The 6th Stage of Grief: Stupidity

Dear Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: 

On behalf of all mourners, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to identify the Five Stages of Grief. Your instincts about denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance were spot-on! 

But in light of recent events, I’d like to suggest adding a Sixth Stage: Stupidity.  

You probably think I’m referring to all the death and destruction brought on by the coronavirus. And I am. But my own personal grief cycle kicked off about a month before the global pandemic, when my mother died of endometrial cancer.

But the story I want to tell you right now is not a sad one, I promise. It’s embarrassing.

Beyond embarrassing— mortifying! humiliating! Stupid. Some background. My mother’s death fell on a Monday in February, during a week that my kids had off from school. A ski trip to Colorado had been on the books, and my husband and I made the decision that after the funeral, he and the kids would fly to Colorado while I’d stay in Philly for the week of shiva.

So there I am on Thursday, in the middle of sitting shiva at my sister’s house, when an alert pops up on my phone from United Airlines: “We’ll see you soon! Your flight to Denver departs at 6:15 from LaGuardia Airport.” I turn to my cousin Michelle, and tell her that in my sadness and shock, I’d forgotten to cancel my flight. 

“You know, it’s better to do that before you’re supposed to fly,” Michelle says, with her trademark air of authority. “If you want to get credit for the flight, I’d call now.” Michelle tends to be right about this sort of thing, so I head to a corner of the kitchen not teeming with noshing friends and relatives, and do a Google search for “United customer service phone.” Within seconds, a site with the United Airlines logo appears and I click on the link, dialing. 

(I have to apologize here, because in my day-job as a TV writer, I try to follow the golden rule: “Stay ahead of your audience.” Suffice to say, in this story, you are and will always be way ahead of me.)

“Hello?” A man has picked up my call. 

“United Airlines?” I offer, delighted to have gotten through so quickly. I explain my predicament: The death of my mother, my flight to Denver, is it possible to get a credit or refund for this flight? 

The customer service rep asks me for my flight confirmation code, and patiently bears with me as I scroll through my phone looking for it. Eventually I find it and read him the series of letters and numbers, which I hear him punching into his computer. 

“Oh, I’m sorry, Miss. Your ticket is non-refundable.”

My heart sinks. I can’t remember the exact price of my ticket, but I know it wasn’t cheap. 

“Isn’t there anything you can do, under the circumstances? Credit, at least?” The man has a kind voice and says that in light of my loss, he’s going to try to help. He reminds me that my ticket cost $897, and asks if he can put me on hold. Of course, I say. Of course.

After the requisite few minutes on hold, he comes back to say that he’s working on this for me, but since my ticket was non-refundable, it’s proving difficult. My heart-rate jumps. I curse myself for buying a non-refundable ticket and pray that this guy comes through.

$897 is a lot of money to flush down the toilet. 

Eventually, he transfers me to his supervisor, who has a deeper voice. Rep #2 (let’s call him Donald) asks me for all the same information as the first guy, and seems even more sympathetic about my plight. “But you see, you did buy a non-refundable ticket.” Donald puts me on hold two or three more times. I’m fully sweating now. $897 has become my life savings (it’s not), and it’s gone. 

Finally, Donald comes back and says, “Good news. I’ve found a way for us to refund your money.” I’m so relieved I could cry. “I cannot refund your money directly,” he continues, “But do you have a United gift card?” Who ever heard of an airline gift card? Did that even exist?

“No,” I say, “Why would I have that?”

“What you have to do is buy a gift card from Target or Ebay,” says Donald, “for the exact amount of the flight, and I’ll be able to reimburse you.”

This is where things start getting fuzzy for me. He’s saying words that don’t quite make sense, and I feel like I’m underwater, trying to decipher a code. I remember having the thought that United, Target and Ebay must have been recently gobbled up by some mega corporate conglomerate. What a world. 

Once I accept that this transaction must occur, I need to understand the mechanics: “How do I buy this gift card? Do I have to buy it online, or…?”

“You must go to the store now. You will probably have to buy two gift cards, because each one has a $500 limit,” Donald says. 

In person? NOW?!” From my spot in the kitchen, I can see my cousins, sitting on the living room couch quietly talking. I can also see into the dining room, where my sister’s fixing a plate of cookies, and talking to one of my aunts. I just want to be with them, but now I have to shlep to Target to buy gift cards so that I can get my airline ticket money back. I start to cry at the injustice of it all.

“It’s just—I’m in the middle of shiva, and I really can’t believe I have to do this right now!”

“Ma’am, do not cry.” I try, but fail. “Stop crying, Ma’am.”  He tells me he’ll stay on the phone with me to guide me through the steps. 

 I try to pull myself together, and call out to my 22 year-old niece, Megan, who I decide will be my ride. Everyone’s confused about my sudden need to go to Target, but I tell them it’s a long story and just needs to happen. 

Megan puts on her jacket and asks Donald (who’s still on the line) if we have to go to an actual Target, or just buy the gift cards at CVS? Anywhere that sells Target or Ebay gift cards will work, he says. 

As I catch Megan up on this call, she gives me the side-eye. “This sounds really weird,” and I have to agree: Super-weird! 

With all the conviction of a person with a brain, I ask Donald to prove he’s legit. I’ll skip over the part where he sounds offended, indignant even, then guilt-trips me about my non-refundable ticket. He’s just trying to help. I’ll also skip the part where I tell him not to take it personally, and ask him to just admit this is a “highly unusual” way to do business. (He does not admit this, by the way.) Then, he hits me with this: 

“Look in your email, and you will see a cancellation email from United Airlines.”

I take a moment to refresh my email and lo and behold, there it is in black and white: An email from United Airlines confirming that I’ve cancelled my flight. Boom. That’s all the proof I need. I apologize for doubting him and am now officially putty in his hands. 

Final words from Donald before I enter the CVS: “If the cashier asks what these gift cards are for, do not tell them they’re for airline tickets. Tell them they’re for personal use.”

(Did I mention I’m temporarily brain-dead?) 

I bee-line to gift card rack: It’s mostly empty. I see no Ebay gift cards, but — just my luck — two Target gift cards remain. To my grieving, idiotic eyes, they might as well be Golden Tickets. I snap them up and head back out to the parking lot, exhaling.

Donald, who’s still on speaker-phone, tells me that on the back of the cards I’ll find a silver patch: I’m to scratch off the silver and read him the access codes. This last part takes some time because the numbers are tiny and I also have to consult my receipt to help him identify which card has $400 and which card has $500. But I do it dutifully, and Donald finally thanks me for my patience, expresses his condolences again, and tells me that he’s crediting my United account with 200 complimentary miles. 

Thank you, thank you, I say, filled with relief and gratitude. Should I expect a confirmation email? 

“In 30 or 40 minutes,” Donald says, “And someone will also call you.” 

I return to the shiva and spend the next hour regaling a group of cousins, nieces and nephews, on the twists and turns of this errand. As I talk, I can’t help but notice that one niece, Haley, and two cousins, Julie and Matthew, have worried looks in their eyes. They’re certain I’ve been scammed, but I’m clinging to a theory I’ve invented: It’s too crazy and convoluted to be a scam.

A few of my kin, including the aforementioned, worldly-wise Michelle, seem open to the delusion. Over the next few hours, I discretely check my phone and email: No confirmation. Uh-oh. Various people are asking, but I don’t have the balls to tell them the truth, so I lie and say I haven’t checked. I punt it to the end of the night, when I’m alone and in my pajamas. I hold my breath, google “United Airlines customer service,” and dial the 800-number. 

“Welcome to United Airlines,” says a recording, followed by a series of prompts.

As if waking from a coma, I remember that the other United Airlines had just answered the phone with: “Hello?”

When has that ever in the history of airline travel happened? I’m finally connected with an agent, and take my last hopeful deep breath and ask her if there’s some sort of Target gift card reimbursement program for cancelled flights…? Her confusion is the final slap across the face I need.   

The jig is up. I get it. I’m a smacked ass.

In an effort to distance myself from the kind of person who would ever think there was a Target gift card reimbursement program, I adopt a matter-of-fact, even businesslike tone, and fill her in on the details: My mother recently passed away, I was supposed to fly to Denver—

“That’s not a problem,” She doesn’t even let me finish my spiel. “You can apply the value of that ticket to any flight in the calendar year, and as a bereavement courtesy, we’ll waive the rebooking fee.” 

“That’s—that’s all I have to do?” I ask.

“Certainly. I’m sorry for your loss. Is there anything else I can help you with?” No, I say, and hang up the phone. And then I just sit there, letting the fact that I’ve fallen for a ridiculously elaborate and embarrassingly obvious scam sink in. But you’ve known that all along.

What you don’t know is that I’ll spend the next day of shiva telling and retelling this story to small clusters of relatives and family friends. I’ll get so good at it, impersonating the voices of the scammers , lampooning my own jaw-dropping naivete, that for the first time in my life, I’ll feel like a Borscht Belt comedian on a hot streak. 

If you’re thinking that performing stand-up while mourning one’s mother is in poor taste, call my sister, Anna. During each of my shiva “sets,” I see her in my peripheral vision, approaching, wanting to connect, only to turn around and walk off, annoyed, when she sees I’m mid-monologue. I want to stop performing, I really do, because I not only love Anna, I can’t bear it when she’s mad at me. But I can’t stop.  

I’m overcome by the most perverse case of exhibitionism.

Before you judge me too harshly, I can explain. I’ve done enough therapy to know that all roads lead back to my mother. 


Fun fact: My mother’s maiden name was Stern, and to people who didn’t know her well, that’s pretty much how she came across. Only people in the inner circle got a glimpse of my mother’s funny bone, her occasional tendency to laugh to the point of tears. When I was a child, it was Steve Martin and Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther movies that got her going. But eventually I learned that it could also be me. 

It started with my impersonations of Carol Burnett Show characters, like Eunice and Mrs. Wiggans. (Look ‘em up.) But as I grew into my occasionally-flaky adult self, my own little debacles—missed flights, customer service nightmares, social faux pas, even clumsy injuries—really cracked her up. It’s not that my mother was laughing at me… wait, was she laughing at me?

Does it even matter? Without knowing it, my rather serious mother was teaching me that the shittier things went, the funnier they’d eventually be. 

There is nothing funny about my mother not being here. It’s quiet. It’s dark. It’s a haunting, aching time made even more surreal by the pandemic. Gone is the person who made me feel safe, a person I once thought knew everything. In her place is a world filled with experts, only the best of whom will admit that even they don’t know what comes next. 

I’m not sorry Mom is missing this dystopian moment in history. But I really wish she’d been around to hear about the time I was convinced to buy $900 in gift cards in the middle of a shiva. She would’ve died laughing. ❑

My cousin Michelle has a great gluten free cooking site called

Photo by Charles Etorama


10 Responses

  1. I love this so much, I’m laughing and crying. I lost my mom in December and there have been SO many things that would have cracked her up, none more than the many examples of me being stupid or clumsy, or my daughter outsmarting me (daily). There’s something about losing your mother, it’s a unique form of grief. I love the idea of the 6th stage, so brilliant. xoxo

  2. I totally would have fallen for this too, even without the excuse of grief. May your mother’s memory be a blessing and you continue to make her (and us) laugh.

  3. This is perfect, Elisa. I can see every single stupid second unfolding. And I’m so deeply sorry for the loss of your mother. You must miss her so much right now. Somehow, I imagine that this was not lost on her.

  4. I am so sorry that this happened to you but…
    You are such a good story teller that you had me totally engrossed in the tale as if I were reading a thrilling novel. Then it was your last paragraph that brought the tears. Believe that your mother not only knows the story but lived it with you every step of the way … laughing. xo

  5. Thank you for making me laugh and cry at the same time. So cathartic to do both simultaneously.
    May your beloved Moms memory be for a blessing , always and forever.

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