Laughing at life’s saddest moments can be hugely therapeutic, says comedian Cariad Lloyd, whose conversations on bereavement with fellow comics became a taboo-breaking podcast
In February 1998 my dad turned yellow. A turmeric hue engulfed him. He was initially diagnosed with liver cancer then, after some more scouting, they announced that it was the mostly incurable and hope-stealing pancreatic cancer. By April, he was dead. I was two weeks away from GCSEs, in complete shock and, I realise now, trying to accept that my childhood had also died. I had joined the Dead Dad Club, as my schoolfriend Hannah (also a long-standing member) used to call it. Everyone joins ‘the club’ eventually. All of us at some point will be touched by the painful bastard that is grief. I just arrived very underage and very confused.
I have been talking about death and grief since I was 15. My grief radar – or ‘griefdar’ – became increasingly strong and no matter where I was, whether at a student party or on a beach in Ibiza, I would find the person who was walking alongside grief and end up talking to them about what had happened to me as well.
I never minded talking. It felt wonderful to be able to offer some help, a hand-drawn map trying to guide them through the shock of the first terrible year. To be able to say, ‘Somehow you will come through this. You won’t get over it but eventually you will stand without feeling the ground sinking beneath you.’
In 2016, after years of having these conversations, I found myself wondering if anyone else would want to hear them. Then I thought, ‘My God, that sounds depressing.’ But what if I spoke to comedians, people used to making jokes at awkward moments? Perhaps that would be cheerier than the idea initially sounded. So I started to record my first upbeat grief chats with comedy friends such as Adam Buxton and Sara Pascoe, who shared their experiences. With the birth of my first child two weeks overdue, I edited these audio files and put them on the internet as a downloadable podcast. I found them refreshing, honest and surprisingly funny, but I had no idea if anyone else would.
Then the emails began to arrive. I was taken aback by how many people felt the same way I did, or as Peep Show’s Robert Webb did, or had had the same experience as comedian Sara Pascoe. They thanked me and my guests for talking honestly, for speaking the thoughts they also had but felt too guilty to say out loud. It became clear that there was a need for these conversations, a need for a space to talk about grief. Here you could talk about your feelings without worrying that it would upset anyone. I was overwhelmed by comedian Jayde Adams’s honesty about her relationship with her sister’s cancer, hilariously shocked at the unbearably awful yet comic tales that David Baddiel told of having repeatedly to tell his father with Alzheimer’s that his mother had died, and touched by Gemma Whelan’s story (see opposite) of her dad’s final moments.
Hearing these people’s experiences began to help me with my own grief. The more I talked, the more I realised that I hadn’t spoken about so many aspects of my pain. I had held back for fear of people not understanding or making them feel uncomfortable. In Griefcast – the name I gave my podcast – I was allowed to tell my story without fear of upsetting the living. I could be a griever and laugh and cry at the same time and be understood. I learned that we all miss our loved ones with a physical pain, a pain that makes you feel as if your heart and joy died with them; and that, mostly, you learn to live with it. It adapts and becomes a part of you. There aren’t stages to tick off, and it’s not a narrative to finish. Grief is made up of waves that crash down and drown you one day, and a peaceful calm sea on other days. But you’re still on the beach. You can’t walk away from it, and after a while you don’t want to.
The more people I speak to and the more members of ‘the club’ I meet, the more I realise I wasn’t special or especially young when it happened to me. Grief happens to everyone. It’s as guaranteed as breathing. But, in accepting this, I don’t feel sad or terrified. I feel freer than I did when I didn’t talk about it.
To speak about death lets it into your life, and when something is there all the time, it’s less scary. It’s like a fridge in the kitchen, a sofa in the living room – it’s just there. When you acknowledge it, it doesn’t have to overwhelm you. Grief makes you feel isolated, as if no one understands you or can comprehend the pain you’re in. But I’ve realised that someone near you does know what your heart feels like. That, more than anything, has helped me heal in a way the 15-year-old me never thought possible. We didn’t choose to be here, in the Dead Dad, Mum, Child, Sibling or Dog Club, but here we all are, together. You are not alone.
Love, loss and laugh-out-loud moments: Highlights from Cariad’s grief podcasts
Robert Popper on when his grandma was admitted to hospital:
‘She had a coughing fit and wasn’t breathing. We called an ambulance and followed behind. She was on a stretcher wearing an oxygen mask, clutching her handbag. They gently tried to take her bag from her but she was like, “No way, you’re not having it.” I said to her, “Don’t worry, you’ll be OKOK.” She took off her oxygen mask and asked, “Would you like a yoghurt?” She remembered at that moment that she had one for me. She took it out of her bag, then put it straight back and replaced the oxygen mask.’
Suzi Ruffell on a moment shared before her grandmother died:
‘Before Nan died, I’d made her a photo album that tracked her life. I found the oldest photo I could of her, pictures of us as kids and the holidays we had. I got into bed with her and we went through it. She told me the stories I’d heard a hundred times. Then I said, “Nan, I’ve got to go. I’m filming with Jonathan Ross tomorrow.” And she said, “You know I’m off, don’t you?” And I was like, “Yeah, I do.” And she went, “All right then. Love ya.” Then I got in my car and cried all the way back to London. She passed away while I was filming with Jonathan Ross.’
Sara Pascoe on the death of her grandfather when she was a child:
‘As a child grieving, there is an awareness that you have to be really, really sad but at times you can’t stop yourself feeling happy, and at other times you can’t stop yourself feeling sad when you’re meant to be having a nice time. Whenever something good happened I’d be told, “Your grandad would be so proud of you.”’
‘Grief gives you instant wisdom. You’re suddenly the go-to girl. If anyone loses a cat they’re embarrassed to talk about it because the cat isn’t a parent. Then they think you might have some secret knowledge on how you deal with it.’
Robin Clyfan on his mum’s illness:
‘What can really help is someone visiting from outside the family because it’s such a pressure cooker at home. There never feels enough space for anyone to grieve. You’re already grieving when someone’s terminally ill. A Macmillan nurse came round and looked at Mum and said, “You don’t look well, Ann.” There was a moment of truth and recognition. After that I tried to talk to her and she said she knew she was in denial. From that point she’d say, “Why would I talk about my death? There’s nothing more boring.” Before she went into the hospice she spent an hour giving me and my sister very prescriptive advice, such as, “Robin, this is what you should wear on Friday,” and “You should go out with someone who’s a very tall banjo player.”
David Baddiel on losing his mother, who died of pneumonia:
‘It’s hideous. There’s no poetry, no Hollywood. The impetus, for me, is to talk about it. What I find difficult is not talking about it. The ageing of your parents, in my dad’s case [who has dementia], absolutely brings into focus your own mortality.’
Host Cariad’s most memorable stories
Welsh comic Kayleigh Llewellyn lost six members of her family in a year. Her account of strength and grace in the face of such tragedy is inspiring.
Laugh until you cry
My first episode, with Adam Buxton, is still one of my favourites. His honesty about his relationship with his dad and nursing him in his last years is painfully funny and beautiful.
A good death
Actress Gemma Whelan talking about her dad, who died at home surrounded by his family, love and a gentle breeze, is an insight into how a death can be sad but peaceful.
Lou Conran’s episode is about losing a baby when she was five months pregnant. Stand-up comedian Lou completely owns an incredibly traumatic experience. Her bravery in speaking about a difficult topic genuinely helped so many others going through dreadful pain.
Listen at acast.com/griefcast