TikTok isn’t always known as a healing place, but Taryn Delanie Smith is determined to change that, one video at a time.
Better known as "heaven's receptionist," the 26-year-old is providing comfort, hope and humor to total strangers to help them cope with the loss of their loved ones.
Dressed in a white bathrobe with her hair swept up in a towel and a "razor" phone at her ear, Smith steps into the role of Denise, aka “heaven’s receptionist,” and greets new arrivals with a warm smile and some encouraging words.
Smith's video series has quickly gone viral, with many TikTok users writing in asking her to film a video for their newly deceased loved one. In a recent video, Denise welcomes Ella-Rose, a little girl whose mother said she must have been “scared and sad she didn’t get to stay with (her family).”
In a soft voice, Denise tells Ella-Rose it's "ok to be shy" and pretends to shake her hand.
"Some people you love very much who love you very much let me know you'd be coming up to see me today. You and I are gonna be great friends," she says.
Denise continues to comfort Ella-Rose and says, "I know the people you wanna see are downstairs. But in a long time from now — it's going to feel like a long time to them, but not to you — they're gonna be up here with you. In the meantime, you get to play, you can be anybody you want to be, and more importantly, you’re never gonna be alone."
It's a rewarding platform for Smith, who won the title of Miss New York in 2022 and was a Miss America runner-up in 2022. The New Yorker, who is also an avid community service advocate, tells TODAY's Ally Love that she thinks of herself "as a friend" while filming her videos.
"For the longest time, I'd ask myself, 'What do you want to do when you grow up?'" she says. "The biggest thing that really inspired me most was loving people and being a friend. And I’m like, 'Can I make a career out of that?' And then content creation kind of put itself in my path."
Smith first came up with the idea for "heaven's receptionist" while showering and filmed her first video instantly. Now, she gets recognized as Denise more often than she does for being Miss New York.
Smith's TikTok videos are even touching social media users who may not be spiritual. One penned the following comment: "I’m not religious, and have a lot of big questions and anxieties about what happens after we pass… but this made me feel a bit better."
Smith could never have predicted how much her videos would influence people, and she says she's touched that they're tuning in.
"I’m so honored that people trust me with their stories, trust me with their loved ones and that they want to share. If I can bring someone comfort, it’s such a gift," she says.
People are also admiring how Smith always brings her authentic self to her social media channels, which also feature plenty of other types of videos. In one, she comedically recalls her first waxing experience. In another, she gets real about her anxiety.
Can humor help people cope with grief?
Many of the "heaven's receptionist" videos approach grief with humor, and WebMD Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Whyte tells TODAY.com he isn't surprised that people are responding to them in a positive manner.
“It may seem odd to talk about laughter and humor in the setting of grief, but it should be considered an important coping mechanism,” he says. “People are drawn to these videos because they make one laugh or even just chuckle. It helps to change their mindset and might even help reset their mood.”
Thea Gallagher, a professor in the psychiatry department at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, calls Delanie's videos “sweet, touching and beautiful,” and points out why they’re so valuable.
“They highlight an ongoing connection to those we have lost. And no matter what you believe about the after-life, these sentiments are so tender and lovely and make us reflect on the wonderful aspects of the people we have lost,” Gallagher says.
According to Whyte, humor releases endorphins and lowers cortisol (stress hormones), which are often elevated during grief.
“Laughing and smiling can instantly relieve tension in your face and neck," he says.
Grief is complicated and it comes in waves. That’s partially why humor can help alleviate some of the uncertainty that surrounds the process.
“Humor can help us focus on another aspect of this loss. These videos are so sweet because the premise is cute and funny but the depth of the messages is so powerful and beautiful. This highlights the complexities of what we feel when we are grieving, which makes it a unique experience. We grieve because we have loved," Gallagher says.
Of course, humor won't help you every time a pang of grief hits, so it's important to have a strong support system.
"Make sure you have people who you can talk to in the moments where you need support and reach out to a grief group for added support. Be kind to yourself and don’t rush the process. Be tender, compassionate, and empathetic toward yourself in this challenging season. Put your oxygen mask on first," Gallagher says.
Above all, don't feel guilty for sneaking in small moments of joy.
“It’s necessary to have humor when grieving. Not only does it help the brain, but it can also show people who are grieving that you can laugh again and still find joy in this life we have," Alexandra Wyman, grief expert and author of, “The Suicide Club: What To Do When Someone You Love Chooses Death,” says.
And remember, laughing is as much a part of life as grief, so it's only natural to seek out lighter moments to help you navigate through the darkness.
"It’s okay to laugh. You’re not dishonoring your loved one. They want you to smile and find happiness again,” Wyman says.