Dear Sean

One of the first things my mother did after my father’s funeral was take us on a trip to Branson, Missouri. My uncle came along.

DEAR SEAN:

My husband died Saturday. The funeral is tomorrow. You have written about your father’s funeral, and the days before and after. Is there anything we can do to make things easier for my ten-year-old son? I know he’ll have a hole in his heart forever. I want to do everything possible to support him.

Thanks,
I-LOVE-MY-SON

DEAR I-LOVE:

My mother took me to a therapist after my father’s funeral. Everyone was pretty worried about me because I quit talking.

They tried to get me out of my shell, but I hurt too badly to laugh, smile, or talk. Besides, I didn’t have anything to say.

The therapist’s office was behind a Methodist church and the doctor was a man with a New York accent who never shut up and always tossed a football in the air while he talked.

I guess this was his attempt at being a down-to-earth guy, playing with a football while he explained my father’s suicide. But it didn’t work.

Every time he spoke, tossing that dumb ball, I kept thinking of how my father used to say, “There’s no better form of birth control than a New York accent.”

And I would start to giggle. But I still refused to talk.

He told me to stop laughing. Then he asked me to try a mental exercise. He handed me an empty mayonnaise jar and a handful of pennies.

“Put a penny in the jar,” he said.

I wouldn’t do it. So we sat for a long time and I held those pennies, thinking about how foolish I felt.

“Those are hurt-pennies,” he said. “And if you put enough hurt-pennies in your jar, one day you’ll have all your hurt in an itty-bitty place, then you can put the lid on and hurl it into the ocean.”

Then he tossed his football in the air.

This guy was off his rocker.

So we waited forty-five minutes. I didn’t move or speak; he played with his ball. Finally he glanced at his watch and said, “Okay, time’s up. See you next week.”

And I never went back.

I tell you this because in the year after my father’s death, the best thing that ever happened to me was not therapy time with Yankee Doodle Dandy.

My saving grace was Dolly Parton.

I’m serious. One of the first things my mother did after my father’s funeral was take us on a trip to Branson, Missouri. My uncle came along.

What a trip it was. We stayed in a cheap motel, we took a dinner cruise on a riverboat called the Branson Belle, and it was great. The riverboat had a floor show with fire-swallowers, singers, dancers, and acrobats. And for dessert, they served baked Alaska.

My uncle, who always wore bib overalls, sat beside me and poked fun at all the acts on stage.

“Look at this wahoo,” he’d whisper. “This guy sucks, I don’t think his cornbread is done in the middle.”

And I’d laugh until my ribs hurt.

At intermission, my uncle took me onto the deck of the grand riverboat. It was a scene straight out of a Mark Twain novel. I looked at the wide water and started crying. I felt so silly, crying in front of him, but he let me alone. He didn’t try to console me or tell me to hush. He didn’t even ask me to talk.

This was a man who had seen Vietnam. He knew a thing or two about loss.

The next night, we went to Dolly Parton’s Dixieland Stampede. Hundreds of people gathered in a lobby, and a Dolly Parton impersonator wandered among us. She walked right past me and I blushed.

“HEY, DOLLY!” my uncle shouted. “COME HERE!”

I nearly died. “Hush,” I said.

“DOLLY! THIS BOY IS YOUR BIGGEST FAN!”

“I am not.”

He cackled.

The woman made a beeline for me. The crowd parted. She hugged me and almost suffocated me with her enormous blessings.

My mother gasped and started praying in tongues. I got my picture made. Dolly kissed my cheek and I was ready to bear her children.

Certainly, I know it wasn’t the real Dolly Parton, but it was pretty cool, and something happened in me.

After the show, we went to get ice cream, and my uncle made us laugh some more. Even my mother was laughing. She laughed so hard that ice cream ran down her shirt. I laughed so hard no noise came out of my mouth and all I could do was clap my hands.

And that was the night I started talking again.

On the way back to the motor inn I sat beside my uncle in the car. My mother and sister slept in the backseat. And I missed Daddy pretty bad.

“Thank you,” I said to my uncle.

“For what?”

“For making me laugh.”

He said words I’ll never forget. Perhaps, they were words that altered the destiny of my life, more than any mayonnaise jar ever could.

“Laugh as much as you can, man. It’s medicine.”

He said nothing else.

And I don’t think I should, either.

Except this: I hold your family in my heart.

34 comments

  1. Sandi in FL. - April 10, 2019 6:47 am

    Your uncle was a special man, Sean. I hope he’s still around and knows how important he has been in your life.

    Reply
  2. Linda Acres - April 10, 2019 7:08 am

    That made me cry!? But it’s so true. Wish I had known it thirty years ago when my four children lost their daddy.

    Thank you for every single word you write Sean.

    Reply
  3. Karen - April 10, 2019 9:22 am

    I am so grateful that you are able to relate this to all of us, exactly how you felt, in every detail. I wonder how many people will benefit from this.
    You are a treasure. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Steven P Bailey - April 10, 2019 9:40 am

    Beautiful.

    Reply
  5. Nancy - April 10, 2019 11:49 am

    Great advice! Momma, you’ve already made the first step. You asked the right person for advice. I’m Praying for you and your son.

    Reply
  6. Terri - April 10, 2019 11:59 am

    Lifting you up in prayer right now, dear I-Love-My-Son. God bless you!

    Reply
  7. jeffreystaylor - April 10, 2019 12:06 pm

    Sean, at eleven years old I experienced the same cause and loss of my father. I as well, had an uncle and aunt that stepped in and still today attempt to fill that void. A boys greatest loss is that of his father. I miss mine dearly!

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  8. Robin Rainer - April 10, 2019 12:26 pm

    My mother died of breast cancer at the age of 45 and my dad had a hard time dealing with the loss. His doctor referred him to a psychiatrist in Montgomery, so he asked me to go with him for moral support. He was very nervous going in for his session, but after an hour he came out smiling.

    As we walked to the car, I asked him how it went. I’ll never forget his response. “I feel much better. I just thought I was going crazy, but that guy has already gone!” He still struggled with my mom’s death, but no further sessions were necessary!

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  9. Megan - April 10, 2019 12:55 pm

    Sean,
    We recently lost my father in law. He was a great man that we spent so much time with. I was worried about my husband because his dad had become his best friend as his mother had passed 20 years prior, but I was most worried about my 7 year old son. That was his Pops and they did everything together. I’ve been amazed by my son’s maturity and grace since Pops’ passing. I’ve learned that he has to process grief his own way. Your story is wonderful. You speak truth about laughter being medicine. Thank you for your inspirational wisdom.

    Reply
  10. Steve - April 10, 2019 12:59 pm

    So good

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  11. Arelene Mack - April 10, 2019 1:21 pm

    I think eating together after a funeral is one way Southerners deal with our grief as we get together, remember the deceased one, and make each other laugh (sometimes) and recall happier times. Some folks might think it’s crazy and disrespectful, but most of my dead folks would want the living ones to be happy, and plan for happiness.

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  12. Margo - April 10, 2019 1:21 pm

    Last time I responded I said “You are the BEST”.
    And you still are!

    Reply
  13. prespreacher - April 10, 2019 1:35 pm

    Sean, thank you as always for sharing your experience losing your dad with others who are going through similar circumstances. You have an enormously caring heart and a gift for expressing love in words.

    I also believe as you and your uncle do that laughter is good medicine. And I lament that you didn’t;’t have a good experience with the therapist who tossed his football. He was clearly terrible with his job.

    I do want to caution that while there are some terrible therapists out there, therapy itself isn’t bad. Seeking counseling and treatment can be an extremely beneficial thing and there are good therapists, counselors and psychiatrists who help people for the better. As someone who is diagnosed with anxiety and depression, I wouldn’t be the minister I am today and able to help and serve others if I didn’t go to counseling every week (and take medication) and if I didn’t receive quality guidance (someone who could help me connect dots and make sense of my emotions) from a counselor.

    Often times therapy is needed in addition to the experience you had with your family and uncle in Branson.

    Reply
  14. BJean - April 10, 2019 1:36 pm

    Excellent!

    Reply
  15. Frank - April 10, 2019 2:01 pm

    Beautiful, Sean. Just beautiful.

    The next time some academic stuffed shirt with a Grammar Police badge tells you that you don’t write well, just show them that essay. If they still aren’t convinced, then they aren’t worth the trouble (Bless Their Hearts).

    I’m sorry you had to pay such a high price for your wisdom. But, sharing it with others the way you do makes for an amazing gift, and makes you truly special.

    Reply
  16. Dave - April 10, 2019 2:02 pm

    Very good story about a ten year old and grief. I’m 68 and my wife of 50 years died last week, I’m trying to follow your uncles advice but even the laughing reminds me of her. I do njoy your stories and I pray you and your family are well.

    Reply
  17. Jack Darnell - April 10, 2019 2:18 pm

    AS we say in North Carolina and Florida, there are times I think you ‘Ain’t right!’ But then you do something like this post and I know down inside you sure ‘Ain’t All Wrong.’ LOL I did enjoy the read my friend, good stuff.

    Reply
  18. Dru - April 10, 2019 2:30 pm

    Brilliant!

    Reply
  19. Emjay - April 10, 2019 2:39 pm

    …and what a big heart you have ❤️. That family’s in a good place.

    Reply
  20. Michael Bishop - April 10, 2019 2:40 pm

    You did well to ask Sean for advice. No one knows your or your child’s pain unless he or she has experienced it. That is why I suggest you contact your nearest hospice to see if they have a grief camp for children. The camps provide a common ground for children to experience a warm and accepting environment for children who have experienced the death of a loved one. At our local camp the children take part in lots of fun activities – lots of laughs and commaraderie occur during those times. In groups with counselors the children share (never forced to do so) their thoughts and feelings. It is so touching to see the children realize they have peers who feel as they do. I would also suggest that you touch base with your child’s school counselor. She is there every day. If your child gets emotional at school, she should be able to console him – to give him time to regroup. As a former school counselor I held grief groups and provided individual counseling for my students. All students who suffered the death of a loved one I offered to help make a book of their memories of that person. Each child told me his or her memories. I typed the memory on the bottom of a piece of paper and the child drew a pcture to illustrate it. I would then bind that book, and we talked about each memory again. Another point to consider is that most boys don’t like to talk directly to you. I learned that from a good therapist (unlike the one Sean had). I had boys do puzzles, draw, throw a nerf football, etc., while we talked. Many times I shared that bit of advice with parents. I hope some of this helps. It is a shame when therapy hurts instead of helps. My heart goes out to you, your son, and Sean. –Jeri Bishop

    Reply
  21. Shelton A. - April 10, 2019 3:19 pm

    I give thanks for your uncle, your Mom, Jamie…all those who have lifted you up and helped you get through the tough days and times. God bless you for all you do.

    Reply
  22. Kathryn Walsh - April 10, 2019 6:24 pm

    Dear Sean,
    A young woman in my former church in another town committed suicide recently.
    She was in Youth Group with my son years ago.
    She left two children who had been living with their father in another state.

    My dear friend called to tell me about her death and this morning I forwarded her your column.
    She thought it was wonderful and was going to forward it to the priest who is doing the Eulogy at her funeral.

    The priest was also in our kids Youth Group.
    Thank you for your eloquence.
    I’m so sorry for your loss, but your experience has helped so many people deal with their loss.

    Blessings,

    Reply
  23. Linda Moon - April 10, 2019 7:21 pm

    My nickname on the Whiteboard the nurses used to locate patients in the unit where I was recovering from surgery that removed most of my liver was “Comic”. The liver grew back. The “Comic” was healed. Laughter is a good, if not the best, medicine…..along with extraordinary surgeons in my case! The health situation was not comical. Healing came, in spite of the seriousness of it. I am now dealing with a recurrence of tumors, and your posts, Sean, are contributing to my healing laughter.

    Reply
  24. Tim House - April 10, 2019 7:26 pm

    Common sense, and heartfelt. 🙂

    Reply
  25. Cathy Moss - April 10, 2019 10:17 pm

    Oh how I feel for this mother and her son . I am sure her heart is broken but nothing hurts a mother as badly as seeing her child devastated by the death of a loved one. Espeacially the loss of a dad. Know what I would do? If at possible take him pet shopping. If a puppy is not an option, then look at a kitten. He needs something to live and hold . Mom may fall in love as well. There is magic in an animals love. My younger brothers and I had a beagle that our whole family adored. Got her right after we moved to Mobile and named her Dixie. Soon after we got her my folks built a house and we moved into a new neighborhood. It was wonderful. Kids on bikes, moms in the kitchen, barbecues every week end. Then one Sat. Dixie was chasing a car and the man down the street hit her. My brother found me and we raced home. My dad had covered her with a canvas tent and when we said we wanted to see her , he said no, we will remember her as she was. My dad died suddenly at 49 with a heart attack. The man who hit our dog came to the funeral home and when my mother said I should speak to him, I refused. He never told us he was sorry about Dixie. We grieved. The next nite dad turned on the tv. And guess what was on the screen. LASSIE. We all burst into tears . Even my dad got choked up and there was nothing to do but cry. My heart aches for this sweet mom and her boy. I hope they can find a pet to love. It will ease their pain. You understand all too well what that hole in your heart feels like. It gave you the gift to help others. Pls. Don’t stop. You are the best❤️

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  26. Mary Lee - April 10, 2019 11:13 pm

    You are such a great guy!

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  27. Pat - April 11, 2019 12:06 am

    Just beautiful! Laughter is the BEST medicine!

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  28. Michele Melucci - April 11, 2019 1:11 am

    You , dear one , have a heart as big as all the outdoors.Bless you sean ☺

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  29. Charaleen Wright - April 11, 2019 4:45 am

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  30. Carolyn Allen - April 11, 2019 5:13 am

    The best…thanks Sean ‼️

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  31. Judy Broussard - April 11, 2019 10:58 pm

    Sean, sometimes you make me laugh and sometimes you make me cry But I always feel better after reading your posts. Keep on doing what you do

    Reply
  32. Donna - May 11, 2019 8:01 am

    Holding you in my heart, Sean. Best advice, I can’t imagine a loving God who doesn’t laugh!

    Reply
  33. William Nichols - May 12, 2019 10:22 am

    Shortly after my wife’s death I went to the local library. I told the librarian about my loss and that I had quit laughing. She got the head librarian and the three of us went around the library trying to find things that would make me laugh. I ended up with several audio books that really helped. Pretty good solution.

    Reply
  34. ABoomer - May 12, 2019 4:55 pm

    I am sitting in a motel in Branson, Missouri reading your beautiful recollection. I have some great memories of Branson scattered over the last 7 decades. I’m glad it brings back happy memories to you. God bless your family and your wise momma and uncle.

    Reply

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