I Didn’t Recognize Grief While I Was Going Through It

For over a year, I didn’t know I was grieving.

Woman at comedy club hiding from her grief 7713Photography, RyanKing999, wildpixel | Canva

"You’ll love this," he said.

I wondered how there was anything to love about Cynthia’s death.

"She died on the commode." He paused. "On the toilet. Like in your monologue."

I’d once performed a comic character monologue set in a bathroom. The character, Fern, was seated on a toilet as she called to her grandson to bring her things like a portable T.V., a soda, and a bran muffin.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find the funny in the death of my teacher, friend, and improv mama, even if she was on the toilet like Elvis.


The ironic thing is Cynthia, being a comedy genius, probably would have been able to see the humor in the situation and laugh her way into the white light.

Cynthia wouldn’t go down without a fight.

She battled many times with death, but even Cynthia knew, death always wins the final skirmish.


First, she had an eye illness (was it a tumor?) and then death brought in its big guns, and she got idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. As if that wasn’t more than enough to kill her, she got cancer.

To Cynthia, cancer was like a pesky mosquito bug and deserved little of her attention.

Now, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis — that was something special.

Cynthia loved pointing out that her terminal illness co-stars, Evel Knievel and Robert Goulet both died from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis the way she would.

Celebrities make everything better — even death.

RELATED: Most People Don't Understand What Grief Actually Feels Like

The last time I saw her was in the hospital.


Cynthia was on a tear, and although she was in the hospital, hooked up to machines, she wasn’t holding back from voicing her opinion. Holding back wasn’t something Cynthia ever did.

It was the last time I’d see her, but it was hard to take her impending death seriously — she didn’t.

Before her hospitalization and her release from the hospital, she loved seeing the shock on her doctor’s faces when they realized she was still alive. She bragged about how she’d been kicked out of hospice twice for being too healthy.

Cynthia could handle dying but what she couldn’t take was the war on women’s rights and their body autonomy.

As she lay in her hospital bed, her hair messy and her hospital gown hanging crookedly across her body, she explained why Hillary wouldn’t win the election.


"People hate women," she said. "Men are scared of us."

I’m happy that Cynthia died before Trump was elected, and I’m relieved she wasn’t here when they stormed the capital, but most of all, I’m grateful that she wasn’t around to witness the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Cynthia died on Aug. 10, 2016, at age 66.

When I got the call and the not-hilarious news, I was sad, and shed a few tears. Her death wasn’t a shock — it had been more than expected, and she’d given death a good fight.

I wasn’t a mess.

She’d had weekly lunches at Canter’s Deli, and I went to a few of those. Everyone knew her wishes — no funeral or memorial. If someone set one up anyway, she had a list of the guests she wanted forcibly removed.


Cynthia was loved, but man, could she hold a grudge.

There were a few low-key memorials at The Comedy Store, Canters, and tons of tributes online and on social media.

I wrote about her, processed my feelings, and had no trouble reminiscing. I had known her since I was 25, and she was my teacher at The Groundlings, and we’d forged a relationship. Though sometimes her rage scared the crap out of me.

RELATED: 15 Healthy Ways To Mourn When Someone You Love Is Suddenly Gone

Life went on, people grieved, and her niece and sister-in-law cleaned out her apartment which was filled with two houses worth of stuff.

I remembered how Cynthia would hound me to come over and do a fashion show of her clothes. She wanted me to have them, but she wanted to see them on me first. She had wonderful taste, but I knew no matter how quickly I started wearing them, I’d be filling out my wardrobe with a dead woman’s tunics.


Once for my birthday, Cynthia gave me a gown designed by David Bowie’s wife supermodel Iman.

"Don’t wear this as a nightgown," Cynthia said. "It’s designer."

While it wasn’t my style — too many bugle beads — I wore it to a party and got some nice compliments. The dress was made of a nice jersey material, super comfy, and I did want to lounge in it, sipping an iced tea, next to a pool.

However, a promise is a promise, and although she’s not haunting our mutual friend, James, she does contact him. I’d rather he didn’t hear an earful on how I’m disobeying her wishes. So, the dress sits in the back of the closet slowly losing its glamour as it feeds moths and collects dust bunnies.


I wasn’t in mourning.

I’d had other people I loved die. I knew life went on, but for some reason, I wasn’t actively participating in living. I didn’t go out to shows, I was socializing a lot less, and I didn’t feel very optimistic.

All things I’d be able to relive during the pandemic.

I wasn't particularly happy or unhappy — I just was.

When the election happened, I knew if there was an afterlife, Cynthia was furious about it.

I felt hurt she never contacted me but was screaming in James’ ear when he made a move she didn’t approve of. She didn’t even appear in my dreams or give me a sign she’d connected with other friends I had who’d died.


Was she mad that I hadn’t called her when she came home from the hospital as I’d promised?

RELATED: The 5 Stages Of Grief — Plus 6 We Don't Realize Are Part Of The Grieving Process

I’m no stranger to grief.


When my cat, Yoshi died, four years after Cynthia, I cried all the time. I contacted a pet communicator (don’t judge) and to this day, I'm still grieving over Yoshi's death.

There was none of that for Cynthia; it was just as if I’d taken a sabbatical from joy.

It would be a year before the invisible dark cloth which had been covering my psyche like a mirror in a house of mourning, was metaphorically removed. I finally went back to feeling like myself, socializing, and feeling emotions.

Grief never looks or feels the same way twice. I hadn’t recognized it when I was going through it, and it took perspective for me to understand what I’d been feeling.


I lost someone important to me, and although her death hadn’t been a surprise, my reaction to it was unexpected.

Now, I know, to be gentle with myself and to try to be aware of what’s going on below the surface with me.

I may have been able to fool myself that I wasn’t grieving, but my body, soul, and emotions knew the truth — I was in mourning even if I didn’t know it.

And while her death wasn’t funny, it was iconic, and she’d appreciate that.

RELATED: What Grief Really Means And How To Know What's Normal Or Healthy When You're Grieving

Christine Schoenwald is a writer, performer, and frequent contributor to YourTango. She's had articles featured in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Bustle, Medium, Huffington Post, Business Insider, and Woman's Day, among many others.