Updated: Jan 20
How To Break Up with Your Anxious Life
Breaking Enslaving Traditions, Part 3
“New Girl” is one of my favorite shows. The friend group of characters becomes a chosen family in the great traditions of “Cheers” and “Friends,” and I love each one – flaws and all – dearly, as Jesus would. If they weren’t fictional. (Its sexual ethics are absolutely “worldly” so I warn you in advance, especially in the episode I'm about to talk about.)
Like all enduring art, the show occasionally reveals something true, which it does in the episode when lovable under-achiever Nick Miller gives himself a Dead Dad Pass. Nick’s father passes away in the second season, has an Elvis-themed funeral (it’s so awful), and Nick can’t write the eulogy because his feelings about his conman dad are so complex.
And then, in the next episode, Nick shows up in the common loft kitchen wearing his father’s pencil-orange track suit. When his friends are horrified, Nick declares that he can do whatever he wants for a while because he has a Dead Dad Pass. He then proceeds to tap dance (no one is allowed to tell him it’s not real tap dancing) and then wash his feet in the kitchen sink.
This all seems right to me. If someone you love passes, you should get a certain amount of time to process the loss in almost whatever way seems right to you. In this culture where we have very few in-tact traditions for expressing grief, and very little patience for sorrow, wearing an orange track suit to signal that you are just not feeling normal seems as good an idea as any.
On December 23, one of my beloveds passed away from brain cancer; she was diagnosed less than eight months ago. And I alternate between wanting to forget about it and wanting to start every conversation with, “My friend died,” to let people know just who they are dealing with right now.
My friend Brittany was 38 years old and the mother of two young children. We met in Twelve Step recovery eight years ago and I was her sponsor for several years. Eventually we made the transition to mutual friends. She was winsome, courageous, kind and brilliant. She was a great writer, a terrible speller, and my partner in stronghold breaking. I was fully myself with Brittiany, and she was one of the few people in my life that could match me in curiosity, and could keep track of three different conversations in one text stream. I miss her every day.
I wake up in the morning wondering what I am supposed to do with this grief. I found myself yearning for a culture that had a more rigid framework for mourning. In my book on friendship, I wrote about the Jewish practice of sitting shiva, where families and friends literally sit for seven days in the house of sadness, dressed in black and with cloths over the mirrors. Research shows that observing formal periods of mourning actually helps stave off long-term depression. I told Brittany’s husband Wes about this, and he said, “Well, that sounds depressing.” And yet, he said that just a couple of days ago, while sitting on the floor, surrounded by three women who loved his wife. So, we were following the tradition in a way.
Without any cultural tradition to help me mourn, what has helped me is the inspiration of Nick Miller’s Dead Dad Pass. The idea that I can face this undoing reality of death with the freedom to, first, name the loss directly, and then come unglued, feel every feeling, follow cravings, or be absurd if necessary.
Since her death less than a month ago I have…
· eaten a Korean corndog dipped in sugar at the H Mart food court and then gone home to cry in my bed
· then gone to a Latin dance party in someone’s living room that very night and danced until I had blisters
· driven to Beverly Hills in the rain, on a whim, to see a movie that was playing nowhere else. I sobbed in the movie.
· confronted a woman at a New York-style deli when she began yelling antisemitic slurs at the staff because her avocado toast portion was too small (This is a story worth telling. Perhaps another time.)
· taken a month off of writing, and posted on social media about 90% less than usual
· cleaned out my daughter’s bookshelf and given most of her childhood picture books to Brittany’s babies
· suggested a Viking funeral for my daughter’s dead fish, Billy Joel, who passed just after Christmas
· kept a candle lit for Brittany on my kitchen table most of the time
· listened to an eye-opening podcast on what the Bible does not say about what happens when we die (From The Holy Post, and worth a listen. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iksj0woD2_A)
· started a weight-lifting regimen and listened to a playlist comprised of mostly 80s hair bands
· saw a commercial for a McGriddles two-for deal at McDonalds on television, and drove directly to my local franchise where I bought and ate them both.
· Called my sponsor late at night and cried into the phone
All of these things helped.
This piece on grief is sneaking its way into my series on breaking enslaving traditions. Because though I really did long to sit shiva and wished I had a formula to follow, I understand that those formulas feel burdensome to others. I believe that traditions are meant to serve the human heart, not restrict it. So perhaps I got what I most want, and what I hope to give others: the freedom to be honest, name loss, and feel complex and contradictory things. If our traditions around loss become dishonest or performative, that’s when they will get us into emotional and spiritual trouble.
My friend Josie texted me about a week after Brittany’s death, and asked, “Are you holding up okay? Although I don’t know what holding up would look like in this case.” I felt like that was an incredibly loving and wise message. It made me think about what “Holding up okay” is, and I decided I was doing it: I had not broken my sobriety and had a drink, and I had not taken out my grief on my husband and kids, because I’d had space to acknowledge it directly. I had broken down many times, but in this case, breaking down was holding up.
I also told my daughters, that when I die I hope they hold a memorial, where people wear black and cry, not a "Celebration of Life" with people in Hawaiian shirts. Forgive me if your opinion differs, but I see the new tradition of marking death with a celebration as a negative trend that denies the reality of grief. If you aren't allowed to be sad on the day you bury your parent or spouse, when are you allowed to be sad? But of course, I actually want my girls to mourn me in whatever way seem right to them. Even in the formal funeral scenario, Sophia plans to wear a morning coat and hat, as the chaps did in "Downton Abby" when they buried Granny.
Whatever griefs you may be processing in this new year – small or large – I ask you with love, “How are you holding up?” If you need permission to break down, allow me to extend it to you. Life is beautiful, difficult and complex. May you find the courage today to experience it without editing, and to live fully and even whimsically in this day. I give you a pass.