Column: Writer Laurie Kilmartin shows Americans how badly they ‘suck’ at handling death
You know what we’re bad at in this country? Death. Not the act of dying, but dealing with it. The Victorians were horrified by sex but practically fetishized death, and we do just the opposite. Sex is one of our major cultural food groups, but death? Death, we treat like it’s some embarrassing lifestyle choice.
Maybe Laurie Kilmartin can help. She’s a TV comedy writer, and in 2014, as her father was dying, she tweeted about it, from bedside to graveside. From that comes her new book, “Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed.” For Gen X, Gen Y and millennials especially, it’s a practical, comical, and sometimes poignant approach to coping with the dearly departing, and for all of us, it’s about not making a mess of things when we head for the final exits.
You write that Americans are too removed from death. “We’re shocked and unprepared when it happens, even to old people. Maybe we should be forced to dig our own graves, not in a psychotic murderer hitchhiker way, but as a rite of passage.“ Why are we so bad at death?
I guess it just seems like a bummer. This is an optimistic country, right? And death seems like a really negative thing that you can do. So if 17-year-olds, when they graduate from high school, were forced to dig their own graves, you would just realize, wow, I’m going to end up here sooner or later. And maybe that would help you frame your life a little bit better.
As your father was dying, you had to come to terms with a lot about yourself, not just about his life.
I still can’t believe that I was so shocked that this 83-year-old former smoker was dying of lung cancer. You’d think I’d know. But I didn’t. So I was surprised at how surprised I was that I was losing my dad.
I’m a comic, so I just go to jokes naturally. That’s how I processed it. When my dad got cancer, I started joking it about it onstage. It was kind of an attempt to make sure he didn’t die of cancer — if I joke about it, there’s no way it’s actually going to happen, like a version of magical thinking. After he passed, I had a lot to say.
Although there’s a lot of comedy in this book, there’s also practical advice.
Like recording conversations between your parents while they’re still alive. Just do it slyly. Record it on your iPhone [at dinner] and just put your napkin over it so no one knows you’re recording.
The dynamic between your parents obviously is gone when one of them dies. My mother is still alive. She’s so different without my dad that when I hear the [recorded] conversations where they’re joking together, I’m like, oh yeah, she was fun once! And they were fun together. Or they weren’t fun together. Or she nagged him and he got annoyed. But it’s weird how you forget all of that. So I suggest slyly recording dinners while they’re there.
Then there’s your version of the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stages of grief, through anger and finally reaching acceptance. Your advice is, have a garage sale, but don’t give it all away.
I have a bunch of stuff I’m probably going to get rid of, but I need to get rid of it on my own time frame. I kept this giant desk of his because I thought I would really love to write on it, and I don’t. I paid a lot of money to restore it! It’s probably on its way out. I guess I didn’t want to miss it, and I know if I keep things for about 10 years and then ship them out, then I won’t feel a longing for them.
It was my great worry that I would discover that my dad had a dark side we didn’t know.
I have a lot of his papers. They’re engineering papers and they’re equations and I don’t know what they mean, but I’m still holding on to those. There’s some things my son will have to just burn. Let the grandkids have a bonfire one day!
I got very into Ancestry.com after my dad died, because I was trying to figure him out. He’s 100% Irish Catholic stock, and they’re all famine immigrants. The more I got into it, the more I wish he was here to talk about what he remembered from his grandparents. I’m trying to keep all of that stuff for my son so he won’t have to ask all these questions. Maybe he’ll be interested when he’s 50 — in 40 years, when I’m dead.
You also have advice to fathers who are dying: Before they die, please have your sons shred your porn, before your daughters see it.
I never found any porn. I don’t think my dad had any; it just wasn’t in his frame of reference. But it was my great worry that I would discover that my dad had a dark side we didn’t know. Whatever you have, if you’re a dying older man, get a male to dispose of it. Daughters need to idolize their dads. It feels good. You really want to keep your dad on a pedestal. Let us have this. Let me remember the best things about you, so please, please, shred your porn.
You did something that I thought was very tender; you stayed with your dad’s body after he died.
My dad died on a Sunday morning, and we just didn’t want to let him go. He was still warm, and he still looked alive. He looked like he was sleeping. Since he was doing home hospice, it was up to us to call the mortuary, and we just decided to keep him overnight. We called and asked if that was OK and they said, keep the house cold. It was March; we didn’t have to work hard to do that. The Oscars were that night, and we watched the Oscars with my dad’s body.
My dad had cancer, so he died super-skinny. We were all able to fit on the single hospital bed that we had in the living room, where we watched the Oscars.
Had you watched the Oscars with him before?
No, he had no interest in that. And of course he enjoyed the Oscars as much in death as he had in life.
You were looking at your phone when your dad died.
You don’t really know when the person’s last moments are going to be. I was sitting watch with my dad that Sunday morning. My sister was sleeping in. She’d been up late. And my mom was sleeping in. And all of a sudden, I’m like oh, he’s not breathing anymore! Oh dang, it happened! I wasn’t completely ignoring a dying man. But I guess if you took a snapshot at that moment, it looked like I was.
A lot of people use Facebook and other media to mediate their relationships with reality anyway. You referred to somebody who took a picture of themselves holding a dying parent’s hand and posted it.
That was a friend of mine, and I thought it was really beautiful and really powerful. I guess this is the way we are dealing with death now, talking about it as it’s happening, online. And it’s great to have people respond to you and wish you well. When my dad was dying, we read a lot of Facebook messages to him from people he hadn’t heard from in years, and he loved it. He loved it. And if we’d kept it quiet, he wouldn’t have had those things to hear.
Everybody cries. You’re very practical about when to cry, how to cry, and where to howl: Get the howl room all ready.
Go into your soundproof room. You feel it coming: You have to do that kind of primal scream you’re probably just going to do once or twice in your life, hopefully. And if you’re a woman, take your bra off — you don’t want to be constrained. Let it fly. Wear loose clothing, write a note, so that people know you’re screaming because something horrible happened and not that you’re being attacked, and just go for it.
Then there are the words that people come up with to try to tell you, I’m really sorry, and the words that they shouldn’t use.
People are just trying to make you feel better. I think “I’m sorry for your loss” is completely perfect and it lets the person know that you feel sorrow. Then the second half, “for your loss” — their loss is for them to define. Some people have very complicated relationships with their parents, and if you’re assuming that they loved their dad as much as you loved yours, that’s an extra burden for them to have to deal with. So if you just say, I’m sorry for your loss, they can go, “Well, it wasn’t much of a loss.”
It’s hackneyed and old, but it’s perfect.
And there’s the one, “He’s in a better place.”
Maybe he is, maybe he’s not. Maybe he was an awful dad and he’s in hell — he should be in hell. You just never know how the person feels about their loved one.
For all of us who have done this, just coming to terms with it, to tell someone else “he died” takes months.
When you have to start notifying the authorities, like you have to call Social Security — we had to go to Verizon to end my dad’s phone contract, and I think that’s the first time I told someone “he died.”
Is that how you get out of it?
Yeah! It’s still tricky! You still have to provide a death certificate. You have to call various government offices. Just by doing the legal work of ending someone’s life, you do say “he died.” Now it’s been four years, and I don’t flinch when I say it, and I don’t feel nauseous when I say it.
One important part of this book is the takeaway for people who survive their parents and go on to think about their own mortality. Your advice: Write your own obituary. Be in control of your own death.
I want all my credits on my obituary. I’m a writer for “Conan” and I think that’ll make it, but my son might not know I was a writer for “The Bonnie Hunt Show.” I want my entire IMDB profile on my obituary!
It’s definitely good to write your own. And also it helps you go, “Wow, I haven’t accomplished what I wanted to.” Or it can help you go, “You know what? I’ve done it all, and now it’s time to kick back and live as frugally as possible on Social Security” — depending on what you want out of life.
My mom lives with me now, and I see what it’s going to be like to be elderly, and it’s going to be awful. So I’ve elderly-proofed my home as much as possible, and I’m just going to leave it when she’s gone, because I don’t want to die climbing over the bathtub wall to get into the bathtub/shower combo. I got rid of the tub and I just walk right in.
My goal is to die in my sleep in my bed when I’m 100 — with my aqua-colored comforter. I have it all planned out. Please, let that happen.
Have you changed your idea of your father now that he’s dead?
I felt lucky when I had my dad, but we were very apart politically. He was in the tea party, and he died before Trump, so luckily we don’t have to have that argument. Now, looking back, I hardly remember that at all. I just remember he was always there to pick me up when I flew home from a gig.
What section of the bookstore would you like this in? Would you like it under humor, or in the practical advice section, with gardening and building a fallout shelter?
I guess humor. Death is just one other thing we should be laughing at. It’s here and it’s coming for you. It’s coming for everyone you love. So you might as well have a sense of humor about it.
Click to subscribe to “Patt Morrison Asks” and never miss a podcast.
Already a subscriber? Thank you for your support. If you are not, please consider subscribing today. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.
MORE PATT MORRISON ASKS
A cure for the common opinion
Get thought-provoking perspectives with our weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.