Saturday, April 7, 2018

Humor and the art of inappropriate grief

It’s been a little over three weeks since I got the phone call telling me that my younger brother had been killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq. Almost a month has passed since my family earned our lifetime membership into the bereavement club. (Definition aside, bereavement is a terrible word.) It feels like it’s been both a minute and a lifetime since hearing the news. When you’re grieving, the minutes, hours, days and weeks get put into a time blender. There’s now a date on the calendar where life permanently changed.

Tomorrow I head back to Atlanta to get back to “new normal.” I have several comedy shows and speaking gigs this week, and today I spent most of the day distracting myself by writing an accordion parody about IKEA. You know, typical grief coping stuff. (I did have a line about being found shriveled up in a living room display three years after following the wrong arrows, but I came to my senses and replaced it with a less gruesome jab at Swedish Meatballs.)

As a comedian, laughter—and what causes it—has always fascinated me. Some of the best comics I know have trauma and loss in their past. As I’ve learned in recent days, death and tragedy alter your perspective on life and change the lenses you use to observe the rest of the world.

Before experiencing it on a personal level, I had a vague idea of how grief would look and feel. One thing I believed about tragedy and sudden loss was that laughter would be very slow to return. I was absolutely wrong. Everyone processes tragedy and loss differently, but for our family, laughter happened pretty much immediately.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about grief humor: it’s wildly inappropriate, morbid, and was--and continues to be--absolutely necessary for us to process Mark’s sudden and tragic death. We laughed at the strangest, darkest things in those first few days. 

Grief and lack of sleep absolutely destroyed my filters for the first week (and I admittedly don’t have the best filters to begin with), and some very blunt and dark observational humor regarding our circumstances escaped my mouth unchecked. (A/N: My deepest condolences to anyone outside my immediate family who was on the receiving end of my dark sense of humor during this time. I don’t remember a lot of what I said, but from what people have told me, much of it was intense. I’ve been told there’s no wrong way to grieve, but I may have pushed the limits on that belief, and someday may write a book for people who “inappropriately” process grief through sarcasm and dark humor.)

However “inappropriate” this form of grief, I know laughter helped us survive our tragedy. Anyone on the outside probably thought my family needed to be sent immediately to the nearest asylum, but our closest friends and family bonded and processed our sadness through the random thoughts, memories, and ironies about our situation we collectively found hilarious.

A couple days after the crash I began thinking ahead to the comedy shows I have on my calendar. Despite sarcasm and humor being my grief-handling buddies, I knew telling jokes on a stage in front of strangers would be different, especially since I have several jokes in my act about Mark. My opening joke right now is about moving to the south and getting matched with my brother on E-harmony.

I’m not sure yet what I’ll do with those jokes. Mark was always lobbying to have more jokes about him in my act. He came to a show last October—the last he’d attend before his deployment—and his one criticism was that I didn’t have enough material about him in my set. He had a very absurd, goofy, and random sense of humor and I know he’d love it if I made large groups of people slightly uncomfortable joking about him posthumously. Long term I’ll probably keep the jokes that include him (and who knows, maybe add more, but not to the point of making audiences feel weird about laughing) but right now I may shelve them. Most likely I’ll decide once I’m on stage.

I’ve heard people say randomly over the years how much they needed to laugh. How they were glad for a chance to take their mind off of the trials of life. I know what they mean now. I’ve consumed a LOT of comedy these past few weeks and I have a new appreciation for laughter as medicine. I’m a fan of comedy anyway, but I watched and listened to more comedy in the past three weeks than I typically do in two years.

Despite being horribly sad about my brother, I do not have the market cornered on grief, loss, and tragedy. Many of you reading this have known incredible loss, and many out there are suffering similarly. I know comedy and laughter heals. I took it for granted before, but I’ve experienced deeply the power laughter has to give us hope. Hope that death doesn’t win in the end. Grief is such a heaven burden, laughter lifts the weight temporarily so we don't get crushed. At the very least, venting emotion through laughter provides a nice break from crying.

I will never stop missing my brother. Grief will always be here, but Lord willing, so will laughter.

So now, I move forward and use the gifts and time God has given me to provide a little bit of healing to an increasingly hurting world.