Catastrophe star Rob Delaney on life after his son’s death: ‘I wanted to ruin people’s day’

In 2018 the actor’s son Henry died of cancer. In A Heart That Works, his new memoir, Delaney grapples with the pain of losing a child, and how to keep living

Rob Delaney is lying on a taupe couch in his London home on a Tuesday afternoon, wearing a faded black Cracker Barrel T-shirt. He holds his phone high overhead so I can see his face. “I would have gone for the big Zoom set-up where you’re sitting up,” he says, “but since we’re going to be talking about Henry, I just wanted to be comfy.”

Henry is Delaney’s two-year-old son, the third of his four children. Henry died of brain cancer on that same taupe couch in January 2018. It might seem strange to some that a parent would keep a piece of furniture like that, let alone lie on it for an interview where he will be talking about such a devastating loss, but that’s the thing about grief. You might want to set fire to the reminders, or sink into them. You may feel rage one minute and a burst of love the next. There’s no right or wrong, no explanation needed.

‘It’s actually really cathartic to hear people who won’t allow themselves to be filtered, and who aren’t the nicest possible version of themselves,’ Aisling Bea says of Rob Delaney

So Delaney, the Bafta-winning, Emmy-nominated cocreator and costar of the Channel 4 series Catastrophe, is lying on this couch, talking about his son and about his new book, his second, A Heart That Works. It’s a raw, painful and, at times, darkly funny memoir about Henry’s life and death, and the anguish of losing a child. “I figured a book would bubble out of me at some point, or something inspired by Henry,” the 45-year-old says, “but it wasn’t my idea to write it.”

That idea came from Harriet Poland, an editor at Coronet, his UK publisher, who’d read his 2013 essay collection, “Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage”, which chronicles his upbringing in Massachusetts, his escapades stealing pornography and bungee-jumping drunk, the near-fatal car crash that led to his sobriety, and his breakthrough as a comedian on Twitter, back when Twitter was still more funny than fraught. Poland wrote to Delaney about her own experience with grief: as a child she helped care for her father when he was dying of a brain tumour. She had read Delaney’s essays and knew about Henry, so she asked if he’d thought of writing another book.


Before he responded Delaney typed a few pages that he knew might be tough to read, sent them to Poland and asked if she was sure she wanted this book. He had no intention of glossing over the most wrenching moments. Poland told him that his honesty about grief was exactly what the world needed.

Once he committed, he wrote about 1,200 words a day, five days a week. “I was surprised how regimented and disciplined I was,” Delaney says.

In his first book he described his process as “brutal and lonely.” Having since spent four seasons writing episodes of Catastrophe, he now knows that he’s happiest when he’s “clickety clacking on the keyboard. For a first draft this time, I was pretty well behaved.”

The title A Heart That Works comes from a Juliana Hatfield lyric, “A heart that hurts is a heart that works,” that appears in his first book. That quote is his life philosophy, especially now. He says that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the “prime text on grief and how it feels” and that a template for his own book could be Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, which starts with, “This is a record of hate far more than of love.”

In other words, Delaney wanted his book to be excruciating.

“I wanted to ruin people’s day,” he says. “I wanted to ruin their week or their month. I wanted people to feel like they’d picked up a book, perhaps for entertainment, perhaps for enlightenment, and I wanted them to be punished.”

The book had the intended effect on Aisling Bea, the Irish actor and comedian, who became close with Delaney’s family when they moved to London from Los Angeles so he could film Catastrophe. When Delaney gave her an advance copy, Bea, who wrote about her father’s suicide in 2017, says she could “feel it burning” in her backpack as she walked home. She read it in 24 hours, reliving memories of staying with Henry in the hospital so his parents could shower or spend time with their other sons, and her own grief over Henry’s death.

It also helped her see Delaney’s story in a new light. “It’s actually really cathartic to hear people who won’t allow themselves to be filtered, and who aren’t the nicest possible version of themselves,” she says. “Rob is disarmingly open. It’s just a relief to read someone saying how knackering and tiring and ugly it feels.”

Grief and death – especially the death of a child – are often treated as experiences that should be whispered about, delicately, and only during times when it won’t make everyone else uncomfortable. Delaney’s book sets that notion on fire. Through his words, he’s thrashing and wailing and lamenting as loudly as he can, begging the reader to scream with him, to feel what he feels.

“That is one thing grief does to me. It makes me want to make you understand,” he writes in the first chapter.

When he later describes administering powdered morphine through Henry’s feeding tube, Delaney writes, “I’m glad it was bright red. The thing you put into your dying child to dull his pain should be bright red, like a flag or a flare or a fire truck racing to disaster.”

His wife, Leah, read pages along the way. She gave Delaney notes that proved to be invaluable, like urging him to include a story about filming a scene for an action comedy where a character was going to be shot in the throat. Because of Henry’s tracheotomy tube, which his parents had to clean and replace once a month, Delaney writes that he arrived on set that day “feeling fuzzy and slow and afraid of the prospect of watching a world-class special-effects team make blood blast out of a hole in a woman’s throat”.

He pulled the director and showrunner aside and explained his hesitation. They apologised and asked what he needed. Maybe a break? Would it help if they had the character shot in the face instead? Delaney told them to proceed. What he needed wasn’t to change the action but to express his fear. Their empathy helped him go on with the scene. It’s a passage that illuminates the triggers of grief, the importance of being free to speak, and a father’s ability to keep on filming an action comedy, even in the face of such sorrow.

“Here’s something I’m almost surprised I didn’t put in the book,” Delaney says. “It’s a sort of mantra that I developed early in the acute grief process. I would tell myself, ‘It’s okay, you’ll be sad forever.’ I found that very freeing, because then it was like, oh, I don’t have to do this all right now? I don’t have to march through this expecting and desiring an end? I can put it down for a minute and come pick it up again. I can relax.”

I always had the mental kink where to not do comedy would be to die. Now it’s the same. I would still die if I didn’t laugh and make funny things, so it’s still a desperate need that I nurture

Midway through our conversation Delaney takes a break so he can try to score a coveted reservation to swim at a nearby pond. A Heart That Works begins with a story about his fear of dying in ponds and lakes, and his wife’s attempts to lure him to participate in her frequent swims (because she thinks he’ll enjoy it, not because she’s trying to torture him). At one point after Henry’s death his parents took a scuba diving course. During a flash of panic in the dark water, Delaney writes, he was “at harmony with the knowledge that my son died and that my own death would see me walk through a door that he had walked through. We would share one more thing together.”

The reservation proves to be complicated, requiring credit-card numbers and too much information for Delaney to deal with at that moment. So we get back to talking about his book, about how funny Henry was, about writing through and living with grief. I ask him if his feelings about comedy, or his ideas about humour, have changed since Henry died.

His 1.5 million Twitter followers still get jokes about Kegel exercises and his wife’s imaginary boyfriend, but Delaney also tweets about Henry and children’s hospice charities.

“I have to laugh,” he says. “I always had the mental kink where to not do comedy would be to die. Now it’s the same. I would still die if I didn’t laugh and make funny things, so it’s still a desperate need that I nurture.”

Delaney and his family are rooted in London now. His sons go to school there, he and Leah have close friends, including other parents who have lost a child, there, and those relationships have become a lifeline for them both. He wrote and shot the fourth and final season of Catastrophe after Henry died and played a bumbling crook alongside Ellie Kemper in the 2021 movie Home Sweet Home Alone. He’s still acting, still writing. He thinks about Henry through all of it.

As heartbreaking as the book may be, Delaney’s pitch-black humour buoys even the toughest moments. He writes about how horror movies became an escape for him and Leah: their child was sick but, hey, they weren’t being sawn in half by a lunatic. When they saw Midsommar, Ari Aster’s violent film about a Swedish pagan cult, they laughed.

“The film’s Scandinavian bacchanal of ritualistic murder,” he writes, “depicted a not unreasonable way to process the grief its protagonist was going through after an unfathomable family tragedy.”

The grief will weave into your life and will be a part of your tapestry. It’ll leave and it’ll come back, but the sooner we get hip to that the sooner we’ll be able to be happy, in snatches, here and there. And that’s okay. That’s life

That “mental kink” he has turns the story of a father losing a child into something that Delaney, when he first set out to ruin your day, didn’t expect. Like Greene’s The End of the Affair, Delaney’s book is ultimately about all-encompassing, heart-exploding love: his love for Henry, for his entire family, for the friends and caregivers who rallied around them during hospital stays and procedures, and who sat with Henry so they could try to sleep, or cry.

For Delaney the pain of a loss that comes from such love is not something be avoided. No one gets a free pass when it comes to grief. “That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to unhappiness,” he says. “You don’t have to be afraid even though you will forever miss this person, you will forever ache for them. The grief will weave into your life and will be a part of your tapestry. It’ll leave and it’ll come back, but the sooner we get hip to that the sooner we’ll be able to be happy, in snatches, here and there. And that’s okay. That’s life.”

Eventually, it is time to say our goodbyes. It is late afternoon in London, and soon his sons will be home. As Delaney hangs up I find myself hoping. I want him to get that swimming spot at the pond. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

A Heart That Works is published by Coronet. You can read Martina Evans’s review of it here

FirstLight offers 24/7 emergency support to bereaved parents and families via its website and on 1850-391391; the Irish Hospice Foundation offers advice to the bereaved and their friends and families