Tell Two Jokes and Call me in the Morning: How Humor Helped my Family Grieve

Coping with Grief Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

We are working on some projects over here at the WYG headquarters (otherwise known as ‘whatever coffee shop we wandered into this morning’) and were worried we’d fall behind on our blog posting schedule. We’re super lucky to have amazing grief-friends to help us out with a few guest posts so you don’t go into What’s Your Grief withdrawal.  

Today’s post comes to you from Stacy Beller Stryer.  Stacy is a pediatrician, parenting expert, author, and lover of humor and the great outdoors. She lost her husband to cancer when her daughters were ages 7 and 9 and has recently written a book to help newly widowed parents through their journey and that of their children.  We’re pretty excited to have her writing here, so I’ll get out of the way and let her get to it.  

Humor has always been a big part of my life.  No, let me rephrase that.  Humor has often been a necessary part of my life.  Humor was a particularly good friend of mine several years ago when my husband was diagnosed with and eventually succumbed to glioblastoma, a brain tumor.  You might wonder “why” or “how” I could even think about laughing during such a traumatic period, but this is when I needed it most. The year of my husband’s illness was so difficult and overwhelming that I welcomed any break from thinking about his treatment, our future, or his chances of survival. Humor provided a distraction, allowing me to think about something besides cancer, even if only for a few minutes.  It gave me a reason to smile and laugh, and instantaneously decreased the stress level in our house.  

I didn’t actually sit around a table telling jokes or devise a stand-up comedy routine about my life, although others have done this to cope with their grief.  I merely tried to find ways during my husband, Dan’s illness, to make my family feel normal.  I frequently reminded all of us, particularly our 6 and 9 year-old daughters, that life consisted not just of sad times but happy ones too, sometimes simultaneously.  I organized sleepovers and play dates with friends who I know would make Rachael and Becca laugh. We baked animal shaped cookies with outrageous decorations, slurped jello through a straw, and ate dessert for dinner and dinner for dessert.  Fun with food was a favorite theme.

Two specialties in our household were the whip cream escapade and the Singing in the Rain revival.  The escapade involved buying cans of whip cream and squirting them into our children’s mouths and onto the tips of their noses.  Of course, they then had to do the same to us.  Even Dan, who wasn’t feeling well and rarely smiled those days, loved it!  

The Singing in the Rain revival included three willing family members, umbrellas, raincoats, rain boots and a shower, although an outdoor sprinkler on a hot day or even a mud puddle would work wonderfully, too.  On this particular day we turned the water on, donned our gear, climbed into the shower together, fully clothed; and belted out the song, “Singing in the Rain.”   Years later we still talk about that day in the shower and, believe it or not, it is a fun, happy memory that occurred during one of the worst times of our lives.  

The period after Dan’s death was so incredibly sad.  Those who approached me were at a loss for what to say. Friends and family tried to help with words of support but, to be honest, it was the humorous, distracting stories that did the most good and provided a moment of relief from my grief.  The benefit of laughter was apparent during a series of email exchanges I had with a friend of mine, Jennifer, whose husband died suddenly a few years after Dan.  We began corresponding soon after his accident, when just a few weeks after her husband’s death she asked me if I still dreamt about Dan.  

I responded, “Very rarely, but I never did a lot. I always ask for a sign from him to let me know he’s around – but I have strict conditions – make it obvious, don’t do it at night, and don’t make it scary!  I think it’s too much for him!”  

She wrote, “Stacy, I am loving this exchange. You had me laughing so hard with your description of the conditions you placed on Dan for the sign! I laughed because I did the same thing, so the laughter was both from shear hilarity (“not at night”) and from relief that I’m not the only crazy weirdo (oops, I meant to type widow).”   We wrote more about dreams and life after death, where sorrow was mixed with humor.  “Stacy, Hilarious! What do you think they serve in the after-life? Bon-bons and triple cream cheese? (my heaven).”

Humor continues to play an important role in my life, even years after Dan’s death.  My younger daughter, Eva, grieved for a long time after her dad’s death (not that we ever stop grieving in one form or another).  At first she wouldn’t smile or laugh because she felt guilty and thought that if he couldn’t enjoy life anymore, she shouldn’t be allowed to either.  She shut out her feelings toward him and others, both negative and positive, in order to avoid the pain.  Over the years, however, she has learned how to compartmentalize his death and is no longer paralyzed when she thinks about him and the fact that he is no longer with us in body.  

I know she is better because of her humor.  If I blame something, let’s just say her stubbornness, as being inherited from her dad, she may respond with, “Oh, way to blame the dead guy!”  Dan would have absolutely loved this because she is sticking up for him, including him in our conversations, and comfortable enough to joke about a difficult aspect of her life.


Let’s be grief friends.

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6 Comments on "Tell Two Jokes and Call me in the Morning: How Humor Helped my Family Grieve"

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  1. Samela  October 10, 2017 at 3:22 pm Reply

    Thank you – I love this. Humor is what gets me through. I too have two daughters although they were teens when my husband passed away almost a year ago. Of course dark times can be overwhelming, but sometimes losing control to hysterical laughter can be quite cathartic.

  2. Elizabeth Coplan  October 10, 2017 at 4:25 pm Reply

    Yes, thank you. Great piece! I have a play debuting next week in Seattle called Hospice and the almost-widower tells jokes. It’s really funny (pun intended) the audience finds it a refreshing take on grief.

  3. Melanie Morriale  October 13, 2017 at 12:07 pm Reply

    I find my funniest memories of my only sister, Marie, keep me from totally going to the Dark Side. Yes, I have a warped and dry sense of humor. Marie loved to laugh and I tell myself she laughs with us, when I enjoy a memory that makes us laugh.( She was 37 when she died.) I still remember mom telling me about the mysterious red waxy stuff in the garbage disposal when she came home from vacation. Marie was still in high school then, and decided to be thrifty and play salon. She had put a red candle in a pan on the stove to melt the wax to “wax” her eyebrows. Somehow she didn’t manage to get the wax on her face, Thank God, but she threw remains of the candle into the garbage disposal where it hardened. That was very Marie. It was funny, and silly. She tried to defend this action with very weak logic as to why she did it. There would be other events that would bring laughs, blueberry champagne… better by the glass… long story and very funny, still don’t know what exactly happened in the movie “In Her Shoes”, but it must have been hilarious, b/c we laughed and laughed.

  4. Nadine Sawyer Davis  December 17, 2017 at 4:13 pm Reply

    Your conditions for letting you know he’s around are for *real.*
    My husband has made my eyes bug out once or twice. I got the impression he had EVEN LESS time sense than he did while he was alive (oy!). But he did some amazing things for not being in this world any more. Moving things is something he likes to do. And one or two things have gone missing forever. I’d really still like the one hat back, just sayin!
    As for dreams about him, I ended up asking a deceased acquaintance for help. I said “I want you to help me find my husband.” A few nights later, there was my husband, crossing a street toward me in a dream. I’m still astounded and amazed and grateful that I got that kind of help.

  5. Lynn Sherwood  February 17, 2018 at 11:17 pm Reply

    “Well, it’s not brain surgery!” (The words out of my saucy daughter’s mouth, after her brain surgery, when trying to figure out the best way to do something.)

    “What, did you just have brain surgery or something?” (The words out of my sassy mouth, after my daughter’s brain surgery, when trying to find the best words to complete a certain thought.

    “Well, that escalated quickly!” (The words out of my cheeky daughter’s mouth after learning the ‘stage’ of her cancer.)

    Bwaaa ha haaaa! I can’t think of a better time to help the highs be high; the depth of the lows are too excruciating to not have some balance with some humorous moments. I am grateful to see her smile, every time I get to see her smile. 🙂

  6. sandra diener  January 28, 2020 at 11:42 am Reply

    no humor can help me. my Lydia took her life 4 years ago at 23. I found her

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