The Utility of Laughter in Times of Grief

Among the kinds of coping you expect to see from a griever, the reaction that seems to surprise people the most is humor. At a time when one expects to feel only extreme sadness and somber reverence they find themselves laughing nervously or making a joke. There’s a dissonance within the person and they wonder, ‘Why am I laughing at a time like this?’’

It’s common for people to use laughter in times of grief.  Humor is both a defense mechanism in times of crisis and a tool for coping long after the event.  After bracing yourself for sadness and seriousness in light of a traumatic loss, it may be surprising to find humor instead; but I assure you this type of reaction is normal.

Remember, healing requires a dynamic approach and just because someone relies on laughter at times doesn’t mean they don’t also spend a good amount of time with other emotions. There’s time to cry, time to be spent in serious reflection, and time to laugh – all are healing.

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Humor and Laughter as a Defense Mechanism

Humor is actually considered a ‘mature defense mechanism’ alongside defenses like patience, humility, mindfulness, tolerance, and forgiveness. Mature defense mechanisms are thought to enhance feelings of control and pleasure and they are relatively effective at helping people deal with conflicting emotions and thoughts.  If you’re still having a hard time imagining what place humor has in moments of crisis then I’ll elaborate.

Nervous Laughter

If you’re a nervous laugher like me you probably already know it because you catch yourself laughing at the worst times and shamefully wonder if maybe you’re a distant relative of the Joker.  For many, nervous laughter is their instinctual response to a situation that seems stressful or painful. For non-nervous laughers this can seem like absurdly maniacal behavior, but there’s actually a pretty reasonable explanation.

Neuroscientist V.S. Rakmachandran suggests in his book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness that the reason why we laugh in these situations is to put the circumstances into perspective and make them seem less threatening.  We do this both for ourselves and for those around us and such behavior serves a purpose whether the circumstances are dire or not.

When things are not dire:

For example, when my daughter falls off her bike and skins her knee I will often unintentionally approach her with a laugh saying ‘It’s okay.’  I know that her knee will stop hurting in a matter of minutes so the laughter is meant to signal to her, ‘This seems painful, but it will be okay.’  

When things are dire:

In another less real example, if my daughter and I were camping and a giant brown bear approached us the same ‘it’s okay said with a laugh might be meant to reassure and calm all involved by signaling ‘Okay, this looks bad, but we can handle it if we stay calm.’ 

Gallows Humor

Gallows humor is humor used to lighten difficult, painful, and scary situations.  This is anything hinting at humor like jokes, satire, and silliness, meant to ease stress and make it seem more managable.  Gallows humor might be employed by individuals facing a threatening event, groups of people taking on a dangerous task, groups of oppressed people, or individuals exposed to the trauma of others on a regular basis through their work.

Gallows humor may serve several different functions.  Similar to nervous laughter, humor in the face of difficult circumstances may be used to make the challenge seem smaller and more surmountable. Not only is this type of humor good for the individual morale, but it’s good for morale of larger groups as well as it makes the enemy or the challenge seem less intimidating, eases tension, makes suffering in the moment seem far more tolerable, and strengthens social bonds.

As useful as gallows humor is, it can also be pretty jarring for those not in on the joke.  For those who find the situation no laughing matter, often those closest to the crisis, jokes made in the heat of the moment can be off-putting and offensive.  Those seeking to support a griever, or even those grieving alongside another griever, might want to be mindful of this reality.

The Healing Power of Humor and Laughter

Laughter can heal in a big way…no joke.  There’s even such a thing as the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor which I’ll let you research on your own in the interest of time.  Laughter can lower cortisol levels and increase the production of dopamine, endorphins,  T-cells and immune proteins which may contribute to the following:

Physical Impact:

  • Eases physical pain
  • Strengthens immune function
  • Decreases stress
  • Increases relaxation
  • Elevates mood and feelings of well being
  • Decreases feelings of depression and anxiety

Emotional Impact:

  • Puts things in perspective
  • Makes challenges seem more surmountable
  • Increases problem solving.
  • Allows one to take themselves less seriously
  • Triggers creativity
  • Engenders a sense of control or mastery over circumstances that intially seemed distressing, threatening and all consuming.

Social Impact:

  • Increases bonding among family and friends
  • Enhances teamwork
  • Helps diffuse conflict
  • Boosts morale

I often lament what a cruel reality it is that the most enjoyable things in life – like ice cream sundaes and Doritos -have negative health consequences if you’re not careful; but here’s one thing that is 100% enjoyable and good for you.  I swear, music and laughter we’re the two most wonderful gifts bestowed upon mankind.

Too Soon? When you don’t feel like laughing

Grief has the ability to suck all joy out of life and make everything seem grey.  It may be a long time before you find anything to smile about (bonus: fewer laugh lines), but I promise it will come eventually.  The greatest victory is when you realize you’ve made it past the place where memories of your loved one brought mostly sadness, to a place where you can laugh and smile remembering the crazy, loving, warm, fun, generous, weird, stubborn things they used to do.

Remember, it doesn’t take happiness to laugh; if this post has taught you anything, let it be that.  Grab ahold of glimpses of joy and humor when they flicker across your sky and for one moment refuse to let sadness and despair have control.

If you want more humor and laughter in your life try the following:

  • Rent a funny movie
  • Check out a local comedy club
  • Watch stand-up from your favorite comedian online
  • Watch your favorite old sitcom on Netflix
  • Watch funny YouTube videos
  • Get a recommendation for a funny book
  • Ask a humorous friend to meet you for lunch

Here are a few other recommendations:

1.  Subscribe to receive posts straight to your inbox

2.  Check out the What’s Your Grief Podcast in iTunes

3.  Check out WYG’s print grief resources in our estore

April 12, 2017

3 responses on "The Utility of Laughter in Times of Grief"

  1. Just lost my dad, and am remembering the funny things he did toward his last stages of Parkinson’s. I do not know why …then I end up crying.

  2. Excellent article. I think it’s very important to be mindful of all the different kinds of laughter and humor you mention. I know that people in very stressful or commonly thought of as depressing professions (EMTs, cops, emergency room personnel, morgue assistants, to name a few) always have their own brand of humor that other people don’t usually appreciate. But it is necessary for them to laugh in order to be able to face what they do. I made sure that I told funny stories, in an amusing way, at the memorial service for my mother years ago, and for my partner last year. I think it helps people to be able to chuckle with love over something funny about the one you lost, even if it sometimes hurts to laugh.

  3. Just a contribution to the discussion: The inability to laugh may be a sign of severe depression. When you find that nothing is funny anymore you may wish to seek help.

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