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/

Taboo Topics When Someone Dies–Part 4, Appearance

Grief is more than an emotional response to bereavement. Grieving impacts every aspect of mourners’ lives — including body systems — in ways they shouldn’t be pressed to discuss. Avoid personal comments about the appearances of mourning friends.* Even if you have a professional, looks-related relationship (as a dermatologist, hairdresser, personal trainer …), or even if the bereaved asks your opinion, guard your tongue. Comments on visible physical symptoms of my loss only deepened my distress.

Stop and think before making personal comments on mourners' appearances

Stop and think before making personal comments on mourners’ appearances

Avoid “about face” comments.

I’ve always been suntan-challenged, but as a new widow I looked paler than usual. I didn’t benefit from others pointing it out. In shock for weeks (months, really), I was oxygen-deprived from improper, incomplete breathing.  I’d taken only shallow breaths — for weeks. It took conscious effort to fill my lungs. Most people grieving new loss forget to breathe fully. An acupuncturist friend, Natalie Doliner, taught me that in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) the lungs are recognized as “organs of grief.”

My skin went crazy. Within days after my husband’s death, my face started shedding. I looked as if I’d suffered a colorless, peeling sunburn. Self-conscious, I preferred not to be seen in public. When I ventured outside, comments like “Do you know you’re peeling?” sent me back into my shell.

My hands, arms, and legs bore scratches, scrapes, and bruises, though in new grief’s fog I seldom noticed what I’d run into or how I’d cut myself. It was helpful to hear “Excuse me, do you know you’re bleeding?” It was never helpful to hear “Wow, what happened to your arms?” I didn’t know.

Avoid “tiresome” reminders of exhaustion.

I never appreciated comments about dark circles beneath (or bloodshot veins in) my eyes. I already knew I looked tired! Hearing “You should get more sleep” didn’t prevent grief-related nightmares from jolting me awake (on the rare occasions grief insomnia allowed me to sleep at all). Such comments felt like unjust scolding and reminded me there was too much empty space in my bed.

Avoid mentioning “weighty matters,” either gained or lost. 

Mourners won’t tell you embarrassing ways grief impacts digestion — and they shouldn’t have to. I hated explaining (as diplomatically as I could), “I can’t keep anything down,” or “Everything I eat rushes out the other end.” Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea (I later learned) are common in bereavement. Mourners shouldn’t have to justify why they do (or don’t) want to eat or how that impacts their appearance. 

This should be obvious (but my experiences proved otherwise): I didn’t appreciate reminders that I’d lost or gained weight while grieving. Unless mourners mention their weight to you (and perhaps even then), keep weight-related observations and opinions to yourself. 

I lost more than 20 pounds in a few weeks as a new widow, more than 30 in a few months, but it certainly wasn’t a healthy (or sustainable) way to lose weight! I despised everything about the grief-induced “death diet” inflicted on me, including well-intended reminders about how “good” I looked because of it. Over and over I endured conversations like this:

“Wow, you look great! How’d you lose so much weight?”
“Umm … I forgot to eat.”  Or couldn’t keep it down …
“No, really. How’d you find the willpower? I’d kill to lose that much.” [Yes, someone said that.]
“My husband died.”
“Oh … [insert awkward pause and/or dismissive shrug] Well, at least you look good.”

There was nothing “helpful” about being urged to eat more when I had no appetite — or to eat less when my appetite resurfaced with a vengeance that was (pardon the pun) “fed” by grief. Within months I gained double the amount I’d lost. It took a full year of hard work to reach a zero net weight change before I began moving toward a healthier range.

Picture the whole person before you click.

I still seethe over one  against-my-protest  snapshot taken during my first year as a widow. It wasn’t about my bad hair day or ill-fitting outfit (though if it had been, even those concerns should have warranted better respect). It was about the PAIN of LOSS I saw EVERY time I couldn’t avoid a mirror. My eyes reflected bereavement, and (like people who believe cameras steal souls) I felt that shutter sever my gossamer connection to my surroundings that day — and (even though I’ve long-since forgiven the snapshot-taker, sort of) I still feel the reverberations of that click. If mourners balk at having pictures taken (of themselves or the deceased), LISTEN — and honor their requests! 

When it comes to personal comments about bereaved friends’ appearances, “no comment” is the best option.  Instead say, “It’s good to see you,” and leave it at that.

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*I talk about other taboo topics — politics, religion, money, and legal status — in other posts. (And yes, I still appreciate the irony of talking about things you shouldn’t talk about.)