Laughter and Tears–Where Grief Meets Humor

This morning I wrote such a long comment on another blog I realized I’d written a post-length response. Heather O., author of “There are two possibilities” on Segullah.org, wrote,

“Humor. I think it’s important. I’m not sure how you can best use it, or when you should use it, but I still think it’s important. Somehow it fits into the comfort paradigm. Or at least, I think it does. What do you think?”*

Here’s how I answered:

My daughter told me this yesterday. One scientist: “Tell me the joke about potassium.”
Second scientist: “K.”

Every person grieves differently, and every loss is different, whether it be loss of health, a job, a pet, or a loved one, or a different loved one. In most cases I’ve known, before a person CAN see or be comforted by humor, they must be mourned WITH.

So glad I coaxed Aunt Ginny and Granddad (her brother) into sitting for portraits that day.

I’m so glad I coaxed Aunt Ginny and Granddad (her brother) into sitting for portraits that day. (Picture didn’t appear in my Segullah comment.)

My beloved great-aunt died last weekend. Her funeral is today in another state and I can’t be there. She was nearly 96, and all the family is relieved (though with teary eyes) for her sake that she didn’t linger long after falling and suffering multiple breaks two days earlier. As we go through her lived-through-the-Depression-so-never-discarded-anything house just around a few corners from mine, there’s a lot of laughter. My biggest laugh so far? The discovery of a beautiful little antique glass bottle … labeled and filled with her late husband’s kidney stones. He passed in the mid-70s, though he probably passed the stones much earlier. (Pun intended!)

On the other hand (of possible reactions), even in my relief for her release and return to long-gone loved ones, I’m forever going to miss her sweet, rose-colored, glass nearly-full (never just half-) day-to-day presence. I ache in her absence. My most sentimental sob-inducing find so far? A 3×4-inch scrap of paper drifted out from the pages of a huge stack of ancestral research. On it that sentimental woman had jotted down my youngest daughter’s birth information (name, time, size, etc.) when I called her from the hospital that morning … She’d even written down “Teresa doing well and breakfast just delivered to her room.”
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When I became a widow at 44 it was completely unexpected. Blindsided by grief, I deeply resented those who said, “You’re kidding!” or “You’re joking!” to the news of my 47-year-old husband’s death. (Four years later, I understand they thought they were as blindsided as my daughters and I.) I also resented (and was repelled by) those who in any way tried to make light of our loss. What I (and my daughters) needed was to be mourned with before we could be comforted.

On the other hand (of possible reactions), I quickly recognized, took solace in, and quickly developed the dark widowed humor of others who’d experienced the deaths of their spouses. (Now there’s no need to shave your legs in the winter, no one will steal the covers from your side of the bed, you can have the last word in every argument, stick a red paper hourglass on a black T-shirt and you’ll never have to create another Halloween costume…) Coming from people who hadn’t walked in widowhood’s path, their comments would have felt like minimizing slaps in the face; coming from a community of the also-widowed, they felt like encouraging “you’ll get through this — I did” pats on the back.

(In one widows and widowers group, one of the longest-running, most commented on threads was about leg shaving. If that isn’t funny, I don’t know what is!)

Be very, very careful about using humor while interacting with the newly bereaved. Laughter that has nothing to do with the death can be cathartic. Offer to watch a great comedy with them — if they are up to it — because humor can promote belly laughs that bring sorely-needed oxygen to mourners’ lungs. (See Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 4, Appearance.) Sometimes those who grieve need participation in activities unrelated to their loss, but without an invitation they may not think to on their own.

However, unless you’ve walked a very similar path of loss, tread oh so lightly when bringing humor into conversations about the loss. Laughter over funny memories of the deceased is usually welcome. Laughter over the loss itself is not.

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* I recommend you read Heather O.’s full post. It made me think. http://segullah.org/daily-special/there-are-two-possibilities/

Please share your thoughts on this topic. Thanks!

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