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.
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 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.
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?
Is Harris Wittels your brother?
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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 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.
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.
The grief takes up so much space that there's not much room for anything else. When I'm not thinking about how bleak life's going to be without you, I'm signing or notarizing or mailing documents on your behalf or explaining to some customer service representative that you're dead. Most importantly, I'm trying my best to get out of bed every morning, put one foot in front of the other, and smile for my daughter. This is taking all the energy I have. As a result, my ability to think and remember is notably compromised. I constantly say one word but mean another. I hear "I told you that already" constantly.
It's also physically painful. My lower back aches. My neck is locked into one position. My jaw is tense. My head is permanently migrained. My ankle may be sprained. I keep walking into furniture. At one point, I run full speed into your bedpost and literally hit the ground, writhing in pain, unable to breathe.
Hitting the ground is a repeated theme of the grieving process.
On the whole, it's choppy and messy and non-linear. One emotion doesn't flow neatly into another but hits you suddenly like morning sickness and can't be pushed down. The only way to make it stop is to vomit up the feeling -- to feel it deeply and loudly. Then, you're suddenly making a joke: "If he wasn't already dead, I'd fucking kill him." And everyone laughs.
The pain comes and goes and comes and goes. You don't pass one stage, scratch it off your list, and graduate onto the next. It's not compartmentalized as the chart suggests. It comes in waves. It's circuitous ad never-ending. Joan Didion said this better:
"Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life."
I should have just posted that and called it a day.
"Sudden apprehension" is pretty much the theme of daily life once the crippling sorrow subsides. No one (besides Joan Didion) seems to talk about that. You hear about anger, denial, bargaining, acceptance, but never about the flood of anxiety. Once the house is packed up and the meetings are held and the movers have come and gone, we fly back to Houston where I begin to displace all of my emotional pain on worrying about my daughter's health. I worry about everything, really. I worry when my husband walks the dog at night, when I drive with the baby on the freeway, when the phone rings. I worry that something terrible is lurking behind every corner or ready to fall from the sky. I worry worry worry. I'm either sad or gearing up for the next shit storm. It's exhausting. I just want to sleep. That's all I want to do. If I'm asleep, I can't worry or cry or think about how my only brother is dead. Plus, he is alive in my dreams. In my dreams, everything is normal.
The permanence of death is unbearable. I can't fix it or make it better. I am powerless -- the thing my brother could never quite accept. It all feels unfair. Why did my brother have to be a drug addict? Why did he have to die? Why do I have to live life from this point forward without him? Why is all of this happening to me? It all blurs together and feels like a punishment for some transgression in a past life. My inner victim is loud and self-pitying. I feel like that tragic family that people reference in conversations to feel better about themselves.
I am certain I will never feel joy again.
It feels like yesterday and a hundred years ago all at the same time. It feels like I want to burn something to the ground and do nothing forever.
The thought of going back to work is terrifying. I don't know how I will form sentences much less do the job I have always done in the place where you and I both went to high school. I carry one of your sobriety chips in my pocket that whole first week back. It reads:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
This feels like an impossible task. I wonder if Harris felt like that, too.
Most of the time, I just feel like some sort of alien who is going through the motions of being human but is from another galaxy and having a hard time fitting into this world. And, no one here can win. I feel angry when people don't acknowledge the situation, and I feel angry when they inevitably say the wrong thing. "How are you?" or "have a nice day" tend to feel like acts of violence.
The public response to such a personal tragedy is simultaneously comforting and horrifying. That first week, you are a trending topic. My entire Facebook feed is you -- podcasts, photos, videos, quotes, articles, tributes, blog posts, tweets. Strangers send beautiful messages and flowers. Someone off the Internet even painted a portrait of you that's now hanging in our house. But then Leonard Nimoy dies and your position of "tragic dead celebrity of the week" is usurped. By the end of Week 2, neither of you are news anymore and everyone goes back to bitching about traffic, making jokes, and sharing baby milestones.
Nothing makes the pain worse than seeing that everyone else has the ability to move on while you're still stuck. I think, "People are the worst." And, then I hear you tell me they mean well. And, they do. They really do.
They keep calling when I don't respond.
They send beautiful cards and messages.
They donate money to your scholarship fund.
They offer to help with Iris and groceries and life, in general.
They let me take my time returning to the fold.
They shower me with love.
I go to the cemetery for the first time the day before your birthday, which also marks the two-month anniversary of your death. The grass hasn't even taken root yet. I sit right in front of your temporary gravesite marker and play you all of Iris' latest videos.
Like the one of her wiping her own nose on command.
And the one of her chasing Wiley around the house naked.
And the one of her listening to a record for the first time.
And the one of her doing the Whiplash parody with her daddy.
I sit there for a while, tears pouring out of my eyes, then walk around to "meet" your neighbors. I come back and sit a while longer but soon become weirded out by all the rolly pollies crawling around in the grass. There are just so many. It's like that scene in Lost Boys with the maggots in the Chinese food. Man, you loved that movie. I wonder how you feel about rolly pollies.
For the duration of my life, I will wonder how you feel about all sorts of things.
Doesn't Bob Durst remind you of Dad a little bit?
Do you think the guy from The Staircase killed his wife?
Did you ever make that pasta dish that Jon Favreau made in Chef? The recipe was posted online -- looks delicious.
How fucked up is it that they didn't just choose ONE Bachelorette? Bullshit.
What does that guy on FB that we both know do for work? Like, how does he live in the world?
Did you see the comment that that asshole posted on my Chronicle article? Can you BELIEVE that? I now understand why you called that lady a "cunt" and apologize for being judgmental at the time.
Do you think when people say they will pray for you that they actually pray for you, or is it just a figure of speech?
Do you see that Iris is a spitting image of you as a baby? It's just uncanny.
Harris or Iris? Iris or Harris? Hard to tell.
A longing to connect is everpresent. Whenever anything significant or insignificant happens, I want to share it with you like I always have. But, I can't. And, when this happens, which is all the time, it makes me grieve all over again.
It's been three months when I go back to the storage unit to drop something off. The last (and only) time I was here was to open it up for the movers when they arrived from LA with all of your stuff. I open the garage door, breathe in and sob. Sometimes if I inhale too deeply, it pushes some internal button and tears come pouring out of my face when I exhale. It happens all the time. Having a conversation with the pediatrician. Driving to the grocery store. Opening the big, garage door to a storage unit. Looking at all your furniture and boxes full of hoodies and cool artwork all crammed into a 10 x 10 climate-controlled box.
I want to give this thing an ending, but there is no end to grief. There's only navigating the way to a new normal. The old normal consisted of us being a family of four, then a family of five, then a family of six. In the old normal, we texted each other constantly about Iris, about girls, about television shows. We told each other secrets. We shared notes on Mom and Dad. We went on family vacations once a year. In the old normal, we constantly worried about whether you were sober or using, and you constantly reassured us that you had it under control. On February 19, 2015, our worst-case scenario became a reality. You were 30 years old. You were ridiculously successful. You were more talented than anyone else. You were loved by so many people.
It's funny how time is now measured before and after that date. It's been nearly four months, and not an hour goes by where I don't think of you, miss you, and wish you were here. When you died, I thought I'd never feel joy again, but I was wrong. Life goes on for the people who are still here. It's hard to feel pain when your days are spent with a tiny person whose life goals include swinging, sliding, singing, hanging out with Mommy, picking flowers, making dolls go night-night, eating tons of mac and cheese, reading books, wearing shirts with butterflies on them, summoning cats at the window, and getting kisses from the dog. On the regs (as you would say), I slide down slides, run through sprinklers, and play hide and seek. I willingly make small talk at the park and dinner for my family. I recently went strawberry-picking. I danced at a beautiful wedding. I stay-cationed with my husband. I had drinks with good friends. I joined a gym. I got a haircut. I directed a play. I survived a flood. I tried to get a bill passed. I graduated my first class of seniors. I posted too many pictures of my kid on the Internet. She is just the funniest little person. Thank you for passing that gene along to her. She makes me laugh a hundred times a day, a thousand times a week, a million times a month. And, what better way to honor you than to laugh?
So, I will continue to laugh. And, as time passes -- as it inevitably does -- the good days will outnumber the bad.
Your absence will always be palpable, but I will find you in places I never looked before. Like the other day, when I saw multiple clouds in the sky shaped like fish and knew it was you.
Holidays and celebrations will feel vacant without you there, but little moments will mean more than they ever did before. Like today in the car when I sang "You Are My Sunshine" to Iris who was sitting in the back seat. As I sang, I was simultaneously overwhelmed with pure joy as I saw her clapping along in the rear view mirror and sorrow that you would never get to see such a spectacular view.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are grey.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don't take my sunshine away.
The other night dear when I lay sleeping,
I dreamed I held you in my arms.
When I awoke dear, I was mistaken,
So I hung my head and cried.
This little song is so happy and so sad all at once. Like life. Like what it feels like to lose someone you love but still be surrounded by so much light.
The Harris Wittels Fund will award scholarships to graduating seniors of his alma mater, The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, TX, who are pursuing a career in film, TV or comedy and go toward other initiatives to inspire young artists to work tirelessly on their craft. To learn more, click here.
A version of this post originally appeared on Medium.