Zibby speaks to comedian, co-creator and co-star of the hit series Catastrophe, and New York Times bestselling author Rob Delaney about his harrowing and brave new memoir A Heart That Works (a New Yorker and USA Today Best Book of 2022). Rob shares the intimate details of his story–his son Henry’s brain tumor and death, his brother-in-law’s suicide, and his profound grief and desire to share it on paper. He also talks about his demanding acting career, learning to balance work and family, the charities he is supporting with his book sales, and the brilliant books that have inspired and comforted him through it all.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rob. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your absolutely beautiful memoir, A Heart That Works.

Rob Delaney: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: Your story is so unbelievably moving, beautiful, angry, raw, open, loving. It had all the things that you look for in a story. I’m sorry you had to live it. As a book, it was the most moving, transformative experience. Well done on that front. Can you tell listeners a little about your story and why you decided to write it?

Rob: My wife and I had two boys a little less than two years apart in age. We were enjoying that so much that we decided to have a third kid. Turned out to also be a boy. He was born a little more than two years after the first, so we had a bunch of little boys running around the place. A little before Henry, our third, turned one, he got quite sick. We didn’t know what it was. It took a while to figure out. It turned out to be a brain tumor right next to his brain stem. They took the tumor out, which created some pretty significant disabilities for him. Then he had chemo and was in the hospital for fourteen months. Then he came home. Then the cancer returned. At that point, they couldn’t do anything, and he died a little bit before he turned three. The book is about the before, during, and after of that, what that was like, what it felt like. That’s it. In writing book, people have said things like they felt things like hope or faith. That’s not why I wrote the book. It’s up to the reader how they feel. There’s no prescriptions in it. There’s no, this is how you survive this. I just wanted to show people what it was like. That’s what I tried to do.

Zibby: Wow. You absolutely showed people what it was like. I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s horrific, the whole thing. You way you wrote it, anyone who has not experienced this will feel so viscerally what you felt in the way that you wrote it. In fact, I’ve referenced several times — as I mentioned, I read this when the galley first came to me. I’ve referenced several times, your passage about why you decided to write it and why you even ask yourself in the writing why you wrote it. Can I read this paragraph?

Rob: Yeah.

Zibby: You wrote this really awful, just disturbing — not awful and disturbing — awful for you and disturbing paragraph about what happens once your child has died. You said, “Why do I feel compelled to talk about it, to write about it, to disseminate information designed to make people feel something like what I feel, what my wife feels, what my other sons feel? Done properly, it will hurt them. Why do I want to hurt people? And I do. Did my son’s death turn me into a monster? That’s certainly possible. It doesn’t sanctify you. Things get broken. Maybe it’s because I write and perform for a living that I can’t help but try to share or communicate the biggest, most seismic event that has happened to me. The truth is, despite the death of my son, I still love people. I genuinely believe, whether it’s true or not, that if people felt a fraction of what my family felt and still feels, they would know what this life and this world are really about.” It’s so beautiful.

Rob: Thank you. That’s a pretty good thesis for the book. I figured the kindest thing that I could do rooted in love would be to tell people how horrible it was and what it did to us. It seemed false to me when people — or if not false, not helpful if somebody tells you years after a tragedy, things like, you know, but the sun still came up. We worked through it. I didn’t like things that told you that. I’d rather be shown it. I’d rather notice it myself in seeing a bereaved parent or sibling or somebody who lost their spouse when they’re in the early blush of romance and love and with young kids or something, the really awful ones. I’d rather have that person tell me about what they went through honestly, observe them through the telescope of a well-written book, if possible, and see, maybe they are okay, and wonder, are they? Let the reader decide if I’m all right or not. There’s no value in me telling you that. It’s better for you to maybe see it, or not, but then I’ve done my job of showing you something you never wanted to see, but hopefully helping people understand it better.

Zibby: Otherwise, people can’t possibly feel what they don’t know. Then they do you a disservice by asking overly simplistic questions that aren’t helpful to you too. How are you? How are you feeling? How’s everything?

Rob: I think that’s a fine question, “How are you?” if you’re prepared for the answer and the person can take a deep breath and really tell you. That’s fine. “How are you?” is not a stupid question, in my opinion. My wife and I would be frustrated to the point of desperation when we could tell that people were like, aren’t they over it by now? It would be convenient for me if they were over it, if I didn’t have to think about that. Part of the book really comes from that, going through stuff like that.

Zibby: You didn’t just have to cope with having two other boys and a sick child for a while. Then you also lost your brother-in-law to suicide, which was a horrific part of the book also. Can you talk about that?

Rob: While Henry was in the hospital getting chemo, my young, beautiful, vivacious brother-in-law died by suicide. He was felled by depression. It was really, really awful. Months before Henry died, my brother-in-law died. He had a two-year-old daughter with my sister, who’s my only sibling. My sister and I were united in this horrible tandem grief. It wasn’t like one of our elderly parents had died — we’d like our parents to live forever, but that’s not going to happen — or a grandparent or a coworker that we had lunch with a couple times a week. It was big, big devastating deaths. I spoke to my sister on the phone this morning when she was on her way to work. We had a nice talk. We always do. We’re able to help each other in a really beautiful way. It’s crazy that that happened to both of us at essentially the same time. We love each other very much and have been able to help each other a lot. There’s certainly beauty in our relationship, and pain.

Zibby: That’s great you have each other.

Rob: Big time.

Zibby: Perhaps not in this way.

Rob: I know.

Zibby: I feel like at times, you were hard on yourself in the book for how you were disappointing others. There’s a whole passage about your being a bad husband. Can I read another paragraph? Is that okay?

Rob: Please. Yeah, I love to hear about that.

Zibby: Let me tell you how bad a husband you are. Let me just remind you. You said, “I really, really don’t like seeing this written down. I was a bad husband and a very, very good cog in the TV machine. To explain, I can only offer that I recognized this was my shot at age thirty-seven to solidly break into the biz and falsely assumed that to do so I should or could hit pause on my family responsibilities. I’d like to invite any and all readers to slap themselves at this point on my behalf to underline with a physical sensation that one cannot hit pause on family responsibilities. It cannot be done without inflicting genuine damage, and genuine damage I did inflict, all while pretending to play a loving, attentive partner and dad on a TV show that would be advertised on buses that would drive by and splash my wife, who would be pushing a double stroller while pregnant to go buy diapers and toilet paper for me and my child to use as part of our respective shitting processes. I luxuriate in shame.”

Rob: I did a TV show for four seasons called Catastrophe. The first two seasons of that show, I was a major workaholic. It’s not up to me, but I feel like the casual reader will be like, yeah, I get it. You get your chance to get a TV show that you write and produce on the air, you got to work your ass off. Then I did, but I did it at a time when my wife had very kindly and generously agreed to move to another country where the sun sets at around two PM through the winter. We didn’t know anybody. She had a three-year-old and a one-year-old and was pregnant. Then I was like, see ya, I got work to do. Again, I think one can examine my behavior during that time and understand it, but it did hurt her. It did damage our relationship. I talk about that in the book. After we made the first two seasons of Catastrophe in rapid succession with no break in between, my wife said that she would divorce me if I continued to work in the same manner. I said, “Oh, okay. Well, I don’t want that. I want to be married to you and remain married to you. Yeah, I will change how I operate.”

She shocked me into learning how to work smarter rather than harder. I took my hands off a lot of other aspects of the show and just worried about the scripts with my writing partner, Sharon Horgan. At that point, I was like, you know what, I’ll let the wardrobe department worry about the wardrobe. Location scouting, I’ll let the location scout do that. That was great. That was an amazing lesson for me because I realized, oh, I don’t even care about the other stuff. I just thought I had to do it all. I didn’t. It’s funny because I liked the third and fourth seasons of the show best, the ones where I let everybody just do their job. Not long at all after beginning to implement those changes, Henry got sick. I had the double whammy of my wife, whom I love desperately, saying it’s time for a change, with an ultimatum, and then my son getting sick and then dying. It made me very much change the way that I look at my career and want my career to serve my life and my family and not vice versa.

Zibby: Is that how you feel now? More so? Less so? Same?

Rob: Big time. I did a TV show recently with Vince Vaughn. He would play a game where he would try to imagine jobs that I would accept. We were talking about my criteria for jobs now, which is like, if it shoots near my house, I’ll do garbage. If it’s far away, I probably won’t do it unless they can really shoot me efficiently and it’s a short thing. He was like, “Here’s a job offer. You’re going to play a pedophile.” I was like, “I’m listening.” He’s like, “Whoa, you’re not –” I’m like, “Hey, if it shoots near my house, I’ll do a franchise about pedophiles.” Time is more important to me now than career status or money because I know that people’s lives are finite. My son lived for two years and nine months. It’s not lip service. We all understand that. We could write it down on a piece of paper. I won’t live forever, and neither will my kids. Even the best-case scenario, they won’t be children forever. They’ll become adults, one hopes. One of mine didn’t, and so now my understanding of the value of time has changed very dramatically. Now I like to do one thing well at a time. I don’t have to do ten things at once. I am happier due to that.

Zibby: Wow. I know you desperately want people to feel what you felt and hear it and experience it and try to internalize. I’m a huge reader of memoir. I read memoirs all the time. I have gone through a lot of loss myself. What is it about trying to let people know, this compulsion to shake people up and be like, “Wait, wait, wait, you’re going through life, and you don’t realize that these bad things happen. I have to show you”? What is it? Do you think it works? Do you think people can adequately get it until they’ve experienced something horrific?

Rob: The short answer is no. Of course, you can’t. That’s okay. They’re not deficient. My book isn’t deficient at not being able to make people understand it bone deep and then carry it with them. It’s okay that my book won’t change lives. It’s okay that somebody can’t jump into the skin of another, but we can open our hearts to take a better look and remove some barriers of behaviors that don’t serve us. For example, if I tell you something that I’m having a hard time with and you bat it away, then I’m a little wounded. I’m going to be less open with others. If I tell you that and you’re like, “God, that’s got to be difficult. Wow, I really don’t envy that. Christ, that’s got to be –” You don’t even have a solution, but you just let it land. Then great. I’ve said that. A problem shared is a problem halved. That’s a proverb. There’s no new ideas in my book. Then I have a better day. You’ve done me a favor, so you feel good. Just let people feel what they feel. You don’t have to fix them. You can’t. Maybe take a little humility there and realize, what can I say to fix them? I’m sure if I thought of the right thing in my amazing tool kit, I’m sure I could fix them with some words. That’s crazy.

Zibby: When anyone’s upset, just standing by their side giving the hugs that they need.

Rob: Exactly.

Zibby: Do you feel like you’ve read books that have made you feel this deeply? When you were writing your book, did you look to other books and think, I want to do it like this person? Did you say, I’m just going to do it, and let’s see what happens?

Rob: I name books in my book that were very helpful to me with grief. Frankenstein is probably first and foremost. That’s a very special book written by a once-in-a-century genius, Mary Shelley, who understood grief better than even I do.

Zibby: Joan Didion too.

Rob: Joan Didion, yep. Nicola Streeten wrote a graphic novel called Billy, Me & You about the death of her two-year-old son. That book is gorgeous. I would duct tape that to myself if I were wandering through the forest and was like, I’d really love to talk to somebody about my son, and I couldn’t. Then I would just tape the book to myself, and I’d feel better. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene is a very special book about, really, the miracle of love and the depth of what we learn when we lose someone, and the pain and the fury. It’s such a deliciously angry book that helps more than somebody giving you some chamomile tea, bullshit quote, or whatever. Those are some great examples of books that helped me a lot and I readily recommend.

Zibby: Amazing. The Year of Magical Thinking was amazing. I know you talked about that towards the end. Of course, you’re so funny. You have a sense of humor about everything, even when it’s horrific, which is great. Tell me about all the ways you’re giving back now as a result and how you’re donating the proceeds and the charities you support and all of that.

Rob: Any money I make from this book, I’m giving it to hospices for kids. I’ve already given a bunch. As it comes in, I just give it to them. First of all, I wouldn’t want to make any money from a book about my son who died. I wouldn’t want to drive around in that car that was bought with that money. That would feel disgusting, and so giving the money to kids’ hospices because it’s crazy how far a dollar can go in a hospice. Literally, a hundred dollars — I’m not saying don’t give money to cancer research. It’s your money. Do what you want with it. It’s not likely that it’ll be that hundred dollars that cures cancer. Whereas a hundred dollars given to a kids’ hospice is going to pay for hours of a music therapist to come to a hospital and make a kid who is dying laugh, smile, and dance in their parents’ arms. I want to help people who aren’t going to survive. I want to help kids who are dying enjoy their final days, months, weeks. We benefited from kids’ hospices. So far in my forty-five years of life, I just haven’t seen — I guess I have a sort of cavalier attitude about money. So many people misuse it so catastrophically and use it to enslave people and really do disgusting things with it. I just hadn’t seen money used in a way that was so instantly effective. I thought, if this book is going to make any money, I’m going to give it to people who can take it and run with it and effectively, substantively change children’s lives and their family’s life. Then those kids are going to die anyway. I want to help the people who medicine can’t help.

Zibby: It’s so beautiful. Oh, my goodness. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry this happened. I loved your book so much. Thank you for sharing it with the world.

Rob: Thank you. My pleasure, Zibby. Thanks.

Zibby: Take care. Thank you.



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