I am no stranger to death. When I was a kid, I often went with my grandmother to funerals, and I can remember thinking how beautiful the coffins were, so sleek, smooth, and elegant — lovely in a quiet, peaceful way. Between the summers of 1994 and 1995, an 18-year-old cousin, a 30-year-old uncle, and my 70-year-0ld grandparents died, leaving my family in a state of shock and shambles. How do you recover from a series of losses like that?
The beautiful thing about funerals back home is that after the service, we eat. We sit down with family and break bread and dig into potato salad; we talk and laugh and we get back to work, washing the dishes, putting the food away, cleaning up, because we didn’t die. What I remember of my grandmother’s wake is sitting outside the church, joking and laughing with my cousins. It’s not that we weren’t sad — we were! — my grandmother was the heart and soul of our family and I mourn her death and I miss her very much. We laughed because we were alive, and after a funeral service, we shared a meal with loved ones because we were alive.
I’ve been thinking about death a lot these past few day. A friend of mine who also knew David Chung has been unable to shake himself out of his grief. In trying to console him over the phone, I pleaded with him to get out of the house, take a walk, have a nice meal. He wants to do all of this but he doesn’t have the emotional energy to move, he says. Grief can be so debilitating.
In one of her stage performances, Joan Rivers tells the story of her husband Edgar Rosenberg who committed suicide in Philadelphia in May 1987; it was her teenage daughter Melissa who was at home to receive the news from the police. (Rivers was appalled.) After the funeral, Rivers says she couldn’t reach her daughter because Melissa was so lost in her grief. Rivers decided that the best way to get Melissa out of her state was to take her to lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Looking at the menu, Rivers gagged in shock at the prices, saying, “Oy, Melissa, if your father had seen these prices he’d kill himself all over again.” The crude joke broke Melissa out of her sadness with a burst of laughter.
We all deal with sorrow in our own ways. The only way I know how to move on, to get back to work — for there is yet work to be done! — is by eating and laughing. I think the best way for me to help my friend is to take him to lunch, nourish his body with good food and maybe even crack a few jokes. This is in no way disrespectful to the loved one that’s gone, but rather a loving reminder to myself that I’m still here.