This was the exact sort of update I never wanted to write.
Back in 2017, I wrote “What Nobody Tells You About Grieving“as a way of dealing with feelings of losing a beloved pet and all the things it brought out about losing my father and grandmother over the years. At the time, it felt like it was going to be the last thing I needed to say about grief for a while.
And then it wasn’t.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this year has been a shit-show for everyone. Between the pandemic, the lockdown and the election, 2020 has felt like chaos personified. But for all of the stress, headache, heartache and confusion… I’d been one of the lucky ones. I’ve been in a privileged position where things were tough, but I wasn’t at risk of losing my job or my home. I hadn’t lost family members to the QAnon cult. While some of my extended family were Trump voters, things hadn’t devolved so far that it felt like things were hopeless or that there wasn’t a way back for them. And while COVID touched friends and family members, I had been lucky enough that nobody had died from it. While some friends were and are dealing with the long-haul effects of COVID-19, I have been blessed with the fortune of not having lost loved-ones. While there were losses and we all had to learn how to deal with funerals at a time when it simply wasn’t and isn’t safe to go… there was some comfort in that they were losses that were a long time coming. Something that you could prepare for, something that you would functionally mourn in advance, even if you couldn’t be there with your friends to support them or receive support.
And then things started to seem like they were turning around. On Friday, it was starting to become clear that the nightmare of the Trump presidency was coming to an end. On Saturday, it was official: the election was over and Biden had won. On Sunday, we were going to have a small celebration with members of our family by choice, friends who were part of our quarantine pod. This was an important thing for us, especially as some of our friends in this group had to disown their biological family for their toxicity and hate.
And then I got the phone call. My friend Bert Belasco had died suddenly and without warning. He had been found dead in his hotel room in Virginia, where he had been quarantining while waiting for production to start on his new series.
As I write this, we still don’t know for sure what the cause of death was; the best guess is an aneurysm, but we still don’t have any answers. All I know is that 2020 reached out with one last suckerpunch on the way out the door and my world turned upside down.
And so now I’m sitting here, trying to process my feelings in public. I want to say that I’m doing this because I feel that it’s important to talk about loss and grief. That we’ve all shared in this monumental loss, as more than 200,000 Americans have died during this pandemic.
But if I’m being honest, it’s because right now I’m in a lot of pain. Someone great left us and I want people to know about it, damn it.
The Loss of A Gentle Giant
My wife and I first met Bert in 2012. Back then, we were both part of a podcast known as the League of Extremely Ordinary Gentlemen, which was part of Spill.com — a movie review and pop culture site that featured animated film reviewers voiced by Korey Coleman, C. Robert Cargill, Martin Thomas and Chris Cox.
As the site grew in both size and popularity, the fan meet-ups that would be held every year grew as well. Before long, those informal get togethers turned into an official annual event: Spill Dot Con. There would be panels, talent contests, fan videos, parties and opportunities to meet fellow fans, as well as be there for live recordings of the various Spill podcasts. In 2012, Bert — who was then starring in the BET series Let’s Stay Together — came to the convention and was invited to be part of the proceedings. Bert had been a huge fan of the site and the various personalities who were part of it.
I first met Bert as my wife and I were running lines for a live reading of The Intergalactic Nemesis. As we were doing our read-throughs, an absolute giant of a man — and possibly the best-dressed man at the convention — came up and geeked out at us. “You’re Cat and Harris!” he exclaimed, seemingly star-struck. He had only known us by our voices; this was the first time he had ever seen us and he was honestly and legitimately geeking out about meeting us. This in and of itself was a strange experience; for whatever level of Internet Fame I’ve had over the years, I have never gotten used to the idea that people might be fans of my work. But what was stranger to me was that Bert was a successful actor, someone who was being recognized wherever he went while he was in town. He was a legitimate celebrity. And yet he knew who I was and was a fan of me, my wife and the rest of the League.
Except… you would never know that he was a celebrity, who was playing the lead on a popular show. He was one of the sweetest, most down-to-earth and approachable people I had ever met. He never wanted to be the center of attention; he always, always wanted to know about everyone else. He wanted to just sit down and talk with people for hours about what they were doing, what they thought and were into. He always wanted to give the attention to other people because he legitimately found them fascinating and wanted to hear everything. His enthusiasm, generosity of spirit, incredibly positive attitude and huge, huge heart were infectious. He was literally impossible not to like, and we became fast friends almost immediately.
It’s hard to emphasize enough just how much of a force of nature Bert could be. If you were his friend, you were his friend for life and he wanted you to know this. It sounds weird to say this, but he made being his friend almost effortless. Most of the time, when I start to get to know people whose work I’ve long admired, I can be incredibly hesitant to reach out just to say “hey” or just chat; I tend to be loathe to presume on someone’s time and don’t want to overstep my bounds on a developing relationship. Bert, on the other hand, would regularly text or call us; if there was news or something exciting going on, or even he just wanted to catch up, he would carve out time from his day for some marathon-length phone calls.
It was absurdly easy to forget that Bert wasn’t just a working actor, but an up-and-coming celebrity with a long list of credits under his belt. He was just… Bert. There was something strange about watching an episode of Justified and then suddenly there’s our friend.
Bert was literally larger than life — a giant of a man who towered over us all. And yet he was the gentlest soul you could imagine. He was a man so full of love and cheer that he wanted to just share with everyone he cared about. He was passionate about acting and his work, but just as passionate about his friends and loved ones. His greatest ambition was to be an A-list actor who did A-list work; not for fame or glory, but for love of the craft, and so that he could have the resources to travel and see his friends and make sure everyone had an amazing time. He was never happier than hanging out with the people he loved and just goofing around and geeking out. He was, figuratively and literally, one of the biggest geeks I had ever known. When we visited him in Los Angeles, not only did he take my wife and I to see all of the places he loved in LA — from his favorite pizza joint in Westwood to the WB backlot, to the Getty Museum, but brought us over to his place so we could just geek out and play with all the cool nerdy gear he had collected.
From WWE championship belts to lightsabers to a movie-accurate proton pack from Ghostbusters, Bert loved geeky pop culture like few people I’d known. His greatest joy was being able to share that love with his friends and to just help people have an amazing time. His love languages were gifts and acts of service, and there were few things he enjoyed more than taking his friends out to unbelievable meals. He wanted to see his friends happy, healthy and well fed and by GOD if you didn’t eat the most amazing pizza or pancakes or sushi when he was around… well, that was almost like an insult. You were going to ENJOY this food damn it… and enjoy it we did. Because it was impossible not to have a great time with Bert. Whether it was talking on the phone for hours, driving around Los Angeles to see the sites or tour museums like the Getty or just going to incredible restaurants, spending time with him was like being with one of your oldest, dearest friends that you had only just met. He looked like hugs felt and talked like warm laughter.
Even when things were hard — and they could be hard, especially for a working actor in Hollywood — he never gave up. He never lost hope. He knew — with religious certainty — that with passion, drive, ambition and a commitment to hard work, he would achieve his dreams. The central tenet of his faith was very simple: talent and training were just the start. Hard work and putting in the hours would get him where he needed to be.
And damn it, he was right on that cusp.
He lived with ambition and hope, loved without reserve and wanted nothing more than to be able to share the good times with the people he cared about. He adopted us into his family and was an important part of ours.
And then he was gone.
It’s Not Fair (And That’s The Point)
The worst thing about losing someone so suddenly, so randomly is just that: the suddenness of it. The nonsensicalness of it all. As hard as it can be, losing someone is easier when you can see the logic or reason to it. When you lose a loved-one to an illness or age… you mourn that loss, you feel that emptiness like wound to your soul, yes. But you can also understand it. It makes sense to you. You know that — as hard as it can be to face losing them — that what happened was expected.
When I lost my father to cancer, or my grandmother to dementia, even my cat to diabetes, the pain was sharp, but it was expected. We saw death coming and we understood; this was just the way of things. It was awful and painful, some of the worst pain of my life. But it was a pain I could expect. Something I could prepare for. In those cases, I mourned the loss, even while they were here because I saw death on the horizon. I knew that it was coming; the only question was just when and how.
Even when you lose someone suddenly but explicably, there’s a certain comfort in the cold logic of it all. You lose a friend or loved one in a car accident and you can wrap your mind around it. Somebody was drunk. Somebody was careless. They took a turn too quickly. They weren’t looking where they should have been or they got distracted. Or even if it were a pure accident — mechanical failure, ice on the road, swerving to avoid a deer — you at least can comprehend it. There’s a reason, even if that reason is just that shit happens.
But when you lose somebody so suddenly, so unexpectedly and so senselessly… there’s nothing. One minute they’re there, the next minute they’re gone. Your mind flails because we don’t like things that don’t make sense. We as a species are made incredibly uncomfortable by uncertainty; we like things to be neat and tidy, things that we can at least see a linear progression of cause and effect. But then suddenly there’s a hole in the world where someone you loved used to be and there’s nothing, not a damn thing you can do to make sense of it all.
So our minds flail around, looking for anything that we can latch onto, something that we can make sense from. We want some sort of reassurance of our agency and knowledge. We cast about and latch on to anything that can give us some feeling of connection to it all, something that gives a sense of control. There’s a perverse sense of comfort in feeling like we had control, that we could have done something, even if we didn’t. Yes, this means that we feel survivor’s guilt. We feel as though we failed to save them. But even failing meant that it was possible to have done something.
And so we find those augaries that we think we ignored. That moment you felt your entire chest spasm for no reason at 3 in the morning — did that mean something? Was that a sign of what was to come? When Spotify threw Five-Finger Death Punch’s cover of Gone Away into my stream, was that the universe telling me what was about to happen?
Other times, we try to find meaning in it all. We look to religion and spirituality to give us a sense of order. That their death and our loss has meaning and reason. They had to die for a greater purpose, even if that purpose was something we can’t see. Yes, we rage against God or the Fates or the Universe for how cruel they are for stealing this light from our lives but at least then there’s that feeling that there was a reason for it. That while it was cruel and painful it was a guiding hand, something that made it fair, somehow. We then, at least, have someone we can scream at, someone we can blame, someone that we can direct our anger towards.
But there isn’t.
Like I said in my video about emotional strength: our beliefs dictate so much about how we feel. That belief that there should be a purpose to everything, even death, is supposed to comfort us. It’s supposed to make things rational and understandable… fair. But it’s not fair. Fairness never comes into the equation. There is no fairness, no reason, no meaning. The innocent get punished and the wicked get spared. Some are saved and some are lost and there’s no more meaning to it than that. It just is.
We all know that on some level. And we hate that.
Grief Means Living With Perfect Hindsight
One of the worst things about losing someone is that it brings the past into perfect clarity… in the worst way possible. It’s that sudden moment that you realize that the world has changed and now you see all the choices you didn’t make. Like the end of a Telltale game or Life Is Strange or Detroit: Become Human, you suddenly see all the paths you didn’t take, all the things you should have done.
This morning, when I was trying to figure out how to order my thoughts, I realized something awful: I have so few pictures of myself with Bert. We’d known each other for years, we hung out together, ate together, talked for hours on end… and yet I have so few tangible moments from those times. I’m fortunate that my wife was better at taking pictures of all of us, but even so, it’s left me with that horrible gaping feeling of “why”. Why didn’t I do more to memorialize the occasion? Why didn’t I make sure that we had documented more of our time together?
Intellectually, I know why I didn’t. Part of it is because when we would hang out with Bert, we were having such a great time and so engaged that there was just us, food and conversation. We weren’t thinking about the future, certainly not in the sense that this could all go away in an instant. We were in the moment, living for and enjoying the “now” rather than borrowing trouble from the future and fearing the time when one of us might be gone. And again, intellectually, I can see that this was actually for the good; focusing on the possibility of loss — even when it’s inevitable, when we know it comes for us all, eventually — robs us of our ability to be in the present and just be. It makes it impossible to appreciate how good things are in the moment. We can’t savor the pleasure of time with our friends and family of choice when we’re focused on the day when they’re no longer there. All that does is make us miserable, grieving for a future that hasn’t come to past. When you’re focused on the end to the exclusion of all else, when the end finally comes, you look back with that perfect hindsight and see all the joy and laughter you missed out on.
But that doesn’t make it any easier to look at the choices you didn’t make. You still look back and wish you’d done things differently so that you wouldn’t be feeling this way now.
Just as importantly: we feel as though there’s always going to be time. There will always be a next time, because how could there NOT be? Especially when it comes to someone with so much presence like Bert had; it feels like it’s impossible that there would ever be a world without him because he was that strong of a personality, even when he’s not there with us. You could hear his voice in your head perfectly. How could someone so much larger than life not also be larger than death, larger than time? How could our parents not be with us through all our lives? How could our friends, our loved ones, our pets — who’ve been with us for so long, gone through so much with us, experienced so much with us — not be part of our entire existence? How could there ever be a time when they’re not there? There would always be time enough for us. How could the universe be so inexplicably cruel to take someone who was so important in our lives and leave us to go on without them?
When we got the call, my wife sobbed over and over again: “Why didn’t I text him three days ago? Why didn’t I reach out when I had thought about him?” And it’s because we thought — we believed with absolute certainty — that there would always be more time. That he would always be there, because it would be unthinkable that he wouldn’t be.
Until the unthinkable happened.
And now we’re left with that perfect hindsight; cursed to see all the choices we wish we had made, and being unable to do a damn thing about it.
The Hell of the World That Won’t Stop
One of the worst parts about grief is that the world won’t stand still for you. It feels like the worst crime that could be inflicted on you: you have no choice but to keep moving forward. And that’s maddening. How can everybody keep carrying on like nothing happened? How the purple suffering fuck is everybody just going about their goddamn fucking lives like the world hasn’t fucking ended? How in the seven names of God are people continuing to just live their lives, go to work, buy groceries, turn on Netflix and watch The Queen’s Gambit like there isn’t this giant fucking tear in the fabric of the universe where someone used to be? How DARE they all not stop and pay fucking attention to the fact that the worst crime of all has been committed? HOW GODDAMN DARE THEY NOT STOP AND MOURN WITH YOU? You are fucking owed this, goddamn it, because of what’s been stolen from you. ATTENTION MUST BE FUCKING PAID.
But it’s not. And it won’t be.
Oh, the people in your life will acknowledge your loss. Friends, family members, even strangers on the Internet if you’re public enough with it all will tell you how sorry they are for your loss. Some will try to comfort you as best they can, even if they don’t necessarily know how. But the world won’t stop for you, no matter how much it feels like it should. The world will continue to march forward as it always does, because time doesn’t stop for your convenience. It feels like an insult to be told in this way that your pain just isn’t big enough, your loss powerful enough, your sadness and anger strong enough to stop time in its tracks, to pause EVERYTHING so that you can cry and scream and rage and demand recompense from forces that will never ever give it to you.
But it isn’t. It’s not, and you can’t make the world stop, no matter how much you feel like it should.
And so you — like everyone else who has felt that same pain you are feeling right now — are forced to keep going through the motions. There is no time to stop to grieve because time won’t stop for you; you are forced to carry your feelings with you through your day. You have no choice but to keep moving forward, to try to find some way of getting through each day as you had before.
Oh, you can certainly try to stop. To put things on pause to rage and cry and scream. And some parts of your life may even make allowances for it. Your school may give you time off. Your job may give you compassionate leave, or make allowances for your emotional state and your not being at your best. But it won’t be a true pause. You are still going to have to eat, to sleep, to breathe and shit and move inexorably forward in time. Life won’t stop for you, any more than you stopped because a stranger lost someone they loved.
The hell of it is, though… sometimes the world does stop to observe. In fact, part of what screws with my head is that when I open my phone or my web browser, I see TMZ, the Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and other news outlets reporting his death. The loss of my friend is literally a headline story.
And yet… it’s not the comfort you’d think. It feels so oddly impersonal; even as others are grieving with you, it still doesn’t feel right, somehow. It’s reporting, not mourning. It feels as though he’s been reduced to facts and numbers, a listing of his age and IMDB credits, instead of being a person, a friend, a son, a brother. Worse, it almost feels like an intrusion on your grief. These fucking strangers are weighing in on something that feels so goddamn personal, when you know good and well that this is just abstract information to them. Someone you cared about, turned into clicks so they can set rates for advertisers.
And when you stumble across those reminders that he’s gone — such as, say, at 3 in the morning when you can’t sleep — it’s like an icicle jammed straight into your heart.
It’s just another reminder that this loss — even when the world is called to pay heed — is still intensely personal. We may share it, but we are all alone with it.
And the world won’t stop just for us.
The only choice you have is to find a way to grieve and live at the same time. You have to decide that you’re going to take each step forward. You’re going to get up and force yourself to live because that’s your job. You may not like it. You may hate it with the passion of a thousand suns. But that’s your job now and you’re a goddamn professional.
Just as the world won’t stop… neither will you. In fact, you’ll be reminded of just how alive you are because your feelings will confuse the absolute shit out of you.
I tear up surprisingly easy. I will get weepy discussing how there is a generation of children who are growing up to be engineers because they want to be the ones to go to Mars and bring Opportunity home. My eyes will water when I talk about the spider and the door from Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart A Doorway, or the moment that in Beneath A Sugar Sky when we learn that in the end, everyone gets to go home.
I haven’t cried for Bert. Not yet. I feel the tears, sitting there just at the edges. I feel the pain like a punch to the solar plexus. I feel the cold sharpness of the loss, the dull throbbing muscular ache of the grief. But I can’t seem to actually to make the tears happen.
But then there are the moments that I don’t even feel that.
One of the most frustrating, perplexing and even fucking confusing things is that no matter how bad you feel is that you won’t feel that badly for very long. Even when you’re in the middle of the worst of your grief, there will be moments where you just don’t… feel awful. In fact, you will, randomly feel normal. You will be crying and angry and raging and a friend — who doesn’t know that you’re feeling all of these feelings — will send you a text or a meme and for a brief blip of a moment, you’ll feel normal. You’ll snap out of things, snicker or fire off a response and, for an intensely confusing moment, feel like you did before your world ended.
And a lot of times… you won’t know what the fuck to do with those feelings.
Those moments of normalcy will weird you out. They’ll make you feel like you’re doing something wrong. How in pluperfect fuckery can you feel ok, even normal, when you’ve got this hole in your soul? Doesn’t this mean that you’re not that affected by their loss? Or you aren’t that sad about it? Does this mean that you aren’t as hurt by this as you should be? What, and I can’t emphasize this enough, the actual fuck is going on?
And the answer is… life. Life is going on. You are going on. Because just like life won’t stop for you, neither will you. Even at the worst, when you just want to lay there and fade into nothingness, you will continue. You will laugh. You will be restless. You will get hungry and horny and have cravings for popcorn or burgers. Because death and loss isn’t an ending. Not for the living, not for the survivors, no matter how shitty you may feel. As fucked up as it may seem in the moment, the truth is that nothing lasts forever, no matter how much it feels like it will, and that includes your sadness and pain. Even when the conscious, thinking part of our brains insist that this how we’re going to feel for the rest of our lives, the rest of our brains just laugh and say “NOPE”. Because we are meant to live and by god we are going to. Whether we want to or not.
And so we have those moments of normalcy because we’re going to return to normalcy again. It’s more or less inevitable; no matter how great the loss or how inconsolable the pain, there will come a point where it fades and now that absence is just part of your status quo. The strangest and most perplexing part of being human is that we are infinitely adaptable. We will, given time, adjust to anything. Including loss. The hole in the world where they used to be hasn’t closed. It will always be there, no matter what. But in time, it goes from being an affront to our very souls, a crime against God and man and reality to… just how things are. It sucks that they’re gone, and it’ll never stop sucking. But it will go from being the worst pain you have ever felt to just something in your life; one more jot of data in the overarching narrative of who you are.
Which is why you have those weird moments of normalcy. It’s life, reasserting its primacy over you. And while they may be few and far between at first, sooner or later they start to come more frequently and last longer. And then at some point… it’s just normal again. It’s just your life. Your life without them, but your life nonetheless. Because the rule of this world is to remember that you will live.
Feeling normal doesn’t mean we forget the ones we lost. It doesn’t mean that we don’t feel the ache where they used to be. It just serves as a reminder that life continues and while yes we all will die, we all must live. And if we are to remember that we must live, then we should take what we’ve learned and what we’ve felt and use it. We should learn from it. After all, if hindsight is 20/20, then we should take that perfect insight and apply it to the rest of our lives and the choices we make. We should text our friends and loved ones when we think about them, just to let them know that we ARE thinking about them. We should document our good times, so that we don’t look back and lament that we don’t have those memories shaped into light, electricity and matter. We should reach out to the people we love and let them know how much they mean to us, how much we appreciate them and how much they bring to our lives.
And we should all aspire to live with the same gusto, drive and joie de vivre that someone like Bert did. Because Bert lived life to its fullest. He lived with ambition and purpose, loved without abandon, cared for his friends and family — by blood and by choice — with intensity and ferocity and wanted the people he loved to have the best of times.
I loved him like a brother and I miss him more than words can say. We will never see the likes of him again. He’s gone and that’s not right.
And as much as I know that some day this will stop hurting, right now all I want is to punch God in the fucking mouth.