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A friendship, a death, and the story that gives meaning to both

A friendship, a death, and the story that gives meaning to both
(Photo illustration by Briana Tozour/Unsplash)

Besides being a renowned scholar who studies political humor and media effects, Dr. Dannagal Young is a reality TV fan, and bonded over reality shows like The Real Housewives of New Jersey with a neighbor who became her best friend. 

Over more than 120 tweets, she shared the story of that friendship, preceding it with a note about how other publications rejected it: “I wrote about the death of my best friend in July and sent it to various places to see if anyone was interesting in publishing it. Turns out death—even the death of your best friend on top of the death of your husband—isn’t that unique or interesting.”

But the story Danna told—which is reproduced below—was absolutely interesting, and simultaneously shattering and uplifting. As she told me:

“It’s important for people going through grief like this to understand the importance of deliberately creating a ‘narrative of self’ that integrates that person’s death into the story of who you are. It’s also important for folks like us who are in academia or journalism or entertainment to think about the value of human beings in ways that don’t have to do with number of Twitter followers they have or who has read their work.

M was a stay at home mom for 25 years. She didn’t write articles or blogs. She barely followed the news. But, her mere existence made the world (and my life) full and rich. And that is a crucial reminder.”

Here is the story of M, as told by her best friend.

From July through November, my sleep was riddled with nightmares. In the day, I couldn’t focus. I wanted to shed my physical body like a snakeskin.

It started Tuesday, July 24, 2018.

That’s the day that my friend’s daughter texted me to ask if I had talked to her mom at all. Her mom hadn’t shown up to pick up her younger sister from the field hockey camp bus.

“Is mom’s car there?” T texted me. I parted the blinds in my home office window and looked across the street to their driveway. “Car is there. I saw her walk Frank a couple hours ago.”

“Would you go check on her?”

T texted me because not only are her mom and I like sisters, and not only is her mom the godmother to my 8 year old daughter, but we also live across the street from each other—which is how this love-affair-friendship began thirteen years ago.

In the spring of 2005, my husband and I were looking to move out of our Philadelphia townhome to the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia. Our baby boy was 6 months old and we were prepared to start the next phase of our lives—the uncool-out-in-the-suburbs-phase of life. Mike and I had looked at dozens of houses in three South Jersey towns known for good schools and a walkable main street.

It was a cool spring afternoon and Mike and I were getting a tour of a large home on a tree lined street. Our son was fussy, so rather than carting a crying baby through the house, we toured the house in shifts. I went first.

When I came out, I saw Mike joking with a woman across the street, who was struggling to move a twin mattress up her front steps with her adolescent daughter. After several attempts, they finally dropped the mattress and the woman shouted to us, “Why do we even bother having kids, right? What’s the use?” Her daughter was laughing and they both playfully collapsed on the steps on top of the mattress.

I told Mike that sadly, the house was not what we were looking for. (Our checklist was ridiculous: wrap around front porch, fenced in yard, central air, no updating needed…)

Mike expressed his lighthearted disappointment at not being able to be neighbors with the woman across the street. We waved goodbye and drove off to look at more houses.

Two months later, while visiting my parents in New Hampshire with my baby son, I got a call from Mike, “Remember that house that we didn’t really love across the street from that hilarious woman moving the mattress in? The house immediately next door just went up for sale. Wrap around front porch. Fenced in hard. Central air. All newly updated.”

We bought the house. We got to be her neighbor after all.

As I started up the driveway, there was no foreboding feeling; no sense of dread … until the corner of my eye caught the arrival of a minivan pulling up to the front of the house. It was her 16 year old daughter being dropped off by a friend’s mom. When her mother hadn’t shown up at the camp bus, she arranged a ride home with a friend.

I had to get in that house before she did. Just in case.

I ran around back. The stupid back door handle had been busted for weeks. Just a week prior, I had popped over to say hi and tried to enter through the back door. M’s older daughter (T, the 25 year old) was visiting. Through the glass, with their schnauzer, Frank, barking in her arms, T gave me a smirking tutorial on how to open the door. I stood on the other side of the glass atop the back steps idiotically turning the handle downward repeatedly.

“Danna. Danna. Stop. Stop!” T put one hand up as Frank continued to bark. She emphasized each syllable, “Turn the handle up. UP!” We both laughed at my inability to… open a door.

To their family, this was exactly who I was: The college professor who couldn’t open a freaking door.

“Common sense,” M would say pointing at herself, “Book smarts,” she would say pointing at me. She often joked about barely finishing high school because she skipped gym class regularly.

“What?” she would shrug defiantly, “I hate being sweaty.” She crinkled her nose up with a playful tilt of her head.

If I am the nerdy New Hampshire girl who transplanted herself to Philadelphia for graduate school, my friend was the South Jersey girl who knew everyone in this town where she had lived since she was born. She was loud and funny, had the best nails and eyelashes in the room, and was the first to make fun of herself … and you—if she liked you.

We called M the mayor of our street. The sound of a car driving too quickly down our block was immediately followed by her bellowing voice: “SLOW THE HELLL DOWN!!!!”

After Thanksgiving, M and I would race to put up our holiday decorations first. She beat me every year, shouting at me from her exquisitely-decorated front porch, “It’d be nice if you put up some goddamn decorations that I could enjoy from my window, you know!”

Once shopping in Target, I heard a voice behind me snap, “Get the hell out of the way.” Stunned, I turned to see my friend, giggling so hard that she was doubled over with tears streaming down her face. We shopped together in the empty Target at 9 a.m. that weekday morning. Petula Clark’s “Downtown” came on the speakers overhead. My friend jumped onto the front of my cart and demanded that I push her as she danced ballet style, looking like Kate Winslet in Titanic.


Things’ll be great when you’re…Downtown!

No finer place for sure… Downtown!

Everything’s waiting for you!”

As I heard the minivan door slide open out front, I turned the handle of the back door (“Turn the handle up, D. up.”) and it opened. Frank started barking the second I entered. It was 2:30 in the afternoon. The lights were all off. My friend was lying on her back, on the floor in front of the kitchen sink. Her color wasn’t right. Her eyes were slightly open. Her limbs were cool to the touch.

I dialed 911 and the dispatcher asked if she had a pulse. I felt her neck which was still warm, but I felt nothing. Her chest wasn’t rising and falling. He asked if I wanted to do CPR. I kept yelling that he needed to get the EMTs there. I knew in that moment that everything was different.

It took no time at all to realize that M and I were connected. Yes, she almost didn’t graduate high school because she “didn’t like being sweaty” in gym. And yes I was getting my Ph.D. in politics and media at Penn. But we had a chemistry. She was brilliantly witty, sharp-tongued, a great judge of character, and a lover of reality television (The Real Housewives of New Jersey was the favorite—obviously) and trashy tabloid magazines. We had lots to talk about.

And she loved our baby. And knew everything about parenting. When he had a fever, I called her. When he had eczema, I called her. When he bumped his head and I didn’t know if he needed to go to the ER, I called her.

She babysat “the boy,” as she called him, about a month after Mike and I moved in so that we could go to a wedding. She and Mike both loved cooking and he had promised her a recipe for the best Caesar dressing she would ever eat. He made her a batch, assuming she would bring it home to eat over the next week. When we got home from the wedding later that night, our new friend was cozied up on our couch watching Bravo TV, using lettuce leaves to desperately wipe the remaining Caesar dressing from the corners of the now-empty Tupperware. We rounded the corner into the living room and she looked at us with her “side-eye,” a lettuce leaf still in her mouth.

“What the fuck do you put in this, Mike Young? It’s Fucking Amazing.”

Throughout the month of September, my vibrant expressive husband became increasingly quiet. He complained of a bright flashing light in his peripheral vision. The ophthalmologist suggested an MRI.

On October 20th, just 2 months after moving in across the street from M, Mike called me at home where I sat in my office working on my dissertation. He told me that the MRI revealed that he had a brain tumor in his midbrain. A benign tumor called a craniopharyngioma. He was surprisingly calm and explained that he would need surgery but that the long-term prospects were very very good.

For the better part of three days I cried.

M called to ask some banal question and instantly could tell my voice was off. “What is it? What is going on over there? I’m coming over.”

She was one of the first people I told that Mike had a brain tumor. This hilarious woman who I had known for 8 weeks held me as I wept. I played out various horrible scenarios about Mike going totally blind, losing his short term memory and control over his bodily functions (all of which would come to pass in the months that would follow).

“ZIP IT!” she yelled snapping her fingers shut like a crab claw. “Zippitty DOO DA DAY. You do NOT talk like that, D.”

I was filled with dread and self-pity. After another several days, she and I were on the phone again,

“Listen sister, I know we haven’t known each other long. And you might hang up when I say what I’m about to say, but… You have a husband and a baby who need you. You aren’t helping anyone by just crying and lying in bed and feeling sorry for yourself. You need to cowboy the hell up.”

It was brash and over the top and exactly what I needed to hear.

For the next nine months, Mike would have thirteen brain surgeries and would remain an inpatient in the hospital. He would lose his short term memory, and go almost completely blind. I was his advocate and nurse. I spent every day at the hospital and arranged friends to eat meals with him in the evening so I could be home with the baby at night. My new friend would pick up our son from daycare, cook us dinners, and sit with me on her front porch as I cried while her youngest played with “the boy.”

When Mike’s situation turned dire, his mother drove in from Cleveland. M met her at our house and drove her into Philadelphia to the hospital as he lay dying.

Mike died on July 18, 2005. 11 months after we moved in across the street from the hilarious lady collapsed in laughter on her front steps with her daughter and a mattress.

“Do you want to try CPR?” the dispatcher asked again. “I can walk you through it.”

I put the phone on speaker and placed it next to my friend’s head on her kitchen floor. As I compressed her chest, I felt her breastbone snap under my weight.

“5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11….” I counted breathlessly, compressing her chest over and over again, following with the dispatcher’s lead. M’s younger daughter entered the back door. I just continued counting and compressing, breathing my air into my friend as her eyes looked straight through me.

She had eaten peanut butter crackers and I could taste them in her mouth.

Peanut butter. My son was allergic to nuts and she was always so worried about accidentally exposing him to a nut. And here she had eaten peanut butter.

When the EMTs came in and took over, I held her daughter in my arms and brought her out of the house so the medics could do their job.

It was too late. She had died instantly of a massive blood clot to the heart.

In the months after Mike died, M and her family became my family. The boy and I ate dinner with them 2-3 nights a week. Scalloped potatoes, parmesan broccoli, creamy chicken. M’s older daughter (then 14) would serve me giant ice cream sundaes covered with hot fudge and whipped cream.

Her youngest (then 5) was a miniature version of her mother; even more attentive to the boy’s needs than any one of us.

“D, do you think it’s safe for him to have that toy?” She would say with her hand on her hip.

“D, did you check to make sure there’s no nuts in those cookies?”

In the years that followed Mike’s death, M and her girls vacationed with me in New Hampshire. Her youngest slept over our house. The boy slept over there. I went to first communions and confirmations, family holiday parties and graduation parties, took prom pictures on the front lawn. And I sat in the back of the church at her father’s funeral.

In June 2007, we planted a crepe myrtle in my backyard and poured Mike’s ashes into the hole we dug. Michelle knelt beside me, and used her oversized blue t-shirt to wipe the snot from my face.

As I started dating again, M loved hearing stories of my first dates. The guy with the small hands. The older gentleman who wore cowboy boots. The dude who wrote an erotic love poem to his cat that he sent to me via email. She would listen wide-eyed and laugh as I would tell her tales of “not the right guy.”

But after a while, I did meet the right guy. And my friend adored him. Adored his giant Irish family. Adored all his brothers and sisters. Adored that he was from the area. Adored that he was smart and nerdy like me. And loving and sweet to her “boy.” She adored that he was prepared to step in and raise “the boy” as his own. Adored that we were going to continue our next chapter and stay in the house across the street from the lady collapsing in laughter on the mattress.

When my husband and I married in 2009, M was one of my bridesmaids and her daughter was one of our flower girls as “the boy” (then age 5) walked me down the aisle.

For the last 9 years each time my friend would see my husband and me out front she would chide me, “You better not be giving my man a hard time over there! He’s the best thing that ever happened to you and he can do no wrong. Got it, D?”

“Thanks, M!” My husband would yell back.

On Father’s Day this year, my husband did the grocery shopping in the morning. The next day, I saw my friend out walking Frank.

“What do you think you’re doing sending my man GROCERY SHOPPING on FATHER’S DAY? Did you think you were gonna get away with that?” she joked, her eyes narrowing.

In the spring and summer of this year, M and I spent a lot of time together. Her life was in flux and she needed to talk it all out and through. Around the same time, “the boy,” now 13, expressed an interest in going to church, so we started visiting a Catholic church in the adjacent town.

For some unknown reason, in June I texted my friend, “Hey, the boy has decided he needs God in his life so we’re going to church tomorrow if you want to come.”

Now, I am somewhere in between a part time agnostic and an evening atheist. So, my texting someone to invite them to find Jesus is not like a normal thing.

“I’d love to!” she wrote back.

Sitting in the church, she patted my knee and told me this was the very church she had been baptized in 50 years prior.

As we awaited the start of the mass, she regaled the boy with stories of his early days: “Your mother used to dress you up in ridiculous fishing hats in pink and orange plaid. We saved you from all that. You’re welcome.”

My son shook his head in 13 year old embarrassment.

“Does he know that you and Mike talked about making him buy his own toiletries?” she pointed accusingly at me. “His plan was to increase your allowance every year so that when you were 14 you would have to buy your own soap and shampoo and razors,” she drew out the words in a mocking tone. “Do you remember that, D?’ she turned to me in the pew.

I did remember. I remembered Mike telling her this and her holding our baby boy in her hands, nuzzling her nose against his saying, “Don’t you worry, baby. If you ever need soap or shaving cream you come over and see Auntie M and I’ll have it stockpiled for you in the back shed!”

Saturday, July 21, 2018, my friend was about to pull into her driveway after grocery shopping when she spotted me out front doing yard work. She pulled up to the curb, window down, and lowered her sunglasses.

“What the fuck is that look on your face?” she gestured in a circle with her newly manicured index finger.

“It’s been a week,” I said, tired and continuing to rake.

“Come over tonight. Have a glass of wine and we’ll catch up.”

So we did. For hours we sat cross-legged on her couch facing each other like teenagers. Talking, laughing, and reminiscing. We talked about how proud she was of the young women that her daughters had become. How much she loved her new job working as a teacher’s aide at the high school.

We retold the story of that spring day in 2005 when a red-headed bearded man with a tiny baby strapped to his chest stood outside and how they laughed together as she and her daughter struggled to move a twin mattress up their front steps.

I did CPR on her three days later.

After Mike died in 2006, I spent the better part of a year reconstructing my life. I kept a blog, did yoga, concentrated on raising the boy and finishing my dissertation. Because Mike was my husband, father to my baby, and the center of my world, I honored the fact that my grief for him was going to take time and energy to process. I saw a therapist twice a week during that first year, and weekly after that. I considered my mental health my main priority. I worked to actively integrate Mike’s life and death into the story of my life in a way that gave it meaning and purpose. I wrote almost every day.

But since my friend died, I have not done the same. I have felt like her death isn’t mine to mourn like Mike’s was. Her death belongs to her daughters, her husband, her mother and her sisters, but it’s not mine.

But my friend was so tightly woven into my life, I’m realizing that her death is very much mine. She was here for Mike’s illness and death, she helped me raise the boy and get back on my feet. She helped me create a new chapter with my husband and son, and later our daughter who is now 8. My friend was integral to all of it.

And she lived right out my front window. For the two years I raised Baxter alone, I would be able to fall asleep at night by telling myself that M and I lived so close that there were probably rich people living in a mansion somewhere who were sleeping in bedrooms farther apart from each other than she and I were every night.

Psychologists who study grief and mental health recognize that constructing a narrative that integrates a loved one’s death into one’s own life story contributes to healthy bereavement. Robert Neimeyer from the University of Memphis writes about the importance of “meaning-oriented and narrative strategies to assist clients whose lives have been devastated by loss.”

Dysfunctional or unhealthy grief is sometimes classified as “complicated grief,” characterized by “a failure to integrate the loss into the survivor’s autobiographical memory; the development or reactivation of negative global beliefs about the self, world, and future; and a reliance on anxious and depressive strategies for avoiding internal and external stimuli that evoke the pain of the loss.”

Complicated grief is especially pronounced when the death of a loved one is unexpected or sudden.

One of the characteristics of such dysfunctional bereavement, then, is an inability (or perhaps an unwillingness) to successfully integrate the death into the survivor’s existing knowledge base about their own life. Researchers refer to this as “separation distress,” in which the separation of the survivor from the deceased loved one, having not been fully integrated into their narrative of self, continues to intrude in daily life, as it hasn’t been fully processed or rehearsed in the brain.

The avoidance strategies that people engage in to try to “not think about” the loss end up backfiring as a result. The way I think about it, without doing the hard work to fully embed the person’s death into our mind and body, we continue to spin in circles with the death half-processed—in a sort of grief purgatory— endlessly experiencing disruptive trauma and pain. Neimeyer writes that in “complicated grief,” because this “meaning-based” processing of the death hasn’t happened, individuals experience continued “numbness, unreality, and separation distress.”

This is the hell that I’ve been living in since July 24.

My friend is at the center of the story of who I am and how I got here. Her face is everywhere in my understanding of how to reconstruct my life and get back on my feet. So her sudden absence has complicated not only my ability to reconcile her death, but my entire autobiographical narrative from the last thirteen years.

When I look at this story book-ended like this, though, I’m wondering why I didn’t write it sooner. I’ve been a mess, unable to work or write or socialize or sleep. And what I have needed to do is spend time writing about my friend. Literally reconstructing the narrative to give meaning to her death and integrate it into the story of my present and future.

The story is pretty simple, isn’t it? M was brought into my life to tell me to cowboy the hell up and to see myself as strong and fierce to raise my baby and advocate for my husband when he needed me. She and her family created a consistency for my son and me—a family structure to allow me to feel sane in an insane time. As her kids grew up and her life changed, my home and my family provided consistency for her in return.

And … I took her to church.

As she knelt and prayed after receiving communion that day, she looked back at me over her shoulder, “I’m gonna be here a while, D,” she winked, “I got LOTS to talk to him about.”

So now I am the person M showed me I could be. Strong and resilient. Someone others can count on. Someone who doesn’t give up or wallow in my own misfortune. I’m going to be here for her girls, live my life big and bright, and decorate the heck out of my house for the holidays.

I am cowboying the fuck up.

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About the author

  • Dannagal G. Young (Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, 2007) is an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Delaware where she studies the content, audience, and effects of political humor. Her research on the psychology and influence of political entertainment has been widely published including articles in The Columbia Journalism Review, Media Psychology, Political Communication, International Journal of Press/Politics, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, and Mass Media and Society. Her forthcoming book "Irony and Outrage," examining satire and outrage as the logical extensions of the respective psychological profiles of liberals and conservatives will be published by Oxford University Press in 2019.

    Danna's writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and on National Public Radio, and her her research has been covered in national and international publications including Variety, The Globe and Mail, the Guardian, and the Christian Science Monitor.

    Follow her on Twitter.


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