Death for Dummies

Top Five Panic-Inducing Things I Heard from Well-Meaning Friends and Family

Written by Jessica Ryan. Illustrated by Donny Pawloski

This story starts with that classic yet intriguing trope of all great literature:

Ok, I realize it’s no Oscar Wilde, but I’m really shooting for something closer to a‘7 word memoir’ for nerds. So it’s fine.

Especially because it’s true. As I look back at this To Do List and the one before it, there’s just a measly little slip of paper between the life I knew and this weirdo world that was ahead for the next 18 months.

Let’s review Jess before the page turn, just for fun:

  1. Artist, which means:
  2. Never owned anything (except my 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass in High School. I called it ‘The Stealth’ in case you were wondering. Sidebar: It was stolen the weekend before I went to college while I was in the 8pm showing of Brokedown Palace. I counted that evening as a total loss.)
  3. Never took care of anything — perpetual killer of plants and goldfish; hopeless failure at any and all home repairs
  4. No money or savings to speak of — in fact, I will freely admit that I resorted to buying beer with a roll of quarters not too long before all this happened. In case you’re bad at math, that means I was in my thirties. SHAMEFUL
  5. Spent my 20's and early 30's in a 1000 square foot apartment with two other people, floor model furniture and Ikea hand-me-downs, no renters insurance (because we didn’t have anything of value, natch), a three year mold problem and a really fun four month period where there was also no gas
  6. Loved life. Those first 9 years in NYC were beautiful despite the departures from what people would consider a ‘normal’ existence — I worked great jobs, I traveled the country, I made great art (I think), I put family first and I was able to take care of myself. My life was stable and secure in its own bizarre way

All of that — every single thing on that list above — changed in the turn of a 225/2500ths of a centimeter page. It’s so hard to believe, I’m actually sitting here accusing myself of sensationalizing the circumstances for print, but then myself tells myself to shut up because we all know it’s true, and the weirded out people in the coffee shop I’m writing in scoot a little further away as this awkward argument continues to play out.

All I wanted to do was grieve, figure out what my life would mean without the family I depended on for strength, and curl up and disappear with the only two living things that wouldn’t ask me questions.

Instead, not 24 hours after Dead Dad Day, (Had to give it a name. I can only say “after it all came crashing down” or “the day my Dad died” so many times before even I throw up a little in my mouth), I was thrust into the middle of a rotating cast of characters and crises that I couldn’t have dreamed of if I tried.

Top Five Panic-Inducing Things Well-Meaning Friends and Family Told The Girl With Formerly No Responsibilities (in the First 24 Hours):

If the mortgage company finds out your Dad died, they’ll start foreclosure proceedings and lock you out of your house — and you’ll never get back in!

Don’t let the lawyers you get know about expensive stuff or you’ll get taxed on it! Also, people troll the obituaries to find houses to break into! And if the mortgage company finds out your Dad died, they’ll start foreclosure proceedings and lock you out of your house!

There’s cremation, death certificates, memorial services and other assorted bills! But don’t touch the money in your Dad’s bank accounts or you’ll be arrested!! (To be fair, they just said don’t touch the money. I convinced myself I was going to get arrested if I did)

People steal the social security numbers of dead people and they could ruin everything in the blink of an eye! This was usually closely followed by someone else offering this helpful advice:

And then this gem:

Or else you won’t be able to take out the money you’re not supposed to be touching that you need to pay the thousands of dollars in the next 48 hours!

By the way, thank god I’d been taking care of my Dad those last couple of days and had found out his debit PIN so I could run errands. I think I had about $200 to my name at the time all this responsibility fell on my shoulders. As a side note, I will say there was something kind of fun about stealthily pulling out little bits of money from Dad’s bank account to pay for everything. It was my middle class turn at being on the run from the law. It’s probably the closest to being a bad guy I’ll ever get.

In light of the above, I assume it comes as no surprise to you that I completely fell apart in private and/or after working hours. Case in point: you’ve probably noticed this To Do List is definitely not in my handwriting. That’s because I misguidedly thought I could function at my normal capacity despite the obvious challenges. Then I was driving down I-70 a few days after Dead Dad Day, a road I have driven down thousands of times, and shortly after the boyfriend asked,

and answering in the affirmative, I apparently emotionally and functionally blacked out because we ended up in the complete opposite direction of the house, heading toward Iowa. I let him write the To Do Lists after that.

This is Eenie, my Dad’s dog, when she was a few years old. She’s now 7 years old, about 65 pounds and still insists she’s a lap dog.

Another of my favorite episodes, resulting from what was to be a constant war between taking care of business and taking care of myself, was the time I jolted awake in the middle of the night, screaming that Eenie was dying. The confused boyfriend (and dog, if we’re going to be honest here) blinked and assessed the clearly not life-threatening situation. Turns out, Eenie is a snorer and in my sleep, I guess it sounded a lot like the sound of Dad trying to breath in those last couple of days.


But, them’s the breaks as they say. Life is life, we die and the folks who are left behind have to pick up the pieces. The day before I wrote this list, I was worried about letting my Dad’s friends know he had died. Turn the page, and I had been launched out of a cannon, combing through my Dad’s files in a cold sweat to find a will that was written in 1985 (super helpful), safety deposit boxes I didn’t know about, bank accounts with no beneficiaries, Life Insurance Policies we’d never talked about, cremation, obituary and memorial service costs I couldn’t pay for, bills for things like Umbrella Insurance (which apparently doesn’t have anything to do with umbrellas at all), the stupid stupid lawn, and oh, trying to find the space between to deal with these really weird things called ‘feelings’ and ‘tears’. Because they just kept happening, despite the fact I clearly had things to do.

It was certainly going to be an interesting year.

By the by, if you are an estate lawyer and you want to do an interview with me for this series, I’ll love you forever. I have no (legitimate) PRO TIPS for this story because I don’t even know what to say to people to help them avoid the things that happened. Especially if they can’t afford a lawyer to wrap things up into a neat and tidy estate beforehand. I asked my estate lawyers in an email, but they’re in Kansas City and I think they probably assumed I was running some kind of soft core porn site. I never heard back from them.

Just tuned in? Start from the beginning of Death for Dummies!

Jessica Ryan is a bi-coastal actor/writer/producer — tri-regional, if you count KC. She’s performed around the country, written for some of the biggest companies in the world, and once sang a jingle for an adult superstore in South Dakota (true story, Annabelles, look it up). Founder/CEO of a cool start-up called Broadway Unlocked, member of 30Films and proud content creator for Manifesto, a brand declaration agency. | @JessicaRyanNYLA |

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