David Sedaris on Grieving and Business Class

David Sedaris is hilarious. In his New Yorker essay last December on airline travel, he makes a couple really funny and good points.

Here he’s dead-on about how we learn how we’re supposed to grieve from pop culture:

… I thought back to when I was fifteen and a girl in my junior high died of leukemia, or “ ‘Love Story’ disease,” as it was often referred to then. The principal made the announcement and I, along with the rest of my friends, fell into a great show of mourning. Group hugs, bouquets laid near the flagpole. I can’t imagine what it would have been like had we actually known her. Not to brag, but I think I took it hardest of all. “Why her and not me?” I wailed.

“Funny,” my mother would say, “but I don’t remember you ever mentioning anyone named Monica.”

My friends were a lot more understanding, especially Barbara, who, a week after the funeral, announced that maybe she would kill herself as well.

None of us reminded her that Monica had died of a terminal illness, as, in a way, that didn’t matter anymore. The point was that she was gone, and our lives would never be the same: we were people who knew people who died. This is to say that we had been touched by tragedy, and had been made special by it. By all appearances, I was devastated, but in fact I had never been so happy in my life.

The next time someone died, it was a true friend, a young woman named Dana, who was hit by a car during our first year of college. My grief was genuine, yet still, no matter how hard I fought, there was an element of showmanship to it, the hope that someone might say, “You look like you just lost your best friend.”

Then I could say, “As a matter of fact, I did,” my voice cracked and anguished.

It was as if I’d learned to grieve by watching television: here you cry, here you throw yourself upon the bed, here you look in the mirror and notice how good you look with a tear-stained face.

I’ve never really been "touched by tragedy" — I wonder if I’ll respond like they do in the movies.

His other great anecdote is about how people boarding coach on an airplane always check out who’s in business and first class, and are always disappointed:

“May I bring you a drink to go with those warm nuts, Mr. Sedaris?” the woman looking after me asked—this as the people in coach were still boarding. The looks they gave me as they passed were the looks I give when the door of a limousine opens. You always expect to see a movie star, or, at the very least, someone better dressed than you, but time and time again it’s just a sloppy nobody. Thus the look, which translates to “Fuck you, Sloppy Nobody, for making me turn my head.”

3 comments on “David Sedaris on Grieving and Business Class
  • Ben, I cannot imagine you following ordinary UK home news, but recently there has been a spate of suicides amongst teenagers in a village in Wales. It turns out many of them knew each other or were related (like cousins), although the police initially insisted that they were unrelated suicides, a bit silly for 17 suicides in a space of weeks. It is safe to say that some killed themselves while temporarily depressed by a friend’s unexpected death.

    So while relating teenage thinking on suicide and deaths, and associated grieving to “pop culture” makes it sound funny, it would not be so funny if someone had actually died that way (say, Barbara had made good on her intention). Its impact on Sedaris would have been totally different.

    While it is great you have never been touched by tragedy, you will probably surprise yourself with your response. You sound like a resilient person with a supportive group of people around you. Whatever it is, it is nothing like in the movies, that is for sure!

  • Sedaris makes a point about the ‘performance’ aspect of grief, although he pretty much sounds like a jerk while making it. The thing is, this kind of ‘show’ grieving is basically rehearsal for true grieving, which is huge and overwhelming. Kids and teenagers tend to perform these kinds of rehearsals for adult life alot — in ‘puppy love’ romances, for example. I’m not sure that’s a good reason to mock this behavior, though.

    On the topic of ‘performing’ genuine grief, sounds like Sedaris hasn’t learned yet to shut off the internal observer, the part of the brain that ‘directs the movie’ of our experiences. Kids seem to develop this self-observer capacity naturally around 2 or 3, but learning to shut it off is a learned skill.

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