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Comedian Rob Delaney finds his way through grief after his 2-year-old son died

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Rob Delaney is a very funny guy. Fans will know him as the co-creator and star of the Emmy-nominated show "Catastrophe." What many don't know is that while he was making the last season of that show, he was going through the deepest grief of his life. Delaney's youngest son died of brain cancer when he was just 2 1/2 years old. His name was Henry, and the process of trying to heal him, then keeping him alive and finally letting him go is something Delaney felt pulled to write about. His new memoir is called "A Heart That Works."

ROB DELANEY: He had blond hair and blue eyes They were, like, light blue and dark blue. They kind of looked like a mosaic. They were so gorgeous.

MARTIN: Did he think you were funny?

DELANEY: Yeah, he did. Everybody in my house is funny. And, you know, my wife is hilarious, and his older brothers are funny. And he was funny. If somebody farted, he would do sign language for brown and point at the person.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DELANEY: So he was super funny, yeah.

MARTIN: You wrote in the book that so much of what came after the diagnosis - all the surgeries and the treatments and the hospital stays - all became like a fog. But that initial conversation with the doctor, when you found out his diagnosis, was seared in your mind. Do you mind sharing the details of that?

DELANEY: He asked me a very curious question, if Henry's vomiting was effortless - the contents of his stomach just come up and out. He's not bothered. And then, you know, the doctor - he got a very grave look on his face, and he said, OK, then I think we need to do an MRI of his head. I said, why? Is there, like, something in there, like a tumor? And he said, I'm glad you said it. Then a few days later, he had the MRI, and they had found a big brain tumor right next to his brain stem. That was the moment that our lives changed forever.

MARTIN: You were working at the time, right?

DELANEY: I was just in between seasons of the show "Catastrophe."

MARTIN: Could you escape into that role? Was it helpful in any way to have a...

DELANEY: Oh, it was absolutely helpful. I wouldn't say it was like an escape, but it definitely - you know, like...

MARTIN: I shouldn't have used the word escape. You cannot escape the fact that your child is dying.

DELANEY: No, but I know what you mean. When the unthinkable happens, you realize the limits that words have. When people are like, what should I say to the person who lost a child or lost a sibling, or the spouse - and the answer is, it doesn't matter what you say 'cause no words are going to help.

MARTIN: Yeah.

DELANEY: And that's OK. What is going to help is a casserole, a foot massage, that type of thing. Going into their house, forcibly removing them from it, locking them out of their own home and making them go for a walk around the block while you play with their kids and take out the trash - that's what helps. That's what love is and looks like when people go through tragedy.

MARTIN: I think it's also helpful to other people who are grieving to talk about how important your relationship was with your wife during this time.

DELANEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: What guidance can you give about how to keep that relationship intact?

DELANEY: So you've got to - in times of duress, no one relationship can be, for long, more important than any other one or the structure will become lopsided, uninhabitable. It'll totally collapse. My wife and I knew that if our relationship fell apart, then that would harm the other kids and Henry, and everybody needed each other. And everybody had their role to play. If one of our parents was able to visit, we would go on an overnight date. We'd go to a hotel for a date night, have a fight, make up, go to the hospital the next morning at 7. Intrafamily relationship hygiene is how we survived. It made it better for Henry, and it definitely made it better for everybody else.

MARTIN: You write in the beginning of the book that you want people to feel the kind of pain that you and your wife and your other kids have felt. In fact, you say if you write this book well, it's going to hurt people.

DELANEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, that is - that's just a true thing, I suppose.

DELANEY: Yeah. I want to do a lot of stuff to people, and that includes hurting them. And I am judging myself less for that as time goes on because that's - a good story that helps people is going to create a lot of sensations. And if one of them is pain, then that's OK, particularly if it's come by honestly.

MARTIN: Yeah. You said in the book that you couldn't write about the moments before or after Henry died, but that you could talk about them. What sensations do you remember?

DELANEY: It would be the equivalent of, like, I don't know, witnessing some unbelievable historic event or something.

MARTIN: Yeah.

DELANEY: You know you're being changed dramatically in the moment. You know that it is a dividing line in your life. You - I'm really trying to remember right now. People might be listening, thinking, oh, is he starting to cry? Not yet, I'm not. I might.

MARTIN: That's not my intention.

DELANEY: Oh, no. But I mean to say it's - well, I mean, I looked at Henry and - I mean, he looked so beautiful. He died on our couch. And, he has brothers - woke up not too long after and came up and saw him. And they were so young. So they spent time with his body, too. And it was - you know, I'm really glad we did that. I - really, really glad. You've got to - yeah, you've got to spend time with the body of your loved one. If you're lucky enough to have them die with you, you know, don't let the undertaker come any time too soon.

MARTIN: When you are approached, as no doubt you are...

DELANEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...By people who have gone through this and they are looking to you for some kind of wisdom, what is the most important thing you can relay?

DELANEY: I would just say other people can help you, and your salvation will come through the embraces and charity and kindness of other people. There remains beauty and love and light in this world. Even though you've been through something that will leave you changed forever, there are still smiles out there for you to have and laughter and joy. And other people who've been through what you've been through can help you with that.

MARTIN: Rob Delaney, thank you so much for talking with us.

DELANEY: Thank you. I've really enjoyed this conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASGEIR SONG, "GOING HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.