Laughter in the Wrong Places

This grief business sometimes surprises me in its absurdity. Today I inhaled a gnat on my jaunt with the dog, and this moment transported me back to the day of Sam’s funeral.

Maybe I shouldn’t have laughed out loud, but honestly, what exactly is the appropriate response when you’re walking from the chapel to the burial site, accompanying your dead husband’s coffin surrounded by several hundred family, friends, clients, clergy and colleagues and you involuntarily sniff up a fly in the midst of a sob? It’s surreal and ludicrous and hot, and if – God forbid – I had to do it over, I would probably laugh again, even though my attendant and one of the pallbearers simultaneously whipped their heads around to glower at me, as though I were a small child (but not too small) laughing in church.

Houses of worship should be a sanctuary for both laughter and tears, but this behavior generally gets the shush in holy places. Personally, I enjoy my children’s laughter in church, but I can’t tell them so; instead, I give them the “mom look,” that is, if I’m not snickering myself. Seriously, if God doesn’t want us to laugh, then that’s not a God I need to spend a lot of time with.

But that fly at the funeral. I covered my mouth to hide the flagrantly inappropriate giggle and to keep myself from gagging up the little insect. Everything was all just so wrong. In the shock and gravity of Sam’s suicide, the overwhelmingness of it, somehow that ordinary fly suffering death by sniffle still strikes me as funny. I have rarely thought about that day at the cemetery since without also thinking about the gnat-snorting incident, a suppressed snicker and the ensuing glares. That little bug gave his life to save my sense of humor, although I was the only one who appreciated it at the time. And even though that moment reinforced how very alone and misunderstood I would feel in my mourning, even though it reminded me that this was a path I would have to walk by myself, the fact that laughter might yet be possible was no small consolation.

On the day of Sam’s death, one of my dearest friends – the first to arrive at my home, in fact – told me, “This is going to sound terribly unfair, but you are going to have to comfort a lot of people.” She was right. It did sound terribly unfair. And it was true, I did have to comfort a lot of people. I held hands and looked into eyes. I assured them that I was ok, that the children were ok, and that they would be ok, too. I reminded them that Sam’s demons weren’t their fault or contagious. Together, we remembered a good and loving man.

But my friend was also wrong. Grief makes people uncomfortable. So one of the ways to comfort other people, naturally, would be to temper my own grief. Which I didn’t always do.

People have a lot of opinions on what grief should look like. Grief should be solemn and wear black. Grief should last one year, or the rest of your life. Grief should say its prayers. Grief should speak when invited to, and then not too loudly, spilling all over and making a scary, uncomfortable mess. Grief should stay home from parties. Grief should not drink too much, or spend too much time alone, or be too angry.

I did all those things. Plus some.

My grief lost her appetite and her train of thought. My grief forgot to pay her bills on time. She said, “At least my husband’s not a deadbeat, he’s just dead.” Sometimes my grief crawled back into bed. She couldn’t focus. Or sleep. She stopped cooking and reading and scrapbooking. My grief got distracted and walked out the room while people were still talking. My grief could not bear the thought of sending Christmas cards. My grief did not always behave herself with grace or decorum. She berated my faith regularly. My grief was foul-mouthed and ill-humored, and worse, she allowed her children to be foul-mouthed and ill-humored. She was chronically late. She gave up on God and mascara. She did a lot of things she had sworn never to do, like running, and Xanax. She laughed on her way to bury her husband.

It was not the first (or last) time judgment and its side-kick, disapproval, would play a part in the process, but that was the risk I would take in choosing to own my experience. That little laugh reminded me that my inner snarky self was still lively under the weight of all that sadness. Slowly, tenaciously, I traversed the strange and perilous road to healing which is grief.

I consider it a profound honor when someone trusts me enough genuinely to grieve a loss in my presence. To laugh and cry and shake and say terribly irreverent things or nothing at all. These are sacred moments, but they are not easy ones. It is agonizing to see someone you love suffer, to stay with them during those painful, difficult times. There is no fix, but the sturdy, loving presence of a friend makes things so much better. In these moments to ask the griever to be the comforter does seem terribly unfair.

But in another sense, my friend’s prediction pointed to a higher truth, one that I did not appreciate until much later: her hallmark faith that I would find and share healing after tragedy. Which is no small comfort.

There’s no blueprint for healing, no one-size-fits-all. There are certainly no right answers, although there are definitely some wrong ones, but the best I could hope for was to find my way with integrity. The most authentic comfort I can provide is not in words or ritual but in experience, having found my own way to a resurrected life, full of love and forgiveness and hope and an increased capacity for both heartbreak and joy, all while honoring my spicy, spirited self.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And wildly inappropriate laughter.

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