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.

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/