For the most part, death 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 generally that’s in the middle of the night and it’s not a happy sound. Or we’re laughing while standing by ourselves in the woods holding on to a tree. Or we’re in the shower staring at the soap for five minutes. These moments are more about trying not to cry than anything funny.
When is it appropriate to laugh again after a death? Is there a code of conduct that specifies when smiles are okay, then when jokes are permitted, and finally when guffaws are kosher?
My own trip back to the land of levity started about two months after Evelyn died when I smiled briefly after someone told a joke. Then my face went blank, and my thoughts slipped back into its dark pool of sorrow. In my head, I knew what he was saying was funny. I just couldn’t feel the humor.
A month or so later, I began making my own 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. It was noticing odd coincidences perched next to each other, like the line of turkeys that marched across my lawn in step the other day.
Six months in, I began to enjoy simple, physical pleasures again — dark chocolate, sharp cheddar quesadillas, IPA beer, and the aromatic smells of pine forests. But my battered heart was still numb.
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 typical schedule for most people. The first time we snicker or chortle, we feel guilty. It takes time to get over this.
In general, laughter doesn’t get its due in everyday life. It’s not just a frivolous, lighthearted diversion. Laughing releases tension in the body. It helps us cope with serious illnesses. It’s also a barometer of our wellbeing and a healthy response to life’s ironies. At times, humor functions like a Zen koan or a New Testament parable. When we realize the illogic of a situation, and catch the sudden insight into something profound, we laugh with astonishment. Norman Cousins watched old comedies when he was seriously ill and laughed himself back to health.
Although we admire the skill of the acrobats and the bravery of the lion tamers, we love the clowns in the circus like Emmett Kelly who used laughter to bring joy to those who hadn’t laughed in a long time. Every culture has its fools, clowns or tricksters who remind them that there is more going on in Life than the life they can see. Besides being a tribal leader of the Lakota Sioux, Black Elk was also a Heyoka, a holy fool, who comforted the grieving. Christianity has canonized a bunch of fools as saints, like St. Philip Neri. Buddhist fools include Pu-tai and Hanshan. Mulla Nasreddin Hoja was an Islamic Sufi fool.
I went on a grief retreat with 25 others, and it wasn’t long before dark humor surfaced. We were crying and laughing as we talked about our journey through grief, and shared the silly things we did to cope on the hard days when grief threatened to pull us down. Laughter released the pressure inside and helped us breathe. We found it cathartic to poke fun at death, and by doing so, we took back some control over our lives. Laughing together gave us strength to continue on.
Laughter opened our hearts to each other and let their compassion come in. When we can laugh in Death’s face, then Death doesn’t win.