Laughter and Grief

Is laughter and humour, an appropriate way to deal with grief and trauma? If you do express humour whilst you grieve, will you be judged negatively? Will people think that you are not grieving properly? In this blog, I'll argue that humour has its place and is part of the grieving process.

I recently read Frank Ostaseski's, The Five Invitations: What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, where he discusses his work at the Zen Hospice Project. In his third of five invitations, he talks about bringing your whole self to the experience of dying, your fear, anxiety, humour, delight, anger etc and this made me think about how a lot of the people I have met as a counsellor have brought humour and laughter to their grieving. That it is important to acknowledge it as part of the process rather than instantly assigning it, to a form of distraction, avoidance or denial.

As a counsellor, I have sat with many people over the years, honouring and witnessing their pain and suffering, as they cope with loss, trauma and grief. Although this involves sharing pain, grief and sadness, to my initial surprise it has also involved many hours of, laughing with them. I used to worry, that this humour and laughter, may not be appropriate for the counselling room and I would try and refocus the sessions, but it would happen nonetheless. I was scared that it could be trivialising their suffering, or that I could be accidentally supporting them, to be in denial about what has happened in their lives. To me, counselling was a serious process, that required one to focus on the more painful emotions, but as the years have gone by and I have felt more and more comfortable about letting the client guide the process, I have relaxed my stance. This has allowed me to support their humour and laughter when it is appropriate and their sadness when it is also appropriate. I have come to realise that humour is an essential part of the grieving and healing process, rather than it being some sort of defence mechanism (which it can also be).

To me, there is something about laughter and humour, that helps lighten the load, to make what has happened more bearable. As if one, can look at it from the outside, to at times shine a softer light on suffering.

I used to worry, when clients who had been sexually abused by Catholic Clergy, would come to counselling, telling me the latest joke they had heard about, sex offending Priests. They would crack up in delight, maybe at my reaction as much as anything else, but whatever was happening, it made it easier for them to talk about sexual abuse. This act of humourous rebellion, still named the abuse, brought it out into the open and held the Priest's as the guilty and flawed party. This humour to me felt like an act of subversion, a sort of joining a comedic riot of resistance against abuse. They knew and I knew that the Catholic Church couldn't contain this humour, that this humour was slowly eroding the Catholic Church's status and power. This humour seemed to improve their morale whilst diminishing that of the Church.

A lot of the men I saw, who had been abused, wanted to seek justice, to fight for other victims and to stop the abuse happening to others. Humour appeared to aid in this process, maybe because it inspired their courage for resistance, knowing that they are no longer playing the silent victim role, that they can talk about abuse, without generating self pity or pity from others. From my experience, men especially seem to struggle when they feel they are being pitied. Not wanting their identity to be defined by the act of betrayal by Catholic Priests.

To me laughter humbles the bad guys, points out their flaws and can inspire connection in the good guys. Humour is a form of protest, a way to diminish the abuser power, control and cover up, and if nothing else it made these men an annoyance. It brought the abuse out of the dark and shines a light on it, that the Catholic Church couldn't stop. It sort of shrunk their trauma, making them look at it in a different light. It created insight and connection with other victims, realising that they were not alone, that it was happening all over the world.

As I began to acknowledge the subversive part humour could play, I began to relax with it, to see it had a part to play in counselling and that I would not silence male survivors of sexual abuse, by trying to dismiss it, but would instead work with it. At about this time, my own personal life, took a turn for the worse, when my wife Karen was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.

After Karen, died I went on my own wild ride with grief and I began to see that humour had it's part to play in my grieving, that grief itself is feral and a bit out of (or a lot) out of control, which makes humour an ally in this process. As Francis Weller has talked about in his book, 'The Wild Edge of Sorrow' - "Grief is subversive, undermining the quiet agreement to behave and be in control of our emotions. It is an act of protest that declares our refusal to live numb and small. There is something feral about grief, something essentially outside the ordained and sanctioned behaviours of our culture." Laughter and crying are not always that far apart, once grief has you in its hold, you just have to go for the ride.

Maybe we are so caught up in the stages of grief that we over analyse the process, critique ourselves, asking ourselves if we are moving through the stages, or are we stuck?, rather than just going with it. At best the stages of grief, are a map to help you navigate your way, but it is hopeless if you get so focused on reading the map that you don't observe what is actually going on underfoot. Over the years I have heard a lot of negative comments about people who express laughter and humour in their grief, seeing humour as a form of "denial", rather than it having its own part to play. I think we often see laughter in those grieving in a critical judging sort of way, that all it is, is a defence mechanism against feeling the pain of loss and trauma, (as if that is bad thing). Because there is good and bad grieving and good grieving involves relentlessly feeling your pain, humour has little part to play. However laughter if nothing else can create some respite, but I'd also like us to consider that laughter is part of healing, a look at the loss and the grief with a creative gaze, a way of restoring hope and in itself is a sign that hope is returning.

After Karen died, I'd feel guilty when I was not grieving as you should, that if I laughed, then that was evidence, that I can't have loved her, that I was not grieving properly. That as a counsellor, I should know that you have to, turn into the grief, to go right through the middle of it. That I should be miserable all the time, well I'm telling you I had my fair share of that, but I also didn't want to become overwhelmed by the grief.

Laughter for me was about restoring connection with others, of letting them know, it will be OK, that you don't have to tip toe around me. It is also part of remembering that life goes on, that there are other people who are still alive, who are a joy to be with. That they require you to choose life, to choose at some point to be with the living and not the dead.

Grief itself, sort of unbuckles and unhinges you, to the point, that at times you don't even know yourself anymore. You end up "fucking up" the ordinary. Social niceties fall away. You don't want to play the stupid games anymore. A simple conversation can be taken completely the wrong way, before you know it, you are responding too harshly, too defensively, to some poor shop worker, or at other times breaking down in front of some stranger. This is all really weird and a bit disturbing as you can no longer predict how you will be or respond even to the most mundane questions in life. At times this is actually funny, and the retelling of these "catastrophes", in what were once, simple, ordinary human relations, ended up bringing great delight to others and also made me laugh at myself. This standing out side of myself and not taking myself so seriously, made me realise, that I can't do this perfectly. That I was not the same person and I was in a process of relearning how to live in the world.

There is a part of grief that is at times difficult to live with and that is the sense that you are now someone to be pitied, to be felt sorry for, as if your whole identity is now that of a widower. At times this was hard to bare, and my subversive self, would provoke a shift in perception, as my humour (at times inappropriate) would come to the rescue.

This makes me also think about the part "gallows humour" has to play. The realisation that things are so bad, that maybe the only option is to laugh at the absurdity of your situation. That you are so "fucked" that only laughter can break it open. Even Sigmund Freud honoured gallows humour "The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure." Humour helps us to distance ourselves (if only temporarily) from the reality we are facing. It shifts the brain from, focusing on anxiety, to other parts of the brain, assisting us to carry on. Sometimes it is just respite, a break away from the grief.

Humour was also in a fundamental way, about, restoring my connection with Karen, by rejecting the "saint like" qualities that had been bestowed on her, after her death. Returning her to the real person she was, that it was her flaws and idiosyncrasies, that I missed the most, that I needed to grieve the real person, not a fantasy. But maybe most importantly it is the sharing of these stories, sad, funny, exciting, that connected me with others in the grief. I found out things that I never knew about her, making me realise that her loss, effected us all in different ways, a sort of combined but separate missing, but we were all grieving for the Karen, we knew.

After Karen died, humour was the thing, I most missed in myself, the loss of playfulness and ease with others. In a previous blog post (Celebrating the Larrikin) I have outlined the need to begin to take risks again, to enjoy the company of others without the grief forming all the qualities of the relationship. Allowing play to return to your life, is the time when you realise, I will get through this, that life will be OK.

I agree that at times laughter and humour, can be a defence mechanism and even inappropriate, when we grieve, but I hope this blog has made you think that it can also be an integral part of the grieving and healing process.

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