One of my favourite TV shows growing up was The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Chuckles Bites the Dust was one of my favourite episodes.
Chuckles the Clown, the kid show host on WJM (the TV station where Mary worked) was asked to be the grand marshal for a circus parade, dressed as the character Peter Peanut. A rogue elephant tried to "shell" him, causing fatal injuries.
At his funeral, Mary begins to giggle uncontrollably as the minister recounts Chuckles' comedy characters:
Chuckles the Clown brought pleasure to millions. The characters he created will be remembered by children and adults alike: Peter Peanut; Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo; Billy Banana; and my particular favorite, Aunt Yoo-Hoo.
Mary tries to stifle her laughter, but cannot contain herself as Reverend Burns continues delivering the eulogy:
Do you remember Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo's little catchphrase? Remember how, when his arch-rival Señor Kaboom hit him with a giant cucumber and knocked him down, Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo would always pick himself up, dust himself off, and say 'I hurt my foo-foo'? Life's a lot like that. From time to time we all fall down and hurt our foo-foos.
Mary’s friends are shocked by her laughter. The minister, however, asks the mortified Mary to rise, and assures her that her laughter is actually in keeping with Chuckles' life's work.
"He lived to make people laugh. Tears were offensive to him; deeply offensive…So go ahead, my dear: laugh for Chuckles." Mary then bursts into helpless, heartbreaking sobs.
I was 18 when this episode aired in 1975. I hadn’t thought about it in years, until it popped into my head as I started listening to Anderson Cooper’s latest endeavor, his podcast, “All There Is with Anderson Cooper”, where he takes us on a deeply personal exploration of loss and grief.
Now older and wiser, I realize there was much more to Chuckles Bites the Dust. As well as great comedic writing, it was truly a lesson that none of us can anticipate how we are going to react when someone we love is gone.
I’m learning that grief is highly personal. It’s messy. It defies logic and timelines and deadlines.
I’m dealing with a father who catapulted into dementia after two posterior vascular strokes last August. From driving a car to two weeks later needing pretty much 24-hour care, I was not prepared for the personal toll this was about to take.
I’m discovering that grief is isolating and lonely and that we don't really talk about grief and loss enough.
So it felt ordained that Anderson Cooper would drop his first podcast episode when I needed it the most as if he knew I was drowning and was throwing me a lifebuoy.
Spending hours going through all the “stuff” of his late mother Gloria Vanderbilt as I was with my parents. Going through the journals and keepsakes.
“It’s not just stuff. Its memories, its evidence of my parent’s existence. They’re alive in these things,” says an emotional Cooper.
I felt Cooper was right by my side as I’d pick up one treasure after another and think I can let this go. I can’t let anything go.
I couldn’t help but smile when he said, “I cannot Marie Kondo the whole bunch.”
The process left him feeling overwhelmed, and he began reaching out to others, recording his conversations with them about grief and loss, and what to do with the things his mother left behind.
As I experienced my father’s decline, watching everything about him disappear, I felt broken more often than not. I burst into tears at the most inappropriate times. Without my new puppy, there would have been some days that I don’t think I could have gotten out of bed. I would berate myself for not being stronger. Aren’t we supposed to confront the death of a parent with stoic endurance? I was better than this!
I had no idea I was suffering from grief until my psychiatrist gave a name to my state of mind. Surprisingly, having it ‘labeled’ actually started making me feel less ashamed of my behaviour and I found myself ready to explore what grief was and how to deal with it. Knowledge is power.
My googling unearthed “The Orphaned Adult: Understanding And Coping With Grief And Change After The Death Of Our Parents,” by psychologist Alexander Levy, an essential resource for those who have lost their parents.
Levy began researching adult bereavement after his parents died, first his father at age 82 and then his mother four years later. He was puzzled by the fact that his own grief didn’t really start until eight months after his mother’s passing. He was surprised at how little material was available about adult parental bereavement, especially considering it’s the single most common cause of bereavement in the U.S and I’m sure the same goes for Canada.
He explains how and why grief is so tiring, how much work it takes, and that it persists for a very long time. It made me feel validated in my own grief, that I wasn’t crazy. It also made me feel hope.
I’m learning so much as I deal with losing my last parent. I know for certain we need to share our grief and be open to listening to those who just need to talk. I’ve gone from counting the hours that I’m okay to counting consecutive days. I can find joy in a moment. I allow myself the tears when and wherever they come.
I hope that by sharing my story, and by turning my pain into purpose, I can help others who may also be feeling isolated and who are struggling.
And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what the storm’s all about.”
~ Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore