Planning your funeral doesn’t have to be scary, says the author of ‘It’s Your Funeral: Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime Before it’s Too Late’

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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).

Kathy Benjamin knows death can be scary, but she's determined to show that planning your own funeral doesn't have to be.
Kathy Benjamin knows death can be scary, but she’s determined to show that planning your own funeral doesn’t have to be.

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.

‘It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late’ is by Kathy Benjamin, Quirk Books, 176 pages, $14.40.
‘It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late’ is by Kathy Benjamin, Quirk Books, 176 pages, $14.40.

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.

Complete Article HERE!

‘Your mammy was a flower’

— A young boy’s bereavement

“It was nice to think that Mammy was so well-liked by God, since she was a massive fan’: Séamas O’Reilly.

One of 11 children, Séamas O’Reilly was just five years old when his mother died. In an extract from his touching new memoir, he recalls with childlike clarity the awful day of her wake

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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.

“Sometimes when God sees a particularly pretty flower, He’ll take it up from Earth, and put it in his own garden.” Séamas O’Reilly.
“Sometimes when God sees a particularly pretty flower, He’ll take it up from Earth, and put it in his own garden.” Séamas O’Reilly.

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.

Family tree: the author and his 10 siblings in 1990. Séamas is looking over Conall’s shoulder.
Family tree: the author and his 10 siblings in 1990. Séamas is looking over Conall’s shoulder.

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.

Teatime and sympathy: Séamas sits with his sister Orla for lemonade and biscuits in 1989.
Teatime and sympathy: Séamas sits with his sister Orla for lemonade and biscuits in 1989. Photograph:

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.

Complete Article HERE!

‘Jump, Darling’

The late Cloris Leachman delivers a touching swansong in this small-scale Canadian drama

Jump, Darling, with Cloris Leachman and Thomas Duplesses

By Allan Hunter

The late Cloris Leachman remains an inveterate scene stealer in Jump, Darling, a small-scale drama that provides her with a touching swansong. Phil Connell’s compact tale of a young drag queen’s emotional travails finds its heart in the chemistry between Leachman and co-star Thomas Duplessie. LGBTQ festivals should provide some traction for a modest tale that will feel at home on domestic screens.

Every time she appears, Leachman adds an extra zing to the proceedings

Writer/director Connell wastes little time in scene-setting, instead propelling us into the world of aspiring actor Russell (Duplessie) who has found a second wind and a potential new career as Toronto drag queen Fishy Falters.

His commitment to drag provokes a parting of the ways with wealthy, status conscious boyfriend Justin (Andrew Bushell). After a disastrous appearance at Peckers night club, Russell decides to leave town and take temporary sanctuary with his elderly grandmother Margaret (Leachman) in Prince Edward County.

Margaret is all too aware of her frailties and forgetfulness but remains determined to avoid becoming a resident at the local Millbrook Care Home. Russell’s arrival could be the solution to her problem.

Jump, Darling travels along predictable roads as family secrets are revealed, ghosts of the past confronted and separate generations discover the strength to be true to themselves. What makes the journey worthwhile are the performances. Leachman completed two further films before her death earlier this year aged 94. This is her last starring role. She is physically frail but delivers a sardonic one-liner with impeccable comic timing and brings out the poignancy in a spirited, frightened woman whose final wish is to have a good death in her own home. Every time she appears, Leachman adds an extra zing to the proceedings and it feels as if the film belongs to Margaret.

Russell may be trying to figure out his future but there feels less at stake for his character as he dallies with elusive bartender Zacahry (Kwaku Adu-Poku) and brings his drag persona to brighten up local bar Hannah’s Hovel.

Duplessie makes a convincing drag artiste. There is some of the relish of Tim Curry’s Frank n Furter in his Fishy Falters and Connell captures his committed lip-synching performances with dynamic camerawork and sharp editing. The film also features appearances from real life Toronto drag acts Tynomi Banks, Fay Slift and Miss Fiercalicious.

Cinematographer Viktor Cahoj conveys the charms of this wine country corner of rural Canada that are compiled into attractive montages. It is a promising first feature but the characters surrounding Russell are thinly drawn, especially Justin and Zachary. Russell’s exasperated mother Ene (Linda Kash) seems to exist merely to chide and then reconcile.

Connell’s need to keep the narrative forever moving forward comes at a cost. Jump, Darling has a trim running time but a little more complexity or contemplation would have been welcome. The lack of depth in the supporting characters is more apparent when the focus returns to the emotional plight of Margaret in her final days which feels very real and very moving.

Complete Article HERE!

“He Thought The Idea Was Hilarious”

— Director Kirsten Johnson On “Killing” Her Father Repeatedly In ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’

Kirsten Johnson directs a scene with her dad for the new documentary, “Dick Johnson Is Dead.”

By Matthew Carey

The Oscar documentary shortlist abounds with memorable love stories—between a woman and her incarcerated husband in Time, between a man and a mollusk in My Octopus Teacher, and in Dick Johnson Is Dead, between a daughter and her aging father.

Of those three films, Dick Johnson Is Dead qualifies as the most unusual stylistically. Director Kirsten Johnson, faced with her beloved father’s cognitive decline, conceived various outlandish scenarios in which her dad might die, and then filmed them.

“The premise of the movie is that we were going to kill my father over and over again with the help of stunt people until he really died for real. Why? Because we wanted to keep bringing him back to life,” Johnson tells Deadline. “I think we desperately needed to laugh because dementia will rip your heart out and you could just cry for decades if you didn’t find a way to laugh at it.”

In one scene, an air conditioner falls from high above on top over her father, crushing him. In another he takes an awful tumble down a flight of stairs, ending up in a twisted heap. Dick Johnson, a man with a genial disposition, takes part in this filmic experiment with endearing enthusiasm.

“I think cinema is play. And my father is ‘game,’ he’s game to participate in this,” Johnson comments. “He thought the idea was hilarious and it was like, ‘Okay, we’re doing this.’”

Before encroaching dementia prompted his retirement, Dick Johnson worked for decades as a psychiatrist. Perhaps appropriately, the subconscious mind informed the documentary from the start.

“I had this crazy dream where there was this casket and a man sat up—it wasn’t my dad—he said, ‘I’m Dick Johnson and I’m not dead yet,’” the director recalls. “I probably did unconsciously understand that the dementia had begun. I wasn’t consciously aware of it at that moment, but I think in the way that dreams and brains try to tell you things, now when I think about it, it was an unrecognizable man who was my father, which is sort of what the dementia would do. I think in some ways that dream was like, ‘Wake up! Your dad is changing.’”

Johnson had previously gone through the agonizing experience of losing her mother to Alzheimer’s.

“Honestly, I was like so mad to have had my mom already have it. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was sort of enraged at the idea of having to face it again,” she confesses. “It just felt like, ‘Let me come up with another plan, another idea, another way,’ this Holy Grail of, ‘Could this be a funny movie? Please?’ We had some fun doing it and we had some tears doing it.”

The Netflix film, a strong contender for an Oscar nomination, premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won a special jury award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling. It’s gone on to win multiple honors, including Best Documentary at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, as well as best writing for Johnson and Nels Bangerter and best editing for Bangerter at the IDA Documentary Awards. Dick Johnson Is Dead was named one of the top five documentaries of the year by the National Board of Review and has earned a Producers Guild Award nomination.

On paper, the concept of the film might strike some as morbid. But audiences have responded emotionally to the film’s whimsical and yet somehow frank way of confronting the prospect of a loved one’s demise.

“From my point of view, facing pain—when you can do it with people you love and with the capacity to attempt to build something new out of it, whether it’s a new relationship or whether it is transformed into some form of art—I think that that is the only hope we have,” Johnson observes. “That, in some ways, is how we have survived as people—we sort of offer back out to each other these forms or witness.”

Dick Johnson Is Dead resonates forcefully in a time when Covid-19 has claimed so many lives.

“The pandemic in some ways has opened every human up to the experience of anticipatory grief. We don’t know how much we’re going to lose and we’re afraid of how much we’re going to lose,” Johnson says. “If you love a person with a degenerative disease [like dementia] you have a great deal of experience with anticipatory grief. You’re grieving about what you’ve lost already, what you might lose, what you’re not sure when you’re going to lose.”

That’s particularly difficult to contemplate in Johnson’s case, having a father who’s meant everything to her.

“He has treasured me for the person that I am and allowed me to be sort of as big as I wanted to be…He saw me. I think so many of us struggle with not being seen or not being allowed,” Johnson tells Deadline. “That’s who he is and who he was. Even in the advanced dementia now he’ll call me and say, ‘I just want to make sure you know I love you.’”

Complete Article HERE!

Grieving Through Laughter

Sarah Weaver has combined tragedy and comedy in her webcomics as a way to cope with the death of her older sister

Sarah Weaver in Polson, Montana on Oct. 17, 2020

By Ashley Nerbovig

Monotony was kindling for Sarah Weaver’s burning grief.

After the June 2010 death of her older sister, Melissa Weaver, in a plane crash in Northwest Montana, Sarah would fumble over familiar questions such as, “How many siblings do you have?”

The tragedy shook Sarah’s entire worldview. For years she plodded along. She moved to Washington D.C. and took a job creating retirement policy at the U.S. Department of Treasury. Her boss would tell her the work she did made a meaningful difference. But Sarah didn’t see it. In 2016, she wondered whether she’d chosen where she was, or if she’d just ended up there.

In two years, Sarah traveled to 45 countries on six continents. When her travels ended, she returned to Polson, settling near where Melissa lived before she died. And now, 10 years after the plane crash, Sarah is using her webcomic, “Adventures with Vrah” to write about death, depression and diarrhea.

The combination of tragedy and comedy was appealing.

“It’s what has helped me cope and move through my own grief,” Sarah, 32, said. “I think it might help other people, or hope that it will help other people.”

Sarah was living in London at the time and staying with her aunt and uncle. She was about a week into an internship when she opened a Facebook message that read “Sarah, I’m so sorry to hear about your sister. Let me know if I can do anything.”

Sarah Weaver’s webcomic “Adventures with Vrah.”

The cryptic message left her scared and confused. The surreal feeling stayed with her as she got ahold of her parents. They were already in Polson with Sarah’s other two siblings, Emily and Joe, trying to get more information about the whereabouts of Melissa’s plane.

On June 27, 2010, Brian Williams and newly licensed pilot, Sonny Kless, picked up Melissa and her friend Erika Hoefer for a sightseeing trip over Glacier National Park. A woman reported seeing the plane, but no one reported seeing it crash. Officials believe the plane lost lift over a box canyon near the National Bison Range, roughly 100 miles south of the West Glacier entrance to the park, and dropped out of the sky.

A flight plan wasn’t filed before the four left, which made it difficult for rescue teams to know where to look. Sarah remembers hoping Melissa would be found alive. But their mother, Kathy Weaver, said she knew the moment she heard the plane went missing that Melissa was dead, even if a very small part of her thought that if Melissa did survive the crash, she would do anything to come home. She’d walk on two broken legs, Kathy said.

After three days of searching, the crash site was found. The plane had caught fire. Melissa, Hoefer, Williams and Kless all died in the crash.

“For years I’d hope that they were wrong,” Sarah said. “I’d think, ‘Everything was burned, so how do they even know it was the right plane?’”

Melissa, who was the oldest of the four Weaver siblings, was 23 when she died. Sarah, 21 at the time and 18 months younger than Melissa, was thrust unprepared into the oldest sibling leadership role. Emily Weaver, who was 19, had finished her first year of college. Joe, 17, was still in high school and living in Billings with their parents, Kathy and Dan Weaver.

Sarah Weaver with her sister Melissa.

For Sarah, a large part of working through the Melissa’s death was scribbling down her thoughts and doodling. It started as a way to keep memories of Melissa fresh, a way to help her siblings remember Melissa, who was four years older than Emily and six years older than Joe. Sarah wasn’t an artist. She’d studied finance at UM. But, after she showed one of the comics she’d made to a friend, he encouraged her to share it online. She launched her comic site in 2016, and since then her style has continued to evolve. One of the inspirations for her series was Allie Brosh, the creator of “Hyperbole and Half” and a fellow University of Montana graduate.

Years before Melissa died, Sarah watched a movie about a wife who called her husband’s cellphone and listened to his voicemail while crying in bed. It was one of the saddest things she’d ever seen, she said.

“So when Melissa died, I remember thinking back to that scene and being like, ‘I’m in the sad movie,’” Sarah said.

Sarah would still call Melissa and send her Facebook messages until one day when she called, a man answered. Melissa’s cellphone number had been reassigned to a stranger. It was devastating, but Sarah didn’t want to stop calling her sister, so she kept calling Jeff. She pretended they were lifelong friends. Jeff usually hung up on her.

One day, she got a text from Jeff’s son, telling her she was freaking out his dad and to please stop calling. She did, but she still hopes that Jeff will realize one day why she called so often and they’ll become friends. She never explained why she had “his” number. She never told him about Melissa. The comic she made about the experience with Jeff is one of her family’s favorites.

“It was just easier to play a character, a game — it was too sad,” Sarah said. “What if he did care why I was calling him?”

As Sarah’s perspective on Melissa’s death evolved, so did the webcomic. It stopped being about who Sarah was without Melissa and became about Sarah.

After spending two years abroad, Sarah returned to live in Polson. She set up a Patreon for her webcomic and thinks about turning it into a book one day. In moments of uncertainty, she wonders if it’s wrong to link her career path to her sister’s death, but ultimately she hopes her art could help people.

Sarah Weaver’s webcomic “Adventures with Vrah.”

Emily understands Sarah’s doubts but believes in her mission.

“The fact of the matter is, it happened, and we have to make as much good of it as we can,” Emily said.

Melissa’s death set off a chain of events, including unexpectedly positive developments. For one, Emily transferred from Carroll College to the University of Montana to live with Sarah after Melissa’s death and met her husband there. But the family members were isolated from one another in their grief, Emily said, and it took awhile for them to repair themselves. Every year that passes, it gets better.

The family got together this year on the 10th anniversary of the plane crash. For the first time, it felt like it wasn’t just about being sad about Melissa’s death, Emily said.

“It feels like everyone’s gotten through some of their grief,” Emily said, “and that let us come back together as a family.”

The siblings’ father, Dan, said his grief over Melissa’s death is like a heavy coat he has to wear year round. It unnerved him at first that Sarah was going to write about it. Over time, though, he’s gotten more enjoyment from Sarah’s comic. He learns things about the kids that he’d never known.

The public nature of the comic has been beneficial to Sarah. Beyond people writing to say how her comic helped them, having it as her full-time job forces her to be frank with people about her life. The process of writing and explaining it to people, sometimes in different languages, made it easier to answer the questions that stumped her after Melissa died.

Before she and her husband took their two-year trip all over the globe, they’d gone on a shorter trip to Indonesia. There, a woman asked Sarah what she did for work. When Sarah showed the woman a translation of her comic’s themes, the woman pointed to the word “depression” and said, “Yes, I know this.”

“It helps me,” Sarah said. “It’s powerful when someone can say, ‘I know, maybe, a piece of your pain.”

Complete Article HERE!

Comedian Laurie Kilmartin Live-Tweets Her Mom Dying of COVID-19 With Humor and Grace

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Laurie Kilmartin is a stand-up comic and longtime writer for Conan O’Brien. When her dad was dying in 2014, she live-tweeted his hospice care with an incredible sense of humor. After he died, she released a comedy special called, 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad, a tender and hilarious special that tackles the issues of dealing with death and dying head-on. Later, she wrote a humorous book about death and grief called, Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed.

On June 18, 2020, Laurie’s mom died after a short and intense battle with COVID-19. And for a week or so before, Laurie live-tweeted the whole experience of spending her mom’s last moments with her on an iPad. Her tweets are equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, not to mention full of righteous anger about the COVID-19 crisis and the way some people are denying it’s an issue.

The sense of humor with which she was able to approach the situation is so admirable, and the vast majority of people were extremely supportive. Still, Laurie had to deal with some snide comments from persnickety people in her mentions.

“I hope she doesn’t see your Twitter account,” one person wrote, speaking about Laurie’s mom. “She won’t, because she’d dying,” Laurie simply responded. 

For several days, Laurie and her sister sat with their mom on FaceTime, connected through an iPad. Her mom had entered a skilled nursing home for a bad hip injury, and it was there that she contracted COVID-19. 

“When we knew we had to put her in one for strength building, they’re all closed or they all have had COVID outbreaks, so they’re not taking any people,” Laurie told ABC7. “I was given two options, and one was an hour away and one was kind of close. And I picked the close one, and they had a COVID outbreak.”

“The day after mom entered her nursing facility, there was one case of COVID,” Laurie tweeted. “I just called, now there are 50 cases of COVID associated with this facility, employees and patients. Ten days later. This is Highland Park, in Los Angeles.” In another tweet, she wrote, “Thinking I should have sent my mom to recover at a meat-packing plant instead.”

She and her sister fought extremely hard to get to visit their mom. The hospital she was being treated at stopped allowing visitors because of the pandemic, but Laurie rallied friends and fans to contact the hospital, and eventually, they modified their rules. Laurie and her sister were able to spend about an hour with her mom on the Monday before she died.

The rest of the time, they were stuck on the iPad. Much of Laurie’s very understandable anger about her mom’s death on Twitter has been directed at those who still refuse to wear masks to help prevent the spread of the virus, notably, former baseball played Aubrey Huff.

He tweeted saying that he would no longer wear a mask inside any business because “it’s unconstitutional to enforce.” Laurie wryly responded that she was in the midst of watching her mom die of COVID-19 and that “her bed will be ready for you in 12-24 hours.” She then posted an update once her mom had passed that just said, “The bed’s available.”

Laurie lamented that even after her mom died of COVID-19, she still has family members who believe that the mandate to wear masks in public is “unconstitutional.” Wearing masks has been proven as an effective way to protect communities from the spread of COVID-19. 

It’s a simple, easy thing to do to protect others, and anyone who isn’t willing to is saying that they just don’t care about other people. “In lieu of flowers,” Laurie tweeted after her mom’s death, “the family asks that you throw hot coffee on the face of anyone not wearing a mask.”

Complete Article HERE!

To My Relatives

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Dear Relatives,

If you are reading this, I am dead. Or I am close to death. Or you have been snooping through my papers.

Let’s assume that I am dead. I HEREBY REQUEST that you, my relatives and kin, carry out my wishes regarding the following:

MY LETTERS: As you will see in the garage, boxes No. 12 through 26 contain my letters. I have saved every letter I have ever received, including letters from collection agencies. Please go through the letters, reading each one, and divide them into important and unimportant letters.

I donate the important letters to you, my relatives, to divide fairly among yourselves. I urge you to go back through the “unimportant” letters and see if there might still be some important ones in there.

MY PETS: Please adopt and provide loving homes for my dogs, Snappy and Bitey; my cat, Sprayer; and my goldfish, Methuselah.

MY CLOTHING: Please help yourself to my suits. You will notice that, because of my unusual physique, the suit pants are size Extra Extra Large and Extra Extra Extra Large, while the suit jackets are size Tiny and Extra Tiny.

MY LIBRARY: Please donate my collection of books—all five of them—to the local library.

PORNO: Also, please donate my pornography collection (boxes 30 to 45) to the local library.

MY COINS: In the attic, you will find many, many quart jars of pennies. I’m not sure how many. Please spend these pennies on whatever you would like. You may want to cash them in at the bank. However, I’m told that banks will not accept pennies unless they are wrapped in coin wrappers. Maybe that could be a family project, to remember me by.

MY GUNS: As some of you know, I have many guns, scattered throughout the house. Most are loaded, so please be careful opening drawers, closets, and medicine cabinets.

MY PUSH LAWNMOWER: Please donate this to Goodwill, after first cleaning off all the bits of grass and dog poop that have got stuck on it over the years. Also, please sharpen the blades with the hand sharpener (somewhere in box 28). Oil and rebalance the wheels.

MY CAR: Sorry, but it’s still stuck in the surf at Party Beach. It’s yours if you can tow it out.

MY “MURDER”: Please send an anonymous letter to the police, claiming that my friend Don killed me.

MY SAFE-DEPOSIT BOX: Attached to this letter is a key. It is the key to my safe-deposit box. Take the key to the bank and open the box. Inside you will find another key. This is the spare key to the box. Take both keys to the bank officer in charge of safe-deposit boxes and close out the account. You may have to fill out some paperwork and pay for back rent.

TRAPDOOR: The trapdoor no longer works. I think the neighborhood kids broke it. Please cover the button with a piece of duct tape.

SKULL: As you’ve probably noticed, there is a human skull on the shelf in the dining room. This was sold to me as the skull of Khrushchev, the Russian leader. It was a damned lie! I don’t even think it’s Russian! Still, it’s pretty cool. First dibs gets it. (Suggestion: as a funny gag, put a cigarette between its teeth, like he’s smoking it.)

MY WIND CHIMES: As you know, I have more than a hundred wind chimes hanging down from the eaves of my house. Please help yourself. Unfortunately, some of the wind chimes have been damaged by the next-door neighbors.

MY REMAINS: Please have me cremated. Then form the ashes into the shape of me. Then deep-fry me. Then bury me with full military honors (even though I was never in the military).

MY HOUSE: A real-estate agent told me that my house, if it were totally renovated (plumbing, electrical, roof, etc.), and if the bats and raccoons and yellow jackets could be expelled from the attic, and if somehow the house’s “tilt” could be fixed, would sell for about what I paid for it forty years ago.

I smell another family project!

Complete Article HERE!