THE BLOG
06/23/2015 08:29 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

The New Normal: Navigating Life After Harris' Death

On Feb. 19, 2015, Harris Wittels -- executive producer of NBC's hit comedy Parks and Recreation -- was found dead at age 30 of a drug overdose in his Los Angeles home. Here, his older sister, Stephanie, recalls the first moments her worst-case scenario became reality and describes the daunting task of navigating life after her beloved brother's death.

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Your brother is dead.

He was found dead.

He died.

He is dead.

I can't recall the exact phrase. She definitely used some tense of "to die" --  not some other euphemism for permanently and suddenly gone from your life from this point forward. She didn't say, "Your brother passed away." Passing away is too natural, too as it should be. Passing away is what my grandmother did in her sleep at 92 after living a complete life. It was sad. And expected.

This isn't that. This is brutal and tragic and worthy of Irish keening.

You can't be dead.

You emailed Mom earlier that night. You described the place you would sublet in New York. You said the Parks finale would make her cry. You said you felt "very fortunate." You told her you loved her.

You are coming home next weekend to see your niece. She just started walking. You were so excited. You said this was the trip where you two would really bond  -- where she would remember you after you left.

You are supposed to be coming home next weekend.

You are supposed to be coming home alive.

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I am changing the baby's diaper in the bathroom of the Center for Hearing and Speech. It is five minutes after 5 o'clock on Thursday, February 19, 2015. The sun is shining. My 34th birthday is tomorrow. My parents will come to the house. They will bring Star Pizza (our favorite). We will eat cake and make wishes. We will put the baby to bed, and my husband and I will go to an actual bar with actual friends away from our children. This is a rare/never occasion. I'm excited to drink alcohol with grown ups. Iris just killed it at her monthly speech therapy session. She is a baby-talk machine. Nothing is slowing her down. We feel happy and proud.

I'm changing the diaper when the phone rings. It is an unknown LA area code. I press ignore and continue to deal with the dirty diaper. The phone rings again. Same unknown LA number.

I have imagined this moment before.

My heart pounds. I answer.

Is this Stephanie Wittels?

Yes.

Is Harris Wittels your brother?

Yes

When was the last time you spoke to your brother?

I don't know. Why? What's going on? I'm changing my baby's diaper.

Is there another adult with you?

WHY? WHAT HAPPENED. / NO! / WAIT. WAIT!!

I scream for my husband down the hall. He runs in and grabs the waist-down naked baby who is now shrieking.

And then:

He's dead.

He died.

Your brother died.

He is dead.

Something like that.

I fall to the ground on the bathroom floor, screaming and crying. I don't remember how or why, but I push myself up and rush down the long hallway toward the entrance of the building. The few people left at work stare, confused. It's a lot of emotion for 5 o'clock on a Thursday. Once outside, it's jarring to see that the world is still moving. People are doing all of the things they normally do in rush hour traffic: driving, honking, foolishly texting, making frustrated hand gestures. It's a beautiful day.

Tragedy always seems to strike on a beautiful day.

I fall to my hands and knees a second time and pound my fists on the pavement. (I literally do this.)

All the while, the detective provides details.

A balloon. A spoon. A syringe cap but no needle.

She asks questions.

Was he suicidal?

No.

Did he have any medical issues?

Yes. He was a drug addict. You were probably able to deduce as much from the picture of the "crime scene" you just painted for me.

I distinctly remember realizing at some point during this horrific conversation that I would have to tell my mother her only son was dead and that would be the most horrific moment of my life  --  even more horrific than this one.

My husband tries to reason with me that I am in no condition to drive, but I am currently unreasonable and get in the car anyway. Somehow, I navigate the familiar way to her building while carrying the most unfamiliar feeling in my gut.

My dad is walking up as I pull into the driveway. Once I say the thing I came to say, his world will collapse like mine just did. How does one say a sentence like this? We sit on a bench. I somehow say it in between sobs. His face goes blank. He sheds a tear but says nothing. This is how he deals with grief.

My mom isn't home. She's out with friends -- a movie and an early dinner. So, I pace the floor while she enjoys her final moments of ignorant bliss. My husband comes in with the baby who gets hysterical when I get hysterical, so I try to stay calm.

My brother's business manager calls. He is kind. He sends condolences. He says he was there when the detectives were there. He says something about a coroner's notice being affixed to the front door of the house telling the world he has died. He tells me he doesn't want to rush me and knows this is a deeply personal time, but that once the news gets out, it will be a runaway train. It will be totally out of our control. So, I need to tell my mom as soon as possible. I don't fully understand what he means. He is my brother. He is my brother who died. I don't realize who he is to everyone else.

My mom is still not home. I don't know what to do. I text her and ask where she is. I don't want to say too much. I don't want her to drive knowing what I know. She says she's at some sushi restaurant and texts me a picture of her dinner. I ask if she's playing cards later tonight. She asks why  --  what's wrong? I say nothing.

The phone rings at 6:45 p.m. It's one of Harris' closest friends who rarely, if ever, calls. He tells me TMZ leaked the story. He asks if it's true.

TMZ leaked the fucking story before my mother can find out her son is dead.

She is downstairs in the parking garage. She has gotten several concerned text messages. She calls me, panicked. She asks what is going on. I tell her to stay put, and I will be down. I run down the hall to the elevator, but she is already on her way up while I'm on my way down. We miss each other. I get back on the elevator. I run back into their apartment.

My dad has broken the news. They hold each other.

She wails:

WHY? NO! NOT MY BABY! OH GOD NOT MY BABY!

Her knees buckle. She pounds the floor. She curls into the fetal position. (She literally does this.)

I hold her.

We cry together.

People start showing up within the hour. They say various things at me. I retain none of it. The phone rings and dings a thousand times. I just sit on the couch, stare at the wall, and cry. The night goes on forever. At some point, my husband drives us home. I take an Ambien and cry myself to sleep.

I wake up still crying the next morning. I didn't know it was possible to awaken from a state of sleep in tears, but I do. It is my 34th birthday, but Facebook doesn't understand that I'm not in the mood to celebrate anything ever again and that all the messages being posted on my wall are those of condolence. Every time I log on, a window pops up with this exploding fireworks graphic and a happy birthday banner that displays all the wall posts about my brother's death. I tell my husband to take my birthday off the calendar for the duration of our lives.

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Over the next few days, we all want to die but make arrangements instead.

We coordinate with the funeral home in LA, the detective, the coroner's office. They won't release the body until they complete an autopsy, and there are too many people in line. So, we wait.

We pick a casket.

We meet with the rabbi.

We write an obituary.

We sign various documents.

People come and go. They bring deli. It feels wrong.

When an old person dies, it makes sense for people to visit, to bring deli, to make small talk about their children and their grandchildren. But not now. Not when a young, talented, successful, brilliant, remarkable person has died. True tragedy transcends small talk.

If Harris was here, he'd comment on what a fucked up scene this is.

My fuse is particularly short. I don't want to hug or commiserate or cry on another shoulder. I have absolutely no tolerance for social conventions. Anyone who asks "how are you" is met with "terrible  --  my brother just died." Some version of this sentence keeps running through my mind on repeat like a newsfeed on the bottom of a screen. It never stops. It underscores every moment:

"My brother is dead my brother is dead my brother is dead my brother is dead my brother is dead my brother is dead my brother is dead my brother is dead my brother is dead..."

Like I have to keep saying it or it isn't real. Like I have to keep reminding myself that this is really happening because it's just too fucking unbelievable.

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The funeral is finally scheduled for Thursday, February 26  --  exactly seven days after I got the call. The day before the funeral, I realize I have to buy a dress. I have to go to a store where people are buying dresses for happy occasions and buy a dress to wear to my brother's funeral. A dress that will forever hang in my closet as the dress I wore to my brother's funeral. I'll never wear this dress again, but I'll never give it away. It will just hang there forever next to all of his concert T-shirts and hoodies.

The sun sets and rises as it somehow continues to do, and it's time to bury my brother.

There are the shiny black limousines.

The walking into the chapel where we were both Bar Mitzvahed, seeing all the people staring at us, and not being able to proceed. Once I go in, I have to sit through my brother's funeral, and I don't want to sit through my brother's funeral.

The sitting in the front row right in front of the casket and the giant poster of his face perched on an easel -- the photo from the inside of his book jacket. I remember when he sent me the proofs. I chose this one.

The eulogy that I somehow read aloud in front of 500 people.

The flashing lights and sirens of police escorts as we caravan to the cemetery.

The shoveling of the dirt on top of the casket.

The minyon that lasts until 10 p.m.

The thank you and the thank you and the thank you...

The sheer exhaustion and the feeling that I very well might die, too.

The flying to Los Angeles two days later with my mom and husband and baby.

The tribute shows and the meeting of all the wonderful people who loved him so intensely.

The packing up of his house and his entire life.

The sifting through things he'd never want us to see.

The rehab journals and overflowing folders from all three rehab facilities -- worksheets, suggested readings, informational packets.

The sobriety chips and the several copies of AA and NA.

The drugs and the needles still in his bathroom drawer.

The things I wish I'd known, the things I knew but didn't say, the things I knew and said but should have said more.

The couch in the living room where he died, that no one will sit on but me.

****

Here is what I am supposed to do:

I am supposed to be your sister for the duration of our lives. We have 50-60 more years ahead of us.

I am supposed to tell funny stories about when we were kids at your rehearsal dinner.

I am supposed to look into your baby's eyes and see you reflected in them.

Here is what I am not supposed to do:

I am not supposed to tell funny stories about when we were kids at your funeral.

I am not supposed to sit on the cold ground, peering into a giant hole at a casket we chose for you out of a brochure.

I am not supposed to wonder what you look like in there, wearing your favorite pajama pants and Phish T-shirt, holding a set of drumsticks.