Roz Chast: An Accidental Expert on Aging

Posted on Jun 13, 2019

When we asked Roz Chast to donate a drawing to the Center for Pastoral Education’s benefit luncheon raffle, the answer came quickly: yes, of course, said the award-winning New Yorker cartoonist. A cartoonist might seem an unlikely person to be connected with a center that focuses on training clergy to help people in crisis. But Chast has become a go-to person for insight into end-of-life issues ever since the publication of her best-selling graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Some­thing More Pleasant?, a wry, insightful, searingly honest account of taking care of her elderly parents through their decline and death.

Though it’s been five years since the book’s publication, Chast’s darkly funny yet frank depiction of the fraught relationship between parents and children, and her ambivalence at being thrust into the role of caretaker, clearly struck a nerve. She still receives letters from readers, and admits she’s gotten more letters for this book than any other she’s written. 

Still, she resists any claim to expertise. “Whenever someone asks me a question about end-of-life issues, the first thing I say is, ‘I am not an expert’,” Chast notes. In fact, she says, when people bring up the subject, “I shift the topic to ukuleles—or birds!” It may be true that Chast is not an expert, but her ability to share her distinct, yet universal, experience leads numerous organizations—including JTS, the JCC of Manhattan, and Reimagine End of Life—to ask her to speak on the topic. This past fall, her work was included in a pop-up graphic exhibit called “Death Panels: Comics That Help Us Face End of Life” at The New York Public Library.

Chast says she didn’t write her book as a how-to guide for dealing with aging. She wrote it, she explains, because she didn’t want to forget her parents and all she experienced towards the end of their lives. At the time, the only things she knew about end-of-life experiences were what she saw in movies or read in books—the sweet final embrace, the deathbed reconciliation. She learned that sometimes those things happen, and sometimes they don’t.  

Dealing with aging parents, relatives, and friends can be extraordinarily lonely and painful. And of course, we all must deal with aging ourselves. As Chast notes drily: “As you get older, and your parents are gone, and you face your own aging, you wonder who’s next on the old diving board.” 

It’s no wonder that end-of-life conversations are something most people like to avoid. Or if they have the conversation at all, find it awkward and uncomfortable. In some immeasurable way, Chast has changed this, making it OK to acknowledge that dealing with the end of life can be messy, painful, poignant, healing, and yes, sometimes downright funny.

In fact, recently at JTS, Lois Perelson-Gross made a presentation to students on her project “Never the Right Time,” which combined the work of Chast with factual information about end-of-life care and wishes. As the students entered the room, they filed past blown-up images of some of Chast’s cartoons, giggling as they made their way to their seats. You could see the tension over the topic melt away. For these students, who will someday be having conversations like this with congregants and others, it was important to see the role humor can play in putting people at ease. Not surprisingly for a master comic artist, Chast has a lot of faith in humor to get us through. “I think humor helps in almost every situation. It makes it bearable.”