The following article was written in October 2001 after I was repeatedly asked about the appropriateness of humor after the 9/11 attacks. It also appeared in my first book, “Is Your Glass Laugh Full?” Since we are all going through a challenging time with the Coronavirus, I thought it might be helpful to share it again. I hope it is helpful.
The days following my seven year old nephew’s death in 1984 were a blur of activities. The busy-ness of making travel arrangements, greeting friends, and sharing memories kept us distracted so that our brains would not stumble into the pools of grief scattered throughout our minds. We would have enough time over the months ahead to wade through them, so these distractions were welcomed.
After two viewings, a memorial service, and a graveside service, our family finally gathered together for a meal at my parents’ home. We picked at our dinner event though it was a delicious donated gift of the typical post-funeral staples—pot roast, mashed potatoes, that green bean casserole with the little onion rings on top, and homemade rolls. After dinner, we collapsed onto the sofa and various chairs around the living room. We looked like warriors who had just returned from battle and our faces showed the fatigue of the fight.
Then, for the next two hours, we told jokes.
In retrospect, it seems crazy. It even hints of disrespect. And yet no one protested. Was it actually disrespectful? Were we in the wrong? Was our behavior teetering on the edge of sanity? Not at all.
We were feeling the effects of grief overload and we needed a well deserved break. Not a break that is disrespectful or cruel but a healing break that would allow us to face our grief the next morning. We knew that the days ahead would be full of reminders of this loss we had experienced but in that moment in my parents’ living room, the laughter gave us the strength to go on.
On September 13, 2001, I gave a presentation on the benefits of humor to five hundred state employees in Richmond, VA. Many people asked how I could do a presentation on humor in light of the tragedy that had occurred two days earlier. My answer was, and is, the same. I truly believe that humor helps us deal with tragedy. Humor that is neither disrespectful nor cruel will provide us with not only a new perspective, but a bit of distance from the pain.
Our tendency, however, is to focus on the negative—and that is not a particularly helpful approach. When we do that, we may miss seeing the positive aspects of our lives. Humor can give us that positive balance we need and remind us to not get so caught up in the negative. It also creates a buffering effect that can protect us from the consuming power of adversity. It’s not that using humor ignores the reality of serious things but that it gives us the emotional distance we need to cope. Just as the shoulder pads on a football player do not prevent the reality of a hit, they do allow the player to endure it with less distress.
So when is it OK to laugh?
I say that it’s whenever we have the opportunity.
Humor is a gift that will keep us strong. And as long as we use it with a sensitive spirit while being mindful of others, it can be the key to a long life of emotional endurance.