A University of Alberta study uncovers an often-overlooked trigger for both grief and healing in people coping with the loss of a loved one.
By Gillian Rutherford
When Donna Wilson pulled up to visit her aunt and uncle on their farm near Eatonia, Sask., a few years ago, she came across a comical scene: Her uncle Doug was running around the yard chasing turkeys. The birds kept jumping up on his dog and he was trying to shoo them away with a broom.
It’s a memory Wilson plans to remind her aunt Doreen of soon. Doug died over the winter, and her aunt is grieving. Wilson hopes that sharing a funny story about him will help them both.
“I loved my uncle Doug, and I remember he was always smiling and laughing about something,” said Wilson. “Hopefully we will laugh together and it will be healing.”
Wilson, a nursing professor at the University of Alberta, recently published study findings that show humour can trigger moments of intense grief for people who have recently lost a loved one, but humour can also be helpful in the recovery process.
The key–as always with humour–is timing, plus you’ve got to know your audience, says Wilson.
The study was part of a larger inquiry into grief triggers–thoughts, memories, or events like anniversaries and family gatherings, special places, songs, even jokes. Very little research has been done on triggers and how bereaved people manage them, Wilson says, but they can be incapacitating.
“You can be driving past the hospital where your husband died, and suddenly have a massive grief trigger and have to pull over,” she said. “Now think about if that’s a pilot who’s flying a plane, or a surgeon, or a truck driver going down the highway.”
Working through the stages of grief
Researchers report there are nearly 300,000 deaths each year in Canada and on average 10 people grieve each death. For the study, Wilson and her team did in-depth interviews with 10 middle-aged and older Canadians who had lost a parent, child, sibling or spouse within the past two years, asking about their experiences with grief and recovery.
They all described being completely overwhelmed by grief at first, then being frequently hit by “hard-grief” triggers. Most found a way to reshape their lives without the loved one after about a year, and over the next year they were able to welcome good memories of the deceased person without triggered episodes of crying or extreme sadness. Eight of the 10 interview subjects said humour helped with their recovery.
“I think nobody realized humour is present for our mental health, even in grief,” said Begoña Errasti-Ibarrondo, associate professor with the University of Navarra and a visiting academic at the U of A. “In Spain, for example, at funerals sometimes we make jokes if it is appropriate and we tell funny stories about the person or the tricks they used to play.”
“Humour is what made it possible for me to live,” said one interview subject quoted in the paper. “I looked forward to the times I could laugh or smile; I could get a break from my grief.”
Researchers say when you are supporting someone who is grieving it is important to talk to them about the person who died. However, they caution it’s best to check first with the bereaved person before turning to humour, as some may not be ready or may find it inappropriate.
“Grief is very personal and so is humour,” said Errasti-Ibarrondo.
The saying “laughter is the best medicine” dates back to the King James Bible, originally published in 1611. We now know laughter releases endorphins and positive hormones that contribute to physical and mental health.
For her part, Wilson will continue to remember how her uncle Doug liked to use humour to cope with the frustrations of daily life. Once he was planning to take his family out for a drive when he noticed one of his car tires was deflated. “Well, at least it’s only flat on one side,” he told them with a laugh.
On a literal level, it should be impossible to make sense of someone saying “I’m dead” unless you’re attending a successful séance. Yet here we are in 2022, not only proclaiming our own expiration but reveling in it. Far from speech beyond the grave, “I’m dead” has come to communicate one of the highest pleasures of life: the giddy throes of uncontrollable laughter. When someone says “I’m dead” or even just “dead” in 2022, they’re telling you that they couldn’t be more tickled by what just happened. So how did being dead become a good thing?
Death and laughter have been strange bedfellows since ancient Greece, where, legend has it, the fifth-century-B.C. painter Zeuxis died from laughing at the portrait he was painting of a supposedly ugly old woman—a hilarious anecdote later immortalized in an equally hilarious painting by the Dutch master Arent De Gelder. And Zeuxis’s isn’t the only classically depicted death by laughter. The Stoic philosopher Chrysippus, by several accounts, kicked the bucket because he couldn’t stop laughing after witnessing a donkey eating his figs. Bizarrely, King Martin I of Aragon is said to have died laughing at a joke also concerning an animal eating figs. Legends of giggly demises litter history; as recently as 1989, a Danish audiologist is said to have passed away guffawing during a screening of A Fish Called Wanda. Apparently, the best medicine is also sometimes the sweetest poison. Although I admit it would be a great way to go, I myself will be avoiding all zoo-adjacent fig farms in the near future out of an abundance of caution.
The connection between death and laughter was consummated in English by—who else?—Shakespeare. In his comedy The Taming of the Shrew, after the exit of the vivacious and eccentric couple Petruchio and Katharine, Petruchio’s servant, Grumio, says, “Went they not quickly, I should die with laughing.” From then on, the phrase to die laughing was part of the language as a hyperbolic idiom—we all know it’s an exaggeration, but something within the fiction rings true to our relationship with laughter and death. The fatal violence of hilarity proliferated in English over the following centuries. From the 1930s slang to bust a gut to the idea of being “in stitches” to the ironic Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield–ism “That killed me,” there’s something about the experience of uncontrollable laughing that seems to put us into close contact with our inevitable nonexistence.
And it makes sense. Intense laughter expresses itself in violent convulsions and temporary loss of bodily control. Who among us hasn’t been part of a tickle-fest that verged on sadomasochistic brutality? Times when I laugh so hard that I cry can feel like an out-of-body experience—a sublime mania that temporarily relieves me of the burden of consciousness. Perhaps we say “I’m dead” because we’ve intuited that deep and frenzied laughter gives us a taste of the eternal unknown toward which we’re all always hurdling. This sense of comatose comicality yielded our Friday-level clue “That’s so funny I can’t even function.”
Casual TikTok viewers might think of the app as just a feed of Gen Zers doing viral dances and lip-synch reenactments. But the social network has also provided a space for some unlikely influencers: hospice workers, morticians, and funeral directors. These content creators hope that their comedic takes on mortality will help people who find death hard to discuss, especially during the pandemic, in which more than 900,000 Americans have died. DeathTok, as it’s called, is a corner of the platform where skits about end-of-life care, funeral arrangements, and death-worker mishaps bring comfort to those suffering through grief and loss, and clarity to those who are curious about an oft-avoided topic.
Our inability to plainly discuss death and its circumstances stems, in part, from the American ethos of self-reliance, according to Cole Imperi, a well-known author and speaker on the subject of death and thanatology. “We value the story of somebody coming to the U.S with $5 in their pocket and they make it … needing nobody,” she told me over Zoom. The end of life, Imperi explained, sits in direct opposition to this philosophy: As people age and approach death, they rely on others for help. The fear of lost autonomy (be it one’s own or a relative’s) makes planning for, grieving, and processing death hard for many Americans. “We don’t have a lot of practice with knowing how to talk about something that’s painful, scary, or difficult all the way through,” Imperi said. She believes that the humor DeathTok offers can be a useful tool for pushing through this discomfort. “Having humor is critically important when it comes to death and dying,” she said. “Humor is necessary. Humor helps us heal.”
Although some find death-based comedy unpalatable, many TikTok viewers agree with Imperi’s estimation that the levity of a well-placed joke can sometimes make difficult situations easier. When I spoke with Penny Hawkins, a 59-year-old hospice quality-control manager from Washington, she explained how she uses comedy to educate others. “If you’re talking about a really heavy subject like death and you’re able to put kind of a funny spin on it, it makes it a little more palatable. It’s not quite so scary,” said Hawkins, who has more than 300,000 followers on her nurse_penny TikTok account. She encourages viewers to be curious about human anatomy by explaining what happens to failing bodies. For example, to tackle the misconception that hospice patients need to stay hydrated, Hawkins danced to the viral song “Just Water,” by the TikTokers Bryansanon and Tisakorean. To caption her video, she wrote: “If your dying person isn’t taking fluids, that’s ok. Their body is shutting down and doesn’t need it.” The chorus, which repeats the line “It’s just water!,” serves as a whimsical background to Hawkins’s blunt explanation.
Hawkins has also used macabre comedy to illuminate the realities of hospice care. In one video, about the use of morphine at the end of life, an exasperated Hawkins appeals to the camera and feigns anger at a family who wants to withhold morphine from a dying loved one out of fear that they’ll become addicted. “They’re suffering and they’re dying,” Hawkins’s caption reads. “Addiction is the least of their worries.” Hawkins told me hospice patients aren’t typically at risk of developing an addiction, because many of them are not in end-of-life care long enough to become addicted (for instance, the median length of stay for Medicare recipients in hospice is about 18 days). As uncomfortable and dark as the video may be, it underscores Hawkins’s overall message that learning more about dying bodies and end-of-life care can only help.
Beyond the medical aspects of death and dying, some videos also warn people about one of the largest hurdles after a loved one’s passing: logistics. Lauren Taylor, a 28-year-old former funeral director who lives in Florida, shares farcical family stories on TikTok—such as a quarrel between a mistress and a wife over the burial of a shared lover—to make the point that planning is key. “Being preplanned, having everything written down ahead of time, and letting others know what your wishes are is so important,” she told me over the phone. Taylor, who asked to use her maiden name to protect her family’s privacy, has more than 400,000 followers on her account, @lovee.miss.lauren, and said she has witnessed how traumatic unplanned funerals can be for families and wants to inspire forethought. “These comedic situations where you kind of wonder, Is this real? It happens more often than people think,” she said. “It can be comical to talk about after the fact, but when you’re living in the moment, it’s the most stressful thing ever.”
While DeathTok has been a useful tool for families navigating their relatives’ mortality, it’s also helped death workers themselves cope with the demands of their job. Julie McFadden, a 39-year-old hospice nurse in California, told me that of her close-to-700,000 followers, her fellow medics are the loudest voices in her comments section. “Any of my videos that are more dark, that could be slightly offensive to some, I’m always 100 percent supported by nurses,” she said. In one video, she recounts the time she noticed that a patient was dead even though the rest of their family did not (set to the audio of a person screaming “Don’t worry!” in a panicked tone). The clip spurred other nurses to share similar stories, and one thanked her for her “positive outlook” on such difficult situations. McFadden told me that though nurses are taught how to care for and save patients, many aren’t coached on how to handle death psychologically. “As a community, it’s nice to come together and make light of the things we know are messed up,” she said. “What else are we going to do if we don’t laugh about it?”
When death workers make these short, funny videos, they provide more than just comfort to their colleagues or the bereaved. Their TikToks can be soothing even for patients dealing with a terminal diagnosis. Val Currie, a 32-year-old undergoing treatment for Stage 3 recurrent metastatic cancer, told me that DeathTok provides a much-needed release, and has helped her have discussions with her partner about end-of-life care. “I’m learning to laugh at the process,” she said. If viewers can laugh at death, then they can talk about it. And if they can talk about it, healing may not be too far behind.
“If I can’t be me – and I mean everything that that means – I just don’t want to be.” Good Deed Ent. has revealed an official trailer for Moon Manor, a “comedy about death” made by the filmmaking duo known as “KnifeRock” (Erin Granat & Elizabeth Brissenden). This first premiered last year at a festival, and will be dropping on VOD starting in March to watch. Today is Jimmy’s last day alive. His Alzheimer’s is worsening, so he’s decided to die like he has lived – with intention, humor, and zest. In his last day on Earth, Jimmy will show an obituary writer, his death doula, his estranged brother, his caretaker, a surreal being, and guests at his fabulous “FUN-eral”, that perhaps the art of living is the art of dying. It’s “inspired by a true-ish story.” The film also marks the first original score by Coldplay producers The Dream Team. Moon Manor stars Jim Carrozo as Jimmy, with Debra Wilson, Richard Riehle, Lou Taylor Pucci, Reshma Gajjar, Galen Howard, Ricki Lake, and Heather Morris. Looks so wacky and fun and clever and fresh! I dig it.
Sometimes learning how to live, is learning how to die. On his last day alive, Jimmy (Jim Carrozo) will show his estranged brother, a salt-of-the-earth caretaker, sharp-witted death doula, an obituary writer, a cosmic being, and the guests at his FUNeral that sometimes the art of living just may be the art of dying. An exploration of what it means to have a “good death” and inspired by the life stories of 84-year-old lead actor James Carrozo.Moon Manor is co-written and co-directed by filmmakers Erin Granat & Machete Bang Bang (aka Elizabeth Brissenden – director on the series “I.R.L.”), collectively known as “KnifeRock”, both making their feature directorial debut after a few short films previously. Produced by John Humber, Bay Dariz, Erin Granat & Machete Bang Bang. Featuring a score by Coldplay producers The Dream Team. This first premiered at the 2021 Atlanta Film & Video Festival last year. Good Deed will debut Moon Manor in select US theaters + on VOD starting March 11th, 2022 coming up soon. Drop by the film’s official site.
Some obituary notices open with the grand achievements of a life well-lived, or the tender details of a person’s passing with loved ones at their side. The death in El Paso, Texas, of Renay Mandel Corren, however, was marked in somewhat more unorthodox fashion. “The bawdy, fertile, redheaded matriarch of a sprawling Jewish-Mexican-Redneck American family has kicked it,” it read.
They include her birthplace of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, “where she first fell in love with ham, and atheism”; Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, “where Renay’s dreams, credit rating and marriage are all buried”; and Miami, Florida, “where Renay’s parents, uncles, aunts, and eternal hopes of all Miami Dolphins fans everywhere, are all buried pretty deep”.
The remarkable – and hilarious – 1,000-word obituary was written by Corren’s son Andy, and quickly went viral after it was published on Wednesday.
The tribute to a mother known fondly to her family as “Rosie” is a partly tongue-in-cheek account of a long and eventful life, liberally sprinkled with anecdotes and encounters, some of which Mr Corren admits might not even be true. But the banter represents a loving tribute to a lady they still can’t quite believe has actually died.
“Renay has been toying with death for decades, but always beating it and running off in her silver Chevy Nova,” the obituary states.
“Covid couldn’t kill Renay. Neither could pneumonia twice, infections, blood clots, bad feet, breast cancer twice, two mastectomies, two recessions, multiple bankruptcies, marriage to a philandering Sergeant Major, divorce in the 70s, six kids, one cesarean, a few abortions from the Quietly Famous Abortionist of Spring Lake, NC or an affair with Larry King in the 60s.”
It also lists her many talents: “She played cards like a shark, bowled and played cribbage like a pro, and laughed with the boys until the wee hours, long after the last pin dropped.”
“Renay didn’t cook, she didn’t clean, and she was lousy with money, too. Here’s what Renay was great at: dyeing her red roots, weekly manicures, dirty jokes, pier fishing, rolling joints and buying dirty magazines.”
She lived her final days “under the care, compassion, checking accounts and, evidently, unlimited patience of her favorite son and daughter-in-law, Michael and Lourdes Corren, of [the] world-famous cow sanctuary El Paso.”
Among the numerous family members she leaves behind, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, is her “favorite son”, namely “the gay one who writes catty obituaries in his spare time, Andy Corren, of – obviously – New York City.”
The obituary concludes with details of a planned funeral service in May next year, “a very disrespectful and totally non-denominational memorial … most likely at a bowling alley in Fayetteville.”
Meanwhile, Mr Corren says he and his five siblings have given up on receiving an inheritance. “The family requests absolutely zero privacy or propriety, none whatsoever, and in fact encourages you to spend some government money today on a one-armed bandit, at the blackjack table or on a cheap cruise to find our inheritance,” he writes.
“For Larry King’s sake: LAUGH. Bye, Mommy. We loved you to bits.”
The pandemic has forced many to rethink and readjust their present with their future. Some have left jobs that provided steady paychecks and a predictable complacency for unknown, yet meaningful passion projects. Others are are taking more control of their destinies as they see fit. Unwilling to settle in life anymore. So why would you settle in death?
That’s the question Kathy Benjamin, author of “It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late,” asks. Amid the book’s 176 pages, Benjamin exposes readers to death in a light, humorous, and practical way, akin to a soothing bath, rather than a brisk cold shower.
The Austin-based writer’s niche is death (her last book centered on bizarre funeral traditions and practices). Having panic attacks as a teen, Benjamin said enduring them felt like she was dying. It was then that she started wrestling with the idea of death.
“I feel like I’m actually dying all the time, so maybe I should learn about the history of death and all that,” she said. “If I’m going to be so scared of it, I should learn about it because then I’d kind of have some control over it.”
It’s that control that Benjamin wants to give to readers of this book. She introduces readers to concepts and steps one should contemplate now, in order to make sure the last big gathering centered on you is as memorable as you and your loved ones wish. Poring over the book, one finds interesting final resting options such as body donation that goes beyond being a medical cadaver, “infinity burial suits” that lets one look like a ninja at burial, but also helps nourish plants as decomposition begins; and quirky clubs and businesses that allow one to make death unique (as in hiring mourners to fill out your grieving space and time, and designing your own coffin).
Now before you think this is all a bit macabre, Benjamin’s book also serves as a personal log so you can start planning your big event. Amid the pages, she offers prompts and pages where you can jot down thoughts and ideas on fashioning your own funeral. If you want to have a theme? Put it down in the book. You want to start working on your eulogy/obituary/epitaph, will, or your “final” playlist? Benjamin gives you space in her book to do so. It’s like a demise workbook where you can place your best photos to be used for the funeral and your passwords to your digital life, for your loved ones to have access to that space once you’re gone. If all the details are in the book, a loved one just has to pick it up and use it as a reference to make sure your day of mourning is one you envisioned.
As Benjamin writes: “Think about death in a manner that will motivate you to live the best, most fulfilling life possible. By preparing for death in a spiritual and physical way, you are ensuring that you will succeed right to the end.”
“Everyone’s going to die, if you’re willing to be OK with thinking about that, and in a fun way, then the book is for you,” she said.
We talked with Benjamin to learn more about the details of death and thinking “outside the coffin” for posterity’s sake. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: How much time did it take you to find all this data about death? You share what was in the late Tony Curtis’ casket.
Kathy Benjamin: I have shelves of books that range from textbooks to pop culture books about death, and it’s something that a lot more people than you think are interested in so when you start doing online research you might just find a list of, here’s what people have in their coffin and then from there, you’re like: ‘OK, let’s check if this is true.’ Let’s go back and check newspaper articles and more legitimate websites and things and those details are out there. People want to know. I think of it as when you see someone post on Facebook — somebody in my family died. I know for me, and based on what people reply, the first thing is: What did they die of? We want these details around death. It’s just something people are really interested in. The information is out there and if you go looking for it, you can find it.
Q: Was the timing for the release of the book on point or a little off, given the pandemic?
KB: That was unbelievable timing, either good or bad, how you want to look at it. I ended up researching and writing during that whole early wave in the summer (2020) and into the second wave, and it was very weird. It was very weird to wake up, and the first thing I would do every morning for months was check how many people were dead and where the hot spots were, and then write … just a lot of compartmentalization. My idea was because people who were confronting death so much, maybe it would open up a lot of people’s minds who wouldn’t normally be open to reading this kind of book, they’d be like: ‘OK, I’ve faced my mortality in the past year. So actually, maybe, I should think about it.’
Q: Is there anything considered too “out there” or taboo for a funeral?
KB: I always think that funerals really are for the people who are still alive to deal with their grief, so I wouldn’t do anything that’s going to offend loved ones. I can’t think of what it might be, but if there’s a real disagreement on what is OK, then maybe take the people who are going to be crying and keep them in mind. But really, it’s your party. Plan what you want. There are so many options out there. Some people, they still think cremation isn’t acceptable. Because death is so personal, there’s always going to be people who think something is too far, even things that seem normal for your culture or for your generation.
Q: You mention some interesting mourning/funeral businesses, but many seem to be in other countries. Do we have anything cool in the U.S. as far as death goes that maybe other places don’t have?
KB: One thing we have more than anywhere in the world is body farms. We have a couple and just one or two in the entire rest of the world. The biggest in the world is at the University of Tennessee. For people who don’t know, body farms are where you can donate your body as if you would to science, but instead of doing organ transplants or whatever with it, they put you in the trunk of a car or they put you in a pond or they just lay you out and then they see what happens to you as you decompose. Law enforcement recruits come in and study you to learn how to solve crimes based on what happens to bodies that are left in different situations. I think they get about 100 bodies a year. I always tell people about body farms because if you’re into “true crime” and don’t care what happens to you and you’re not grossed out by it, then do it because it’s really cool and it’s helpful.
Q: You mention mummification and traditional Viking send offs, what about the burning of a shrouded body on a pyre? Have you heard about that? It was the way hunters were sent into the afterlife on the TV series “Supernatural.”
KB: I haven’t heard of anyone doing it in America but obviously that’s a big pop culture thing. For Hindus, that’s the way it happens in India … you go to the Ganges, and they have places specifically where you pay for the wood and they make a pyre and that’s how people go out. I doubt there’s a cemetery or a park that would allow you to do it in the U.S., but on private land, you’re pretty much allowed to do whatever. I would definitely check on regulations. You would have to get the pyre quite hot to burn the body to ash, like hotter than you think to make sure you don’t get a barbecued grandpa.
Q: In your research, have you come across anything that completely surprised you because it’s so unheard of?
KB: There’s been things like funerary cannibalism, which is where you eat loved ones after they’ve died. But once you’ve read the reasons why different tribes around the world have done it, you’re like ‘OK, I can see why that meant something, why it was meant to be emotional and beautiful.’ Things like sky burial in Tibet, they have a Buddhist monk chop up the body and lay it out for the vultures to come get. Part of it ties back to Buddhist tradition but also it’s Tibet, you can’t dig holes there in the mountains. So, there’s a logical reason for it. When you look at these things that originally seem gross or weird, once you learn the reasons behind them it all comes back in the end to trying to do something respectful for the dead, and trying to give the living that closure.
Q: What are your plans for your funeral?
KB: I definitely want to be cremated. I don’t know if I want people to necessarily come together for a funeral for me but like I have a playlist, and even before the book I had a whole document on the computer of what I wanted. I want all the people to know about the playlist and then they can kind of sit and think about how awesome I am while the sad songs play, and then there’s different places that I would want my ashes scattered.
One thing they don’t tell you about mammies is that when they die you get new trousers. On my first full day as a half-orphan, I remember fiddling with unfamiliar cords as Margaret held my cheek and told me Mammy was a flower. She and her husband, Phillie, were close friends of my parents and their presence is one of the few memories that survive from that period, most specifically the conversation Margaret had with me there and then. “Sometimes,” croaked Margaret in a voice bent ragged from two days’ crying, “when God sees a particularly pretty flower, He’ll take it up from Earth, and put it in his own garden.”
It was nice to think that Mammy was so well-liked by God, since she was a massive fan. She went to all his gigs – mass, prayer groups, marriage guidance meetings. She had all the action figures – small Infant of Prague statuettes, much larger Infant of Prague statuettes, little blue plastic flasks of holy water in the shape of God’s own mammy herself. So, in one sense, Margaret’s version of events was kind of comforting. It placed my mother’s death in that category of stories where people met their heroes.
As Margaret reassured me that God was an avaricious gardener intent on murdering my loved ones any time he pleased, I concentrated once more on my new corduroy slacks, summoned from the ether as if issued by whichever government department administers to the needs of all the brave little boys with dead, flowery mams – an Infant Grief Action-Pack stuffed with trousers, sensible underpants, cod liver oil tablets and a solar-powered calculator.
The cords were inordinately delightful to fiddle with, most especially when I flicked my finger up and down their pleasing grooves, stopping only each time a super-heated nail forced a change of hands. I think it’s fair to say I had no idea what was going on, save that this was all very sad and, worse, making Margaret sad. In that way of five-year-olds, I feared sadness in adults above all things, so I leaned my head upon Margaret’s shoulder to reassure her that her words had scrubbed things clean. In truth, I found the flower story unsettling. I couldn’t help picturing Mammy awakening to a frenzy of mechanical beeping as the roof caved in and God’s two great probing fingers smashed through the roof to relocate her to that odd garden he kept in heaven, presumably so he’d have something to do on Sundays.
In fact, my mother died from the breast cancer that had spun a cruel, mocking thread through her life for four years. The hospital rang my father at 3am on Thursday 17 October 1991. Their exact words went unrecorded, but the general gist was that he’d want to get there quick. I can’t imagine the horror of that morning, my father racing dawn, chain-smoking as he managed the 90-minute drive from Derry to Belfast in less than an hour. When he arrived, she had already passed. Sheila O’Reilly was dead and my father drove back to Derry as the sole parent of 11 children.
Contrary to the expectations of non-Irish people, it was highly unusual to have a family so large. My parents were formidably – perhaps recklessly – Catholic, but even among the ranks of the devout, to be one of 11 was singularly, fizzily demented. At best, you were the child of sex maniacs, at worst the creepy scions of some bearded recluse amassing weapons in the hills.
In some school years, it was easier to isolate the age groups in whih we did not have a representative. Even within our own home, it was necessary to erect internal subdivisions that simplified things. This we did by separating into three distinct castes, which ran in age order thus: the “Big Ones” (Sinead, Dara and Shane), the “Middle Ones” (Maeve, Orla, Mairead and Dearbhaile) and the “Wee Ones”, (Caoimhe, me, Fionnuala and Conall). When my mother died, the youngest was two. I was three weeks shy of my sixth birthday although the celebration of that was, I have been led to believe, a decidedly subdued affair.
It’s an infuriating quirk of the brain that I remember my first taste of a banana sandwich, but not the moment I was told Mammy had died. The closest I can manage must be some moments – perhaps hours – later: a clear image of walking through pyjama-clad siblings who were crying in all directions.
We’d been to see Mammy the preceding weekend. I once more find I only have very faint memories of that final visit. I can see her in bed, tired and pale, laughing through the web of tubes taped to her face like a child’s art project, but it’s impossible to know if this was on that occasion or some earlier trip. Those tubes were a common point of reference for us in the years after her death, my sister Maeve becoming convinced they’d strangled her.
Apart from that I can remember very little of that week, save that morning with Margaret and a smattering of sensations from the subsequent wake. My father had called Phillie and Margaret with the news, so they could look in on us until he returned. It also fell to them to intercept Anne, our housekeeper, a saintly woman who tended to the house and its numerous infant contents, most especially since Mammy had fallen ill. Anne was as steady as rain and implacable as taxes; the kind of strong, rooted Donegal woman you could imagine blithely tutting if her hair caught fire, but we watched as the news made even her steadfast frame crumple backward.
This was, of course, a mere precursor to the sight of my father returning to sobs and screams, holding us all as we heaved, and crying loudly himself. The sight of my father crying was so dizzyingly perverse that I couldn’t have been more shocked and appalled if bats had flown out of his mouth. Daddy’s stoicism was a solid fixture in my life. This was the man who had forged time and space with his own rough hands, unafraid of heights or the dark or spiders or anything, save for being caught without some WD-40. In many ways, my father’s grief in that moment hit me harder than anything else. It would be from the wreckage of that moment that he would reassemble the universe for us.
Mammy’s body returned that afternoon and was to be waked in our home, a great big bungalow on the border of Derry and Donegal situated far out from the city so that we rarely had many visitors. Now, there were people everywhere, the life squashed out of them, all serious and nervy as they carried dishes about the place and sheepishly searched, cupboard by cupboard, for whisks or dish cloths. Over these two days we would host a throng of well-wishers who’d come to pay their respects, see how we were doing, and inevitably bring us food, plates or cutlery.
In the time-honoured tradition of all Irish crises, sandwiches were liberally distributed. Egg and onion, of course, but also ham, and not merely the thin, wet slices you got for school lunches, but the thick, rough-cut chunks of ham that still had the fat on – the type used exclusively by millionaires, Vikings and, it was taken for granted, Protestants. To add to the sense of occasion, 15-year-old Dara had been dispatched to pick up 200 Regal King Size cigarettes. The 160 that made it back from the shop were distributed on oblong trays of polished silver. Individual cigarettes were also offered freely to guests by hand, as if we were not a gathering of grief-stricken Northern Irish Catholics at all, but a cabal of New York sophisticates toasting a dazzling new biography of Lyndon B Johnson.
Everywhere stood puffy-eyed people with features so red and blotchy it was as if bandages had just been ripped off their faces. Most guests, already sombre and teary when they arrived, were stunned into traumatic shock once they greeted the body. Gripping the coffin’s edge, they stared at my mother, who lay stately, pale and dead at 43. Some regarded her casket as if it were a grisly wound they’d discovered on their own body, registering the sight with a loud gasping horror that made all around them redouble their own racking sobs. Some collapsed in the manner of someone cruelly betrayed, as if they’d arrived at the whole maudlin affair on the understanding they were being driven to a Zumba class.
In any case, a sniffled consensus prevailed that my mother looked “just like herself”. This sentiment was always spoken with an air of relief that suggested Irish morticians were sometimes in the habit of altering the appearance of the dead for a laugh, but on this occasion had read the generally melancholy feeling in the room and realised it would be best to make up her face to look as much as possible as she had in life.
My memories of the day itself are scattered, but I do remember a system had been put in place to try to marshal the movements of us Wee Ones, who were too young to understand what was going on. Of course, my ebullient run-around ways couldn’t be suppressed forever and, before long, I was wandering free. I was simply too young to grasp that the only thing sadder than a five-year-old crying because his mammy has died is a five-year-old wandering around with a smile on his face because he hasn’t yet understood what that means.
We laugh about it now, but it really is hard for me to imagine the effect I must have had skipping through the throng, appalling each person by thrusting my beaming, 3ft frame in front of them like a chipper little maître d’, with the cheerful inquiry: “Did ye hear Mammy died?”
The solemnity, not to mention the permanence, of my mother’s death was lost on me then, and it would take a while to sell it in a way I really took to heart. Months later, in much the same manner of a man who remembers a packet of Rolos in his coat pocket, I’d straighten my back with delight and perkily ask the nearest larger person when Mammy was coming back, on account of how she’d been dead for ages and was, surely by now, overdue a return.
Mammy was laid to rest in Derry’s Brandywell cemetery, looking down over Derry City’s stadium. Some years later, a fibreglass statue of a paramilitary volunteer was erected a few graves in front of hers, as a fascinating departure from the ambience of angels and urns graveyards typically aim for. Mounted by the INLA – very much the Andrew Ridgeley of Irish republicanism – it was a striking addition. To this day, any time I visit my mother’s grave, it hovers on the edge of my vision like a giant GI Joe, only one who’s about to give a prepared warning to the world’s media. If you were to construct a heavy-handed visual metaphor for how large a shadow the Troubles cast over everything in Northern Ireland during my childhood, it wouldn’t be a bad shout.
In the months that followed, the shock would subside and the slow, rumbling grief would come in successive, parallel waves. The impacts would come to each of us individually and at different speeds and then be magnified by all of the subsequent considerations of everyone else’s grief, cross-bred and multiplied by the 12 of us trying to make sense of it.
My mother wouldn’t be there any more to kiss grazed knees or carry me to bed when I pretended to have fallen asleep in the car or dry my hair with the static force of a hydroelectric dam. She would never cock an eyebrow at the socialist-tinged T-shirts or abstruse electronica of my teens. She would never smile politely at girlfriends she found overfamiliar, or text me to say she loved them the second I got home. Mammy would never send a text message full stop. She would never read an email or live to see the words “website” or “car boot sale” enter a dictionary. Mammy didn’t even live to see Bryan Adams’s (Everything I Do) I Do It for You get knocked off UK No 1, its perch for four months at the end of her life.
It seems blasphemous that my mother’s death even existed in the same reality as those moments that subsequently came to define my youth: taking the long way home so I could listen to Kid A twice, or poring over the lurid covers of horror paperbacks in a newly discovered corner of Foyle Street library. How is my mother’s passing even part of the same universe that gave me the simple pleasures of ice-cream after swimming lessons in William Street baths, or scenting the sun cream on girls’ skin as they daubed polish on their outstretched, nonchalant nails?
My life wasn’t over from that point on. I’d laugh and cry and scream about borrowed jumpers, school fights, bomb scares, playing Zelda, teenage bands, primary school crushes and yet more ice-cream after yet more swimming lessons. I’d just be doing it without her. To some extent, I’d be doing it without a memory of her. The most dramatic moment of my life wasn’t scored by wailing sirens, weeping angels or sad little ukuleles, nimbly plucked on lonely hillsides. Mammy’s death was mostly signalled by tea, sandwiches and an odd little boy in corduroy trousers, announcing it with a smile across his face.