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Humor – A Tool For Coping With Grief

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When dealing with grief, many of us experience three of the four basic human emotions: madness, sadness and fear. The fourth one, “joy,” is not very popular during mourning because it’s deemed inappropriate, in bad taste and unacceptable in the midst of grieving. Wanting to be culturally sensitive and socially correct, we tread lightly because oftentimes we don’t know what to say, and most of all, we don’t want to offend.

Two women laughing

So let’s talk about “joy’s” cousin, humor, which may be more welcomed than we think. There are times where grief takes center stage when we’re deeply immersed in it and that is all there is. But life does go on; we go on. Then we find that grief becomes a part of it. At first it’s the only thing, and excruciatingly slowly, it falls into place as being a moving piece of life.

It has been said that we sometimes have to laugh to keep from crying, that laughter is the best medicine and that laughter is good for the soul. Humor doesn’t necessarily last long; it’s temporary. But if you use it as a coping tool in times of stress or grief, it can be effective in changing or improving your temporary experience. In coping with life’s stressors, it can help to include humor in your tool kit.

There are varying ranges within each emotion and humor is no exception. For example, humor can elicit a sly smile, an unexpected grin, a chuckle, an escaped giggle, chortle, guffaw or cause someone to bend over rolling on the floor howling laughter… and it feels good. Humor is transcendent. Laughter helps to normalize not only your emotions, but also your immediate reality. It helps you to regain a measure of control just by letting go in the moment. It releases stress and tension. Laughter in times of grief is quite normal and nothing to be ashamed of. It can be a bridge in the ocean of grief that can connect you to the next moment, the next horizon, a moment of refuge or reprieve from the torment of psychological and emotional pain.

But laughter can also feel odd, unseemly or even inappropriate while grieving. This too, is normal. It really is okay to smile and even laugh out loud. Give yourself permission to experience variations of the fourth emotion.

Back when the HOPE Connection Spousal Loss Support Groups met in person, the groups would get together for dinner at a restaurant before the meetings to connect with one another and socialize. At one restaurant where the groups regularly gathered, someone at a nearby table asked, “What kind of group is that? They seem to be having so much fun.” Someone close by answered, “That’s a grief group.” The first person was incredulous. “A grief group? How can that be? They are all laughing and they look, well, you know, normal.”  “Oh yeah, well that’s because like everything else, this is a part of life too, and it’s just as important.”

Laughter as a tool in coping with grief aids in being able to laugh at yourself, the emerging ironies, the mishaps and unintended circumstances you find yourself in while grieving. It takes the sting out of the pain that you’re feeling in that moment, and it’s healing to bond through shared laughter. 

There is scientific evidence, according to the Mayo Clinic, that shows numerous positive psychological and physical benefits of humor, because it: 

• Stimulates the heart, lungs and muscles
• Increases endorphins released by the brain
• Activates and relieves stress response
• Soothes tension by stimulating circulation and muscle relaxation
• Improves the immune system, releasing neuropeptides that fight stress and illness
• Relieves pain by triggering the body’s natural painkillers
• Increases personal satisfaction, establishing a connection between two or more people
• Improves mood, lessening depression and anxiety

Therapeutic humor, according to The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, defines therapeutic humor as “any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful discovery, expression or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life’s situations.”

In 1992, a friend of mine, Amy Blumsack, invited me to a play she created after the death of her grandmother. I knew nothing else about it. I showed up early, patiently stood in line with everyone else waiting to get in and be seated. After a while, I thought to myself that this was a bit odd. Why weren’t the doors open already? The show would start shortly and we were all still standing outside. A car pulled up in front of the small theater and two young men got out and quickly moved to the back of the car. They opened the hatchback, reached in and began tugging on something. We bystanders watch in passive silence. They struggled and pulled with great force, and their bumbling efforts caused whatever it was to dislodge itself and come tumbling out onto the ground with a loud splintering thud. Oh my god! It was a wooden casket!

We were all mortified and gasped in unison as we saw the men scrambling to put the lid back on the casket and hurriedly carry it toward the entrance of the theater with only a modicum of decorum. For those who caught on quickly, it dawned on us that we had just been instantly swept up in Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral opening act.  

As we entered the theater, we didn’t know who were cast members or audience participants/mourners in this  interactive play. (I don’t want to give any more of it away.) This hilarious show has been so successful that it eventually went on to become an Off Broadway hit. It isn’t the death that is so funny, but the unpredictable mishaps and ludicrous absurdities of life surrounding it that becomes a source of unimaginable and infectious laughter.

Here are a few ways to invite laughter into your life if you so choose:

• Watch funny movies, sitcom reruns, America’s Funniest Home Videos
• Have friends send you funny jokes
• Recall and relish funny memories
• Break out the karaoke machine and sing a song outside of your genre
• Have friends tell you their funny stories
• Share/exchange your most embarrassing moments with trusted friends or family
• Laughter Yoga – yes, there is such a thing

Laughter yoga is a modern exercise involving prolonged voluntary laughter. This type of yoga is based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides similar physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter. It is usually done in groups with eye contact and much playfulness among participants. 

Laughter or humor can be the balm to soothe aching muscles from the strain of holding on in the struggles of these times of overwhelming grief, compounded traumas and multiple crises. Laughter restores, interrupts, and offers shelter from the downpour of grief. It invites hope back in. We could all do with a bit more hope… and more laughter. Go ahead and give yourself permission to experience a smile, perhaps a grin or chuckle until you can appreciate laughter through tears.

Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion. — Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, Steel Magnolias

By Sheila Newton, LMFT