Grieving Through Paris
Soon after losing her mother to cancer, Julie, our Head of Customer Service, escaped to Paris with her father and sister. We interviewed her to see how traveling helped them through their grief — and to find out whether it’s a good enough story to turn into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence.So why Paris?In the weeks after my mom died, I called my dad every day to check in on him. My sister and I nicknamed him Bigfoot because we were obsessed with tracking his every move. One day, he answered the phone in hysterics, literally shrieking and crying, and he just said “her stuff is everywhere.” and hung up. I was at work, and because our office is all hip and cool and open, I was crying in front of all my colleagues… again.
Later that week, while making plans for Tablet’s 10th anniversary party in Paris, I realized that it was the perfect chance to take my father along with me. As for my sister, she didn’t really have a choice, because there was no way I’d be crying all across Paris alone with my dad.
There was only one rule, set by our dad. He was a relentless optimist, even in the months after my mom died. He created this philosophy that he called “95/5” — we could be 95% okay, even happy, and then 5% miserable (at most). Misery was okay as long as it was a small portion of your day.
Where did you stay?
This will sound like such bullshit, but we stayed at Mama Shelter without even thinking of the name and how perfect it was for our occasion. We honestly made our decision based on price, and I loved the fact that it served as a hub for the neighborhood locals. When we arrived, we saw that the hotel keys and amenities all had “Mama Loves You” written on them. The three of us cried a lot on that trip, but probably never more than right after we checked in to Mama Shelter.
We also had an incredible stay at Trianon Palace — any trip to Paris deserves a night in Versailles at this hotel. I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels and that was once of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
You were worried about your dad and his fear of vegetables and fancy food. How did dining in Paris turn out for him?
In another stroke of pure luck, we had dinner at Frenchie on our first night. My dad was a total meat-and-potatoes American kind of guy. When we walked in and learned about their limited menu — just a tasting menu, so you’re completely at the mercy of the chef — my dad bellowed, “Can we order pizza to the hotel room later?” There’s no way Gregory Marchand, the chef, didn’t hear him.
I can’t even believe I did this, but I actually went to speak with Mr. Marchand and begged him to serve my dad some kind of steak. I probably said something like “Keep it simple, please.” I die a little on the inside whenever I think about this. Mr. Marchand is the epitome of grace. It’s not just the food that makes Frenchie so exceptional. He put his hand on my shoulder and said “Your father is going to be okay,” and while I possibly didn’t believe him, I did feel confident at least that we wouldn’t be ridiculed out of the restaurant.
That is a reasonable thing to be concerned about in Paris.
The first course, a salad with beets, blew my dad’s mind. He ate every single piece of food on that plate. This was definitely his first beet. My sister and I, relieved and suddenly lighthearted, proceeded to get totally drunk while my dad marveled at the richness of duck, the joy of perfectly cooked vegetables, and the satisfaction of cheese as dessert.
At the end of the evening my dad walked over to the chef’s window, loudly asking “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” Mr. Marchand smiled and nodded, shook my dad’s hand, and offered his condolences. They then discussed the meal, my dad conveying his gratitude for an incredible first night in Paris. My sister and I, deeply moved by the scene, were trying to hide our tears from each other. When we realized this, we exploded with laughter. My dad, having gone from Giant American to sophisticated world traveler, shushed us with just the right amount of Parisian attitude. It was perfection.
Were there any other places that offered you some respite?
Absolutely. The Musée Marmottan Monet is just beautiful, peaceful, and heartwarming. The security guards who took the time to show us some of their favorite works. They took great care with my dad and would find him seats to rest his back.
Dinner at Relais Christine was also exceptional. We all had steak, and I still think about that steak. The service was also very special. It was important to me that my father was comfortable, and they ensured that he was. He had ice in his water every ten minutes, a large, soft chair, and I think they even found him a ginger ale. The more comfortable I could make my dad, the more open he’d be to trying new things, and I found Paris in general to be respectful of my efforts.
Île de la Cité was magical. In my memory, this was my father’s favorite area, and he loved the small shops and the hustle and bustle. We also took one of those river cruises at sunset and as we glided by the Eiffel Tower, the lights turned on and it started to sparkle. If you showed this in a movie you’d roll your eyes at the sentimentality, but it was beautiful and sincere and everything we needed.
And of course, the Tablet 10th Anniversary party was at the Banke Hôtel. It was a wonderful experience and they couldn’t have been more accommodating.
Any misadventures along with the pleasant surprises?
My sister and I went to the Palace of Versailles and tried desperately to steal a golf cart so we could pick my dad up at Trianon Palace (he was having back pain and for some reason we couldn’t get a cab to the palace). Apparently, we weren’t the first to try this and the golf cart shut off as soon as we reached the edge of the property. The story goes on and on, but it ends with my dad eventually hitching a ride in an ice-cream truck. Alone. And rather pissed off.
Paris, in general, was exactly what we needed. We needed to see the kind of beauty. To eat that kind of food. To see those works of art. To feel those acts of kindness. It brought us back to life.
Looking back, what did this trip mean for you?
About seven months after our trip, my dad suffered a massive heart attack, and was on life support at the same hospital where my mom had died not even a year earlier. When I got the news, after trashing my room for a few minutes, I collapsed to the floor and thanked God for that trip to Paris. At least, if he was going to die, he would die knowing I really tried. And I would know that he had tried too. Thinking about Paris somehow made it possible to get up and get to the hospital.
My dad would never recover from his heart attack. He spent the next nine months on life support, yet conscious and able to communicate. The man, who just months earlier had ascended the stairs along the Seine like a person half his age, would never walk outside again, would never breathe on his own, and had to watch my wedding via Skype on an iPad, from a nursing home. Despite that, he exuberantly held a sign he had drawn that said “Love you more” — a family saying — for me to see as I approached the aisle. He cheered, told me I was beautiful, and cried tears of joy. Always one to walk the walk, he truly embraced his own philosophy, even when he had every right to feel sorry for himself. He was an incredible person.
Beyond the loss of my father, my heart aches for France, who has had to endure horrific violence in recent years. I wish I could do something for the city that carried us in our time of need. They deserve a long run of 95% good days.
Any advice for people dealing with grief of their own?
Read Maybe You Never Cry Again by Bernie Mac. (Yes, Bernie Mac.) Sleep when you can, and know that it gets better. It gets better in a way you could never imagine when you first lose someone.
Find other grievers. They’re all over, and it helped me to be around people who knew not to expect much. And, of course, when you’re up for it, take a trip somewhere. Allow yourself a break, a change of scenery, an unexpected interaction. Create more happy memories. If we’re lucky, we’ll all experience loss a few times in life, and we’ll need these memories to help us get up off the floor.