This Hilarious Book Hopes to Provide Relief on a Not-So-Hilarious Topic: Grief
Full disclosure that I worked alongside Jason in numerous professional capacities from 2010-2019. I have no involvement or stake in this book project, though I wish I did because I think it’s really great.
It’s a common refrain when it comes to grief: There is no right way to grieve.
No expert would claim otherwise. But comedy writer Jason Roeder is no expert, so he can claim that all he likes.
“Griefstrike!” is the latest book from Roeder, a former senior editor and senior writer at The Onion as well as a contributor to The New Yorker and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and true to form, it’s a deeply funny volume. (Don’t believe me? Click through to this Amazon link and you’ll see he’s got blurbs from legendary humorists Judd Apatow and Jack Handey at his back.)
It’s also a deeply affecting one — the book is a parody of a grief manual aimed at providing a guide, albeit a humorous one, to coping with the emotional and practical challenges of losing a loved one. Roeder was spurred to action writing the book by the loss of his mother, Phyllis, to whom the book is dedicated.
As he shares in the book’s introduction, “Griefstrike!” speaks to “the kinds of issues we tend to confront when someone we love passes.” Roeder adds: “If you find it legitimately insightful or comforting, I’m grateful, and I’ll tell you in advance I have no earthly idea how I did that.”
If you are someone who approaches the heaviness of death, loss, and mourning with a sense of humor, “Griefstrike!” is well worth your time — and it may just change your approach to this impossible-to-approach topic along the way.
Below is a written exchange I recently had with Roeder about this project, how it helped him work through his own grief, and the challenge of writing jokes about such a sensitive topic:
Having been lucky enough to work with you for many years, I’ve seen how effectively you use humor as a coping mechanism. Has that been a tool you’ve used throughout your life, or did it come on later in life?
Well, I’ve been making jokes of uncertain quality my whole life. In my high school bio blurb, I said I worked as a crash-test dummy in my free time. I don’t remember why I said that, and there’s a decent chance I didn’t even know then. I guess there’s always at least a little coping involved, with the jokes deployed to compensate for all the other ways you don’t think you measure up. For me, humor also helps regulate my distance from things that upset me. I can encounter them without letting them overwhelm me. Like an adjustable garden hose nozzle but for trauma. That doesn’t always work, but it’s a helpful tool. Or it’s made me completely disengaged from my emotions in a way that will one day destroy me. One of those.
I know experiencing a great personal loss was a source of inspiration for you as you started to write this book. How did working on this project help you process your own grief?
Processing is a slippery concept. It’s hard to tell how you’re doing with it since it’s an indefinite, well, process. I do think, more than anything, the book gave me a worthwhile task, engaged my brain and gave me a project that might ultimately benefit others. I didn’t know I’d need those things at that moment, but it seems I did and pretty desperately. The book hasn’t been out that long, and already I’ve heard from a few people who were glad to have it as a weird companion. That would’ve meant a lot to my mother, so it means that much more to me.
You’ve described this as a humor book about grief more so than a guide to grief that’s funny. But there’s plenty of practical advice for navigating grief throughout your book — what’s one piece of earnest advice you’d give to someone who is having a hard time with grief today?
Hard to say! I myself see the book as more of a sympathetic and slightly deranged friend who might’ve picked up an insight or two from their own grieving experience. More to keep you company than to tell you what to do, which I tend to think is generally the right course of action, especially for a comedy writer and non-therapist. In actual life, however, I might tell a friend or family member that I’d be there for them however they needed — as guardrail or sounding board or food delivery service or cat-sitter or whatever — some sort of all-purpose useful person who could do whatever needed to be done to help them slog through another impossible day. But I can’t help a stranger reading this in the same way. I can’t make assurances like, “You’ll be OK” or “This will pass.” That may very well be true in some respects, but I can’t tell people what their path will be. All I can tell them is that I’m so sorry for their loss. And maybe don’t forget to breathe.
How do you approach writing humor on a topic like grief? Is your approach different than you would approach more innocuous topics like, say, office politics or dating?
Grief’s much more fraught than anything you typically see in the Humor section. If you can imagine my book on the shelf, you might also imagine a book of 1,001 dad jokes and a compendium of Dilbert comics. But working at The Onion taught me that there’s a comedic way into almost any topic as long as you don’t lose sight of your audience and your purpose. I do think I was a bit more careful than I might’ve been if I were writing about, like, what to do if someone on Tinder lies about the fact they have three secret wives and four secret husbands. And that’s why I also included the Sincerity Corner sections, which are bits of my actual story amongst all the jokes. In this case, I thought a little vulnerability was in order.
Aside from Griefstrike, which is an obvious #1 on this list, what other work(s) of comedy that tackle grief would you recommend checking out? Why?
There aren’t many comedic takes on grief and fewer that I myself found legit funny. But Laurie Kilmartin’s Dead People Suck is a hilarious exception.