On Humor and Grief


Life is just too weird for words. Life – and death – astound us. This crazy, motley journey of living – and of dying – can seem pretty ridiculous at times.

And then, when grief seems impossible to navigate, humor has a way of piercing through the ridiculousness and taking us back into what’s possible. We can make it through. Nothing can totally crush us. We’re part of the unfolding mystery of the world. We’re stronger than we think. And we’re really not alone.

One of my fondest memories of the time after my mom died was of being at the funeral home before the viewing hours with my sister, Celeste, and my daughters, Alison and Lara. We were all gathered around my mom’s coffin, and the funeral home manager was giving us time to be alone before he brought the visitors in. Standing around my mom’s body, we began talking about how “snarky” she could be – sharing some of the things that drove us all crazy and were so funny. I can’t remember what set us off, but we started giggling together. At that point, the funeral attendant opened the doors to let people in, but when he saw us, he thought we were sobbing. He backed out, slammed the door, and left us alone. We cracked up even more. We kept trying to stop laughing, but every time he opened the door again and then raced out, we’d start chortling. We were wiping our eyes; my sister was pinching her cheeks to make herself stop laughing. When we could finally get some control, we all agreed that my mom would have loved this, and been right in there laughing with us.

Much research in the last few years has focused on the importance of humor in a grieving process. A blog, The Utility of Laughter in Times of Grief, lists some of the impacts humor can have. Physical effects can include easing physical pain, strengthening the immune system, decreasing stress, elevating mood, and decreasing depression and anxiety. Emotional effects include putting things in perspective, enhancing problem solving, triggering creativity, allowing one to take her/himself less seriously, and gaining a sense of control over circumstances. Social impacts include increased bonding among family and friends, diffusing conflicts, and boosting morale.

An article by Mark Liebenow in the Huffington Post of May 2016 reminds us that humor can be sacred as well. “Laughter is a door that creates a crack in our rational mind and allows insights to enter in.”

Of course, sometimes humor is just another form of denial. “Gallows humor,” an avoidance or trivialization of the seriousness of the situation, is an attempt to sidestep the wretchedness of grief. But when humor bubbles up spontaneously, and especially when it’s shared, a gentle and healing light is shed on the impossible reality of loss. The gifts of love linger, no matter what. Leibenow notes that every culture has its clowns or fools who remind people that “there is more going on in life than what they can see.” Laughter and humor can be gentle doors back into the life we once loved, even when our beloveds are gone.

3 thoughts on “On Humor and Grief

  1. Very on point and timely comments for David and me! We’ve been using humor to handle his stroke and the aftermath, and actually having fun within the seriousness of loss. I loved the story of giggling beside your mother at the viewing, and I know Nell would have enjoyed it too. Thanks for the reminder of the indomitable human spirit.
    Love, Lennie

    1. Thanks for your comments, Lennie – I’m sorry to hear about David’s struggles (which, of course, are yours too!). And yes, the human spirit is such a blessed mystery; often, most nakedly revealed when life pulls the rug out from under our expectations. Many healing and loving thoughts for David’s healing and your journey together. love,

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