Laughter and Grief

Grief takes us to a place where we honor our dead. Laughter helps us reclaim the goodness of their love. It also opens our hearts to each other.
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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 that's generally 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. These are more about trying not to cry than anything funny.

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, 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 returned to being blank, and my thoughts slipped back into its dark pool of sorrow. In my head, I knew that 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 a line of turkeys marching in step across the lawn.

Six 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.

But my sad, 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 approximate schedule for most people.

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

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 it's a healthy response to life's ironies. At times, humor functions like a Zen koan or a parable of Jesus. When we realize the illogic of a situation, and catch the sudden insight into something profound, we laugh with astonishment.

Every culture has its fools, clowns or tricksters who remind them that there is more going on in life than what they can see.

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, as well as to poke fun at those who thought too highly of themselves.

Laughter is also sacred. Besides being a tribal leader of the Lakota Sioux, Black Elk was also a Heyoka, a holy fool. Native Americans on the Northwest Coast use humor to prepare the way for the sacred. They tell jokes at a certain point in worship services to loosen people up, break them out of their thinking minds, and prepare them to intuitively receive the sacred wisdom. The Koyemshi of the Pueblos in the Southwest won't let worship begin until everyone has laughed.

Buddhist fools include Pu-tai and Hanshan. Mulla Nasreddin Hoja was an Islamic Sufi fool. In the Russian and Greek Orthodox Christian Churches, 42 of their religious fools have been canonized.

Laughter is a door that creates a crack in our rational mind and allows insights to enter in.

If you're in a grief support group, it probably wasn't long before dark humor surfaced. People who are grieving find it cathartic to poke fun at death. By doing so, they take control back over their lives. They also share the silly things they do to try to cope with grief on the hard days that threaten to pull them down. Laughing together gives them strength to continue.

Grief takes us to a place where we honor our dead. Laughter helps us reclaim the goodness of their love. It also opens our hearts to each other.

Grief is a serious matter because it takes away someone we love. But if we can laugh in Death's face, then Death doesn't win.

This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at

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