Grief and Laughter February 2, 2022

Grief and laughter might seem like two words that don’t belong together at all. But the opposite is actually true.

Grief and Laughter: An Example

Do you remember the movie Steel Magnolias? If not, here’s a brief summary, just to set the scene (and a spoiler alert): it’s a story of six Southern women who are neighbors, friends, and sometimes antagonists. Shelby is M’Lynn’s daughter and the movie opens with preparations for her wedding to a wealthy lawyer. As the movie progresses we learn that Shelby is diabetic, that her doctors have advised that she not have children, but that she gets pregnant anyway.

Shelby has a healthy baby, a boy, and after his birth has to undergo a kidney transplant. The donor is her mother, M’Lynn. Shelby lives for a short time after the successful procedure, but as she’s making dinner one day, she collapses. We hear her toddler son wailing as her husband comes home, calling her name, only to find her unconscious.

M’Lynn refuses to leave the hospital and when it’s determined that there is no hope that Shelby will come out of the coma, the family makes the gut wrenching decision to remove Shelby from life support. The men in her life say their goodbyes to her and leave, but M’Lynn stays until Shelby is gone. 

At the burial service, the camera shows everyone leaving except for M’Lynn, who still refuses to leave her daughter’s side. Her friends (Truvy, Annelle, Clairee, and Ouiser) leave their own families and gather with her, offering words of comfort. 

Those words of comfort are the standard words so many of us hear when we are grieving the loss of someone we deeply love. The words are meant to be thoughtful and comforting, but they can also feel hollow in comparison to a loss so painful.

Finally, M’Lynn breaks down and cries, screams, and demands answers from God. The scene is uncomfortable and tense; so much so that even the viewer doesn’t know what to do. 

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How Laughter Helps Grief

But then, there’s levity. 

M’Lynn, while screaming at God, says, “I just want to hit somebody until they feel as bad as I do. I just want to hit something. I want to hit it hard!”

Then, Clairee pulls Ouiser to face M’Lynn while saying, “Here! Hit this! Go ahead, M’Lynn. Slap her!”

For 45 seconds, the other friends ask Clairee if she’s lost her mind, and Clairee tells M’Lynn that they could sell t-shirts saying “I slapped Ouiser Boudreaux!”

After a tense second of disbelief, M’Lynn laughs. Not a polite laugh, a pearl-clutching laugh from deep in her gut. And by doing so, she gives her friends permission to laugh as well (except for Ouiser, who, true to her character, is mad at Clairee). 

I recount this scene because it’s a lesson in the science of laughter and grief. It’s an entertaining way to understand how laughter helps grief.

It might seem unbelievable, that one can laugh while grieving. It might even feel like one shouldn’t laugh while grieving, that doing so is disrespectful to the memory of our loved ones. 

Science of Laughter and Grief

But grief and laughter are intertwined in a delicate, important way. Humor, in general, is a way to regulate and temper emotions. Humor can help us cope by providing a distraction to the pain and sorrow we feel as we mourn the loss of a loved one. 

There are real and measurable physical effects of laughter that help mitigate grief. Studies show that laughter can lower cortisol levels; elevated cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and other disease. 

Laughter can also increase the production of dopamine, endorphins, T-cells, and immune proteins. This is important because the resulting effect can be less stress, a stronger immune system, less physical pain, and an elevated mood and outlook on life. 

Laughter also has other benefits, both personal and communal. By laughing together as a family or community, we strengthen our connections and help mitigate conflict. Personal benefits include an increased ability to solve problems, an ability to put things into perspective, and a feeling that the challenges we face are surmountable. 

Grief and Laughter: When You Don’t Feel Like Laughing

Please don’t mistake this information as a suggestion that you should feel happy as you grieve the death of a loved one. We’re also not suggesting that you’ll even feel like laughing. 

What studies suggest, however, is that if we can find ways to laugh, we can begin to reap the physical and psychological benefits of laughter. 

Everyone’s grief journey is different. You might be ready to listen to jokes and maybe even offer them yourself (some people find comfort in gallows humor; some don’t). Take it at your own pace.

If you’re not ready for laughs yet, simply try to find moments of joy. A beautiful sunrise, the goofy laugh of a toddler trying a new thing, witnessing a proposal during a walk at the park; being able to smile, even just a bit, at moments of joy can help lead the way to laughter. 

You might also try watching a funny movie, re-watching shows that made you laugh in the past, or watching (or listening) to a favorite comedian’s stand-up routine. If reading is more your speed, talk to your local librarian for books that might make you laugh. Or if you’re lucky enough to have a funny yet sensitive friend, invite them to lunch or for coffee. 

The point is to allow a bit of levity into your life as you’re ready. It’s a reminder that there is room for both laughter and joy as well as the grief you feel. 

And please remember, we are always here to offer resources and support, no matter your question. Reach out if we can help.