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Heaven has a bathrobe-clad receptionist named Denise. She's helping TikTok grieve

TikTok creator Taryn Delanie Smith plays Denise, a character who's helping the internet cope with grief and abstract questions about the afterlife.
Screenshot by NPR
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TikTok @taryntino21
TikTok creator Taryn Delanie Smith plays Denise, a character who's helping the internet cope with grief and abstract questions about the afterlife.

If you ask anyone on TikTok what happens when you die, there's a decent chance they'll put it this way: You appear in a waiting room. You're wearing a bathrobe. And you're greeted not by St. Peter or Mother Mary, but by a gum-snapping, keyboard-clacking New Yorker named Denise.

As heaven's receptionist, Denise will hand you a welcome packet and ask what you want your ghost outfit to be. She'll fill you in on heaven's amenities (there's a free margarita bar), and she'll likely leave you with a little bit of gossip, lowering her voice to gripe about Paul Revere's latest email (all caps, subject line: URGENT) or that time in the nail salon when Jackie Kennedy met Marilyn Monroe ("like two cats on a hot tin roof").

But for all her office-gal kvetching, Denise is a people person. When someone shows up in the waiting room with fear or confusion โ€” having died too young or too soon โ€” it's Denise who's there to scoop them up in a hug and show them all of heaven's silver linings.

And for the TikTokers watching along, she has become a tool for thinking through the afterlife โ€” and for grieving those who've already made their way there.

The real Denise is a 26-year-old pageant queen

Though arguably just as poignant as The Good Place or Field of Dreams, the world of heaven's reception is a low-fi, short-form experience. And like most TikTok series, it's the imaginings of one person alone: Taryn Delanie Smith.

Taryn Delanie Smith, pictured here at the opening of New York's David Geffen Hall, entered the Miss New York pageant after she'd built a strong following on TikTok.
Dave Kotinsky / Getty Images for Lincoln Center
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Getty Images for Lincoln Center
Taryn Delanie Smith, pictured here at the opening of New York's David Geffen Hall, entered the Miss New York pageant after she'd built a strong following on TikTok.

The 26-year-old, better known as @taryntino21, considers herself first and foremost a content creator โ€” she has gained 1.2 million TikTok followers in two years of posting. But she's an offline celebrity in her own right as well, having been crowned 2022's Miss New York and runner-up in the Miss America competition.

But before Smith had any sort of platform, she herself was a receptionist, working long hours to pay her way through a master's degree in international communication. It's that experience that she pulls from to inform Denise's character.

"I got promoted to the call center eventually, which was definitely not the promotion I thought it'd be," Smith said in an interview with NPR.

Even heaven's receptionist has to go through the same mundane daily dramas as any earthly office worker.

There's the slew of entitled folks who think they deserve the Angel Premium Plus package but are short on the cost: 7,899 good deeds. But then there's the creepy resident with red eyes who keeps abusing a downstairs pass to terrorize a suburban family.

"Why can't we just let women do it all?"

It's these types of creative, world-building details that keep Smith's audience so hooked. But like all great ideas, Denise's character was born in the least grandiose of ways โ€” as a stray thought in the shower.

"I was standing there thinking, 'If I die in a chicken suit, then I have to wear the chicken suit forever.' Can you imagine a ghost coming to you in a chicken suit?" Smith said. "And I just couldn't stop giggling."

She hopped out of the shower and into a robe and towel, found the first stock image of heaven that came up on Google and made what she thought would be the stupidest video on the internet.

Today, the heaven's receptionist videos have been viewed over 37 million times on Smith's TikTok page, and at least 22 million times on other platforms. Smith gets recognized on the street as Denise more often than she does as Miss New York.

Holding those dual identities might be incongruous in some minds, but for Smith, it just works.

"Why can't we just let women do it all? Just let them be their beautiful, silly, authentic selves," she said. "I didn't really think I'd be pushing the envelope just by being myself and being a beauty queen."

The same authenticity that plays well with today's Generation Z audiences helped her stand out onstage. Shunning archaic Black beauty standards, Smith competed in Miss New York with her natural hair, a move that ultimately earned her more praise than criticism.

If anything, she said, she has faced more criticism for her comedy than her looks.

"For people that are fans of pageantry, they don't get my TikTok characters. Some of them would be like, 'I don't get it. Why is she being so weird?' And I'm not being weird. I'm having fun. I'm being silly."

"I would love for more adults to be able to release that inhibition, even if it's just in private," she said. "I think humans were meant to create things. We just get in our own way."

When Denise gets personal, the comments get real

And the more Smith shows up as her uninhibited self, the more the audience adopts the same mindset. If you're not careful, the humor can chip away at the hardened edges of grief, revealing something soft and raw underneath.

"I don't want to kill the vibe," one user wrote in the comments section early on, "but these make me so happy because I imagine someone sweet like you greeted my mom."

Without warning, Smith broke with the humor in her sixth Denise video. As the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" ran low in the background, she tenderly welcomed another commenter's mother into heaven by name.

"No, it's all right. Come forward. I know who you are. You're Gerry, right?" Denise says as she looks up from her laptop, her face full of sheer kindness. "You are so loved. I'm already getting prayer mail for you."

For such a personal message, it had wide resonance. The video has racked up over 10,000 comments, many of them filled with heart emojis and stories about even more lost loved ones โ€” people missing mothers also, coincidentally, named Gerry, but also lost babies, aunts, great-uncles, older brothers, younger sisters, grandparents, celebrity idols and beloved pets.

Smith said she receives many, sometimes "hundreds," of emails and comments every week requesting that she insert specific people into her videos. The stories are so touching that she can't read them all because of how much she'll cry. But some days she still tries.

"I'm actually very spiritual. I believe in this stuff. I've lost people that I talk to all the time," she said. "Because love just doesn't ... it can't go away. It's too big. When you love somebody the way my mom loves me, the way I love my friends, it can't be contained in this boring earthly body."

Grief arises on TikTok the way it does in the real world: randomly

In the real world, we carry a persistent expectation that our grief will expire. Funerals come and go. Bereavement leave ends. Friends stop asking how you're doing out of fear of saying the wrong thing.

But on TikTok, in what can often be an endless sea of noise and distraction, images of grief can arise randomly in the algorithm just as easily as reminders of your loved ones pop up uninvited as you move through the day.

The difference on the platform is that you're often, by default, not alone in the experience. The video may be confessional, theatrical or didactic, but there's a good chance it's going to feature a human you can see and connect to.

"It's like each successive generation breaks a boundary when it comes to sharing grief," said Megan Devine, a psychotherapist who studies grief and is the author of It's OK That You're Not OK.

"On TikTok, you get rewarded for immediacy, which feeds into the sense of, 'We should be talking about this more,'" Devine said. "It's making big overwhelming issues digestible. ... It's safer to explore the edges of what we can tell the truth about."

The hashtag #Grief is among TikTok's most popular, with over 9 billion individual posts. And even in that huge conversation, Smith's videos about Denise manage to stand out.

What she does so intuitively well is pair grief with a dose of playfulness, and also with secularity and spirituality, authenticity and vulnerability, the personal and the universal โ€” all combining into a potent catharsis cocktail.

But above all, "she's speaking to the most human need: the need for connection," Devine said.

Thankfully for Denise's fans, Smith, too, is in it for the human connection.

"The only reason I do this is because of the collaborative nature of it," she said, adding that she has found the most inspiration for the videos in the comments section. "As long as we're still doing this together as a team, then I'm here for it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.