Stephen Colbert, Grief Therapist

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Three months later, some wise words from Stephen Colbert are hoping me cope with loss.

Three months later, some wise words from Stephen Colbert are hoping me cope with loss.

Three months later, some wise words from Stephen Colbert are hoping me cope with loss.

Three months later, some wise words from Stephen Colbert are hoping me cope with loss.

Today’s the three-month anniversary of my mom’s death. And I am actually doing (sort of kind of) OK, in part because of the wise words of Stephen Colbert, whom I have adopted as my personal grief therapist.

When Colbert, the youngest of eleven children, was ten years old, his father took two of his older brothers up to New England for boarding school. Their flight went down and all three perished. Horrible. Unthinkable.

Four decades later, the loss is still with him, but it has changed:

. . . It’s not as keen. Well, it’s not as present, how about that? It’s just as keen but not as present. But it will always accept the invitation. Grief will always accept the invitation to appear. It’s got plenty of time for you. . . .

The interesting thing about grief, I think, is that it is its own size. It is not the size of you. It is its own size. And grief comes to you. You know what I mean? I’ve always liked that phrase “He was visited by grief,” because that’s really what it is. Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be okay with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.

Visited by grief. I am being visited by grief. It’s not an integral part of me, but grief is here, pressing in, its own size. Its own entity.

The hardest moments for me come when I rehearse yet again her last few weeks. How the cancer spread with terrifying rapidity to the lining of her brain, robbing her from one day to the next of physical and cognitive abilities. One day she could walk, and the next day she needed a walker. A few days after that she could not use the walker and needed a wheelchair. Three weeks after that she was mostly bedridden, and then in a semicoma.  When I go through the journal I kept during those dark days, I feel a bleak despair at how quickly it all happened.

And I still can’t believe she’s gone.

What I have learned and am learning, though, is that there is joy amidst the sorrow. I still love and laugh, especially at the same things my mother would have laughed at. I am grateful for my friends and for hers. I am mindful of the many things she taught me, compassion and forward movement being two of them.

I am thankful for her generosity to so many people (my husband recently found the list of people she sent Harry & David fruit-of-the-month orders to, a list that was so long he predicted an imminent global resurgence of scurvy in her absence). As I sit here at my desk I am surrounded by the kinds of things she loved: books, music, Facebook friends, faithful dog, Picasso poster.

I endeavor to remember and honor my mom in small details, like how her house was a mess of clutter (which used to drive me crazy) but always open to guests. Or how she enjoyed talking to my high school friends back in the day — never talking down to them, never judging, just listening and laughing. One of the nicest messages I received after Mom’s death was from a high school buddy who was maybe a little rough around the edges back then, but who would sit at the kitchen table with Mom and shoot the breeze for ages. She always had time for him. In his condolence he wrote simply that she had been a mom to all of us, and that is true.

Grief is, as Colbert says, a thing. Right now it is an acute thing. Someday, I trust, sifting through these memories will not be quite as painful as it is now.

The black ribbon image is used with permission of

  • Thank you for this column. I am posting a link to it on my blog. Can you tell me where you found the Colbert quotes about grief? Thank you for sharing.

  • Well, it’s actually from Playboy. So you can maybe see why I was reluctant to link. 🙂

    I guess I can now honestly say that I have read Playboy, but only for the articles.

  • Dovie

    Yup. Almost four years out from the loss of my dad, and it still comes calling often but it doesn’t come crashing through the door and fill every open seat and even some not vacant. It will knock and wait for me to let it in or if I dawdle at answering, sneak in some other way, and I will find it there sitting on the couch or out back at a family get together or swaying along with me as I listen to a certain types of music, or in the smell of the pines in the mountains, it will be there more politely now and sometimes we will reminisce with less regret and rending and I’ll be almost glad it came around to visit, almost.

  • Kristine

    I heard someone say once that grief is like a teenage boy–if you don’t let it sit in the living room with you, it goes down in the basement and starts lifting weights.

  • Jenny

    Jana, I felt I had a kindred spirit in you last year after reading Flunking Sainthood. Now, apparently our mothers died on the same day. I have been grieving alongside you and with you and I appreciate how well you are articulating many of the things I am feeling. Thank you.

  • Anne Carman-Hendel

    Thank you for putting it so well and for sharing your mother with us.

  • Mr. Mike Mannino

    Thanks for that Kristine, you literally made me laugh out loud.

  • Sue

    thank you for this. My Husband died five years ago today from cancer and although I am a Nurse and have worked with terminally ill patients and their families dealing with my own grief is a challenge. This made today a little more bearable.

  • Oh, Jenny, I’m sorry to hear that our moms had that sad event in common, and that you have lost her. But thanks for sharing your grief, and for reading the blog. Our losses will be a long journey. God be with you.

  • Sue — Anniversaries can be so difficult. Know that other people mourn with us who mourn. . . and thanks for your work with those who are terminally ill. My mom’s nurses and hospice team made her last weeks so much less of a nightmare than they could have been, as they attended to her needs and made sure her suffering was as minimal as possible. Such important work.

  • Catherine Giesbrecht

    I am so sorry about the loss of your mother. I know it is still a very raw, very tender part of you.

    I lost my mother to cancer three and half years ago. As Colbert says, the grief is not as present as it was the first year after her death. But it is accessible at all times, I find. Last Christmas – three years after her passing — I heard her favorite hymn on the radio, and I ended up in floods of tears and a blue funk that lasted for a day or so. I miss her every day. Thankfully, I know I will see her again at the Lamb’s Feast.

    For a recent creative writing class, I wrote an essay about her last couple of days — what I observed, what I thought, what we did. It was cathartic to write and it gave me some unexpected relief, for which I am grateful.

    I offer you my deepest sympathy and will keep you on my prayer list as you walk this valley.

  • Evan

    Thank you for this post. My mother has recently been diagnosed with LMC. She fought breast cancer and won.. For 4 years cancer free. Last November, they found a large brain tumor in her left frontal lobe and recovery was tough, but we were getting through it. Two weeks ago they diagnosed the LMC. I’m 27 years old and not ready for my mother to die. I got engaged in April and planned my wedding for this October thinking that would be the best time, and now this has happened. The thought of my mother not being by my side through that is just so hard. She raised me alone, made me the loving but strong person that I am today. They started radiation treatment this week and are also doing chemo through her spinal fluid. Sorry to ramble on about this, but this post really stuck out to me.. I watched Stephen Colbert this week.. And it was right after he had returned to work after his mother had passed and listening to him.. Even for 3 min.. Made me a little stronger.. So I can relate. I hope to have the same aspect of my mothers life once she is gone like you. It’s very inspirational. Thank you for sharing.

  • Dear Evan,

    I am so very sorry to hear about your mother’s diagnosis. Your comment brought tears to my eyes. LMC is indeed a terrible diagnosis, but when I was researching this illness I did find some inspiring stories of people who lived for months or even years with treatment. I will pray for her, and for you, and hope that she makes it to your wedding. There is no good age to lose a mother, but 27 is just too young, especially as you embark on this new phase of your life. God’s grace be with your family.


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