Day 6

'Dead People Suck': Why we're so bad at dealing with death

As her father was dying, comedy writer Laurie Kilmartin live-tweeted the experience. Now she's written a book called “Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed.”
Laurie Kilmartin is a comedian and writer. (Rodale Books/kilmartin.com)
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Laurie Kilmartin thinks her mother stole her dead father's morphine.

Shortly after he died, Kilmartin hid the painkillers in a cupboard behind the cereal.

It wasn't the first thing she thought of when he died, but "it was like the fourth thing down," the comedian and author tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"I was highly aware that we had something that would make me feel really good if I needed it," she says with a chuckle.

Some time later, as she was helping move her mother out, she realized the morphine was gone.

"[My mother] swears she has no idea where it went," says Kilmartin. "But there was no one else there. It's a mystery."

That's one of the anecdotes in her new book, Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed.

   

Death is funny, right?

Kilmartin's comedic relationship with the end of life started in 2014, when she live-tweeted her father's death.

"I really didn't think I was live-tweeting his death," she says. "But I'm a comedy writer, so I sort of manage my emotions by organizing them into jokes — which is terrible for relationships, but it's great for your Twitter feed."

The reactions, she says, were mostly positive. Some followers objected to her series of posts, but she's accustomed to fielding critics at her standup shows, too.

            

            

For Kilmartin, tweeting provided an outlet for her grief.

As she went through the motions after her father passed away, she came to realize how bad many of us are at dealing with death.

Dead People Suck offers tips for everything from how to die gracefully (have a garage sale; the kids don't want your stuff) to gathering your parents' passwords (see also: SIN, answers to secret questions and voicemail code) to cremation for the handyperson (don't try it at home).

        

What's a person to do?

Because she was unintentionally live tweeting the end her of father's life, Kilmartin admits she wasn't totally present when he passed.

"Had I known that was his last breath, maybe I would have put the phone down and just stared at him," she says.

He died in hospice at home — in front of a TV watching Fox News, she notes — and that made it all the more challenging to process.

"I mean, their body is still there, and you're kind of like, 'Well, for 83 years you've been alive. This is a strange turn!'"

           

Kilmartin's father died the day of the Academy Awards. So Kilmartin and her sister dealt with it in the best way they could: on the mortician's advice, they cranked the AC.

"We were told that bodies start to decompose, you know, within 24 hours and you kind of didn't want to be around for that," Kilmartin says.

Wrapped in blankets, they kept their father at home for the night and watched the Oscars.

"He laughed as much in death as he ever had in life at an Oscars monologue," she says.

It was an important time for Kilmartin. Even though her father was 83 and had terminal lung cancer, she wasn't ready for the loss.

That night with the Oscars gave the family the chance "to realize that he wasn't in that body anymore."

"I'm so glad we had that last night together to sort of prepare for the fact that he was leaving us," she says.

   

Practical tips for surviving loss

While the book provides a darkly funny look at death, Kilmartin also offers honest and raw suggestions for how to keep someone alive in memory.

Dead People Suck: A Guide for Surviving of the Newly Departed will be released on February 13, 2018. (Rodale Books)
 "What I'm really grateful that I did is I recorded a ton of conversations," she says.

Kilmartin surreptitiously recorded those conversations on her iPhone at dinners, at home, or anywhere else her parents were together.

"My mom now, she's so different without my dad," says Kilmartin.

"It's so nice to hear the conversations when she was happier and joking and having fun."

"There was some sort of family dynamic that, of course, disappeared when he left."

       

Write your own ending

"Tip the wait staff" would be the last line of Kilmartin's obituary, she says. She figures we're all writing our own obituaries each day.

The tip is part of Kilmartin's call to be open to death. Understanding your own mortality, one could argue, will help you accept the death of others.

"Just assume you're going to die tomorrow," she says.

And don't forget to consider where you want to die and what it will look like.

"My dad died in a really messy living room," Kilmartin recalls.

"It got really bad at the end, and, you know, maybe he didn't mind ... But I want to look at a pretty wall; I want to look at a blue wall if I die tonight."

"So I just started trying to make at least my bedroom as nice as possible, so that should I be stuck there for days until I drift off, at least I'm looking at a cream comforter."


To hear the full interview with Laurie Kilmartin, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.