If there is anything humorous about my son’s death from suicide at age 16 last year, I can’t think of what it might be. Yet even while I grieve his loss, I try to find something to laugh about every day.
Laughing in the face of sorrow gives me a brief relief from the black gloom that otherwise surrounds me so much of most days. It is hard for the “I wish I were dead” mantra to maintain a presence when I am smiling, chuckling or outright cracking up. And every second I can steal from this pit of agony is a triumph for life, the way I see it.
Another reason for laughing while trying to recover from devastating loss and personal trauma is that it is therapeutic. A number of research studies have consistently found that laughing seems to help you get through grief faster, with less pain and with more potential for posttraumatic growth. Since those are my main goals here, I’m naturally interested in laughter.
Evidence for Humor’s Value
One of the most-cited research studies on the topic of humor and grief was published in 2008 in Omega, a prominent bereavement journal, as “Humor, Laughter & Happiness in the Daily Lives of Recently Bereaved Spouses.” It was done by a group led by researchers from the University of Utah. It looked at 292 people who had recently lost their spouses. Participants were recruited from public records of deaths in San Francisco and Salt Lake City.
A number of research studies have consistently found that laughing seems to help you get through grief.
The study examined how much the bereaved partners valued humor and happiness and how frequently they had experienced humor and happiness since their losses. Of most interest to me was that they also examined how experiencing humor affected how well survivors were dealing with losses.
To see how much humor the survivors were experiencing, researchers asked them to check one of five levels of agreement or disagreement to several statements about the last week. Humor-related statements included “I have enjoyed the humor of others” and “I had a good laugh.” To measure grief symptoms, subjects filled out the Texas Revised Inventory of Grief, a widely used assessment. A similar tool measured depression.
Most of the bereaved spouses rated humor as being very important in their daily lives since their partners’ deaths. And they were experiencing more happiness and humor than expected. Seventy-five percent, in fact, reported experiencing humor or happiness in the previous week. These are people just a few months past losing their partners, so that seems meaningful.
Experiencing humor, laughter and happiness was strongly associated with favorable bereavement adjustments (lower grief and depression) …
And it was helping. The researchers wrote, “Experiencing humor, laughter and happiness was strongly associated with favorable bereavement adjustments (lower grief and depression) regardless of the extent to which the bereaved person valued having these positive emotions.”
The differences were significant too, especially for depression. After adjusting for various factors such as age, sex and education, people who experienced more humor were about 44 percent less likely to be depressed, as measured by the Geriatric Depression Scale.
For grief symptoms as measured by the Texas Revised Inventory of Grief, the differences were smaller. Humor-experiencing people were about 10 percent less likely to have grief symptoms such as crying, intrusive thoughts about the loss and inability to accept the loss.
According to this study, laughing is likely to help you feel better, sooner.
There are some limitations, of course. Humor didn’t erase all pain. It’s not like people who laughed more didn’t care about their losses. They were just somewhat less likely to feel quite so awful.
It’s not like people who laughed more didn’t care about their losses. They were just somewhat less likely to feel quite so awful.
And as is generally the case with grief research, we can’t be sure what’s causing the results. It could be people who laugh more feel better. It could be people who feel better laugh more. Or it might be something else.
Still, this is not the only study to report similar results. Another study, from 2004, also found positive emotions including humor were connected with coping better with loss. In a 2002 study, researchers found positive emotions seemed to create a spiral of improved coping skills.
Bottom line, humor appears to help many people at least a little. And a little help means a lot right now. So I’m going to keep trying to laugh.
How I Find Humor
I read a few pages of a book by Dave Barry almost every day. I think Barry is the most reliably funny writer I have ever read. I have many of his books and am always looking for cheap used copies of the others.
One thing I didn’t realize about Barry until my son died is that we are both suicide loss survivors. He lost his mother to suicide more than 30 years ago. He wrote a (not humorous) column about the experience and that column, which you can read here, was part of the submission that earned him a Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest award.
A Pulitzer is impressive, but what means more to me is that Barry was able to recover from losing his mother to suicide and go on to write many more profoundly humorous columns and books. I am not likely to win a Pulitzer, but if Dave Barry can recover from suicide loss to laugh again, maybe I can too. The evidence suggests I can, and that finding something to laugh about will help me feel better sooner.
If Dave Barry can recover from suicide loss to laugh again, maybe I can too.
I hope you find something to laugh about today. If you can’t, or just don’t want to, that is understandable. Different strokes for different folks. I am not trying to tell anyone how to grieve or how not to grieve. I’m trying to point out some ways for coping with grief that the evidence suggests might be helpful and that you might not have thought of on your own.
Please like, comment, share, re-post and subscribe. I’m sorry for the loss that brought you here, and hope you get some peace today.