Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Morbid Humor

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?

See? Ridiculous.

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.


Pat said...

When my husband died I received a call from a saleperson. I told the person I had "lost" my husband . I then burst in to laughter , still on the phone, saying to this poor gent that I didn't reaaly "lose" my husband, that I knew where he was. Morbid humor accidental , and still funny! Poor guy!!

Chantel said...

When I was about to give birth, at 40 weeks pregnant, to the little baby whose heart had stopped--I made the crack to my husband "How do people get through this? I am thinking drugs and booze." Days later, at his funeral my husband made a very inappropriate joke to his friends about the priest who was doing his best to botch the service. (Which included forgetting my name, showing up 20+ minutes later and more...). Planning a funeral for my father in law had my mother in law cracking some jokes as well. We laughed harder at these jokes than we all should have, but sometimes in those moments...it is what we hang on to.

Kirsten said...

Yep! I caught up with a friend lately, we both lost our daughters recently. In amongst the tears and heartbreak, we could somehow make jokes over the funeral director's suggestion she split her daughter into two urns (?!), and the funeral ditector

September Vaudrey said...

Anna--yes! I so relate! I've made and laughed at such irreverent, inappropriate jokes over Katie's death. And I've even made the mistake of cracking one such joke during a talk to a group of NORMAL moms--not child-loss moms. Was teaching on the importance of risk-taking in building resilience in our kids and I showed a series of photos over the years of our kids on the roof of the house. Made the joke that, amazingly, our daughter died of a ruptured brain aneurism and NOT from falling off a roof. Was met by jaw-slacked silence. Oops!

Kate Mayer said...

YES YES YES. Makes people uncomfortable but eases the pain just a bit. For just a moment. For those in pain and need it most. And to be in the presence of those able to show their dark side is an honorable gift and one held tightly for years and years. Thank you.

Unknown said...

When talking to the estate agent about sellng my mum's house,they asked where she was moving to. I answered the crematorium. Well I did say initially my mum had passed, the agent didn't listen. She heard that really remark though. Naughty but still made me smile, just for a moment.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes...my dad and I shared a very dark sense of humor and morbid quips after my mom passed away. In the car outside the florists, about to go order the funeral flowers, he said, "This is going to be expensive...oh, well, you only die once!" I laughed and told him he was lucky it was me in the car and not one of my aunts...but if I thought about how much I missed her and how hollow I felt, I knew I wouldn't be able to talk or function at all, so the humor was the shield. And I knew if I was utterly lost, how much worse my dad must have felt, and I didn't want to put my pain out there for him to deal with when he had his own. The next month, my grandfather passed away at home. Waiting for the coroner, my grandmother told my uncle that my grandpa "is being very quiet...hasn't said much today". I didn't laugh aloud, but I smiled because I understood. Dark humor is how we got ourselves and each other through those times. I get it.