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Friday 27 January 2023

The Funny Thing About Death

 A play by Kim Kalish at the Cell Theatre in New York City, part of Origin Theatre Company’s 1st Irish Festival 2023


The funny thing about death? You might be thinking, well there is no such thing. Death is not funny; it is not something to be found comical; to be laughed at. But for the storyteller, writer and performer Kim Kalish, it wasn’t that death was, or is, funny - her situation and experience were absolutely heart breaking - but it is how she coped with death - her grieving.


Kim used what was familiar to her; creativity, theatre and humor to help process the massive burden of grief. Humor was her coping mechanism. We see all of this in her spine-tingling, attention grabbing and captivating performance. In her own words, she was a theatre kid and that is how the bond blossomed between her and the love of her life - Patrick Michael McMurphy.


I had the privilege of sitting in the front row of her show, to feel the rawness and realness of her story, her wit and her emotions. We, the audience experienced the heaviness of her struggles but the essence of joy in finding true love at such a young age. I could feel my throat muscles tense and cave in at spells throughout the hour-long performance, while my eyes glassed over with both tears of sadness and laughter.


Their love story was a “showmance”, as Kim recalls. It sounded like the typical perfect Romcom. 

Kim was only 23 years old when death came knocking at her door in the form of her best friend Andrea, ‘Andy’. You see, death has no timeline; it does not care what time of the day, or what day of the week it is. It does not care if you are busy making plans for the future, or just hungover on your couch in the same outfit as the night before (as Kim was). It just comes knocking. Knocking when it is greedy for another life to take.


Professionals have termed The Five Stages of Grief as DABDA: 

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Kim touches on this topic in the play, but listed them in the wrong order. At first thought, I presumed it was an error on her part. Later in the play she states that “Grief is not Linear, it is not a lifestyle change, nor is it a fad diet!”. It was at that point that I understood why she changed the order of stages. There is no order to death or grief. No single individual experiences these stages in the same pattern, what may be the second stage for one person is the first for another. Anger may consume a griever initially before denial sets in. When Kim received the news of her soulmate, love of her life, expected life partner’s death; she accelerated through all 5 stages of grief in just one moment.


She was both in denial and angry at her friend for saying such a thing, she bargained with her to take the news back; that the news she shared wasn’t funny. It was only when Andrea turned her head, in anticipation of Kim’s palm approaching her cheek to slap her, did Kim comprehend the reality of the situation. She fell to the ground in depression and shock, once the truth was accepted. Andrea was right there with her, cradling her. This is a true testament to friendships and the community we create for ourselves. When someone we love dies, our community and support is everything. Andrea was by Kim’s side for a week solid, so much so that she hadn’t showered and started to smell. This is how selfless her dear friend was.


You see, Kim was on suicide watch at her mother’s request. The uncertainty of what Kim may do was the main concern.  She claimed she was fine, that she was OK, not to worry about her. This was absolutely not the case; Kim went back to work two days later! Kim's mother wanted her to eat, in fact insisting that she ate! That is how she showed her love. 


In life, we all have different avenues of expressing and showing our love. When Patrick was alive, he used to express his love by showing up for Kim when she needed him most. He appeared at Kim’s apartment in the middle of the night as her knight in shining armor. Like most typical college kids, Kim was procrastinating on her senior year thesis. She frantically typed in the final 24 hours before it was due. She typed so hard and so fast that her laptop and thesis flashed and smoked before her eyes. When she lay in a fetal position thinking it was all over; there Patrick Michael McMurphy was to save the day.


Fast-forward and Kim was still not OK, and that is OK, she recounts two years later, with Patrick’s anniversary looming. She was dating again. Kim forewarned her date that it might be a difficult time for her and she didn’t know how she would behave. He exclaimed, “You’ll be OK though right?!”. Kim felt that her date’s question was a way of protecting himself against the possibility that she might not be OK. Asking someone if they will be ok, is like saying “time heals all wounds.” Words like those take away from the griever and their grief.


“It’s OK not to be OK” is a slogan used by Hope For The Day. This is a non-profit movement empowering the conversation on proactive suicide prevention and mental health education. There is no shame in admitting you need help, love or support. Please, if you are reading this; reach out to someone that is worrying you, seems reserved or you feel is alone with no support. Or, just reach out to friends and family and tell them you love them! 


This is a message that Kim leaves her audience with. For it was only at Patrick’s funeral that Kim discovered SHE was the definition of true love to him; not a Billy Joel song as she had once believed. He told a friend that true love was knowing what your partner needs before they know it themselves. She was who he wanted to be with and he was going to ask for her hand in marriage! But Patrick never got a chance to tell her before his tragic death. 


So, can I leave this with you? whom do you need to contact? Who would appreciate hearing your voice at the other end of the phone? Do not procrastinate like Kim, writing her college thesis. Who needs to hear the words today from your heart, “I love you”? 


-Siobhán Regan