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.