Schadenfreude on a bus, a missing watch and losing a leg are just a few of the stories in this week’s Tragicomedia as artist Nancy Gershman interviews stand-up Jordon Ferber, producer of the weekly NYC comedy showcase Straight Up Stand Up. He also facilitates a sibling group at the Manhattan chapter of Compassionate Friends (TCF) and is a public speaker and frequent workshop presenter on the topic of sibling grief at TCF’s National Conference. (The Russell Ferber Foundation, named for his brother who was killed in a car accident at age 21, now benefits two culinary arts organizations and a K-8 school’s learning disabilities program.) Visit Jordon on www.JordonFerber.com.How comedy saved my life Why my dead brother is laughing at me One really decent book on sibling grief Schadenfreude on a bus, 20 times a day What if the Dead don’t believe they’ll come back – and they come back Test if your medium or psychic is legit Photos are proof of the best minutes the dead spent with us Grieving people are always going to get fired from friendships Memorial photomontage as a sympathy gift Your To Do List
“Being in comedy is one of the things that saved my life. It gave me purpose and it gave me something to smile about after my brother died. But I‘ve still never brought anything about my brother’s death into my act. I may have done some stories relating to him but not to the loss. The one funny thing that I remember very specifically that I held onto, I guess, was in that very first phone conversation I had with my dad when he told me Russell died. Dad asked me whether I knew what kind of funeral Russell would have wanted. And I said, “I have no idea, but the cake had better be amazing. Chocolate, definitely.”
I knew no matter what kind of ceremony there was, there had to be cake that Russell would have been proud to serve! It was more conceptual than specific. Russell was a pastry chef, a maker of cakes and sweets, and he was about to graduate from the Culinary Institute program when he died. I remember Dad laughed. And that’s when I knew I’d still be able to do comedy; that comedy would save me.
Death is not a natural thing to want to joke about, but when you find general stupidity is the thing you have in common with your audience – particularly, the general stupidity of people who have not been through loss who say stupid things – well, there’s always a joke there. Because you realize I’m not alone in hearing that stupid thing.
I’ve definitely been thinking about – although it’s too soon to tackle it – what I might impart to an audience about my brother’s life and death that would be useful. It’s surreal that I have this part of my life which is a comedy act about myself and yet there’s this whole other area – dominating my life – which I still have trouble talking about. I’ll go straight from my TCF sharing group to a comedy club to tell dick jokes.”
“One of the things I share in my TCF sibling group is that I came kicking and screaming to “group.” My parents were going to TCF and constantly telling me about the sibling group. I’d tell them: “Thanks, but I have no interest” and they’d say, “ Jordon, just come, you never know, you don’t have to talk, just see, come see what it is.” So one day I say, “Ok, I’m coming to a meeting, and then we never have to speak of this again.”
Now look at me. Mom and Dad don’t really go anymore, and here I am six years later running the group. The irony of it! I was never ever going to be the person who goes to group therapy. I still believe every time I go, my brother is pointing and laughing at me, singing, “You’re going to Group Thera-peeee! You’re going to Group Thera-peeee!” But it’s one of the more satisfying things I do with my day. As I greet new people, I definitely regress back to those darker days, but the passage of time now allows me to see how far I’ve come. I find that there is no wrong or right way to go through this. You have to just keep breathing.”
I found the books out there for sibling grief is really interesting for parents, but not siblings. All that Deepak Chopra and Ann Hood’s “The Knitting Circle” and Harold Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.” And I think a lot of the literature about grief is now written by people who haven’t even experienced it! Even the ones who have experienced it seem to come from a clinical background. The motivating factor for writing their book is their degree of expertise rather than the loss. It reminds me of the theory of the analyzation of comedy. It’s like dissecting frogs: few are interested and the frog dies from it!
So the stuff I gravitate to are more personal, memoir-ish stories. There’s been only one book on sibling grief I’ve really liked: Elizabeth DeVirta-Raeburn’s “The Empty Room.” Her brother was the boy in the plastic bubble. She found literally nothing on sibling grief when her brother died, so she set out to write about her own recollections and also about her journey meeting 100 other grieving siblings and the lifelong impact their sibling’s death had on them.”
“There is one other funny, funny book that I read that’s written by the mother of comedian Mike Meyer’s brother-in-law: the real life model for the SNL shtick “Coffee Talk with Linda Richman. In her book, “I’d Rather Laugh,” Linda Richman (yeah, it’s her real name too!) just puts herself out there. There are all these bits of comedy stuff (no question, the lady is bat shit crazy) but I love the way she makes no apologies for it. And here’s the amazing part: Richman was agoraphobic which meant that for 12 years she never left her apartment in Queens for anything. And that was after her son dies in a fatal car accident.
So her son dies, and she is beside herself with no one to unload her grief. Every day she takes a bus into the city, waiting for some innocuous person to start small talk like, “Oh nice weather we’re having” just so she can pounce on them with, “I just lost my son in an automobile accident: HOW IS THAT A NICE DAY?!*?” It’s such a knee jerk reaction and she’s making it happen up to 10 or 20 times a day. (Is this even possible?) Basically Richman comes to terms that it’s not a big deal to put a crimp in somebody’s afternoon if she’s dealing with this nightmare every single day.
I understand this from that deep level where you want to crawl into a ball but at the same time are screaming: Why, why, why, W-H-Y? Instead of holding it in, you ruin their day. Two days after 9/11, I’m on a bus and there are these two girls in front laughing and joking and I’m saying to myself: What possibly could be funny today? How is it not possible to see the loss written all over our faces? You want to go shake people. It’s a rage thing.”
“After something tragic happens, all these “what ifs” fill your mind. Where was Russell going that day in the Hamptons? Why was he driving on that particular road? The only one who has the answers and can tell us what happened is Russell. If he came back as a ghost and told us everything, probably it would be satisfying to know. But who’s to say? It’s a big web of complications.
Our family went to mediums a couple of times, and each time I was pretty skeptical. Russell did not even believe in psychic stuff. A friend of his loved John Edwards, which raises the point: If you don’t believe in it when you’re alive, are you going to believe in it when you’re dead? I started to think about that, got into a deep funk and figured it makes a big difference only when you have a vested interest in communicating with the dead. You’re willing to overlook certain things.”
“I’ve yet to “receive” any messages from Russell that I believe are concrete or undeniable. I did keep a few sayings of his in my mind and I put those out to the universe, so to speak. If psychic stuff is real, I basically needed to hear those words coming from the medium. So a year ago, this one medium said we could ask Russell specific questions. I had been wearing Russell’s watch recently and had lost it, so I ask her: “Is Russell’s watch lost forever or did I lose it in my apartment?” The medium says, “It’s not lost forever. It’s in a box in a box in a box in a closet and you will find it when you move.” OK, so I’ve subsequently moved and, naturally, no watch. I know Russell will be laughing when I find it. I try to keep in mind the watch is just a physical thing. Losing it doesn’t make me remember Russell any less …”
“I was obsessed with photographs of Russell. All of them. There was a good two-month period where I’m pretty sure I went through every photo ever taken of Russell. There was definitely a sadness when you go through photos in that way. Really more than a sadness, because the sadness is borne out of yearning for what is lost; what could have been. But I’ve come around.
In the beginning I was wallowing in those photos. I still feel there is that double-edged sword: still sadness in those photos, but now I embrace the joy of having captured all those moments of joy … of having an unlimited number of moments to enjoy from our life together. And even more than being obsessed with family photos of Russell, I became obsessed with searching for photos from friends of his I had never seen before. It makes the footprint he left behind even more complete. Russell’s impact was not just on my world, but on other people out there whose lives he’s touched as well, who like me, also have photos of him.
The truth I’ve come to is that early on after Russell died, I felt like the loss itself was a defining characteristic of who I was. If I were to describe myself then, the Top 3 would have been: I’m a New Yorker; I’m a comedian. And I lost my brother. That was a depressing thought but at the time it was truth for me. Loss defined me. But I’ve come around to realize it’s not the loss that defines me. It’s having had him in my life for 21 years – and such a strong bond – which is what’s made me who I am. When I came to that realization, it was so uplifting.
I’m still here. That’s the biggest thing. Sometimes you don’t know what to do with yourself other than continue to be alive. Not only alive, not only a comedian but also – not a terrible, reclusive alcoholic.“
“We’ve never been a very religious family. (I tell people I am Jewish by brisket.) But lately I find myself to be more spiritual – and less specific where it exactly emanates from. The point of life is to surround yourself with people who love you and bring the best out in you, including laughs and tears during your darkest days. But in the first couple of years after Russell’s death, there were some people who used my grieving as the perfect opportunity to cut me out of their lives.
Some friends don’t say anything and just drift away. Others – you end up having a conversation that pushes them in a corner and makes them say what they don’t want to say. Like “I just can’t deal with you because it’s too much.” Other friends come over and go right into “Can we talk about my girlfriend?” It’s like I lost a leg and two years later somebody is shocked that I’m still limping. Yes, I’m never going to walk the same way again. I fucking lost half of me!
Of course, I’m going to be a different person.
But there they are, complaining about some trivial matter while I’m crying about this deep loss. That’s their way of telling you they’re not willing to have you cry on their shoulder. How long your friends are willing to give you to grieve depends on the relationship you have with them. Few people are willing to take the journey with you – consciously or explicitly.
In the beginning I lashed out at people for being this way. Now if we have to part ways, it’s like, who needs them? It’s just not as intense for me anymore. I calmly explain that how long it takes for me to deal with Russell’s death is neither up to them or me. That’s just how it is. If checking how I’m doing is no different from Oh, time to get eggs, it probably never was as genuine a connection as I thought it was.
Take me and my grief off your To Do list.”
“I like the notion of photomontages, where you can put two great memories together to create a new and different memory of a person. Why not? The original – you can’t tamper with that. It’s still the source material.”Your To Do List:
- Know a family who lost a young person “before their time”? Talk to relatives and friends who are not from the inner circle to see how they are doing as they approach the death anniversary or upcoming birthday of that loved one, or as the holidays approach.
- Test the waters and see if younger members of the family hard hit by this tragedy might be recharged by a “campaign” T-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of this young person.
- Suggest ways they can wear this T-shirt – such as under their graduation gowns, to the park or anytime they need an extra bit of good luck, or boost of energy – simply by keeping this loved one (literally) close to their heart.
- Share this story with the family: “Campaigning for Craig: The Healing Power of a Legacy T-Shirt” which documents how a “campaign” T-shirt created by artist Nancy Gershman helped a father heal as he handed them out to his son’s young friends.
- Learn more about how Nancy Gershman inteviews clients for positive memories which she then combines into a storytelling commemorative portrait that becomes the basis of a “Campaign” T-shirt. Visit her gallery pages of storytelling memorial photomontages on her website, Art For Your Sake.