April Fool’s Day, Grief, and Humor — To Joke or Not to Joke

A woman gets into a car and snaps her fingers as she says to the driver, “I hear your husband died — just like that. Are you kidding me?”

As if I were the kind of person who would joke or kid about a loved one’s death.

The punchline in this true tale is that I didn’t punch her. (I tend to keep both hands on the wheel at 55 mph.) “Umm … no, I’m not kidding, and I really don’t want to talk about it right now” (what with concentrating on the doings of other I-4 drivers and not wanting to obscure my vision by crying).

She honored my wishes — sort of — for a full mile (which, at highway speed, wasn’t long enough) before opening her mouth to address the sudden death of someone else. “I had a friend whose husband keeled over without warning,” she said, sounding more thoughtful than she was being. “It really tore her up for a long time. She was never the same after that.”

Compared to her conversation, I-4 traffic seemed calming. My heart pounded as I gripped the wheel tighter and said, “I really, really don’t want to talk about this right now.” All of a month into widowhood, my very nerve endings were raw with emotion.

This time she stayed quiet nearly half a mile before opening her mouth again. “Your poor girls must be devastated. Weren’t they close to their father?”

“Be quiet,” I said too quietly. 

She continued, asking how on earth I was going to handle being a single mom.

“Stop. Talking!” I said. Louder.

She returned to the topic of how awful it was for her friend who never recovered after her husband’s death.

“BE QUIET!” I bellowed as loud as I could, far too loud for the confines of my car. “I DON’T WANT YOU TO SAY ANOTHER WORD — NO! NOT! ANOTHER! WORD!” The last part came as she began protesting. “DO NOT SPEAK AGAIN unless you want me so upset I drive this thing RIGHT OFF THE ROAD because I can’t see!” (Whether from rage or tears, I didn’t clarify.)

I’m not a screamer or a yeller. Never have been (except when cheering for my children and their teammates). But that day … I don’t think I’d ever been so angry at another human being , not counting the hospital orderly who asked, “How’re ya doin’?” while handing me the phone with the medical examiner’s office on the other end … But, no, he was at least doing his job — albeit horribly — while this woman just prattled on and on and on against my repeated requests otherwise.

I pulled off the highway and found our destination, bristling even at inane comments about the weather and the route.  I parked, found the hostess who’d invited us, and, car keys still in hand, pulled her aside. Without explanation, I said, “I’m sorry, but you need to find someone else to take her home.” I inclined my head toward the woman I’d given a ride. “I’m leaving.”

I had to take back roads to my house, not trusting myself to the interstate again.

To this day, the phrase “are you kidding me” screeches like sound system feedback against my psyche.

There really is no time or place or circumstance for anyone but the bereaved to be “kidding” or “joking around” about whether a loved one is dead or dying.

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A sense of humor in a grieving heart is a beautiful but delicate thing. Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com

A sense of humor in a grieving heart is, like a spiderweb, a beautiful but delicate thing. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Gentle, harmless April Fool’s Day pranks can be fun, but think twice — and then think twice again — before planning pranks on someone who is grieving. Humor is important and essential, but weaving humor into mourning requires intricate knowledge of the bereaved and delicate application. New, raw grief can make a person’s beautiful sense of humor into a fragile construction, as easily damaged as a spider’s web.

Before my husband died, I pulled April Fool’s Day pranks on my family every year. We’d also invite young missionaries from church to our house for dinner every April 1 and feed them foods that weren’t what they seemed. It was a fun tradition we all looked forward to.

I’ve only done it once as a widow. It seemed like too much trouble for a few laughs over a meal. This year, work deadlines and other projects mean I’m not likely inviting anyone over, but I may arrange a couple of small surprises for a few close people … (Shh … don’t tell …) 😉

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Grief hurts. It’s sad and sorrowful and all-consuming. It’s easy to be swallowed by it, so when the bereaved have a chance to laugh and breathe the healing air of humor, it usually helps.

Laughter over funny things the deceased said or did can be especially healing. Most mourners yearn for a connection between their loved ones and those around them. If laughter turns to tears, that’s not a bad thing. When bereaved emotions are all-consuming, releasing one often releases another.

Mad Libs became a part of our family's humor culture that we continue to enjoy.

Mad Libs became a part of our family’s humor culture that we continue to enjoy.

Don’t be afraid to laugh with your grieving friends. Invite them to a funny movie or to play together a ridiculous party game at your house like Curses or  Mad Libs.*

Do tread lightly with grief-related humor. It’s one thing for a pair of widows to share a joke about the “joy” of not waking to anyone’s snores; it’s altogether different for someone outside that degree of grief to make light of what is yet another aspect of forced change.

Above all, LISTEN to what your friends say and honor their requests.

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*Mad Libs are a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC. (As of this writing, I have no affiliation with Penguin Random House.) I’ve enjoyed these fill-in stories since I was a kid (and often wrote up my own versions); my husband and I introduced them to our kids when they were little, and they remain a family staple of road trips. And I have to say, my kids and I treasure the pages of our Mad Libs books with my late husband’s handwriting.

Regarding the game Curses, I’m not sure who came up with it, but the times I’ve played, I’ve laughed hard enough to cry — in a good way.

St. Patrick and the Green Grief Monster

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day (or not) isn’t the same when you’re grieving. Nothing is. The day itself commemorates the death of Ireland’s patron saint — originally it was a religious observation. But in recent years its solemnity appears all but forgotten as popular culture makes it into a day for people to celebrate their Irish heritage (whether real or adapted for the day).

In my family, with Irish ancestors on both my side and my late husband’s side, our St. Patrick’s Days were all about the green. When our kids were little, I’d add green food coloring into milk, pancakes, cookie dough — whatever I could think of — just to infuse the day with a bit more color.

Green milk and other green-dyed foods were a staple of our St. Patrick's Days.

Green milk and other green-dyed foods were a staple of our St. Patrick’s Days. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

We wore green, of course, because nobody wanted to get pinched.

I made corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes for dinner. A few times I made Irish brown bread from a magazine or cookbook recipe.

And that was it — St. Patrick’s Day at our house.

After my husband died, memory and timekeeping did an agonizing push-pull dance.  For more than a year, I knew exactly how many days, weeks, and months had passed since his death. The awareness wasn’t something I tried to keep track of — it just was.

I also knew when holidays loomed ahead of me, but I backpedaled from them, dragging my feet as the calendar funneled me toward them. Maybe I thought if I didn’t acknowledge them, didn’t prepare for them, didn’t commemorate them … Maybe by ignoring those yearly occasions, I could avoid the pain of experiencing them without my husband.

I also felt guilty for the unwilling resentment I felt toward couples I saw enjoying such days together. I wanted to walk up to them and say, “Whatever you do, don’t take each other for granted. You’re together. Not everyone has that.”

I’d felt similar pangs of green-eyed jealousy after my mom died when I’d see grown daughters with their mothers. It was especially difficult at church, watching women I grew up with visiting home and spending that time with their moms. Of course I was happy for them, but it hurt that they had what I no longer did.

More than a few times, when I overheard women (of various ages) griping about their moms or snapping at them with harsh words at the store or a restaurant, I butted in — completely unbidden. “Excuse me,” I’d say. “You don’t know how long you get to have her in your life. When she’s gone you are going to regret acting like this.” Then I’d walk away. (I’ve tried to keep my own words in mind when interacting with my grown daughters. Every day together is precious.)

It hurt to remember my husband and my mother during holidays. It hurt worse when others didn’t acknowledge their absence during those same days.

Although it wasn’t my intention to walk around under a cloud of doom, I couldn’t help resenting well-intended “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” greetings, along with every other “happy this” or “happy that” greeting in the first couple of years after each new loss. Sure, I wanted to be happy, but I was mourning. And grief is not a  happy process.

The best support friends gave me during holidays, on anniversaries, and on other tender dates was to acknowledge my loss.

It may seem contradictory, but speaking of the deceased loved one can offer better cheer than saying “Have a happy [whatever] day.” Instead, tell your grieving friend something like, “I’m sure you’re missing [SAY the name!] today. I’m thinking of you.”

This is my sixth widowed St. Patrick’s Day. There’s no corned beef and cabbage on the menu, but I’ve made green milk and cookies again, and I no longer scowl when wished a “happy St. Patrick’s Day.” For now, that’s enough.

 

 

“Be Strong” Is Wrong (for Grieving Friends)

When someone dies, don’t tell survivors how strong they are. Tell them you’ll be strong beside them so they don’t have to — and follow through.

The first times people called me strong after my husband died, I had no idea how to respond. Their expressions and tones made it clear they’d intended to compliment me, but I couldn’t accept their words. I’d look at them, thinking, How can I say the expected “thank you” to such a blatant lie? 

I was as fragile as dandelion fluff.

Mourning made my feelings as fragile as overripe dandelion fluff. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

The truth was, I was broken, shattered into a million loosely gathered shards. The softest puff of sympathy or the least gust of gruffness might send my fragmented psyche as irretrievably into the wind as overripe dandelions in the hands (and breath) of enthused toddlers.

I was not strong. And it puzzled me that anyone might think I was.

I cried all the time. All. The. Time.

Everyday chores I’d mastered years earlier now confused me.

New tasks (including seemingly endless death-related business matters) overwhelmed me.

The sudden, sole responsibilities of single parenting had my knees buckling.

Strong, I was not. But that’s what was expected (and even demanded) of me. “Don’t cry,” some said. “You have to be strong for your daughters.”

Such words (though intended as encouragement) deeply shamed me. Being anyone else’s rock is a heavy burden when you’re scarcely able to hold onto yourself. 

Didn’t they realize how much strength seeped from me in getting out of bed each morning? Didn’t they know how much energy I exerted just remembering to breathe? Had they no idea how sucked away my strength felt after days and weeks and months of only sparse, grief- and nightmare-riddled, interrupted naps instead of genuine sleep?

Telling me how strong I was didn’t feel like a compliment. It felt like being told I could and should be able to handle everything on my own.

But I couldn’t.

Telling me I was strong didn’t make me feel capable. It made me feel like I wasn’t worthy of asking for help.

So I didn’t.

Sorrow saps strength. Grieving grinds it away. Bereavement burdens and bruises the body. Mourning makes mincemeat of memory.

So step in.

How can you offer your strength to grieving friends?

  • Help your mourning friends with physical tasks like mowing the lawn or shoveling snow or washing the car or doing the dishes and laundry. (*See important note about this below!)
  • Go along on emotionally charged errands (like changing car titles, account names, or banking business into the survivors’ names). Don’t make general offers like “call me if you want me to go” — they won’t. Instead, be specific: “Can I take you to the auto tag office Thursday afternoon to help you transfer the title into your name?” or “Would Tuesday or Wednesday be better for me to drive you to the Social Security office to submit the claim for the kids’ benefits?” or “The minute the funeral home says you can pick up the death certificates, call me. I want to help.”
  • Look out for your bereaved friends’ health. Bring a healthy meal, invite your friends on nature walks, share your favorite sleep soundtrack, take them for a massage, mention you need your own six-month dental cleaning and ask if they need you to call their dentist to schedule theirs …
  • Make a list. Mourning makes remembering anything a challenge. Write down tasks your friend might mention in passing. Offer reminders of appointments. Write down memories of their deceased loved one. Write down all the kindnesses other friends extend to your grieving mutual friend.
  • Be present. The loneliness of mourning a person missing from your life is difficult to describe. Acknowledge your awareness your friend is hurting. Sometimes the bereaved need reminders they (the deceased and the bereaved) aren’t forgotten and that they are valued for themselves — not just for who they used to be in relation to the ones no longer living. If you live nearby, sitting in silence alongside your friends will strengthen them just by your willingness to witness their sorrow. If you live far from them, you can still be “present” with phone calls, texts, instant messages, and even old-fashioned snail mail.

Here’s the irony:

Now, five-plus years later, I can honestly say, I’ve become strong. I’ve had to.  I’ve become stronger than my pre-widowed self could have imagined. The bones of my broken soul reknit into a construction of titanium lace.

But it took being broken — and much, much longer than six to eight weeks — to grow that strength.

(Sometimes, I also admit, the holes in that titanium knit lace soul of mine still feel more jagged than smooth, more broken than whole. Grieving, like living, is a process.)

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*Please note: ALWAYS, Always, always ask before washing or putting away or cleaning up after the deceased person’s clothing, dishes, or even apparent trash! (Mourners may need and want to handle those newly sacred, last-touched items themselves.)