I spent time with a grieving friend recently. Some of our conversation involved morbid, irreverent humor, and a generous helping of curse words. We bounced from topic to topic, and ridiculous cemetery stories were mixed in with talk about youth sports and silent, wide-eyed stares that said, "Is this really happening?" "WTH?"
It reminded me that humor, cursing, and wide-eyed disbelief all have a place in grief. Morbid laughter is not the same as the gentle laughter and even belly laughs that come during a memorial service as sweet and hilarious stories of a loved one are shared.
Morbid humor has an edge, and it might make people uncomfortable.
It's laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all. How life was one way yesterday, and oh so different today. When you'd just stocked up on a bunch of snacks that now will never be eaten, on Irish Spring soap that no one else wants. For how could stupid soap or Cheez-its "outlive" a beloved person?
I remember joking that I had a little cloud of doom that went with me wherever I went. Now if you'd just met me, with smile lines around my eyes and a talkative nature, you wouldn't jump to that conclusion. Doom? She's just a regular person. But what if you found out I was the girl whose mom died? What if, years later, I was known to you only as the mom of the boy in the creek?
Not exactly laugh-inducing.
But by describing myself as such, with my own little cloud of doom, I could laugh at the absurdity of the most boring, predictable person in the universe living a life marked by something as dramatic as death. By making jokes, I could feel like I had some control of the narrative, even though deep down I'd come to realize I had none at all.
Morbid humor shows up as families do the unthinkable-- pick out clothes for funerals, write obituaries, or try to remember important details when their brains are misfiring and the sky looks too, too blue. It's easier to make fun of the way a hapless funeral director or grief therapist said something than to fully grasp why you were in the funeral home or in the therapist's office in the first place. It's easier and a lot more fun to play the "My Friend Compared my Loss to a ________ Game" than to agonize over whether anyone will ever truly understand the extent of your grief.
Morbid humor is the domain of the grievers themselves.
PLEASE know I wouldn't have taken kindly to someone making jokes around the death of my mother or my child. In fact, many grievers save this kind of humor for grief groups or with others who have "been there" and can "get" the sometimes snarky shorthand of grief. It feels safer in that atmosphere.
But what if they do share it with us? How can we show support for a friend who lets us in on this sacred facet of grief?
Be honored. Buckle up for the ride. Embrace irreverence for a while. Listen. Hug. And if it feels right, throw in a few curse words now and then.
P.S. When Tim, Margaret and I entered our room at the safari lodge on our dream Africa trip last December, these insect repellents were the first thing I saw.