How a Carnival Helped Me Fight Grief


In June, my husband’s aunt died after a long and incredibly courageous battle with ovarian cancer. I say “my husband’s aunt,” because biologically that is who she was, but it doesn’t accurately describe what a big presence she was in our lives. My husband’s family is tight-knit and his aunt lived only twenty-minutes from us. In addition to holidays and family trips, we saw her pretty regularly, particularly when she was feeling down or had gotten bad news from the doctor (she fought cancer for six years—she often had bad news from the doctor), and she knew that seeing my two little girls would give her spirits a much-needed lift.

She was the type of person who always got onto the floor/sand/grass with the kids and enjoyed playing as much as they did. Even when sick, she had a zest for life that brought light to everyone around her. She used to laugh about some of the crazy things that cancer did to her body, and I’d marvel that anyone so sick could seem so happy.

She was sick for a long time, and we knew that even though she was as tenacious in her fight against cancer as she was with everything else, the disease was going to win someday. So, when the end came, we weren’t surprised, but we were still shocked. To say her death left a gaping hole in our lives is an understatement. Her death left me sad and angry and full of a lot of self-pity that I’d no longer have her to turn to when I wanted to know if my daughters were hitting their milestones at the appropriate time or to kvetch about some family drama, or where to get the perfect bag for spring.

After her passing, there was a cloud of sadness that hung over us all, despite our best efforts to show brave faces for the sake of the kids. I think grief is a necessary thing. If something terrible and tragic happens in your life, it’s okay to be sad. We all know that not dealing with things will almost always come back to haunt us. It’s even okay to be really sad and to cry and to maybe eat too little or too much for a while. Those things are proof that you’re processing the stimuli at hand.

And I don’t believe in shielding my children from life—there are things that aren’t appropriate for them, and there are ways to approach the things I do share, but sickness and death are facts of life, and I think I’d be doing a disservice to them if I behaved as if they weren’t. However, the sadness I felt when my husband’s aunt died was like wearing a down coat in August. It was pervasive, and it did things like make me tear up when I thought about never sitting on her boat again, but it also made me sit at a stoplight without realizing the light had changed. Being distracted when your kids are in the car is never a good thing. I needed a little respite. I needed to shake off that misery just a little so I could read a book to my girls three times in a row with just as much excitement as their aunt would have.

On the Friday after the funeral, my sister-in-law and I took our girls to a church carnival with my parents-in-law. The kids love all the rides and they went into the Fun House and most of the rides just the three of them, but somehow on The Scrambler, they needed an extra person and that person turned out to be me. I didn’t mind. I like most rides except for the ones that pull you up really high and then just drop you. But I like anything spinny, so I got in line with my daughter and my younger niece and we climbed on. I sat on the end and when the ride started going, I whooped and I screamed because that’s what you’re supposed to do on rides and besides, it cracked the kids up. Plus, it was pretty fast for a ride you only had to be 36” to ride. 

The whole time, I screamed every time we went whizzing past the other cars and it felt like we were going to crash. Because the girls thought it was hilarious that a grown-up was screaming on a ride, I laughed, too. And when we got off the ride, I felt as if a weight had been lifted. I felt a little lighter because those screams had allowed me to release at least a little of that weight that had been dragging me down all week. The sadness was still there, but now, it was more of a pashmina than a Northface. Maybe I wasn’t cured, but I was on the road to recovery.

There’s plenty of evidence that screaming can reduce stress. It gets all that pent-up angst out of your body. The trick is to do it when and where it makes sense. On-line at the DMV or sitting in your bosses office are probably not good choices for letting it all out. But in your car in an empty parking lot, when an airplane is directly overhead, or into a pillow are. Or you can head out to one of the many carnivals happening this summer and fall and ride the Tilt-a-Whirl. Or head to Coney Island and ride the Cyclone. There’s nothing like a wooden roller-coaster built almost a hundred years ago to help you get it all out…Plus your kids will think it’s hilarious, and what won’t we do to make our kids smile?

I’m still sad about her passing. She was a wonderful, vibrant person and she’s gone and that is sad. But I can also laugh about the fun times, and that’s the difference.