both on the page and on the screen. Along with Reese Witherspoon and Hello Sunshine, Tembi served as an executive producer and co-writer for the hit Netflix limited series inspired by her book. She is also a prolific actor, who cut her teeth with iconic comedies like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Friends before going on to star in over sixty television shows including The Magicians, Bones, NCIS, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Never Have I Ever.