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.
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 …) 😉
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.
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.
*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.