Sometimes a laugh is the only weapon we have.
While I was writing my book, The Courage to Laugh: Humor, Hope and Healing in the Face of Death and Dying, my dad died. New Year's Eve 1996, he was taken to the hospital. Nine days later, just hours after my mom called to tell me that he was looking better, my dad was no longer alive. After a frantic phone call to book a flight and only two hours of sleep, I got on a plane that took me from my California home to my mom's condo in Florida and to the funeral.
I managed to hold back my tears until I was on the plane. There, however, amidst business men using telephones and the click of laptops, I sat sobbing.
So here I was, I thought, writing about humor and death while my dad died. The universe was testing me to see if I could find anything funny in the situation—and I was failing. I found nothing to laugh about as the shock of his death washed over me. Nothing funny that is, until the flight attendant shoved a cup of hot liquid under my nose and demanded, “Here. Drink this. I guarantee it will help.”
“What is it?,” I asked.
“Coffee and Bailey's Irish Creme,” he said.
That's when my tears mingled with laughter. First of all, it was seven o'clock in the morning—not exactly cocktail hour. Second, I laughed because I never drink coffee and, since I am lactose intolerant, I avoid dairy products—especially cream.
I refused the attendant’s grief-relief remedy but there was something special about it anyway. The comic irony of it all made me laugh—not a laugh big enough to completely stop the tears but an inner laugh that felt comfortable and whispered that everything would be all right.
Then I had another cosmic chuckle. I realized that I was just handed the opening words for my book.
During the next few days, I cried a lot. I was feeling alone and very vulnerable. My mother kept saying not to cry but I allowed my tears to flow. I also noticed that in spite of the sadness of the situation, amusing incidents happened anyway. These drew me away from my tears and produced everything from a smile to a hearty guffaw.
One of the funniest incidents came as we were having a telephone conversation with the rabbi. In the Jewish religion, it is customary for the immediate family to sit Shivah for seven days after the funeral. Friends, relatives and neighbors stop by to pay their condolences during this time. While informing the rabbi that my brother would be completing his Shivah in Connecticut, where he lives, my mom had a slip of the tongue. Instead of saying "Sitting Shivah", she blurted out, "Shitting Sivah.”
My brother and I immediately convulsed with laughter. My mom, realizing what she had said, shoved the phone in my hand. She was laughing too hard to speak.
For the next few days, as I was going through this roller coaster ride of tears and laughter, I learned several things about humor and grief.
I learned that it may take some time to find laughter after a loss. I learned too that it may not always be the fall-down-hold-your-belly kind of laughter that we had experienced when my mom got tongue-tied. Sometimes it’s only an inner chuckle. But whatever kind it is, it is there. It is there to provide a momentary respite from our grief. It is there to show us that indeed life goes on in spite of our loss. It is there to give us hope.
If you have lost someone dear to you recently, I will not tell you to read this book because, as the flight attendant told me, “I guarantee it will help.” No one can guarantee an instant grief remedy; I don't think there is one. What I can say from my own experience, however, is that humor might help. Maybe it will give you hope to continue and a much needed respite from your tears.
When a family is sitting Shivah, it is customary for condolence callers to bring food into the home so that the bereaved do not have to cook or prepare meals. While there, remembrances of the deceased are frequently discussed. Often it encompasses some lighthearted moments in the deceased's life. Like the food that the condolence callers bring to provide nourishment for the body, I believe that the things they laugh about provide nourishment for the soul.