When I lost my first husband to suicide, there were a handful of people and things I was extremely grateful for: my parents, my sister, my nieces, my friends, my running shoes, Tyler Florence, Xanax, cheap liquor and Joan Rivers. The priority of that list shifted hour to hour and day to day, but the contents of the list remained pretty steady.
I remember being alone in bed the first night after I received the news that Greg was dead. And I distinctly remember thinking about Edgar Rosenberg, Joan Rivers’ husband, who died so tragically in 1987. It had been such a high profile death, after her high profile firing, and I remember at the time, even though I was only 13, being so sad for Joan and her daughter, Melissa. I remember thinking, I hope I never have to experience that. That would simply be too much to bear. And, all of a sudden, 15 years later, there I was, a 28 year old widow, having just lost my own husband to suicide.
I thought about how Greg must have felt some of the same level of despair that Mr. Rosenberg had felt – as he was also facing business problems and issues that were impacting many facets of our life. How he must have felt he had failed us. And then, just as quickly, I went back to thinking about how in the hell I was going to get through any of it. Without even knowing all of the details, I just knew that Greg probably left a mess of things financially. A mess that I was going to have to clean up – and I was going to have to do that while processing all of the other emotions of such a loss.
And that night, while thinking about Greg and Edgar Rosenberg and Joan Rivers, I realized the only thing that was going to really get me through any of this train wreck was laughter. Joan laughed her way through all her really hard times. She made jokes. She poked fun. At herself. At others. At tough subjects. At things no one wanted to talk about. Some might argue that it was a ploy to hide the pain. And, maybe, sometimes, it did work to do just that. But most of the time, I’d say just the opposite. As cliche as it is, life is hard. Fucking HARD. And if you can’t laugh at the absurdity, the unfairness, the craziness, as well as the beauty, well, you would never want to get out of bed in the morning. So laughter was saving her. It was keeping her alive. It was keeping her head above water so when she was tempted to take the last gulp and sink to the bottom, she didn’t. She found a way to poke fun, make a joke and carry on. For herself. For her daughter. And for so many others who were experiencing the horrific pain she was.
Many don’t know what a friend to the Survivors of Suicide Loss community Joan Rivers was. She did a lot of work with grief groups, and I will never forget reading about how in one group she had participants do an exercise where they had to look at the person next to them and say “I’m so glad I’m not you.” And of course, by the end of the exercise, everyone was howling with laughter. Because it’s true in so many ways. If you sit in groups long enough, no matter how awful you think your story is, someone else’s story is worse. And because we empathize and feel for each other so deeply, of course we would never want to experience THAT level of pain. To anyone who has lived in a bubble of perfection their entire life, this might seem cruel. To us in the Survivor community, it’s just life.
She knew laughter could heal a broken heart. She knew that giving permission to laugh could pull a person out of the depths of hell. She knew jumping back into work was one of the best ways to survive. When I was in the depths of my own hell, Joan Rivers showed me that work would keep me alive and laughter would heal my soul. And jokes could be crass and they could be vulgar. As long as I laughing I was winning at grief. And that was something.
I have always been sarcastic. Always had a dry sense of humor. Always loved to laugh. Always loved a good joke. I didn’t want Greg’s death to take that away from me. I didn’t want his death to rob me of laughter. Of smiles. Of joy. Sometimes the laughter came at totally inappropriate times. Think Mary Tyler Moore, Chuckles the Clown inappropriate. And then it would turn into hysterical crying. But that was ok. How do I know a grief group is healing? When members can laugh without the instantaneous “guilt cough” – the cough or clearing of the throat that comes after the laughter – as if your body is telling you that you can’t possibly feel joy. When the reality sets in that we aren’t meant to fester in our misery for too long. When we realize that laughter is healing. It is the best medicine.
A few years ago, a friend whose husband was producing Joan’s Comedy Central Roast invited me to the taping and after party. I don’t know if I ever really communicated at the time how much this meant to me – being in the presence of such a survivor, as well as being in the presence of such amazing comedians and comedy. My life had come a long way – we laughed that night. Oh how we laughed. And when Joan Rivers took the stage I silently kept saying thank you, thank you, thank you. For showing me that you can survive this horrible thing. That you can go on to have a spectacular life. That laughter, even through the tears, is truly what heals. And, of course, a little retail therapy is always a good thing.