Death for Dummies.

What do you mean, they don’t teach a class for that?

written by Jessica Ryan. illustrated by Donald Pawloski.

It’s always hard to find a starting place for a story, so how about this: I’m currently sitting here writing and tackling my to-do list from a beautiful garden, outside a beautiful house, one block away from beautiful Venice Beach.

I highly recommend the cottages at Venice Beach for anyone whose life has fallen apart. I’m not sure they’d love this endorsement, but hey. Beggars can’t be choosers.

This isn’t particularly relevant to the overall narrative, but I really feel like we undervalue the happy beginning. Everyone is all into the happy ending, it has this great ring to it, it’s what we want from a story. But starting everything from ← here

sets a certain mood, right? We’re starting from a place of cheer, good will, perhaps a little friendly envy and a common bond, because who doesn’t want to be hanging out in paradise? Good way to start a story.

Anyway, I digress.

This is not my usual work/life situation, but more about that later. I’m here because I’m doing a little celebrating, and rewarding myself with a lovely break from the norm (God bless AirBnB).

The ‘norm’ is where things get interesting. I’m a 34 year old creative entrepreneur type. I’ve lived in NYC for the last 11 years. In 2012, I decided to join my boyfriend of three years in LA - and at the tender age of 32, with an apartment in Washington Heights and West Hollywood, my dreams had officially come true: I was finally bi-coastal. Oh, and, because I’m from the most awesome place ever (Kansas City baby!), I always spent several weeks at home each year with my Dad and his dog Eenie, to relax and unwind from a really cool, but really hectic life.

Ok — so let’s recap:

NYC apartment. LA apartment. KC home. Dad. Dog. Boyfriend.

This is where the happy beginning comes in handy, because things kind of go downhill from here.

It’s 2015 and this is what I have left.

Whoops. Scratch that. No dog either.

She went with my brother, whom I haven’t mentioned yet. He lives in Oregon and I’m sure they’re all very happy.

Don’t feel bad, I’m still wondering how it happened too. Here’s how it went down, near as I can trace it:

About a year and a half ago my Dad, to whom my brother and I were really close, was diagnosed with cancer and died from it about 12 hours later. It happened seemingly out of nowhere and it happened fast. I had the great fortune of having to decide to pull the plug. Super fun.

Mom died about five years before that, after a long and spectacular battle with Alcoholism, which leaves me parent-less. And all that gets really unfortunate when you factor in the boyfriend of five years, who left me about a month after all this went down.

So there I was, August of 2013. NYC apartment sublet out. LA apartment off limits lest I kill the ex in a blind rage. 3500 square foot home my parents built and that I grew up in that needed to be unloaded yesterday. No one to talk to — no Mom, no Dad, no Partner. And this epic, inconceivable hole of sorrow as I tried to understand how the girl who had everything… suddenly had nothing.

Well, that’s actually misleading. And it brings us to the point of my Medium posts in this new year.

I had something.

I had my To-Do Lists.

I know you’re thinking ‘weird’, ‘wtf’ and ‘I could really go for some toast right now’, but stay with me here.

For those of you who’ve been through this, I’d be curious if you had a similar experience. Mine was a never-ending K Hole of To-Dos. By the way, do you capitalize ‘K Hole’? I’m just curious.


The stuff you have to accomplish when your parents are gone and you’re the responsible party is absolutely mind-boggling. For me, the To-Dos started about 1.5 hours after my dad died, as I was alternately sobbing and blankly staring at our kitchen table wondering what the fuck just happened.

The hospital called, delicately asking

And, as you’ve probably guessed, the list still has not been completed, despite it being exactly 576 days later. Although, I’m just about done as far as I can tell.

Anyway, I’ve had a lot of people ask me to tell my story, for various reasons. There’s clearly not a class anyone takes on how to do death from a technical standpoint (Life Insurance! Probate! Annuities and RMD’s!). And people, from my age to my parent’s age, have asked me to tell them how to prepare for this BS so that they don’t have to trial by fire like me. I also knew I wanted to explore how drastically my life has changed — I was and continue to be surprised at how strongly the reverberations of all this have impacted my personal and professional life, in a surprisingly good way. But how to pull it all together into one (probably not very) cohesive story?

To-Do Lists.

From June 18, 2013 to today, January 15, 2015, I’ve gone through a pile of legal pad To-Do Lists and kept every one of them. They really cover it all

I think I had ‘Death Brain’, which must be like ‘Mommy Brain’. I actually had to remind myself to do stupid things like ‘buy a sponge’. If it wasn’t written down, it wasn’t getting done.

from the mundane, to the technical. From personal, to professional. And I realized, whereas the mention of To-Do Lists has probably already sent you screaming for the hills, they were something more for me. They were a weird, ever-present symbol of what I was going through. And they were a tangible way for me to remind myself of how much I had accomplished, when it felt like I would never dig myself out of this insane mid-life implosion.

So, I thought I would tackle them. Go back over this ridiculous experience, now that I’m (mostly) on the other side of it. And let each list tell a story. Stories that I hope will be interesting. Helpful. And maybe even a little therapeutic for me (in case the Venice Beach cottage isn’t doing the trick).

Because, honestly, how else do you get your life back when you’ve lost everything?

You do it one page at a time, of course.

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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