Actor, writer, Twitter wit, rugby wife and mother of three, Amy Huberman (43) has written a 465-page children’s book about grief. That she is mourning her own father, Harold, while publicising it is “strange timing”.
The Day I Got Trapped In My Brain tells the story of 11-year-old Frankie Finkleton, who avoids the difficult realities of her young life by disappearing, with her little brother Fred, into ‘Thoughtopolis’, a world of her own imagination. Then she gets stuck and things go awry. There is much Huberman hilarity — teachers descended from sharks; pug space poos; an evil baby sister. The adventure land she creates in Frankie’s mind is clever and intricate, populated by strange and funny creatures.
But there is also a sucker-punch twist that the nine-to-12 year olds — or ‘middle-grade’ to use the industry parlance — may not see coming. Huberman’s eyes light up when she hears I cried.
“Oh good,” she exclaims, then adds: “That sounds evil and cruel. To get the humour and emotion like that is a tricky balance. But if you’re going to tell that story, you need the emotion to sit right and resonate. So, in a way I’d rather that it got to that point where you’re invested enough to feel that it’s true.”
Children in that age bracket who have lost a close family member may find great solace in Frankie’s story, which is resolved when she learns how to unbottle her heartbreak and engage with the real world again. It is certainly a book full of heart, warmth and humour. But if there is no family grief to process — and your kids, like mine, are already slightly freaked out by climate change, the war in Ukraine and Covid-19 — it might be a little heavy (not that I would object to my nine- and 12-year-olds reading 465 pages of anything).
Childhood grief is also a recurring theme in Disney stories — from Bambi and The Lion King to Frozen and Big Hero 6 — and Huberman took great care to ensure that the work was appropriate for her audience, engaging the advice of senior clinical psychologist Dr Claire Barrett. “My knowledge of it is that children deal with grief differently and are OK, OK, OK — and then it’s like jumping in a big puddle of it.”
I tell her that it seems fascinating to me that she wrote this book while her beloved father’s health was failing in a nearby nursing home. Almost like the writing of it was a pre-emptive exercise in processing her own imminent grief. But she disagrees it was this.
“It was strange because I felt like two facets of my life were running concurrently. I guess there was a prescience in a way that I knew my dad wasn’t well, but it’s weird: In one corner of my head I was thinking, he’s getting older, he has been ill, we will lose him at one point. And then the everyday of my life was like, he’s not going to go. I can’t ever see him going. Because he was sick for so long and he was so strong for so long. I don’t know if it was a denial on my part. Maybe it’s just a part of your brain that doesn’t ever want to go to the reality of a situation.”
When we meet in a Dublin hotel, only two months and a day have passed since Harold died, aged 84. His daughter is, understandably “probably a bit all over the place with it”.
A Jewish Londoner, an early school-leaver and self-made man, Harold had his own successful tailoring business in Dublin. His quirky sense of humour remained intact throughout a decade with Parkinson’s disease. Instead of saying goodbye to his children after their visits, he would quip, “Bring me back a parrot!”
Some readers may remember reports of his speech at Huberman’s wedding to rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll in 2010, when Harold asked all of the women present who had a key to O’Driscoll’s bachelor pad to now return it. Cue a long stream of female guests up to the top table with keys Harold had surreptitiously distributed earlier, including, grins Huberman, her mom’s aunt.
During Covid-19 lockdowns, the family was unable to visit this “eccentric and lovely and a little bit quiet” man in the nursing home. “It was a really, really, really difficult time,” says Huberman.
But she felt humbled, she says, to have been with him in the hospice at the end, alongside her mother and brothers. “I read something recently, that life is unpredictable but death is even more unpredictable. You don’t know how you’re going to go unless you do know. So to kind of understand it, and get to spend the time and talk and say everything you want to say — not everybody gets to do that. So even though it was really difficult, it was a really special time as well. I can’t talk about it without crying,” she says, composing herself. “It just always catches me in my throat.”
Huberman becomes concerned now that she will look too cheerful in the Life photoshoot, which took place prior to our meeting, when it is “juxtaposed” with this conversation. “It’s that weird thing where you catch yourself laughing. And, like I said, it wasn’t a shock and he was 84 and all those things. But the other side is, he’s my dad.”
Harold communicated in jokes and though he took the big things in life seriously, he enjoyed the fun of the everyday, says Huberman. His lightness could “dispel the heavier stuff because he would always intersperse it with a joke”. He had “a way of channelling adversity into something positive… It’s only when you really look at your life and those important relationships in your life that you realise the things that you hope to have gotten from somebody or that they’ve instilled in you. I do think I’ve got his positivity”.
Her light touch — example: bragging about working on her six-pack beneath a selfie of her scoffing a family pack of crisps — has seen Huberman gather a combined one million social media followers. You may have recently seen her in episode three of the final season of Derry Girls playing a train ticket seller whose boyfriend couldn’t satisfy her.
“That was so fun. I was so thrilled to go up and film that because it’s such an iconic show. And to be on set and knowing it was their last series as well. I shared a scene with Nicola [Coughlan] and Siobhán [McSweeney] and just seeing their little double act as well was really nice.”
Huberman also played Jane Seymour’s uptight daughter-in-law in Harry Wild, an entertaining whodunnit on RTÉ. “I haven’t seen it. I watch nothing. I don’t love watching stuff that I’m in. I don’t know if many actors do or maybe they do? But I just have always gone, agh!”
Along with acting, she has written two novels and a TV series, Finding Joy. Her wholesome popularity also makes Huberman a safe bet for brands. She is a Volvo ambassador and has collaborations with Bourbon Footwear, Newbridge Silverware and an Aldi-sponsored parenting podcast. The most recent accounts of her company, ASM Entertainment, are reported to show a healthy balance of €861,171, up over €100,000 on last year’s €758,422.
She and O’Driscoll have three children — Sadie (nine), Billy (seven) and Ted, their lockdown baby, born in late December 2020. You will not find photos of these children on their parents’ social media, ever.
Had she always wanted three children? “Initially I never thought I’d have three even though I’m one of three. And then I really wanted a third. I wasn’t sure it was actually going to happen. And then, like so many stories you hear in lockdown, it’s like, oh, maybe I stopped legging it around and just relaxed? Who knows?”
Little Ted was born just in time for another school closure and lockdown. “I was very grateful that I had the baby to focus on. It may have been nicer to have had my children in school so I could have had the mornings. But then it was homeschooling and I just retired as the teacher. I took maternity leave from everything,” she laughs.
“I did look over the last few years, going, ‘Pandemic and the baby and then losing Dad’. It has been a crazy few years for so many people. You feel like you’re just coming out the other side of something. There’s been a lot of big life events, but I’m really glad that my dad knew my baby and had got to spend time with him. So that’s a comfort,” she adds, her eyes welling again.
“I miss that daily thing, you know. Even at its worst where I wasn’t able to get into him or I could only FaceTime him, you just miss checking in.”
Can you grieve for somebody before they die?
“I don’t know. And it’s probably completely different for everyone. I think you can grieve for what was because it’s shifting. The bigger part of you is never going to be ready to let go when you love someone. So I think the grieving for me was frustration with Covid stuff. I don’t know if you can call it grieving; I don’t know what it’s called when you’re bracing yourself for the inevitable. There is a heaviness to it, but my dad was always very positive. So it’s not like we focused on that.”
Harold “wasn’t religious, he wasn’t particularly spiritual, really. He kind of had a practicality that we didn’t really go into that”.
While she was slowly losing her father, Huberman was writing her first children’s book. “Yasmin, my editor in Scholastic, had approached me a few years ago and said, ‘I’d love you to write a kids book’. I was like, ‘No, no, no, it’s not the time.’ And then lockdown happened.”
She enjoyed the process of closing off the world and escaping reality to write. At the same time, she was pining for her father. Huberman wonders if the incremental nature of Harold’s decline — and her daily witnessing of it — has had an “attritional” affect and worn away something in her. But she is more affected by its toll on him.
“His illness robbed him of so much of his personal freedom that I think you grieve for him in that I was very frustrated for him,” she says, her voice wavering again. “Because he wasn’t able to do so many things that he wanted to do.”
Meanwhile, she was writing a tragic character in The Day I Got Trapped in My Brain who was “always looking for the fun in things. What a fabulous way to see and be in the world. Like he’s glued together with joie de vivre”.
Is it psychobabble to suggest that she could have been subconsciously reaching into her inner child or preparing herself for something? “I mean, maybe?” she says, uncertainly. “I definitely missed my dad before he went because I wasn’t able to spend as much time with him as I would have liked. And when you are losing a parent, you do go back and remember so much of when you were a kid and your family set-up. So yeah, maybe, I don’t know. I feel like it’s unfolding as I go.”
It is still very early days in her grief and Huberman is finding comfort in the support of friends. “I don’t think you can know until you know. I think people who have experienced it really get the level of how awful it is and how all-consuming grief is. It would usually be those people who check in. I think what you realise is that hopefully it’ll get easier but it’s never going to get better or be gone. I allow myself to cry and sometimes it catches me unawares and I haven’t planned for that.
“Other times, I want to get away because I want to allow myself to be upset without being somewhere doing something or having a busy household. Sometimes, I know when I need a release, or I need the catharsis of it, because there’s a weird comfort in crying. Because the flip side of it is that love. When you cry there’s a sense of release and you feel slightly better.”
She thinks it is better to explain her feelings than to hide them from her children. “Again, it’s different for everyone. But once everything is communicated so nobody’s worrying, ‘Oh my god, are they OK?’ Then it’s like, ‘I am OK, but today is a bad day. Today is a sad day’.”
In the book’s acknowledgements she writes: ‘To my husband Brian, thank you for your constant support, loyalty, fun, love and friendship. I would be lost without you.’
She says Brian’s dad is very like how Harold was — “a total messer” — so usually the couple likes to keep things lighthearted on the homefront too.
They recently enjoyed a family holiday to the Turks and Caicos Islands, at the invitation of the rugby football union there. “It’s a beautiful part of the world,” she says, her eyes welling again. “It was really special that we could all get to go together. It was nice that we could all get away before rugby season kicks off and things get busy in September.”
O’Driscoll has not yet read the book — they still haven’t got their hands on a physical copy — but Huberman got endorsements from her friends and fellow actors Aisling Bea and Chris O’Dowd.
“I know Aisling for years. We met at an audition years ago. I can’t even remember what it was for. She is brilliant. I know Chris since I was in UCD, we were in DramSoc together. The very first play that we did together was an adaptation of Winnie the Pooh,” she laughs.
Winnie the Pooh, too, addresses loss and grief and although Huberman did not experience the death of a loved-one as a child, she feels for kids who have.
“It’s OK to feel untethered and to feel sad. There will be other emotions and it’s OK to feel them and not feel a sense of guilt about enjoying something. People sometimes don’t know what to say. There is no manual. They say there are stages of grief but it’s a different path for everyone. I mean, jeepers, I am absolutely not an expert even in my own thing.”
When her busy life allows, Huberman likes to completely switch off. In the past six months, she has bought a pink bicycle and a gold helmet and enjoys cycling around the city close to her home in Rathmines. “I never thought I would be on my bike. I thought I would be too much of a scaredy cat in town, but I have my routes, I don’t have to listen to anything and I’m not going to ring anyone. We do that so little, where we’re not consuming information. It’s probably like a form of meditation, concentrating on nothing else except not falling off your bike. I love it.”
Photography: Evan Doherty. Styling: Orla Dempsey. Hair: Ololade Oluwadele, @loxperience. Make-up: Christine Lucignano, @cloochy, using Sculpted By Aimee