On Grief

On the night of March 11th, 2017, my girlfriend and I went to Carnegie Hall. I don’t consider myself cultured at all, but as the saying goes, the best way to get there is by grabbing free tickets online. One of the opening acts was a pretty darn good high school band from Texas. While they played, I thought a lot about how proud their parents must have been. Carnegie Hall! The same hallowed stage where Florence Foster Jenkins from the movie Florence Foster Jenkins once performed! It’s an accomplishment these parents could brag about for the rest of their lives. Much like how my parents often bring up my brother’s now twenty-year-old Broadway stint. I went home that night inspired.

The following morning, my father was rushed to a hospital for emergency surgery. Two days later he was gone.

The best way I can describe the sensation of losing a loved one unexpectedly is to think of your favorite movie. Not the mainstream one the whole world has seen, but the one only you love. This is nobody else’s favorite movie; only you have the refined taste to recognize its greatness — and that makes you feel special.

Now you’re rewatching this movie on Netflix, and it’s two-thirds of the way through. You know the third act well, you’ve seen it a million times. You know exactly what each character is going to say next. But right as your favorite scene comes up — the big gunfight, the inspirational speech, the delightful but entirely unnecessary dance routine — the movie suddenly stops. Netflix abruptly suggests you watch The Great British Baking Show next. You of course watch The Great British Baking Show, but afterwards you’re left wondering: what happened to the rest of the movie?

You try playing it again, the same thing happens. You throw in your old DVD copy, and the rest of the movie is cut out there too. What the fuck? You order it on iTunes, you find an illegal streaming copy, you track down a VHS copy from some sketchy dude on Craigslist. You track down a VHS copy from some sketchy dude on Angie’s List. The same thing happens, and it begins to dawn on you that the rest of the movie no longer exists. Everyone you speak to agrees, it’s strange and disappointing this entire section of the movie disappeared. But only a handful of them care, because it was your favorite movie. You’ll never get to watch your favorite scene again. Worst of all, now the movie ends on a cliffhanger. A chance at seeing everything wrap up neatly and live happily ever after is lost forever.

The idea behind writing this thing in the first place was to give a look into what mourning a sudden loss looks like (alt titles: “Good Grief”, “Roast Grief”, “Griefer Madness”, etc.). It quickly went off the rails and became a scatterbrained collection of thoughts and emotions. A pretty accurate representation of the whole deal, for me at least. If one person reads this who recently lost a loved one, or is close to someone who did, then it was well worth the few hours it took to write and the few days it took to debate whether or not to post.

When you’re mourning, any emotion can hit you when you’re least expecting it. You can hear a song that reminds you of a happy memory you had together, and live inside that loop for hours. And you can hear the same exact song the next day and feel the sadness consume you whole and digest you, like a giant python with the shape of a crying human inside of it. The list of everyday things with the power to send you reeling is long and unpredictable. You can find yourself crying while eating his favorite candy bar, or watching a video of Conner O’Malley dancing to the Charlie Rose theme song. You can find yourself seething with rage because you received yet another Father’s Day promo e-mail, this time from Ben & Jerry’s. We still cool though, B&J.

Nobody mentions the ungodly amount of labor involved in the aftermath of a death. Well past the funeral arrangements, there are bills, insurance claims, safety deposit boxes, wills, Surrogate’s Court appointments, bank accounts, lawyers, and all sorts of surprise tedium that arise. I have a Master’s Degree in boring paperwork and still find it confusing and incredibly time-consuming. Then there’s all the physical stuff to go through. My dad had a LOT of stuff. We’ll be sorting through it for a long time. The funny thing is, I hope it never ends. Every bill with his name on it, every tattered pair of socks, every Atlantic City casino card keeps him alive a little bit longer. Who needs Dennis Haysbert — this is the ad campaign Allstate should run. “We’ll send so much paperwork addressed to your deceased father you’ll wonder if he’s dead or just hiding in the attic — that’s Allstate’s stand.”

If you look hard enough, silver linings are everywhere. Or bronze linings, at least. Your family gets closer, roles shift, and you appreciate what you do still have so much more. My family members have all made a real effort to be there for each other. It’s a comfort worth more than a thousand pints of ice cream (sorry B&J). Friends who know when to give you space are invaluable too. Space is good. Space is where the tough recovery happens. Whatever the opposite of space is, when you’re out and about, is exercise towards becoming a fully-functioning human again.

One of the hardest parts in the grieving process is figuring out how to answer to the question “how are you doing?” The answer is almost unequivocally “not great”. When exchanging pleasantries, telling the truth would open a jar of pickles better left jarred. I say “jar of pickles” instead of “can of worms” because I don’t know what kind of pervert would carry around a literal can of worms. Probably the same kind of pervert who drinks decaf coffee in the morning or rides the subway without headphones. There are worse things than having a friend ready for any emergency pickle situation. Also, my dad loved pickles. Just know that whether I answer the question “how are you doing?” with “hangin’ in there” or “do you have any pickles?”, it’s a lie. Sorry.

It’s been three months since my dad passed. Sometimes it feels like it happened yesterday, and sometimes it feels like it happened three years ago. Sometimes it feels like it hasn’t happened at all; he’ll call any minute to ask “how’s the writing going?” He was a very private person, but I will say he was an English teacher and inspired me to become a comedy writer. Luckily he was around long enough to see me land my first TV job. He bragged about it to anyone who’d listen for the whole month he knew, even though my start date was well after he passed. But it didn’t take an accomplishment like that for him to be proud. One of the first things we found in his drawers, right next to a copy of my birth certificate, was a copy of the first sketch I ever put up on stage. I don’t even remember giving it to him.

I’m going to brag about my dad for the rest of my life. He was the best. Even if he never played Carnegie Hall.