Don’t Pity This Fool

One of the hardest I’ve faced in dealing with grief is my lack of outlets for it. I’ve got a weekly support group (for people who have lost loved ones to cancer), but creatively, I’m a bit stumped.

Tig Notaro is a big inspiration for me. In a very short period of time she almost died of C. Diff, her mom died unexpectedly, she went through a breakup, and then was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. She was already an established standup comic, but she did a ten-minute set right after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and it was so painfully funny and real and vulnerable and everything you want creative work to be (I suggest you listen to Live immediately if you haven’t already).

Since I tend to see life through a comedic lens, I thought I’d try my hand at telling my story in a comedy setting. Unlike Tig though, I’m not an established comic. I don’t get ten-minute sets at real shows (where audience members show up because they want to laugh), I get three-minute sets at open mics. I could talk for days about why most comedy open mics are worse than just about anything (not as bad as having your 39-year-old sister die of cancer I suppose), but I’ll summarize.

  • The whole audience is other comedians who only care about testing their own jokes, not engaging with your set.
  • Most of the comics are in their 20s. They’re not going to laugh at sad jokes about life struggles they haven’t experienced themselves.
  • Most of the comics in the audience are men and they seem very convinced that most women aren’t funny. I’m 100% confident it doesn’t help that my personality reminds all of them of their moms.
  • You get ridiculously short amounts of time to perform and you’re expected to get the most laughs-per-minute possible.

I don’t know how to tell my story in three minutes, let alone make it funny, but I think what’s at the root of standup comedy not working for me is that my goal isn’t to make jokes, it’s to tell stories. The laughs are just the sugar that helps the shit go down (that’s how the song goes, right?).

I decided since the goal was to tell a story, I’d focus on storytelling (this seems obvious, but you know…). Storytelling has become more popular in the last decade or so, so it’s not too hard to find open mics and performance opportunities if you know where to look. This is awesome because even though the open mics are also performers, they’re performers who really care about story so they want to listen to yours. The audience is also super on board with stories having comedy and sadness (in fact, if you don’t write any comedy into your story, the audience will find some). Plus you set times are longer so you’re able to craft a beginning, middle, and end.

The downside to storytelling is that every day my story feels completely different which makes revisions a real bitch. That complicates these blogs/essays- I’ll read something I wrote a month ago and think, “I felt THAT? Weird.” and delete it. This outlet also feels strange because despite wanting my personal life to inspire my work, I don’t necessarily want my personal life to exist in such a public medium.

I’m also very hesitant about sharing other people’s stories, but for the last few years my story has been so intertwined with my family’s stories that I’m not sure I can separate them. I understand the argument, “If they wanted you to write them better, they should have treated you better.” But what about when life didn’t treat them right? I need to write about my experience on the sidelines of her life, but I know she (and my family) wouldn’t want some of those stories out in the world. My sister doesn’t want her loved ones imagining her death, but I was in the room when it happened and it’s something I need to deal with.

I don’t have an answer on that last one other than to keep writing and talking about it in safe spaces and figure out how it affects my art as I go.

About a week ago, I had my first victory. I told a story at a show that lead up to me losing my sister and continued with my current experience of grief, and I managed to get laughs after the part where my sister died. Until now most of the laughs have felt like pity laughs, but this time was different.

What changed?

I acknowledged that the audience was uncomfortable and didn’t want to laugh.

The truth is, when we (especially “we” of western culture who like to pretend death happens when you’re old and have lived a fulfilling life) don’t want to humanize death. We want to keep it as far from our thoughts as possible. We don’t want to hear that an otherwise ridiculously healthy 30-something got cancer and died eighteen months later. We don’t want to acknowledge that everyone we love will die one day.

So I told them my sister died and said, “I know. You want to feel sorry for me because what I’m going through is absolutely fucking horrible, and you’re not wrong. But I’m not special, we’ll all go through this eventually. The only way to avoid it is to die young.” That’s kind of a joke but mostly just a true statement.

I recognize as I’m writing this that it doesn’t seem like a thing you’d share with a group of 20 and 30-something folks and suddenly they’d think, “Yeah, I can laugh now!” But it broke the ice. It called out the discomfort that filled the room, and acknowledging it allowed people to see that just because a horrible thing has happened to me doesn’t mean my life has stopped. There are still things in my life worth laughing at (my love life, for example).

The biggest thing I’ve learned about grief is that it’s not sadness. It’s every single emotion you’ve ever felt amplified times a hundred and dumped into a Halloween candy bucket, but instead of you getting to pick what you want (the Milky Way), the mean lady down the street picks for you (sometimes you get fucking raisins and you have to figure out how to deal with that bullshit and also when did you become such an angry person because you used to like raisins).

Grief example: Wednesday sucked. My sky-high emotions from my Tuesday night support group bled into the next workday, where I was scheduled for almost a full shift working a cash register. That’s almost seven hours of nonstop, “Hi! How are you?! I’m great! Tell me how wonderful life is!” The truth is I’m more emotionally raw and easily triggered because it’s the first holidays without my sister. It’s the last happy memories of her from a year ago when she was doing her best to put on a happy face so we could have one last holiday season together. Once the holidays are over I don’t get much relief because February 6 is the anniversary of her death.

But despite Wednesday and all my fun, new holiday triggers (which are great when you work retail), today I’m optimistic and in fleeting moments, downright giddy. You see, I have a new friend! Or at least a co-worker I want to be friends with who also wants to be friends with me. How exciting! (I’m aware that the average 34-year-old wouldn’t get giddy about a new friend, but the average 34-year-old would likely have an established social circle with plenty of friends to call on when they’re needed, so shut up and let me have my giddy)

Learning how to grieve while also trying to build a new life for myself is going to be fucking hard, I don’t deny that and I appreciate sympathy/empathy for that challenge, but I also acknowledge how lucky I am. I’ve got my health and a badass family, and that’s huge. I have a job I actually like that covers my bills, I live in the best city in the world with all the opportunities a gal like me could hope for, and I’ve got the personality, skills, and talent to achieve everything I want, I just need the time to make it happen and trying to rush everything doesn’t help.

So there we are. My life is shit but also it’s great so yes, please, feel sorry for my loss because I’m sorry for it too, but know that this is just one part of my story.

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