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Image: Death Bear taking items from woman
Kevin Walsh  /  TODAY
Severing the ties: A woman hands Death Bear clothing and other keepsakes from a relationship that didn't survive.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 2/12/2010 7:13:30 AM ET 2010-02-12T12:13:30

More than 2,400 years ago, Socrates said, “The hottest love has the coldest end.”

Which kind of makes you wonder: Could Socrates have benefited from the services of Death Bear?

It turns out that a lot of people are identifying with Death Bear in a big way, especially as the romantic trappings of Valentine’s Day close in all around them. You see, Death Bear — a rather intimidating, 7-foot-tall character created by New York performance artist Nate Hill — is a self-appointed public servant for the bereft and the brokenhearted.

Instead of fighting crime in Gotham City the way Batman does, this superhero pays solemn visits to the homes of Brooklyn residents who are struggling to move on with their lives after breakups and other painful experiences. And as that unmentionable, Cupid-inspired holiday neared, he added extra days to his schedule.

Hill’s Web site shares this description of what Death Bear does for people:

“We all have someone or something we would rather just forget. Things fall apart. Love hurts. Dreams die. But when you summon Death Bear to your door, you can rest assured that help has come.

“Death Bear will take things from you that trigger painful memories and stow them away in his cave where they will remain forever, allowing you to move on with your life. Give him an ex’s clothes, old photos, mementos, letters, etc. Death Bear is here to assist you in your time of tragedy, heartbreak and loss.”

Hill, 32, has visited dozens of homes as Death Bear, encountering all sorts of people eager for catharsis and fresh starts. Most who summon him have endured a crushing breakup or other romantic loss.

“Some people are really, seriously hurting,” Hill said. “I get framed pictures of them with their exes, and I get their exes’ clothes ... A few people have gotten a little choked up. No one has actually cried. I think they kind of hold back because they can’t see my face [in the costume], so they don’t know how I’m responding.”

The costume — a black jumpsuit, black boots and a shiny, hard black bear head — is much more reminiscent of Darth Vader than, say, Winnie the Pooh. But people who have received visits from Death Bear say he’s a comforting presence, not a scary one.

“He was very cordial and kind of somber, actually,” said Teresa Tsai, 33, who offered up framed photos and a white collared man’s shirt to Death Bear. “It was almost like sacrificing something to alleviate the feeling of a heavy heart. It’s all symbolic, but it really did help.”

A breakup can be like ‘a mini-death’
From the opposite end of the continent, Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, applauded what Death Bear is doing.

Image: Death Bear standing in doorway
Kevin Walsh
You rang? Death Bear stands in the doorway of a Brooklyn apartment.
“I love it!” Schwartz said. “I’d say that it’s funny and it’s eccentric and it’s probably effective. I think it marks for these people that they did something. They’ve done a small ceremony and ... they’ve made it final.”

Schwartz, who is also a relationship expert for PerfectMatch.com and AARP, noted that the idea of Death Bear may elicit chuckles, but serious breakups can be seriously painful. They can trigger stomachaches, headaches, nausea, and elements of depression and debilitating stress.

“When you lose someone you really love, you feel physical pain,” Schwartz said. “It’s just a full body slam.

“This is a mini-death, when you think about it,” she added. “If this was a serious relationship, it needs to be given its due.”

Of course, not everyone who endures a wrenching breakup would — or even could — summon Death Bear. (His services are only offered in Brooklyn, a place Hill said he chose because people there would be most likely to “get it.”) No matter where a person lives, though, it’s important to find healthy ways to move on after a romance ends, Schwartz said.

Options include connecting (or reconnecting) with friends and family members; staying as busy as possible; finding ways to pamper yourself and be nice to yourself; taking a short trip if you can; getting outside to be closer to nature and regain perspective; taking pictures down and removing other objects that bring back painful memories; and, in more serious cases where symptoms of depression stubbornly persist, seeking out help from a doctor or therapist.

“If you’re really in deep anger or deep sadness you’re really crying too much, you may be in mild depression and you need someone with more patience and training than your friends,” Schwartz advised.

Things to avoid — (as if you don’t already know this) — include overdrinking, overeating, rushing back into a past failed relationship so you won’t be alone, rushing into a series of casual encounters that may leave you feeling even more alone, and doing anything too drastic — such as quitting a job or changing cities — while you’re deep in the throes of the grieving process.

Tsai, the woman who gave the shirt and framed photos to Death Bear, said she had been feeling a bit “possessed” before his visit, and she knew she wasn’t thinking clearly.

“When I gave him those things, the exorcism kind of began,” Tsai said. “I asked him about the energy of these little mementos — if bringing them back to his cave affects the energy of his cave. He said, no, his cave actually neutralizes the energy of these objects.

“I thought it was pretty cool that he had an answer for that.”

Large underwear, rotten eggnog
To be sure, things don’t always go smoothly for Death Bear as he makes his rounds — and sometimes they turn downright nutty. His massive black, shiny bear head sometimes crashes into chandeliers and doorways. And sometimes people summon him for unexpected reasons.

One time a woman handed him an exceptionally large pair of panties.

Image: Death Bear
Teresa Nasty
Death Bear may look menacing, but satisfied customers say he's cordial and kind.
“She had lost all the weight in the previous year,” Hill said. “She wanted to put it behind her — gone forever.”

Another person — possibly someone suffering from a doozy of a hangover? — gave Death Bear beer funnels, the kind that attach to a person’s head.

Jessica Berta, a 29-year-old writer who lives and works in Brooklyn, said Death Bear helped her in a humorous way: By unwittingly playing a character in a goth-themed holiday video she made with a friend.

“He helped us by taking a rather destructive object — poisonous eggnog — off our hands,” Berta said. “I’m pretty sure he was unaware of the hilarious and helpful role that he played.”

On yet another occasion, Hill visited an apartment as Death Bear and got ambushed by his own ex-girlfriend.

“Yeah, when I saw my ex-girlfriend I realized it was a bad situation to be in,” Hill said. “She made a fuss, started screaming, slapping me in the mask ... That’s the strangest thing that’s happened to me with Death Bear.”

Most of the time, though, Death Bear can tell that he’s genuinely helping people.

As for the myth that the objects he collects vanish into his “cave” — well, they actually end up in his East Harlem apartment. Another potentially myth-busting detail is that Death Bear has a day job at a research lab in Manhattan.

Hill doesn’t charge any money for visiting people’s homes as Death Bear, although he does score the occasional tip. (“But that’s rare,” he said.) An artist since 2002 and a performance artist since 2007, he’s entertained New Yorkers with an array of wild costumes and acts — from a guy in a giant dolphin head who gave “free bouncy rides” to subway passengers, to a guy in a giant dolphin head who delivered “candy crack” to adults. (Note: It was just candy, and the “drug deals” were just make-believe.) He said Death Bear, by far, is his most popular character yet.

“People like Death Bear best,” Hill said. “They can relate to it.”

Before the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, Hill had visited about 40 homes in his Death Bear costume. At times he had to turn people down because demand was so high. To prevent that from happening again as the dreaded holiday approached, he set aside five days — Wednesday through Sunday — to fulfill his Death Bear duties.

“I did have to cut my hours a little bit shorter on Sunday,” he said. “I mean, it’s Valentine’s Day. I have to go out with my girlfriend.”

To learn more about Death Bear or to book a visit with him in the Brooklyn area, visit Nate Hill’s website  or text Death Bear at (347) 742-2293 for an appointment.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

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