Full episode
Transcript

738: Good Grief!

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

I think when someone dies, when you're grieving, there are things that you expect to feel. But sometimes grief can come out sideways, take strange forms.

Rob Delaney

I remember, I think the day my son died or the day after, I hit myself in the face. I don't know why I did it, but I gave myself a bloody nose. And there was a hospice worker there who'd been helping our family. And she said to my mom-- she was like, oh, yeah, that's normal. Don't worry about that.

Ira Glass

Oh, we see that all the time.

Rob Delaney

Yeah. [LAUGHS] I couldn't believe that my baby had died. And I just punched myself, yeah, in the nose.

Ira Glass

This is Rob Delaney. His son Henry was about to turn three when he died from a brain tumor. And Rob says the grief that he felt was physical, like physical pain and fatigue and confusion. He forgot the PIN for his bank card, didn't recognize a guy who he worked with all the time. And he's talked about this publicly. He's a comedian and an actor. He's currently on a TV show that he co-created called Catastrophe. And he talks about his son's death when he's asked, hoping that it might be useful or comforting in some small way to other parents going through this.

And it's interesting when he discusses his son's death. In public, he is pretty even-keeled, except when he gets on the subject of how people in his life reacted to Henry's death, how it was hard for some people to acknowledge what had happened. Here he is on a British talk show.

Rob Delaney

So my wife was pregnant, for example, when Henry died, OK? And there were some people who would find out about that. And I have never seen such relief on people's faces. They'd be like, oh, so another big thing-- so I don't have to talk about his dead baby. I can talk about his new shiny baby that's coming. And I wanted to kill those people because, I mean, that's not news. It's great, but we all know pregnant people. Big whoop, you know? People get pregnant. But my fucking two-year-old, a little bit before his third birthday, he died in my home on my couch.

Ira Glass

When Rob was nice enough to come into the studio to talk to me about all this. He told me he gets it. Seeing somebody in pain makes lots of people uncomfortable. They don't know what to say. They sidestep. They avoid.

Rob Delaney

I'm sure in my own life, I used to do it in the past, too. But if you'd like me to, quote, "get over" not the death of my child, but, say, this wave of emotions that are making you uncomfortable, then the best thing to do would be to let them happen and let me feel them, and then they'll sort of dissipate organically. And then we can carry on with whatever idiotic thing you want to do, you moron insensitive person. The least another person can do in the human family is to bear an ounce of my shipping container ship of pain by accepting that I'm upset, sad, angry, confused.

Ira Glass

Some people just have a hard time acknowledging death. And that's true when they hear about somebody else's losses, and it's true when it's their loss to face. When somebody close to them dies, they look away, avoid grieving, throw themselves into work, into drinking, distract themselves with TV, get stuck ruminating over feelings of guilt or shame that they could have done more for the person who died. It's common to do that, and it's more common if your loss was bigger.

And one of the reasons that I was so interested to talk to Rob Delaney is that when his two-year-old died, Henry, he did not do any of those things. He did not look away from the pain. I think one reason that he was sort of inclined or able to do it this way is that he's sober, has been for a long time. This is something he's talked about in his standup. He told me that when Henry died, some of the skills that he learned from years of sobriety -- where you try to face what is real as unflinchingly as possible -- those skills turned out to be very helpful.

Rob Delaney

So that when the incredibly intense storms of sadness and anger and confusion would come up, I didn't try to manage them or push them away, but rather to let them move through me as they needed to do.

Ira Glass

Knowing that you just have to go through it.

Rob Delaney

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Rob Delaney

I think it's really important to acknowledge it's going to be a real nightmare for a good long while. And you're going to cry, and you'll probably puke sometimes. And I know that's not "the sun will come out and everything's going to be fine." I really try to not do that because there's going to be enough people that are going to blow smoke up your butt and waste your time. And I don't understand that approach. So I do try to be kind of brutal when I talk about it. And I feel like the worse of a picture I can paint, then the better friend I've been to you.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, by the way, from WBEZ Chicago. I'm Ira Glass. Today's radio show is going to be about people figuring out how to grieve, most of them kind of inventing it for themselves and mostly doing a decent job of it. We got interested in this because we're at this moment right now where so many people are grieving. COVID deaths are nearing 600,000 here in the United States. The worldwide number is officially 3.5 million, but it might be twice as many as that.

So what helps in these situations for people experiencing the most traumatic kinds of grief? In Rob Delaney's case, it's now been three years since his son died. And I talked to him about what he has learned over that time about what works and about what helped him.

Rob Delaney

Yeah, the most helpful thing for me has been other bereaved parents. Because when you come together, more useful than any of the words that anyone said to me would be if I saw a parent whose child had been dead longer than mine had, and I saw that they were able to tie their shoes. Was their shirt tucked in? Basic functions-- just watching them pick grapes off of a stem and eat them. And I thought if they can do that, then I'll be able to do that one day, hopefully.

Ira Glass

Also, he says, in those groups with parents whose kids have died, they can say things out loud with each other that they can't say to most other people.

Rob Delaney

It was kind of funny, because things are said and happened in those meetings that would scorch the eyeballs of your average person who hasn't had an experience like that. I mean, I'm not going to generally talk about the physical circumstances of Henry's death and his body after he died. But with other bereaved parents, we can talk about that unbelievably precious time that you spend with your dead child's body. But if you were with your child when they died, caring for and attending to the body of your child after their life has left them-- are some very beautiful and loving conversations that we've had there that I couldn't have anywhere else, but that are very precious to me and to them.

Ira Glass

Why do you-- why do you think it's so important to talk about that moment after your child dies, and you're there with your child's body?

Rob Delaney

I mean, I guess it's like being to the moon of a distant planet. It's somewhere you never think you would go. So to be able to talk through that with another person is helpful.

Ira Glass

It reminds me of this thing that, when they treat trauma, one of the steps, one of the most important things is to go back to the moment that the person was traumatized and have the person talk it through and examine it and get their head around it.

Rob Delaney

Yeah, I believe that, because I repeat to myself the story of my son's death in very simple terms of his illness and death. And I say them out loud to myself when I'm walking around, walking down the street. My baby boy got sick. We took a while trying to figure out what it was, went to a lot of doctors. They found out what it was. It was very bad. It got worse and worse. And then he died. And he's dead. I can't even believe what I just said, you know?

Ira Glass

I know talking to you, the thing that I didn't understand before we started talking is just like, oh, you have to keep looking at it because it doesn't seem real. It's just hard to believe it's real.

Rob Delaney

Yeah. I mean, for me, it's as unreal as if the Martians landed on my front lawn.

Ira Glass

Rob says that, three years in, he knows he's doing better, though he said that he hasn't figured out how to talk about that publicly yet. Because he thinks the message "you'll get better" is pushed way too much, and the message "this is going to suck, and you're going have to live through that" is not pushednearly enough. He told me the waves of grief do still come, but they're less often. And Henry's still on his mind a lot. In fact, he told me he thinks about Henry as much now as he thinks about his three other children, like equal to the other children, so a fourth of that time. And he likes it that way. It still hurts, he says. But he wouldn't have it any other way.

Act One: Goodbye Mr. Facey

Ira Glass

Act One, Goodbye, Mr. Facey. So a couple of months ago, the transit authority in New York City, the MTA, created a memorial for its workers who died from COVID. The memorial is a video. It's simple. Picture after picture of each person, bus drivers, train conductors, cleaners, their faces in black and white. Behind them, a solid color background. This, what you're hearing now, is the music that plays as they go by. And there's a poem, which appears in seven of the languages spoken on the trains and buses of New York City. The video got passed around on YouTube and ran on video screens in some subway stations.

The MTA lost more employees than any agency in New York City. As of today, 164 people. 164 have disappeared from train lines and maintenance shops and break rooms. One of our producers, Chana Joffe-Walt, wondered what it was like for surviving transit workers to watch a memorial like this for the co-workers, people who died doing a job they're still doing. Here's Chana.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I talked to a lot of transit workers. They had a lot of different feelings about this memorial. They felt recognized. They felt angry. They felt exhausted. They felt lucky to have survived. Some wanted to watch it over and over. Some wanted all of us to watch it over and over. Some couldn't bring themselves to watch it at all. One station agent told me she believed it should be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For the purposes of this show, though, about grief, I want to introduce you to just one person I talked to about the memorial-- Francis Lai-Fang. Francis stood apart in his reaction to the video. His boss and mentor died of COVID, and he's in there. And the whole time we talked, Francis seemed to be in the middle of a feeling that he was trying to work his way through. I met him at a shop. He works in hydraulics for the MTA. He's 52 years old, a manager. He told me there's an office upstairs where we could talk, but it took us 40 minutes to get there, as Francis eagerly pointed to every fan, pump, and truck along the way.

Francis Lai-Fang

What we have on this truck is going to be pumps to pump water out of any situation that we might encounter.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When there's an emergency, when water covers the subway tracks or snow blocks the stairs or platforms, the people in hydraulics jump in these trucks, race across the city, and clear the way. Francis is a man who manages, somehow, after decades, to still be enamored with the objects of his daily work.

Francis Lai-Fang

And once that sucker starts running, 1,500 gallons a minute.

Chana Joffe-Walt

COVID arrived here at the hydraulic shop in March 2020. One of Francis' workers came in coughing. The next day, Francis was coughing. Day after, he was in quarantine and getting calls from all of his co-workers-- all sick.

Francis Lai-Fang

I was scared for them because you could hear it in their voice, you know? And I would call every morning. And I'm like, yo. Once they answered, I felt good. Once the phone was answered, I felt good. But if you didn't answer, my heart was starting to worry. Because it was just, you didn't know because people was dropping like flies.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Then, Francis got another call.

Francis Lai-Fang

He said, yo, you heard about Facey? And I was like, please don't tell me. Please don't say it. No, no, no. And I just kept saying, no, no, no, no, no. And that's all I could say, was no, no, no.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Clarence Facey, a 58-year-old superintendent from Guyana who cleared the vast subway system after numerous floods over numerous decades, had died. He was nine months away from retirement. Francis met Clarence Facey three decades ago when they started in hydraulics. Francis was 19 years old. Clarence Facey wasn't that much older, but Francis looked up to him from the beginning, called him Mr. Facey. He studied the way Mr. Facey focused, the way he talked. And in particular, Francis admired the way Mr. Facey could always keep his cool, even when he was disrespected.

Francis Lai-Fang

You could see that he's seconds away of just losing it, but he always had that way of just-- always liked to keep things nice and smooth and calm. He was the coolest cat. I will go crazy over stuff. He'd-- calm down. Don't take it personal. He always said, listen, man, it's just a job. We're going to be here, and then we're going to be gone.

Chana Joffe-Walt

They were mostly work friends. But sometimes they'd go out with other West Indian guys from the shop. Francis is from Trinidad. And for years, after their shift, Mr. Facey would give Francis a ride to the train station. They'd chat about the property Facey owned in Guyana and how he planned to go back when he retired.

The memorial the MTA made, it serves partly as a marker, a way to say, here are our losses. It is now time to grieve them. And Francis feels that. Yeah, it's been a year. It does feel like it's time to grieve. But it hasn't come for him yet. He says it just never felt real. From right after Clarence Facey passed in early April.

Francis Lai-Fang

They had a service, right? But I couldn't go. I was quarantined.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Do you think it would feel more real to you had you been able to go to the service?

Francis Lai-Fang

I know who I am in funerals. I definitely would have cried. There's always that one point where I just can't hold it anymore. And I break down, and I cry. And I know how West Indians are. They always sing this one song. Oh my gosh, it kills me. It just brings the tears, but I still-- I still haven't shed a tear yet. I've been close, and I was close. But I still haven't shed a tear. And it's going on a year and change. And I know I will. It's going to come one day. It's going to come.

Chana Joffe-Walt

For the rest of our time together, Francis keeps circling back to this, the fact that he has not yet cried. This is not something I asked about. But he seems to be actively trying to figure it out. Why hasn't it happened? He couldn't go to a funeral in person, so he did not cry. Then there was the memorial online a few weeks later.

Francis Lai-Fang

They had a service for him, but it was on Teams, like a video. And they show him. And I couldn't believe it, but I still didn't cry. But I know me. I'm telling you, it's going to happen.

Chana Joffe-Walt

I asked Francis, did he want to cry? Did he wish he could? He said no. It's just weird. It's weird that I didn't. Not after he died, after the services, even after I got out of quarantine and came back to work.

Francis Lai-Fang

It was weird. It was very hollow. I'd come upstairs. They had a bunch of pictures on the door. So that was tough, just seeing--

Chana Joffe-Walt

What do you mean pictures on the wall?

Francis Lai-Fang

They would have memory pictures of him from different times. People had pictures from when he was younger, when he first came in. They had the whole doors full of pictures. I still didn't break down. I still didn't cry.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When he left work at the end of the day and Mr. Facey was not there to give him a ride to the train, he didn't fall apart. All the times he rushed to Mr. Facey's office to tell him something, forgetting he wasn't there anymore. Even on the one year anniversary of Mr. Facey's death, Francis and a bunch of guys went out to his graveside, drank, told stories, left bottles of gin. Still, he says, no tears. I don't know.

What is it to grieve someone you've worked with? It's not like Clarence Facey was a close friend of Francis' or family. Every person in that memorial video has loved ones. And then there are dozens, maybe hundreds of other people like Francis, people who sit a few circles out, people who lost the co-worker who they always said hello to on the way to the bathroom, the woman they always chatted with in the break room, the person who was just always there. Clarence Facey had been there for Francis' entire working life. And now he wasn't.

When the MTA put out the memorial video, Francis saw it posted online, saw people passing it around. He waited. It wasn't until recently that he sat down and clicked play. He told me he watched each face pass by until he got to Mr. Facey.

Francis Lai-Fang

4:08, at 4 minutes and 8 seconds in.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Wait, you know which minute he is in the memorial video?

Francis Lai-Fang

Yes, and when his picture did come up, it had the tears there, man. It's just the tears didn't fall.

Chana Joffe-Walt

When we first started talking, I read Francis as someone who was holding back, turning away from grief. But Francis is actively engaged in some small, ongoing grieving process. Repeatedly noting every single time you haven't cried, that is a kind of grief. Not the kind that overwhelms you. It's not falling down on the ground, sobbing grief. It's just an ambient feeling that hovers. It's a grief that just sits there.

On our way out of the building, I learned that Francis actually made his own memorial. And it's kind of a tribute to this version of grief. He points it out as we pass by Mr. Facey's office door.

Francis Lai-Fang

And I got a plaque for him made up. And I put it outside his door on the wall. But I didn't put it that he passed away. I put it that he retired. His last day when he passed away was his retirement day, and that's what I did. And I--

Chana Joffe-Walt

You didn't want to put that he died?

Francis Lai-Fang

No, I can't do that. Some people ask me, well, he never retired. And I'm like, I know. But I'm not going to put a plaque of my friend is gone, you know? I'm going to say he's retired. That's how I see him as gone. That's the way I see it. If they decide to take it down, it'll be when I'm gone.

Chana Joffe-Walt

It's a simple black plaque with gold lettering on the wall. I ask if he'll read it.

Chana Joffe-Walt

Will you read it?

Francis Lai-Fang

Me?

Chana Joffe-Walt

Yeah.

Francis Lai-Fang

No, I can't.

Chana Joffe-Walt

No? OK.

He says, "I can't do that." So I will. It reads, "Clarence Facey, hero of the Hydraulics Department, hired August 21, 1989, retired April 4, 2020." It thanks Mr. Facey for believing in them, for guiding through example, and inspiring with passion, for being a mentor, a co-worker, and a gentleman. Quote, "We appreciate your humble leadership. You will always be remembered as a great example. With great honor and respect, from your Hydraulics family."

Chana Joffe-Walt

That's very beautiful.

The closest Francis ever seems to crying is right then, standing by the plaque. But he doesn't. Puts his hands on his face, says, "Oh, boy," and moves along. This is the memorial that works for Francis, the one where Mr. Facey is honored, but does not die, one that acknowledges the grief that sits in this office and still allows him to keep moving.

Ira Glass

Chana Joffe-Walt is one of the producers of our show.

Act Two: When It Rains

Ira Glass

Act Two, When It Rains. So there's this concept that people who study grief talk about called cumulative grief. That is, a pile-up of losses that happen either all at once or in quick succession. This is something that one of our producers Sean Cole, unfortunately, became personally familiar with this year. Here he is.

Sean Cole

The pile-up of things that happened to me, it was four different events that happened over the course of just a few months. I only saw one of them coming, the first one. My stepfather Ed, who I adored, died of a really aggressive lung cancer on December 31, 2020. You might have heard him on the show before, actually. I talked to him for a couple of different stories. One way in which I was really lucky, I got to spend a lot of time with him in person in his final weeks. In October, right after his diagnosis, I interviewed him at the hospital about the election, which would be his last. At that point, he still wasn't sure how much time he had left. He just knew that it wasn't a lot. But he said that didn't bother him.

Ed

I think it's an excellent time, in the next two or three years, to die.

Sean Cole

Why?

Ed

You're avoiding all sorts of huge problems. We have global warming coming out big time. The country is still going to be divided, even if Biden wins. Europe is going totalitarian. This country is going more totalitarian, which is scary. So there's not much to look forward to. Things I would like to see are answers to big questions. Is there intelligent life in this universe? There's none on Earth.

Sean Cole

Six weeks after recording that in early December, I watched him reach for the TV remote, thinking it was a phone. Then he asked me what the remote was for. We learned later that, on top of everything else, he'd had a stroke. It was really then that our grieving began, the kind of pre-grief. He spent the last five days of his life in hospice-- in-home hospice, mercifully. They brought in a hospital bed and set it up in my mom's old bedroom. She died in 2015.

My sister Maggie and I co-managed Ed's care, squirting syringefuls of morphine into his mouth, helping the nurse's aides change his diapers. Early that final week, he asked me in this hoarse whisper, "How long before the cancer wipes me out?" "They don't really know," I said. Then I said, "Are you ready to die?" He looked at me. "No man is ready to die," he said. "Do you have any feelings about it?" I asked him. His face kind of softened, thoughtful, like he was checking. "No, not especially," he said. I don't know what I'd been expecting to hear.

His heart finally stopped around 3:30 in the afternoon on New Year's Eve. When the reality sunk in, I bent down, kissed his forehead, and started to cry. I can't explain this, and maybe I don't need to. But it was different when Ed was breathing. Even though he was unconscious, you at least knew he was alive. They say nothing prepares you. I had been living in a house with a rapidly-dying hospice patient for a week. It had gotten to the point where Maggie and I were even wishing for this moment, because what kind of existence is that? And yet, when the moment came, I just wasn't ready. I'm still not ready.

After we left the room, I went back in and hugged Ed's dead body one last time. "Ed, you fucking asshole," I said, burying my face in his neck. And then I said, "I love you so much." Then I didn't say anything. Then I said, "This probably isn't sanitary."

Losing a parent can make you think the biggest thoughts. Like, for instance, this one-- when someone dies, they don't just die. It's like they keep dying in pieces as time wears on, the moment of their demise drifting farther and farther away from you, like a raft heading for the horizon. It happened with my mom. I found I didn't want to leave that early temporal orbit of her death before it became just another thing that happened to me.

That said, I didn't face my grief about my mom head on when it happened. I distracted myself, tried to, quote, "get back to normal too quickly" and get drunk and loud at events. I didn't want to make mistakes like that this time. I wanted to take time and really feel the loss, maybe go somewhere and just sit by myself. But I wasn't really able to. Because losing Ed led pretty directly to the second thing I lost-- my relationship with a woman I'll call Melanie.

See, another big thought I had, staring into the portal that Ed had just passed through, took kind of a weird shape. I thought I'm going to be 60 in 10 years. 10 years ago, I turned 40. I remember turning 40. It feels like almost no time has passed. And what did I want to do with the rest of my days here on Earth? There's so much I've been putting off, a long list. And something I knew definitively now was that having kids was nowhere on that list.

Melanie did want children eventually. We'd been together a year since before the pandemic, fell in love fairly quickly. It was the first serious relationship I'd had in a while. Also, during long stretches of 2020, we barely saw anybody else in person. Certainly didn't hug anybody else. Lucky for me, she's insanely funny and caring. Lying in bed one morning, a month after Ed died, I told Melanie what I decided about children. She cried, went home, came back 36 hours later. We sat on the couch. It was civil, tender even. Melanie felt bad. "I don't want to abandon you," she said. "But I need to take care of myself, too." I understood.

I think it was around this time that my sadnesses were already starting to compete with each other, almost cancel each other out. I was aware of not being able to feel the loss of the breakup enough or not proportional enough to the importance of it, like that part of me was already taken up. Then, a few weeks after the breakup, two months after Ed's death, the third thing happened. Melanie sent me a picture of a home pregnancy test. I, at 49 years old, had never seen one, at least not one with the two lines on it, indicating it was positive. Melanie had been taking birth control when we were together. I think she must have missed a day-- one day.

Now when we were a couple, Melanie was pretty clear that she didn't want a kid right now. But now that she was pregnant, things were different. Melanie was paralyzed with indecision, didn't even know how to decide what to do. I know it sounds self-centered and beside the point to focus on how I felt about it. It goes without saying that my stress was puny compared to hers.

But midway through that week, pacing around my apartment late at night, I snapped and started weeping. And I wasn't sure why, which one of these upheavals it was about or just all of them. Maybe more than ever, I just wanted to talk to Ed. I had already started to face the fact that I would never be able to go home again. It hadn't hit me yet that I would also never be able to call home again.

Melanie and I were supposed to get together, the two of us, that Saturday night to discuss what we each were thinking. But we didn't get the chance. Because then the fourth thing happened. That Saturday afternoon, I got a text from my stepmother, my biological dad's wife. "Your father had a heart attack," it said. He was in a hospital in Massachusetts, unconscious. Talking with Melanie about how the rest of our lives were going to pan out would have to wait.

For the second time in two months, I had to say goodbye to a parent. My dad-- Mac was his name-- was also 90, had been going downhill with dementia for years. He'd tell you a story, and then 10 minutes later, tell it again, ask the same question over and over again during a short visit. But he never forgot who any of us were, was still able to recite poems and song lyrics he'd learned when he was younger, still charming. He charmed the nurses at the hospital right up until he slipped into unconsciousness in the ICU.

I stood right by his bed for a lot of my visit to the hospital. His wife and three stepkids and a couple of grandkids were there, too. I felt bad for them and for my dad. And-- this is strange-- I knew that I was sad, but it's like I was holding the sadness in my hands, outside my body, because I didn't know where to put it. The thing about cumulative grief, when the losses pile up in quick succession like this, you can get overloaded and end up grieving none of them. Experts on this stuff will tell you that, just like you love everyone in your life differently and separately, you have to grieve them differently and separately when the time comes.

I love my dad. He and my mom divorced when I was five. Ed entered the picture a year later and eventually moved in with us. And proximity took over, as it does. Standing in the hospital room, one of my stepbrothers said something genuinely funny, and I laughed. And he told me my laugh sounded exactly like dad's. It used to be I didn't like being compared to my father. But now it made me feel closer to him in a way I needed right then. I wanted to stay there all night, like some of the others were going to, but I couldn't. I had to get back to New York to go with Melanie to the OB/GYN the next day to confirm the pregnancy and learn about our options.

It's not lost on me that just as I said goodbye to two fathers, there was a real possibility of becoming one myself. Whether or not someone is equipped to be a parent, it seems like one prerequisite is not being filled with abject terror at the very thought of it. And I'm not the type of person who could tell the mother of his kid that she's on her own.

I asked Melanie's permission to talk about all of this on the show, by the way. She said yes, as long as I told her ahead of time what I was going to say and identified her as little as possible. I stayed in the examination room while they did the sonogram, and they said they thought Melanie was about four weeks along. The next morning, I woke up to a text from my stepmother, saying dad had finally died. When my editor at the show and I talked later that day, I said, you're not going to believe this.

Melanie ultimately decided to terminate the pregnancy. In the end, she felt clear about it. Even still, she sat on my couch afterwards in tears. Said she could feel that it wasn't in there anymore somehow. She called it a dead thing. Any nascent relief in me was swallowed up by sadness and concern. This was the outcome I'd hoped for, but it's not like it felt good. And it never would. It was its own kind of loss.

It's been five months now since I held Ed's lifeless body in my arms. I'm still distracting myself from my grief too much, I think, with work and also drinking, partying with friends now that we're all vaccinated. The difference now, as opposed to five years ago when mom died, is that I know I'm avoiding grief. And it feels like I turn and kind of glance at it multiple times a day, sometimes longer glances than others. I still don't know exactly how I'm supposed to proceed, how to pull all of the different losses apart in order to grieve them separately or in what order. Do I do it sequentially? Do I have to finish with one before starting on the next one?

There's one other big thought I had. Not in the wake of dad's death or Ed's death, but back when my mom died. I'd forgotten about it until all this happened. I was asking myself why we were all even here, what it was all for. I don't have any faith or doctrine. I'm not even secure enough in my understanding of the cosmos to be an atheist.

But I did come up with an answer. It's simple, and it makes even more sense to me now when I think of how Maggie and I looked out for each other when caring for Ed got really stressful, or Melanie and I being present through even the hardest conversations, or the folks at dad's hospital bending the COVID rules, letting us all crowd around his bed for hours. The reason we're all here, I think, is to get each other to the other side.

Ira Glass

Sean Cole is a producer here at our show. Coming up, saying goodbye to yourself. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three: The Caretaker

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Good Grief. You know it is hard to talk about death. It's hard to know how to face it. It's hard to know how to grieve. Today, for this Memorial Day weekend, we have people figuring out for themselves, inventing for themselves how to deal with loss. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, The Caretaker.

So there are memorial sites that are planned out over years by official committees and designers and architects. But sometimes, something happens that leads to such an outpouring of grief, such an overflow of emotion, that a site to mourn and commemorate just springs into existence spontaneously. Hundreds of individuals show up, lots of them with photos and signs and other stuff. The intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis is like that. It's the place where George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin last May. One of our producers, Bim Adewunmi, went to see what it's like.

Bim Adewunmi

This used to be a busy intersection, but now it's almost entirely vehicle-free, a block in every direction closed to traffic. Cup Foods, the convenience store on the corner, is still going. But other businesses, like the Speedway gas station, have been transformed. The whole space has been reclaimed, and none of it's sanctioned by the city or state. That independence is most notable at the Speedway gas station. The sign has been painted over. It now reads "People's Way."

George Floyd Square isn't even really a square. It's a wellspring, an organic creation in the aftermath of a traumatic event. As you walk up, right in the middle of the intersection, you see a giant metal sculpture of a fist jutting into the sky, a black liberation flag billowing in the breeze on top of it. All around the sculpture is a ring of bricks and cinder blocks. And it holds hundreds of tributes-- flowers, protest signs, handwritten quotes, plus several photos of George Floyd and other Black men killed elsewhere by police brutality or otherwise-- Ahmaud Arbery, Daunte Wright.

On the ground in front of the convenience store is a drawing of an angel, close to where George Floyd took his last breaths. The feeling at George Floyd Square is sacred for sure, but it's a group project, in which the levels of artistic skill are not uniform. There's an air of it being homemade, made with care, by hand, grief mostly from the community and mostly by the community. The people who come here are drawn to that. They have to come. They have to see. They have to feel.

One of the people drawn to the square is Jeanelle Austin. She's now treasurer and secretary of the George Floyd Global Memorial, which is co-chaired by George Floyd's aunt and cousin. When George Floyd was murdered, Jeanelle was living in Austin, Texas, doing racial justice work in an organization she'd started. Her family had been asking her to come home for a while, but she'd resisted. Now they asked again, telling her that she should be here for this moment.

Four days after George Floyd's death, Jeanelle flew back to Minneapolis. She started attending protests. At one protest on the highway, she and her sister had a terrifying encounter with a truck that charged up protesters. Afterwards, her sister was crying, but Jeanelle, a seasoned protester, couldn't even muster tears. She made a decision.

Jeanelle Austin

The next morning, I said, yep, we're not going to do that. I was like, I'm just going to do something more simple, but still profound, by keeping the memorial clean. And so I started waking up at 6:00 AM, June 1st, and started tending to the memorial. And I decided that that would be my protest.

Bim Adewunmi

As more and more people came to the square, they were also bringing the things Jeanelle calls offerings-- protest signs, drawings, photos of their loved ones killed by police, small tokens like teddy bears and candles, and an overwhelming amount of flowers and potted plants. She spent several hours a day at the square some days, usually with her neighbor Paul, caretaking as best she could. In those early days, she reckoned on the whole thing winding down after about a fortnight.

Jeanelle Austin

At the end of two weeks, we were like, nope, still going. And so we kind of had the conversation of, what do we do with all the offerings? And so, it was so funny. He said, well, in many traditions, with offerings, we burn them, and they go up into the sky. And I'm like, Paul, the city's on fire. We're not burning offerings. That is a bad idea.

Bim Adewunmi

Right, you don't want to be the people who burn stuff.

Jeanelle Austin

Right, right, exactly. He was like, you're right.

Bim Adewunmi

Jeanelle has watched the square evolve over the past year. On the day she's there, she's cleaning up trash or pruning the plants people bring to the square in the hastily constructed greenhouse. The nature of the work suits her. She's an introvert and finds peace in tending to the offerings.

On the day I visited, there were a few families walking around and reading the names and signs in contemplative silence. I spoke to people from Minneapolis-- a father and his partner and their two little ones, another guy who would come to the square with his teenage daughter, fresh from a dance recital. There were men who'd come from California and Texas, one Nigerian guy who'd come from Georgia to see friends and felt compelled to visit the memorial. They all came to grieve for a man they'd never know, but felt familiar to them. A man who had gone out to get cigarettes and had never made it back home.

Jeanelle Austin

I saw people grieving. And I saw that because I was there, many of them would just tap me on my shoulder and say, hey, can I talk? Or one person pulled up a whole lawn chair and was like, I am going to hold you hostage because you're there cutting plants, and I need somebody to talk to. Or some people just would come and just stand by me and say nothing. But because I was there, they just needed to be. And I recognized it as grief. Because I've been journeying through grief myself.

Everybody processes loss differently. And I learned that a year earlier, when my father had died from cancer. And I have six brothers and sisters, and we all processed my dad's death differently. So for some people, processing loss meant being angry. For some people, processing loss meant creating art. For some people, processing loss meant being quiet and staying home. And I think that was one of the things that actually prepared me for this moment.

I'll never forget this white man, middle-aged white man, was in the square early in the morning. And I was in the square, carrying a five-gallon bucket of water to water the plants. And he said, "Can I help you?" And I said, "Absolutely." And so, we started chit chatting. And he was like, "Did you know that every gallon of water weighs eight pounds?" I'm like, "No, I didn't know that." And so we got to the memorial. We had to walk a half a block up. And he just looked sad.

And I look at him, and I say, "Whatever it is that you're holding, the space is big enough. You can let it go. The space is big enough for it all." And he just starts to cry. And he says, "My son is under a knife. And my mother died in January." And that's when I notice his visitor badge, the hospital. And he was like, "But none of that compares to what we're dealing with here." And I said, "No, no, no, you don't get to do that. Grief is grief. Loss is loss. It's not about comparing losses. Your loss is your loss. And we can hold that, too."

Bim Adewunmi

The point of a place like George Floyd Square is that it is many things to many people, all at the same time. Grief is vast. And it is strong, which means it can carry a lot inside it. The names of the dead at the square-- and there are dozens of them-- are everywhere.

They're scrawled on the road, stenciled or drawn freehand in chalk and paint. They're on planters, on walls, on signs staked into the ground, on rocks, on T-shirts and on hats. Many of the names are familiar, like the names of your cousins on your father's side. Others require you to dig deeper into the past or further than the first page of a Google search. The square lets people bring other older griefs and lay them down as part of a continuum of what's been lost to a persistent problem.

Bim Adewunmi

I want to circle to that idea of grief and protest. Because the two things don't seem like they necessarily go hand in hand.

Jeanelle Austin

I think the protest was burst out of grief. The DNA of the protest is grief. And I don't even think I fully understood that until recently and looking back and realizing that what made this protest different was the fact that that grief was the foundation, and not rage. I mean, there was anger and there was rage there, yeah, but it really was grief. It's the grief and the protests are wrapped into one another and marbled together. I don't think you could separate the two.

Bim Adewunmi

The anniversary of George Floyd's death this past week transformed the square into something else again. It hosted an outdoor festival of remembrance for the community, the culmination of protests in the city-- music, panels, talks. We don't usually think of those as expressions of grief, but they are. Because grief doesn't end. It just changes form.

Ira Glass

Bim Adewunmi is one of the producers of our show.

Act Four: All My Love

Ira Glass

Act Four, All My Love. OK, so nearly 600,000 people dead from COVID. It is really hard to get your mind around that number, what that means, what that is. I went and looked this up. That is, more or less, the population of Milwaukee or Portland or Albuquerque or Louisville or Nashville or Las Vegas or Baltimore, which is where I grew up.

And I try to picture the whole city of Baltimore, OK? All the streets and row houses and strip malls and grocery stores and high schools and parks just completely empty of people. The rundown blocks around Lexington Market downtown and the pretty green area up by Johns Hopkins University, just block after block, mile after mile, nobody there at all. And then I kind of get it, but only kind of. It's just easier to feel the loss of one person than some big number. I think everybody knows that.

One of those 590,000-plus Americans who's died was Leiah Danielle Jones. She is one of the people who got COVID and never fully recovered and became one of the long haulers, and then she died on March 12. And before she died, she wrote her own obituary. And we got permission from her brother to read it here on the radio. He says, the truth is, they aren't totally sure why she wrote this. He assumes it was for the family. But as you'll hear, she also addresses a larger audience. The family decided to use it for the funeral. And it was posted online as an obituary. We asked actress Pernell Walker to read it.

Pernell Walker

I, Leiah Danielle Jones, was born on September 22, 1987 in Charlotte, North Carolina to Eric Arnelle Jones and Joyce Bost Jones. Waiting patiently at home was my elder and only brother, Jonathan Philemon Jones. I departed from my temporary home on March 12, 2021, surrounded by my family. I am waiting for Christ's return. I was 33 and 1/2 years young.

I died due to complications from COVID-19, which none of us knew existed 1 and 1/2 years ago. I, along with others like me, are termed long-haulers. The term "long-hauler" means a person who has been infected by the virus and has recovered, no longer infectious. However, the damage had been done to vital organs. A YouTube video on this site will inform you more explicitly the extent of this virus. Unfortunately, those like me may or may not survive the aftermath. I, hopefully, am in the minority of those numbers. I would love for as many as can to watch the video and please pray and support the long-haulers.

What can I say, but to God be the glory. Great things He has done, even in my short life. He gave me qualities of compassion, generosity, boundless energy, knowledge, and determination, a.k.a. stubbornness, which my mom would say of me. If you met me, you would have never forgotten that Jones girl. I loved to cook-- Dad's gift to me. I had many specialties. Breadmaking was just one.

In my own way, I championed many causes-- namely, A, people who are considered the undesirables, outcasts of society; B, support to families, especially the single home parent; C, children, those who were affected by the school closings due to the pandemic; D, victims of the hurricanes, wildfires, national and international.

My mom would accuse me of disaster hunting, seeing all the good others were doing and saving lives-- Mercy Ships, St. Jude Children's Research, Feed the Children campaign. It didn't take much. Oh, by the way, let's not forget the poor abused animals. The gift that God entrusted with me was amazing-- nursing baby kittens, helping injured ones. It amazed even me. And I always knew it was a special gift from Him.

The most rewarding part of my life was the day I was able to take care of my mom. She had been badly injured in a lawnmower accident. Being unable to properly care for herself for months, love stepped in. Of course, she protested-- stubborn woman.

As my health declined and my illness progressed, I became physically hampered somewhat from doing my regular daily routine. Therefore, I leaned more heavily on the help of my mom. She, on the most part, was more than willing. The few times she was not so willing, I, Leiah Danielle Jones, prevailed. I pressed on with the affairs of home and business. Yes, Dad dragged me in on this EA Jones plumbing adventure. Life and its pull were getting the best of me by the end of last year. However, God and my family powered the best in and for me till the end.

If, in this life, we met, I hope our encounter left you with a lasting snapshot of a determined, sometimes complex, genuine friend, one you could talk to. If, however, we did not meet, it was my loss, and I am sorry. I believe that every person, experience, good or bad, added to my life a measure of maturity.

Lastly, in my own defense of my very interesting family-- to you, Dad, Eric Arnell Jones, you were my daddy, with all your strengths and weaknesses. I wouldn't have traded you for the world or for another earthly father. I loved you. To you, Mom, Joyce Ann Bost Jones, we would refer to you as Brick because of your non-compromising positions, but only when you did not agree with us. But as for your love for us, it never wavered, like a rock. Brick, I loved you.

To my dearest brother, Jonathan Philemon Jones, we had our battles as siblings do. But when it matters, we, love, showed up. When you needed me, I came through. And when I needed you, Jonathan, you showed up big time. At the end, I needed you. And you said yes. Thank you. And I loved you. Don't you ever, ever forget that.

To the rest of my family-- uncles, aunts, cousins-- and friends, I hope my life has left you with an enduring and lasting picture frame of someone who lived life her way. I loved you. May the grace of God and His marvelous love and in His power sustain you forever. With all my love, Leiah.

Ira Glass

The words of Leiah Danielle Jones, who died March 12, read by actress Pernell Walker.

[MUSIC - "THE OTHER SIDE" BY JUDITH HILL]

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Elna Baker and Sean Cole. The people who put together today's show include Bim Adewunmi, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Aviva DeKornfeld, Damien Graef, Chana Joffe-Walt, Rudy Lee, Seth Lind, Tobin Low, Miki Meek, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Ari Saperstein, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Senior editor is David Kestenbaum. Our executive editor is Emanuele Berry.

Special thanks today to Amy Potter, Dale Larson, Amy Tucci, Katherine Supiano, Bonnie Carroll, Ken Doka, Katherine Shear, Karen Goldman, Carolyn Taverner, Catherine Toronto, Robert Neimeyer, Pauline Dyer Grey Cole, Maggie Cole, Brian and Peg Walter, and COVID Survivors for Change. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. You can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. Also, there's videos. There's lists of favorite shows that we recommend for long car rides, tons of other stuff there, too. Again, thisamericanlife.org.

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. He's actually picked up a second job to make a little extra money. He's selling women's shoes out of the back of an SUV, saying things like--

Francis Lai-Fang

What we have on this truck is going to be pumps.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "THE OTHER SIDE" BY JUDITH HILL]