Tragicomedia with writer Penny Slusher on somber-free rites

Writer Penny Slusher Buying presents for the dead and gifting them; knowing your “mama dance” and texting as the deceased: this and more when memory artist, Nancy Gershman talks with writer and actress Penny Slusher about somber-free rites. Currently, Slusher is working on a one-woman show about the house she grew up in Bristol Tennessee, and how living with tragic events affected the family in their daily lives.


Take your meals with the dying, whether they’re hungry or not
Be what the dying need you to be
Behave as if the dying still care about manners
Study your mom so one day you can do The Mama Dance
Before you die, let people know if bible-thumping is OK
Find a safe place to kneel and cry like a banshee
Comfort the younger set – by texting as the deceased 
Buy a present your dead grandma would love, then gift it
Celebrate the dead on Facebook’s Throwback Thursdays
Your To Do List


Take your meals with the dying, whether they’re hungry or not

“I know that grief is different every time it happens because with each person, you’ve had a different relationship. The way loss hits you depends on how old you are; where you were standing; what you decide to keep, and what you decide to get rid of.

I know, because I lost my mother in June after a very long illness.

When my mother went into the hospital, we knew it was going to be her last few days, so our whole extended family came to rally for Mother. She was pretty much under the morphine, but we felt she could still hear us. (The last thing to go is the ability to hear.) For three days, we took turns staying with her and having our meals with her there in the hospital room. It’s how I got through those horrible, horrible days … all of us gathered round her bed, telling stories about her and laughing over funny things she did. It reminded us of home, where all thirteen of us grew up in an apartment building as an extended family. We’d sit on the front porch on summer nights and tell stories and visit.

Or else we’d meet out in the parking lot and cry on each other’s shoulders. I come from Bristol, Tennessee. Southerners are very prone to laughing with tears.”


Be what the dying need you to be

“I used to call her Mama until I was 18. But when I was a budding actress I decided it would be more elegant to call her Mother, even while my elder brothers kept calling her Mama.

Well, all her life Mother told me she was terrified of death. I figured she was still probably very afraid, so I’d endlessly talk to Mother as she lay there, eyes closed, trying to alleviate her fears. I was thinking, maybe she can still hear me. Keeping my voice calm and reassuring made it into a sacred moment. As long as I kept my voice from shaking, I thought, Mother won’t be as afraid. At the same time I was thinking, Oh God, she is probably in there saying, ‘You just hush up now, Goofy Girl.’

I also began to talk to her about who was waiting for her on the Other Side. When you have a big family you lose many people, so I began with my older brother, Randy, who died in a tragic accident. I told her Randy is here waiting for you. Mamaw (that’s what we called our grandmother) is waiting for you. Grandaddy is waiting for you … She’d recently lost her younger sister too, so I was listing everyone who passed to help her transition to wherever it was that she was going.

It was the first time I ever saw anyone die, and it was an honor to be there to see it unfold.  My feeling is that even when she will no longer be a physical person, nothing will separate us.”


Behave as if the dying still care about manners

“Being the only daughter, Mother was always trying to fix me. Not fix me up, but literally, fix me. Like if my skirt was jacked up my backside, she’d fix that or some other thing.

At some point when we were eating in the room with her at the hospital, somebody dropped some food on her. There were a lot of us in the room and we were cramped for space. Now if my mother could have gotten up from bed, she’d give you a friendly smack because Mother liked things in a very particular way. She was like that all her life. For many years, she’d go every week to get her hair done, and get her perm. She’d still insist in the Millennium that her hair be teased out to show the curls.”


Study your mom so one day you can do The Mama Dance

“I thanked Mother for all the things she did as a mother, including going “honky-tonking” with me. We were very close and when I was older – it may seem odd – but we’d go dancing in these bars where they played country music. Or we’d dance away an entire afternoon at home: putting on some music and dance, just the two of us.

As I said, Mother loved to dance. A few years ago, a friend of mine and I were killing time before a show, joking around and someone brought up how funny their mother looked when she danced. I did an imitation of how my mother danced and by the time the show ended, the entire cast had walked through our dressing room shouting Mama Dance, and dancing like their mama!

Some time later, my friend Sarah, a production manager back stage, also passed away. At her memorial service, the congregation was filled with mostly theater people who came to say goodbye. In my eulogy, I told everyone about the Mama Dance. I knew Sarah’s mother was in the congregation. I looked right at her and said, ‘Your daughter once told me you danced like a hippy.’ Then I asked everyone to get up and – without music – to do their Mama Dance.

Theater people are irreverent anyway, but everyone loved it. People stop me and talk about it to this day.”


Before you die, let people know if bible-thumping is OK

“Over the years, my hometown became ultra-religious. Everyone in my mom’s hospital was extremely kind. But a few minutes after Mother died, a nurse saw me crying, ran down the hall, put her arms around me and immediately started to pray.  ‘Oh God, help this woman’s family bear up under this sorrow,’ or something like that.  Not just the nurses, but doctors, chaplains – they all started doing the same thing. They’d pray alongside you, without checking if it was ok.

These are good Christian people and they think they’re doing something good. But what it really feels like is that you’ve not only just lost someone but now you’ve also lost control over your own grieving process. My mother was not even a churchgoer or a Southern Baptist. And now here were strangers praying over her, at her own death. She certainly wouldn’t have wanted any of that.

Anyhow, when you pass away in the South, everyone expects you to have a certain kind of service. There were financial issues, so we couldn’t afford the service my mother wanted and ended up having a service at my brother’s church. People warned me that I was going to a Southern Baptist service at a hellfire and brimstone type church. And sure enough, the pastor turned the service into a bible-thumping sermon about how we need to be saved. My father – who is very religious – said afterwards that it was a disgrace for the preacher to make it his moment.

I did try to address that. I chose music for the viewing (which the minister wouldn’t allow because it wasn’t religious music.) I told him point blank I didn’t want his music but it was clear early on that I had no input and no say so.  They would play the music they wanted.

But I couldn’t help thinking: here is my mother lying in an open casket while all this is going on. So when I got up to speak about her qualities, I made sure to talk about her love of music. I got my brother to talk to the pastor so he’d let us have a friend come up and play the guitar. Among some of the favorite songs Mother would sing me was my favorite, You are My Sunshine. That’s what I sang with my family in the hospital room. And that’s what I asked everyone to sing with me inside that church.

Then I had everyone get up and do the Mama Dance.

OMG, I thought we’re all going to be struck by lightening. Everyone got up and did it, and we were all laughing. My mother was feisty. She would have loved that I did that.”


Find a safe place to kneel and cry like a banshee

“It was a tradition in my family to ululate. It’s just the way people handle grief where I come from. To relieve all that pressure and tension, every one of the women in my family ululate. You not only cry – you wail like a banshee (the way the wind wails around a building), and sometimes you drop to your knees. People become so overcome viewing the body, that there’s nothing else that you believe will relieve you except to ululate. Men don’t do that quite as much. And that was what was missing at her service. Mother’s two sisters, and her own mother had already passed away and I was the only woman left in the immediate family. I felt I wasn’t allowed to do it…. that I had to take care of the business and arrangements and people seemed to just want to get on with it.)

I wanted to stick my head in a duffel bag and wail my heart out.

When my brother Randy died, I lay on the floor for several days and screamed into a pillow. As theater people, we feel things deeply, and then allow ourselves to express tragedy with our bodies, and our voices. A good actor allows her emotions to be seen at their most raw and vulnerable.  We’re also used to doing that on a stage, where there’s never shame associated with it. Even if others think it’s not proper, it can be a good idea to cleanse yourself with a good wail.

One of my aunts did it at my Grandfather’s funeral years ago. She was on the floor in a private room at the funeral home, beyond consolation, with people surrounding her. And even though it felt like it would never end, my family finally got her up and took her home.

This may seem so self-centered, and over the top, but not knowing what to do with all that emotion at a service can’t be good. Passion has to come into it. People need to grieve the way they need to grieve.”


Comfort the younger set – by texting as the deceased

“Sometimes it’s cathartic to be irreverent after a death. At this one actress’s memorial, Joe, her husband, got up and talked about how after she was killed, a few days later he began to text messages to some of her friends from his wife’s cell phone – as if it was her.

One text went, ‘Where are my Manolos, Molly? You need to return my shoes!’

He used those text messages to send out his wife’s humor, and her essence. The texts were actually comforting because they knew all along it was Joe. He did it with humor and they knew that. It’s what they all loved about her.

So it’s all in the context. If a widow sends out official correspondence from her dead husband’s email address, that’s another story. It would not occur to me to do that.  But sometimes as we grieve, we do things that aren’t entirely rational. Most people know it when they’re doing it, but still they feel – a compulsion? – to express it until they’ve gotten it out of their system.”


Buy a present your dead grandma would love, then gift it

“The other way I handle grief is to share it with people.

Like when holidays came around, it used to make me so sad to go Christmas shopping because there are all these people I can’t shop for anymore. They’re dead.

Then I remembered I heard something in a seminar once about how to grieve well. The speaker hit home when she said just because someone is physically gone doesn’t mean that your relationship has ended.

At the same time, this friend suggested that I should still go out and shop for a present for my grandmother. Pick out something she would have loved, take it home, wrap it up, write a card, and then give it to someone who’ll love it. Tell them in the card why you are giving it to them, why it’s meaningful to you.

So I went and bought a gift for Mamaw, and I gave it to one of my cousins, and she absolutely cherishes that gift. Mamaw is dead 20 years now, but I still give presents to other actresses, other relatives, and people just shine when I do. It not only helps me, it helps them, because then they realize they can do it too.”


Celebrate the dead on Facebook’s Throwback Thursdays

“Photographs are very important to me. My dining room is where I hang most of my family members’ pictures but I have quite a lot in photo albums. I love to look through them and remember Mother in moments when she was young and beautiful.

So, do you know how Facebook announces, Today is Throwback Thursday? A lot of times I will put up on Facebook pictures of somebody who passed on their anniversary or birthday. All my theater friends do that. They’ll say stuff like, This my Uncle. This is my friend. This was my husband. It’s kind of a mix of tenses, depending where their mind is that day. Maybe they’re thinking about memories of them, or they may be feeling that their loved ones are still with them.

I grieve my mortal mother, but I still commune with my spirit mother.  Her picture is here in my bedroom. I talk out loud to her and – that’s how I get through it. My mother is in me. She goes where I go. We have conversations, laugh, joke. I’ve had experiences, mainly messages from my mother. Mamaw was a psychic so I guess it runs in the family; she looked a little like Mrs. Santa Claus.“


Your To Do List

In my Google calendar I list death anniversaries along with birthdays and wedding anniversaries. I rig an alert to pop up on my computer screen and iPhone for these repeat events, each with a unique reminder:

  • A stepsister’s death just a few years ago means I should call my stepmom and check in to see how she’s doing
  • A mentor’s death should go up on the Facebook group page where we’re all so devoted to his work

The fresh deaths that occurred only months ago – they get their own kind of alert:

  • An uncle (the age of my father) died just a month or so ago; I need to follow up with his granddaughter whether she’s now collected the photographs I need to make her a Healing Dreamscape
  • My son’s mother-in-law has been surprised to be feeling in a fog lately after her mother’s death; I need to check in to see how she’s doing with the sorting of belongings

Take a moment and fill your calendar with loving todos.