Grief’s 5 Stages of Laughter

laughter medicineLaughter. Giggles. Guffaws. Chuckling.

That’s what I heard.

And that’s all I heard, since the thick walls at the hospice where I work muffled the sounds. But I knew my colleague next door was counseling a grieving client. Busy with exciting paperwork or answering emails, I was blissfully unaware of them until . . .

That laughter!

While sturdy walls and closed doors provide for counseling privacy, almost nothing can contain the boisterous ebb and flow of human laughter. In the cocoon of my office, I couldn’t overhear if a wife talked about the endless, empty nights after a husband’s death. I couldn’t eavesdrop on an adult child that might express resentment for a long-deceased passive-aggressive parent. I couldn’t catch a father’s words if he’d declared hatred for God because his only child had died in a car accident. Counseling is rightly private and the counselors I work with need (and have) proper spaces for the difficult work they do.

[Disclaimer . . . here]

Later, I mentioned to my colleague that I’d overheard parts of her counseling session. She feared confidentiality had been breached . . . not good! Then I told her it was only the laughter.

My co-worker smiled. Without revealing anything, she said humor was helping this client bridge the chasm between profound hurt and the possibility of healing.

People—yeah, including me—employ humor to avoid sensitive, shameful, or difficult subjects. It’s easier to joke about a stupid thing done or said than to reveal your feelings. Jokes keep others at a distance. Gallows humor redirects the conversation from what we’re truly thinking.

But authentic, heartfelt laughter can encourage us to face the depths of grief.

*      *      *

My mother’s father was killed in 1978. The woman he’d married several years after my grandmother died shot him. Grandpa’s second marriage seemed fine, but “something” was wrong. On an April night, she pulled the trigger while he slept, and then—based on police reports—took her own life moments later. It was newspaper fodder for a few days in their town. Murder-suicide. It gutted my family. Because both died, we’d never know why. My mother, and her siblings, barely survived the funeral. They wept and wailed. They spewed angry questions.

With Grandpa at a happier time . . .

With Grandpa at a happier time . . .

But after the funeral, with half-eaten casseroles scattered in the kitchen, with a house mostly empty, my aunt and uncle and mother began to sort through Grandpa’s bedroom for personal items. Most things would eventually be donated, but would we want any of his clothes? One of his nearly new blue denim work shirts was given to me. To this day, never worn, it hangs in my closet.

My uncle plopped onto a chair, maneuvering one of Grandpa’s cowboy boots onto his foot. It. Did. Not. Fit. Oh, he wiggled! Oh, he squirmed! They were nice boots! He fell to the floor. He started laughing. Mom joined in, and so did my aunt. Soon we were all roaring with laughter.

It wasn’t funny. And it was extraordinarily funny.

Decades later, I’m sure my uncle’s rolling on the floor, failing to jam Grandpa’s shiny boots onto his too big feet, inspired laughter because we were exhausted. But it also represented the first clue that our lives, though filled with blood and misery and unanswered questions, might actually go on.

Laughter can heal.

*      *      *

image3In the grief support groups I’ve led, the grieving beloved—the ones left behind—arrive at the initial session 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 (and even laughter) eventually happen. Before the sessions conclude, they may tell funny stories about stupid things they did. They discover others who also single-handedly battled an overflowing toilet or honeymooned in the same spot fifty years ago.

In those groups, we discuss how the first smile can bring guilt. After the death, how can we ever laugh again? It isn’t right to grin, let alone chuckle, when sorrow is a spear piercing the heart.

But let the tentative smile and the hint of laughter come. You likely won’t be able to stop them. You likely also won’t be able to stop the surge of regret when it happens. Grief is the terrible, inevitable cost of true love. But, as with all love, transformation is possible.

Even the wounded can laugh.

*      *      *

I sat in my office, sending an email or making a phone call. Laughter, like waves from an unseen beach, filled the space around me. I believe healing was underway in the adjoining office. There will likely be more tears from the client next door. He or she will have long, lonely nights in their future. But they have begun, maybe, to laugh at themselves. (We humans can be so foolish!) Or maybe he or she laughed at a treasured memory. (We humans have so many moments to cherish!)

Based on my experience and with no reliable research, 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 would experience all of them, and each may resurface at unexpected times.

  1. We believe we will never laugh again.
  2. We resent others laughing and having a good time.
  3. We feel guilty after realizing we just smiled or laughed.
  4. We laugh at a joyous memory of our beloved and feel gratitude.
  5. We spontaneously laugh with others without judging our actions/reactions.

In grief, let loose with the anger or hurt or tears you 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.

laughter

 

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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Comments

  1. ANOTHER GOOD WRITING, LARRY. OUR SON DIED WHILE IN THE AIR FORCE, UP IN SPOKANE, WA. I REMEMBER HAVING TO FACE HIS DEATH WITHOUT MY HUSBAND TO LEAN ON AND I WAS WITH HIS YOUNG WIFE AND HER MOTHER. AS WE SAT AROUND THE KITCHEN TABLE, WE REMEMBERED HIM WITH LOTS OF LAUGHTER, AS HE WAS A FUNNY KID. THERE WAS A TIME AFTERWARD, WHEN I FELT GUILTY ABOUT LAUGHING ……. LIKE I WASN’T RESPECTFUL ENOUGH. IT WAS COMFORTING TO READ, AS I STUDIED ABOUT GRIEF, THAT LAUGHTER IS INDEED HEALTHY AND OKAY. WHEW ~

    YOUR WORK AND LABOR IS APPRECIATED!

    love, KATHY

    P.S. I SIGN ALL CORRESPONDENCE USING LOVE, AS CHRIST IS LOVE.

    • Thanks, Kathy!

      Nearly everyone has funny stories. How sad (though I can understand) when those wondrous tales go silent after someone dies.

      In particular, in the difficult death of your son, I’m glad to hear about your memory of sharing a table and laughter with others in the family. His being “a funny kid” was honored in how you supported each other.

      Take care!

  2. First to Kathy regarding her comment: Kathy, I’m so sorry for your loss. I read your words, and then re-read them; what you shared touched me and spoke to my heart. Thank you for sharing your story.

    And now to you, Larry:

    Thank you. Thank you for once again articulating what is in the minds (and perhaps hearts) of so many people. As you know. I’m a retired cop, and gallows humor got me through more than a few ‘incidents’ during my 25 year career. And now that I look back at them, if I’m completely honest here, I feel pangs of guilt at some of the things I laughed at. I made crude, horrible, comments about some of the things I saw (and had to investigate as a detective) in an effort to keep what was left of my sanity. As I look back, I see that if not for the ability to find an outlet – in my case, humor – I never would have been able to separate work from home.

    And now, five years and an ordination after my retirement, I not only look back and see that it was necessary, but that it was healthy. When possible, and appropriate, I encourage those who are grieving to allow themselves to laugh.

    This weeks Hospice Matters hit me right where I needed to be hit. Your timing is perfect! Thank you.

    • Rusty . . . I’m fairly certain that all professions have “insider humor.” It is how we survive the mundane and the awful. If some patients or church members eavesdropped on my so-called jokes, they would likely be (at least) irked. But I would still contend the majority of insider’s humor is necessary. That being said, I’m even more aware of how healing laughter can be. When I work with grief groups, as I said in the essay, the participants often start in a place where they believe laughter/humor/joy/hope is no longer possible. For most, they would never believe me if I said they’d arrive at place, before the group sessions end, where smiles naturally surface and laughter may be heard.

      Thanks for reading!

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