Tragicomedia with playwright Taren Sterry on finding the funny in awfulness
"[Re-enacting] memories funny in their awfulness changed their experience of the past."

Playwright Taren SterryTaren Sterry is a comedic actress and playwright who also teaches improv, presentation coaching, public speaking and team building. She is a full time manager of Volunteer Training at Visiting Nurse Service of NY Hospice and Palliative Care. Her nationally acclaimed one-woman show, 180 Days, is about her first six months working in hospice. Visit Taren at www.tarensterry.com and www.180daysplay.com.

Find your funny when your option is profound sadness
Restage awful memories as comedy to alter the past
Everyone, even a sourpuss, can notice one positive thing
Not even those in the business are immune from death
Compassionate listening deepens any relationship
Close mindedness isn’t permanent but has deep roots
Grandpa + scatological humor = association with home
Your To Do List

 

Find the funny when your option is profound sadness

“I first learned that humor plays a huge role in death and dying when I was doing a six-month internship in South Dakota with Prairie Lakes Hospice. The experience became the basis for my show, 180 Days. End of life conversations were not grim or morbid, terrible or painful. They were everyday conversations, with and without humor, recognizing losses happening right there, or losses to come. Dying people with a sense of humor are still themselves, because humor is part of who they are. Just because they have a diagnosis leading to death, doesn’t make their humor evaporate. Actually, many people become even more acutely aware of their gift of humor at the end.

One of my patients, Don, age 70, was dying of congestive heart failure. He had a plaque above his bed that read, “Quitcherbellyakin” and he’d talk about it every single time. It wasn’t so much that he thought you shouldn’t complain, but rather it was a philosophy that this is happening so you might as well deal with it. There was no reason for Don to be a sourpuss so he put a brave face on it. It’s easy to slip into the loss and the sadness. It takes courage to laugh in the midst of pain, grief and death.”

Restage awful memories as comedy to alter the past

“Grandpa Matthew was always telling stories. Between him and my grandmother Ramona, they had nine children. They lived on a farm in South Dakota. As you can imagine, there were lots and lots of stories about death on the farm. Their first child, only 3 weeks old, died on his way back to the hospital during a blizzard. Grandpa understood that it was just one of those situations beyond their control.

When Grandpa died at 69, my aunts and uncles sat around telling stories about him. Funny stories. At 14 I thought their laughing was terrible. But they needed those funny stories to soothe and comfort themselves – not only about losing Grandpa, but telling the truth about Grandpa. He was not the best father. Someone would start off by saying, “Remember the time Dad got so mad … ?” and they’d recall a story, like the one when one of the kids ate an entire bowl of walnuts that was being saved for guests, and my grandfather was dead set on finding out who did it. All nine of his kids were spanked until Uncle Rod confessed (and he hated walnuts), because he was willing to take the extra rap just so the spanking would end. I can’t remember how many rounds of spanking there were …

There was more spanking when my Aunt Charlotte caught hell from Grandpa for stealing holy water from church. Out on the farm, church was one of the few institutions you could rebel against. While it was just a prank (in fact, the class before them had done it), the punishment was pretty awful for something so silly.

I understand now that experiencing those kinds of memories a second time around as a group activity – memories funny in their awfulness – let everyone share in a single experience. The re-enactment became theatre, which also changed their experience of the past, you see? Because instead of relating what they felt as kids at the time (like the spilling or holding back of tears), these adults used levity to talk about what happened to them.

Good, bad, right or wrong, that’s what they did back then. And if my aunts and uncles didn’t reinvent these stories as a happy, funny part of their family history, it would have been too sad to absorb. So my feelings around corporal punishment aside, I think they had to laugh or else they’d surely go crazy

It’s amazing how their experiences of their father was so very different from the memories I have of this man who I would visit, eat cereal and play checkers with. I have nothing but happy, loving memories of Grandpa. But he had to do what he had to do. Grandpa grew up during the Depression; he left 6th grade to slaughter pigs. Running the farm, he was an entrepreneur and that took ingenuity. He had to be a mechanic, an accountant, handle medicine, bargain and bid at auctions. I have so much respect for him.”

Everyone, even a sourpuss, can notice one positive thing

“This 80-year old neighbor used to always sit on the stoop, smoking. All she would tell me is that the neighborhood was going to shit; that the gays were taking over and that I should get the hell out of the city.

Then one day she said (in that voice that sounded like a tracheotomy victim’s voice box): ‘Your socks never match.’ I loved that. This miserable woman took time out from being miserable to notice my socks and appreciate the insouciance. I’m not going to change her or convince her NYC is a great city or to accept homosexuality. But I appreciated her for her character and her keen observation skills.”

Not even those in the business are immune from death

“When I was 25 my friend’s sister – who was almost exactly my age – was murdered. Twenty of us went out to her funeral in the California desert. It was a brutal murder; she was beaten to death. But that night we partied at her father’s house: he wanted us to. At 10 am we were in tears at the gravesite and by 4 pm we were partying like wild young kids at a frathouse – our own version of an Irish wake.

It was such an unthinkable horrific experience for the family, but even now, it was shocking to me that we descended upon their house and hung out in their hot tub, laughing, joking and drinking. But that was the only way this family – which had joked, drank, BBQ’d together – could conjure up the life their daughter had lived before her murder.

At the 9am church service (though they were not religious Irish), it was pretty evident that the priest did not know their daughter. His sermon felt disconnected and what he said did not carry much weight. We all knew that she was in trouble for a lot of her adult life. Bad decisions; running with a bad crowd; parents who couldn’t control her. Yes, the parents might have seen this coming. But I believe fearing that something bad might happen does not alleviate any of the pain when it actually happens.

One of my co-workers in bereavement care, his father died and his grieving required a short leave of absence. He was very close to his dad. I had met his parents; he spoke about them all the time. What he said to me was that all the knowledge that he had doing the work for 20 years didn’t do a thing for him. His daddy was dead.

There’s no way through it but through it. No one is immune. Financial advisors are not immune from bankruptcy. Priests don’t automatically get into heaven.”

Compassionate listening deepens any relationship

“I have another colleague who is friendly, jokey. The two of us enjoy a really silly relationship. But one day I got a call that his father had died. It instantly changed our relationship. It actually deepened it instantly because I wanted to be there for him and he needed me to know what he was going through. I remember telling him how sorry I was and that it’s such a powerless place to be in. There is nothing you can say that can make these things any better.

I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m here for you. Sometime the script works, and that’s why we use it. I know it’s a script but it still makes us feel good sometimes.”

Close mindedness isn’t permanent but has deep roots

“My takeaways about death and dying come from Wendy Martyna’s class at the University of California in Santa Cruz. I learned that death was not so much a theoretical thing to study as much as an experiential learning process about your own life: your own story through the stories of others.

Martyna taught us that everyone’s own experience with death and dying is intensely personal. The meaning people take from their lives has to do with their belief systems. People who come from a like-minded community where you there isn’t any opportunity to express alternate views typically remain pretty closed-minded. In my own case, I grew up believing that you atone for your sins, and those that don’t confess their sins before they die pay their final dues in Purgatory.”

Grandpa + scatological humor = an association with home

“My grandfather thought farting was hilarious. He could fart on cue and he loved it when others did the same (except in church or in front of other community members). He would love it and join right in. Yet talking about sex or pregnancy – that was frowned upon. In those days, you’d say a woman went to the hospital and had her baby – not gave birth or was pregnant.

So now, every time I fart or hear a poo joke, I remember Grandpa. I have his 11-year old sense of humor. I love scatological humor; I love potty jokes. To me, scatological humor reminds me of home.”

Your To Do List

My mother wasn’t a fan of farts and couldn’t belch on cue, but she loved to curse. My earliest memories of the two of us was of my 4 year old self being driven around in her 1959 Thunderbird convertible. She’d spot a poor, inept driver fool enough to cross her path, and give me the signal to yell a three-syllable epithet at the top of my lungs in their direction, just in case “they get any ideas.”

She’s lucky they didn’t get a heart attack.

Yet this was Eveline at her purest. A gloriously inappropriate moment of bonding just between her and me which I’m positive informed the person I am today.

So think back for a second. Who was the “inappropriate adult” in your life who always did something that made people laugh with them, not at them? Let’s see if we can’t tease out the details:

  • Did they use their own bodies to create the effect?
  • Was it auditory or something else?
  • Where did they do it: at the family table? At a bus stop? At important meetings?
  • Did they keep a straight face or crack up along with co-conspirators?
  • Did the deed depend on an accomplice? Was part of the act always having a pet or a human to blame it on?
  • Did they leave any reference to their “act” in a diary, or on a tombstone?

Now, imagine someone snapping a picture of all that. Would it ever be as good as what you see and hear in your mind’s eye?

No Comments Yet.

Leave a Reply