A hospice colleague was counseling a client in the office next to me. Busy with emails, I was unaware of them until … laughter!
Someone was chuckling.
With a sturdy wall between offices, I can’t hear a wife lamenting the empty nights after a husband’s death or a father’s anger at God or doctors or both because his child had just died. However, while walls and closed doors provided counseling privacy, almost nothing muffled laughter.
Later, I mentioned to my co-worker that I’d overheard parts of the counseling session. She feared confidentiality had been breached, until I told her it was only the laughter. Relieved, she said humor was helping this client begin to heal.
Some use laughter for protection. It’s easier to joke than to talk about sensitive, shameful, or difficult subjects. Gallows humor can redirect conversations away from our real thoughts.
But authentic laughter can encourage us to face the depths of grief.
My mother’s father was murdered in 1978. After being a widower for a few years, Grandpa’s second marriage seemed fine … until it wasn’t. On a long-ago April night while he slept, she aimed a gun at his head and pulled the trigger twice. Then – according to police reports –she took her own life moments later with a third bullet.
Newspaper fodder for a few days in their town, the murder-suicide devastated my family. My mother, and her siblings, barely survived the funeral. They wept and wailed. They spewed harsh questions that would remain unanswered.
After the funeral, with half-eaten casseroles in the kitchen, with a house mostly empty, my aunt, uncle and mother sorted through Grandpa’s bedroom for personal items. Most would be donated, but would we want any of his clothes? I grabbed one of his blue denim work shirts. (To this day, never worn, it hangs in my closet.)
My uncle sat on a chair and tried to maneuver his foot into one of Grandpa’s boots. It. Did. Not. Fit. He wiggled and grunted! Such nice boots! He toppled to the floor. He started laughing. Mom joined in, as did my aunt. Soon we all roared with laughter. It wasn’t funny. It was gut-busting funny.
Decades later, I’m sure my uncle’s failure to jam his oversized foot into Grandpa’s shiny boot inspired laughter because of exhaustion. But it also represented the first, flimsy clue that our lives, though roiled by grief and anger, might actually go on.
Laughter can heal.
In grief support groups I’ve led at hospice, the participants arrive with open wounds and closed hearts. Some can barely talk. Many don’t make eye contact. They weep. They can’t weep. However, if the group goes reasonably well and they begin trusting each other, smiles eventually appear.
Before the sessions conclude, they may tell funny stories about past adventures. They discover others also battled an overflowing toilet or honeymooned in the same spot 50 years ago.
In those groups, we discuss how the first grin can bring guilt. After the death, how can anyone ever laugh again? It isn’t right to smile, let alone chuckle, when sorrow is a spear piercing the heart.
But hints of laughter will come. You can’t stop it. You also can’t stop the surge of regret when it happens. Grief is the terrible, inevitable cost of love. But, as with all love, transformation is possible.
Even the wounded can laugh.
I recall sitting in my office. Laughter, like waves from an unseen beach, had filled the space around me. There will be more tears from the client on the other side of the wall. He or she will have lonely nights in their future. But they have begun to laugh and maybe to start healing.
Based on my experiences, I’ve observed five stages of laughter during grief. Like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of dying (and grieving), they aren’t sequential, not everyone experiences all of them, and each may resurface at random times.
▪ We believe we will never laugh again.
▪ We resent others laughing and having a good time.
▪ We feel guilty after realizing we just smiled or laughed.
▪ We laugh at a joyous memory of our beloved and feel gratitude.
▪ We spontaneously laugh with others without judging our actions/reactions.
I hope those who grieve let loose with the anger or hurt or tears they carry. In grief, let laughter sound.
It may first arrive with guilt. It may eventually feel like a gift.
Laughter doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten your loved one, but instead are honoring the best of your relationship with them as you risk living each new day.
Larry Patten of Fresno is a writer and minister and currently works at Hinds Hospice. He maintains www.larrypatten.com (musings on faith) and www.hospice-matters.com (on dying, death and grief). Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org