5 Things No One Tells You About Dealing With Death
Writing a comedy article about death is a lot like starting a sexual relationship with fire: Finding a happy place in the midst of the pain is not nearly as easy as you want it to be, and the smell of burned pubes will bring tears to your eyes. But let it never be said that I shied away from a challenge. Not that anyone challenged me to write this, but it occurs to me that death is a universal experience and something we can all share, for better or worse. I can write articles about crazed Australians, sex toys, and vengeful goats until the cows come home, and there will always be a segment of the audience that stares at the words on their screen with a clueless kind of detachment, wondering if maybe I'm off my meds.
But death ... that is something to which we all relate. And, by and large, something about which we rarely laugh. But why for? As the only part of life beyond the living of it that we all have in common, it should be as easy to laugh about as anything else. And it need not be mysterious and confusing, as we have so often made it. It only seems confusing because none of us reading this have done it yet. Not officially, anyway. Getting choked out by a lady you gave $400 to on a trip to Bali doesn't count.
There are a lot of things no one prepares you for when it comes to death because no one likes to talk about it, really. So for the benefit of those who have yet to really face mortality, and those who are second guessing how they dealt with it in the past, here are some helpful observations from an Internet comedy writer you've never met, the closest thing modernity has to a thanatologist.
Indifference Isn't Evil
If you use Twitter on a regular basis, you'll notice a curious affectation of people when it comes to death. The moment a celebrity dies, the news surges across Twitter like a tiny, morbid tsunami, and you can watch it all happen in real time. At the beginning of May, Chris Kelly of the '90s rap group Kriss Kross died, and the subject was trending on Twitter for two days. Thousands tweeted their condolences to whomever they think it is who reads their Twitter feed who might be checking up on how we respond to pseudo-celebrity deaths and then the rest of us arched an eyebrow and went back to playing Xbox.
Kriss Kross had a handful of hits in 1992. That was over 20 years ago. Two really big singles and something about missing a bus. Between then and now, few if any people probably had any idea what the two guys from the group were up to, and they were mostly a footnote to history as the goofy kids who wore their clothes backward in one of the lamest attempts at creating a fashion trend ever.
If "Warm It Up" touched your heart in some way, if you lost your virginity to the song, if it was playing when you overthrew the puppet regime that was destroying your little island nation, whatever, then it's totally understandable that you might feel something at the loss of one of the musicians behind it. And it's totally OK if you never even heard of Kriss Kross and you still offered up a message of sympathy for his family just because you feel for the loss of human life in general. But by the same token, you shouldn't feel bad if you don't feel bad. Did that make sense? It better, or you're going to feel so bad.
"Start feelin' bad or I'll tell ya about my prostate!"
There's a kind of weird social pressure when someone dies -- either on a grand scale as it relates to a celebrity, or on a smaller scale when it's someone in your own circle of friends and family -- that makes it seem like you need to express remorse and sympathy, and it gets pretty awkward if you don't actually feel those things. If it's a family member, shit gets downright ugly if you seem to not particularly care. But it happens, and it doesn't always make you a monster.
The thing not a lot of people appreciate is that sometimes you don't care when someone dies; you weren't that close, or maybe you just didn't like the person. "Don't speak ill of the dead" is a carryover from a bygone era, but some people are scurrilous shits, and being dead doesn't change that. If you're a rancid doucher in life, don't expect everyone to be sad when you finally kick it. In fact, some people might secretly be happy you're gone. Are a lot of people unhappy that the Boston Marathon bomber got shot? Probably not -- he didn't engender much goodwill over that last week. I'd go so far as to say that the man was a straight up turd gargler.
Someone dying is often tragic, but feeling like you're being forced to pretend you're in mourning when you're not is pretty tragic, too. So even if you need to put up a front for the benefit of others, go ahead, but don't feel bad about not feeling bad. Again, unless you're a sociopath, but I suspect you're still not going to feel bad anyway.
Prepare for Assholes
I learned when my grandmother died some years ago (and have heard of enough similar situations in other people's lives to assume that this is a sadly common state of affairs) that some relatives will take this opportunity to flex great, billowy wings of clusterfuckery and flutter around you like a dick moth trying to clutch a flame made from your dead relative's estate.
If you're lucky, you come from a family that is based on love. I have heard of these things and once saw one in a movie from the 1950s and it seemed hokey yet somewhat comforting. If you are less than lucky, your family is a thick goulash of love, hate, tolerance, envy, jealousy, exploitation, and shitheadedness. A death in the family brings this to a boil that can end with lawyers and fights over how drunk Grandpa was when he made out that will.
Nothing ruins a death quite like greed, and it's an unfortunate part of the aftermath that of course no one will cop to ahead of time. But the day after the funeral, when you notice that the attic has been cleaned out and all the valuable antiques have gone missing, you'll realize that someone in the family is way more dickish than a lifetime's worth of terrible Christmas presents had led you to believe. And even if it never gets to be as drastic as straight-up robbery (I like to think some of you come from families that don't rob each other. Tell me it's nice. Is it nice?), there's still a high likelihood of arguments over funeral costs, the odd family knickknack, that tea set Grandma promised you when you were 12, and a dozen other things that make everyone bitchy for no good reason.
Bureaucracy Cannot Handle Death
The government and private business both hate nothing more than you. They hate you. Specifically you, reading this article and wondering if I mean you as an individual. I do mean you. The government hates you, your bank hates you, the insurance company hates you, the IRS hates you, I can't even begin to imagine who out in the world does not hate you. Like I don't hate you, I kind of like you more than a friend, but any big institution, forget it. Hate.
This hate will become abundantly clear in the weeks following a death that you have been forced to deal with as next of kin. You'll get a bill for the deceased from someone whose business is run by a flatulating anus of a brain-dead half quat who will proceed to make your life miserable for weeks on end before it gets sorted out.
There are numerous stories of piss-poor customer service out there for dealing with deaths, from AOL telling a person their dead mother would have to call and cancel herself to Verizon billing a dead man because a death certificate isn't good enough to end service unless a PIN number is provided. They're not all as drastic as this, but many are a result of large businesses choosing to have their call centers manned by sleepy baboons and people for whom Lysol is a morning pick-me-up.
"Customer service is job one! Wet shit dribbling down my calf is job two!"
While it seems logical to those of us who can eat a meal without missing our mouth with the fork more often than not, for some reason death just doesn't factor in debt collection in the world of business. The people who man the phones are trained to believe that you are a lying sack of scum-sucking toilet brisket, and they really don't care what you say if it's not confirming how much you'll pay and when you'll pay it. You could be on fire while you're on the phone and screaming in pain, and a bill collector will just try to work out a system of communication consisting of one shriek for full payment, two shrieks for partial payment.
This is extremely jarring when you first encounter it and apt to be quite upsetting for most of us, because the last thing you need is someone billing a dead loved one for services they no longer require, but few businesses advertise their inability to apply common sense to everyday occurrences, and that's why most of us get blindsided by this douchebaggery when it happens. But at least you know about it now if you hadn't heard of it before, so if it does happen to you, feel free to tell the assholes you're on the phone with that Felix Clay says they need to secure their own head in their ass and make themselves into a shithead tumbleweed so they can roll on out of the building and never return.
It's All in the Details (Except Not)
Someone I was close to once died in an accident. I found out about it when they were in the hospital. I had missed any opportunity to see them again, alive, but I wanted to go and be there, for my friends and the family that were present. I never made it there that night because I was stuck at trying to decide how to get ready to go. Should I just go with what I had on? Do you wear a tie? A dress shirt? I had shorts on, did I need long pants? Long pants are respectful. A tie is respectful. But it's not a funeral, not yet. I didn't need to change yet, did I? Who the fuck spends this much time deciding on a wardrobe? An hour had passed. A whole hour, just looking at my collection of novelty T-shirts and colorful silk ties and accomplishing nothing. This didn't even take into account my internal debate about picking up coffee and doughnuts.
Nothing I focused on that night meant anything. It was bullshit in the most extreme way, but it's where my mind went. Tiny, pointless details. What if I did bring doughnuts -- would people think I was awful for making a stop and not rushing over? But what if they'd been there for hours? They'd be hungry, and I'd be thoughtful. No jelly doughnuts, you can't have red stuff squishing out. Can you eat in a hospital, or is it unsanitary? Boston cream looks like pus, that's horrible.
You insensitive shitbag.
While the potential existed that I had briefly lost my mind and spiraled into a bizarre OCD fit of T-shirts and baked goods, I've noticed since then that this kind of behavior, as much as I can tell from the external behavior of others, is not all that uncommon. When you're really affected by a death, when it really hits home, you need a distraction, and your brain will run hog wild trying to find one. I once watched my mom, after her own mother's funeral, rearrange sandwiches on a tray about a hundred times, and she wouldn't let me take one because it would mess up the pattern she had made. I stole a few later, but for a while there I was really hungry and it was pretty tragic. I've heard some people get all horny and have sex. It's an odd time in a person's life.
Focusing on tiny, pointless details is clearly a coping mechanism. It's probably helpful in its way. Don't freak out, and don't second guess doughnuts, because doughnuts are great.
It's OK to Laugh
You have to acknowledge that as appropriate as tears may be for loss, so too is laughter. Maybe not the actual act of a person dying -- if you find yourself chuckling over car wrecks and leprosy, you may want to seek professional help, because you're a bit of a creepy ghoulie, aren't you? However, it's worth noting that you don't need to deal with death by becoming an emotional wreck.
In times of stress, I become almost unbearably goofy. I enrage others in tense situations due to my tenuous grasp on seriousness that becomes more and more ephemeral the angrier people get with me until the point where I either get hit or have to hit someone else. I'm not proud of it, but it happens. I will smile like a drunken Cheshire Cat making it rain at a strip club when the shit hits the fan and have little to no ability to somber up for the sake of maintaining decorum. It's not necessarily that I think it's funny if someone died, or you lost your job, or the city is being locked down due to the presence of mutant isopods -- it's just my natural reaction. I suppose on some level even my writing is an outlet for that, for my desire to make people laugh. I enjoy it, I want to be entertaining on a basic level, and, even when wholly inappropriate, I still try to do it.
Now the problem here is that I am acknowledging it as wholly inappropriate when I don't even feel it's inappropriate. I feel that others feel it's inappropriate. But there's plenty of evidence to indicate that not everyone thinks you need to wear black and mope around in the face of death. A mourning period, a time of sadness to reflect on pain and loss, is normal, but at a funeral, for instance, you don't need to all be weeping to "Amazing Grace" and wishing Grandpa Cankle godspeed. If he was a happy man in life, celebrate his death. Tell funny stories. Put on his favorite obscene puppet show. Show that super-8 film of him and three hookers in Saigon. Whatever he would have liked.
Our sadness comes from a sense of loss, but there's just as much precedent to experience joy when you reflect on what you had and what made that person so important to you in the first place, and in the end, you're likely to feel better making death a final celebration of all the experiences you did have, rather than a lament of all the ones you won't.