Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday, I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Humor, Laughter, and Grief




For the most part, grief isn’t funny.

“Grief” and “humor” aren’t often used in the same sentence. There are moments in the beginning of grief when we’re laughing hysterically, but that’s generally in the middle of the night and it’s not a happy sound. Or we’re standing by ourselves in the woods holding a tree. Or we’re in the shower staring at the soap. These are more about our trying not to cry than anything funny.

There aren’t many moments where laughter seems appropriate when someone has just died. We know that we laughed before death smacked us so hard in the chest that we couldn’t breathe, and we expect to laugh sometime in the future, but how do we get from here to there? 
When is it appropriate to laugh again after a death?  
Is there a code of conduct that specifies when smiles are okay, when jokes are permitted, and when guffaws are kosher?

My own trip back to the land of levity started about two months after Ev died when I smiled briefly after someone told a joke, then my face returned to being blank for the rest of the week and my thoughts slipped back into its pool of sorrow. I knew that what he was saying was funny. I just couldn’t feel the humor.

Some time after this, I began making witty observations to others, along the lines of Dick Cavett’s dry humor. But this was head stuff – thoughts that were mostly ironic, some sardonic; and noticing odd coincidences perched next to each other, like a line of turkeys marching across the lawn in step.

Four months in, I began to enjoy simple physical pleasures again – dark chocolate, cheddar quesadillas, IPA beer, and the aromatic smells of pine forests. I could actually feel warm if I put on a coat and stood in the hot summer sun. My bruised and battered heart was still silent on everything. It would take nine months for an actual laugh to escape, and that came out more like a burp. Belly laughs were at the far end of two years down the road. I don’t know if this is the approximate schedule for most people. 

The first time we snicker or chortle, we feel really guilty. It takes time to get over this. Let me throw a couple of other details into the discussion. 

In general, laughter doesn’t get its due in everyday life. It’s not always a frivolous, lighthearted diversion. It’s also a serious barometer of our health and a healthy response to life’s ironies. At times it functions like a Zen koan. When we realize the illogic of a situation and catch a sudden insight into something profound, we laugh.

Emmett Kelly, a circus clown, felt it was his task to use laughter to bring a moment of joy to those weighed down by life, and to poke fun at those who thought too highly of themselves.

Laughter is also sacred. Native Americans on the Northwest Coast use humor to open the way for the sacred. They tell jokes at a certain point in worship services to loosen people up, break them out of thinking minds that are trying to understand the Great Spirit’s ways, and prepare them to receive sacred wisdom. The Pueblos of the Southwest won’t let worship begin until everyone has laughed. Among his other roles, Black Elk of the Lakota Sioux was also a holy fool.

Laughter is a door that opens us up to deeper understanding and lets the sacred enter.

If you’re in a grief support group, it probably wasn’t long before dark humor surfaced. People who are grieving need to poke fun at death, and take back control over part of their lives. They will also share the silly things they do to try to make grief go away. In laughing together there is strength.

Laughter and grief takes us into a sacred space where we perceive the unseen and see deeper into the reality of this world.

If we can laugh in Death’s face, then Death doesn’t win.  

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