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Rob Delaney can endure grief, as long as there’s laughter

Rob Delaney will appear at First Church Cambridge to discuss "A Heart That Works" on Dec. 1.Max Miechowski/NYT

When Rob Delaney’s son, Henry, was in the hospital being treated for a brain tumor, the boy’s father was struck by the other parents he encountered in the cafeteria.

“It’s such a weird, difficult, lonely world,” Delaney says of the families and the health care workers he became acquainted with in the cancer ward. “I initially wanted to write something honoring people like that.”

But then Henry died in early 2018. He was only 2 years old. His death devastated Delaney and his family — wife, Leah, and their two older boys, Eugene and Oscar. (Another son, Teddy, has since joined the family.)

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The little book that Delaney ended up writing, “A Heart That Works” (out Nov. 29), is a wrenching account of Henry’s diagnosis and treatment, and the aftermath of his death. “[N]ow there’s a band of black in my rainbow,” he writes.

For years Delaney, has been a sun shower of silly humor, from his designation a decade ago as the “funniest person on Twitter” to the breakaway success of “Catastrophe,” the British sitcom he co-created with Sharon Horgan, which ran for four seasons (2015-19). Laughter, he says, is more important than ever following Henry’s death. Now, however, it’s complicated.

“The fact that we can laugh about crazy stuff or difficult stuff is really special,” Delaney says, lying on a bed in his London home to take a Zoom call. “Sometimes I lament what the human race is doing, but other times I think, God, we’re pretty lucky — we get that, I don’t know, that flavor in the pantry.

“Do I cope through humor? Yes. But do I also luxuriate in humor? Do I get real capital-J joy from it? Yeah, definitely.

“And more so since Henry died. Laughter for me was always a necessity, but now it’s a major part of the architecture of survival, for sure.”

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On Thursday, Delaney, who grew up in Marblehead, will appear in conversation with fellow comedian Eugene Mirman at First Church Cambridge, in a publication event presented by Harvard Book Store. Some tears may be shed: Mirman’s wife, Katie, died of cancer nearly three years ago.

The cover of Rob Delaney's "A Heart That Works."Spiegel & Grau

“I love him and his comedy very much,” says Delaney of Mirman, who lives in Somerville, where he is raising his son, Oliver. “I know him a little bit, and I like him a lot. And yeah, we have some things in common, grief-wise.”

“A Heart That Works” draws its title from a lyric written by Juliana Hatfield: “A heart that hurts is a heart that works.” It’s from her 1995 song “Universal Heart-Beat.”

Delaney is a big music fan who writes in the book about immersing himself in the sad music of Elliott Smith during Henry’s illness. He’d grown to love Smith’s music years earlier, when he was in rehab following a brutal one-car crash while driving drunk.

“I can say that I love and take comfort from things that others might casually dismiss as depressing,” writes Delaney, who has been sober for almost two decades.

But he also worries that Henry’s death has hardened him to people who have not suffered great loss. “Did my son’s death turn me into a monster?” he asks.

He agreed to write the book after he was contacted by an editor in the United Kingdom, where his family has lived since Delaney moved there to work on “Catastrophe.” The editor, Harriet Poland, told Delaney that if he was willing to write about Henry, she believed she’d be a sensitive editor. Her own father had died of a brain tumor when she was still a child.

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In the book, Delaney writes lovingly of his own father’s tight bond with Henry. Not long after Henry’s death, Bob Delaney was diagnosed with leukemia. That came as no surprise to his doctors at the VA: while serving in Vietnam, the elder Delaney had come in close contact with Agent Orange.

The news of his father’s diagnosis was sad, naturally, but it wasn’t “a bomb thrown into the middle of my life or anything,” Delaney writes. Instead, it was the natural order of things. Grandparents get sick and die.

“This is what’s supposed to happen,” he recalls thinking. “What happened to Henry wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Bob Delaney died in October, just a few days after his son’s book was published in the United Kingdom. The one solace Delaney says he can take from another loss in his life is the possibility that his son and his father have been reunited — somewhere, somehow. An avowed atheist, Delaney says he has no idea what form that might take.

“I hope that they’ve been absorbed, subsumed, transformed, whatever it is,” he says. “Are they together? Sure. With everyone that ever went before and will be. I believe that they’re somewhere beautiful. And I’m now participating in the illusion that I’m separate from them as I inhabit this body, which still works, for the moment.”

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While he’s still functioning, Delaney continues to work.

“I was on a set yesterday,” he says. “I love to work, be it something I wrote myself or I’m almost equally as happy as a worker bee on somebody else’s production.”

He has “a lot of stuff in the can, so to speak.” He’s scheduled to appear in an upcoming dramatic series for Prime Video called “The Power,” which will star Toni Collette. He has a part in the next installment of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. And he’ll show up in “Northern Comfort,” an ensemble comedy about a bunch of travelers who share a fear of flying and find themselves stranded in Iceland.

But he’s well aware that “Catastrophe” will likely remain one of the things he’s best remembered for.

“I am so grateful that I got to do that show,” he says. “We got to do exactly what we wanted to do. We didn’t have some big corporation looking over our shoulder. I’m really grateful I got to be in the co-driver’s seat of something that we made out of thin air.”

He wrote “A Heart That Works” foremost for other grieving parents. All proceeds from the book will go to hospice care for children. But Delaney also hopes the book will be helpful to others who haven’t suffered such crippling agony — for people, he says, “who haven’t really been to hell.

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“It seems like it has been so far, so I’m very happy about that.”

ROB DELANEY, IN CONVERSATION WITH EUGENE MIRMAN

At First Church Cambridge, 11 Garden St., Dec 1 at 7 p.m. $30 (book included). www.harvard.com

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.