Taking the Risk to Grieve with Humor and Tears
Mom, age 65, died 2 weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. A small cell carcinoma lurked in her lungs and hid behind her sternum. Undetected for months, the cancer had metastasized to her long bones of her body and her adrenal glands above her kidney. The pain was immense, uncontrolled and death was a relief. Hospice was a godsend.
Frustrated and grieving, I resorted to different types of humor. Humor is my go-to strength. It balances me, bends me, and creates flexibility when I feel inflexible. And, truth be told, when I can get others to laugh, I feel empowered to take my next breath, especially when grief knocks the wind out of me. Breathing is important. Potty humor, puns, playfulness, and sarcasm held me up during my grief.
I guess part of me didn’t care if someone agreed with my sense of humor because it was my mother who died, not theirs. I was a people pleasing person. After mom died I gave myself permission to say:
• Not now, maybe later
• Please ask someone else
• This wont work for me
However, I didn’t just say succinctly any of the above “no answers.” I felt the need to be blunt, and/or qualify my answers, usually with one of my 4 humor pillars. I recognize my humor wasn’t for everyone. It was the best I could do under the circumstances.
Here are a few examples of how I got through the first 6 months with creating (my brand of) humor or witnessing humor in the making.
Shopping for a casket:
I guess putting my 18 month year old niece in one of the caskets was over the top, huh. The casket sales man clutched his chest and yelled, "NO!" I said I just wanted my niece to experience the soft part of the casket. Besides, the casket salesman was beginning to annoy me. We (my brother and I) decided on mom’s casket easily. 1. It matched her furniture at home. 2. It was on sale.
At Mom’s funeral:
Many people said “We have to stop meeting like this.” My response after this happened 3 times, “I am all out of parents, I wont be meeting like this again. I guess it’s your turn.” (I was really tired and my filter for politeness was gone.)
The best part of mom’s funeral was when the Rabbi was speaking in Hebrew and my 3-year-old nephew blurts out, "Poppa, that man is speaking Spanish!”
Easter was at the end of March. People asked why I wouldn’t be going to church. I told them I could still hear mom’s screams in my head. And I didn’t want to think about Jesus’ pain. I lived my mom’s. I told people I would watch Monty Python: The Life of Brian for my spiritual lesson this Easter. “Always Look on the Bright Side” is the best crucifixion scene, ever!
Mother’s Day arrived and I felt lost. For over 40 years I always made or bought Mom a funny or teasing card. This year, I stood in front of the card section for 20 minutes, tears welling up in my eyes. I took a deep breath. If mom was alive, what kind of card would I send? So I bought 4 of the silliest sarcastic cards I could, addressed them to my 2 aunts, my brother and a cousin. Inside I wrote, "Mom is dead; I had to send these to you!”
This was mom’s holiday. It’s not that mom ever cooked a turkey, but wherever we were, we would usually have the best talks and laughs. We would laugh how I cooked the turkey with the entire plastic still in it. My brother and I would confess wrongdoings as children. My mom and I would watch movies. I dreaded this Thanksgiving starting in September. I came up with a plan. My daughter and I (I had gotten remarried 4 years before my mom died) would volunteer at her High School and serve a meal to homeless or almost homeless people. This idea did not go over well with my husband or his family. My mother-in-law was the only one who understood how difficult this holiday was for me. This was one of those times where I argued for my sanity and grieving process. I kept this new tradition for 3 years. My compromise was: I will show up to dinner AFTER my volunteer work. Our new step-family tradition: Have dinner with family BEFORE Thanksgiving day. Serve home made sushi rolls and BBQ pork or Italian beef. Now I spend every Thanksgiving eating my favorite cold cereal in front of Macy’s thanksgiving parade. It makes me feel like a kid again and relive great memories.
Growing up Jewish, Christmas wasn’t a big deal. We would go to someone else's house to have ham. So, when we were at my mother-in-law’s home, I took a bite and thought, “Mom, this ham’s for you!”
One of the most difficult things I dealt with after her death, was stopping magazines or publications. I contacted these publications by email, snail mail, and phone. Each time, I provided her name, previous address and day of death. Sometimes I went so far as to send a death certificate. One particular magazine kept sending subscription note cards. Frustrated, I filled out the card with my mother’s name, address of cemetery and row/grave number. Let them figure out how to stop the magazines from piling up graveside.
Dividing up mom’s stuff was easy between my brother and me. When Mom was alive (my brother and I were in our 30’s), we would stand in front of the big glass cabinet, look at all her expensive “stuff", and loudly proclaim (as if she wasn’t listening), “ When mom dies I want this… or that.” Mom also had a quirky sense of humor and she was happy that her two children were playing so well together and sharing.
After her death, it was easy to go to the condo where mom lived, and divide up most things. Selling was harder. We had an estate sale. Some of Mom’s friends were crude and rude in their approach, wanting to give us pennies for the dollar. Frustrated, I went out to the garage, closed the door, and screamed to my mom, “Look it, you left us with this mess, so you better be helping us from beyond. I don’t want to wheel and deal with your stupid friends.” I probably said some other choice non printable words.
Needless to say, Mom got her heavenly butt in gear and all the rest of the big furniture sold that afternoon, at a reasonable price.
My husband and I did store a few things at our home. For 3 years, I did not have the emotional strength to look, reminisce, and decide what gets thrown out or what gets recycled to another person.
In her belongings was a nondescript mint green throw rug. I threw it in the trash container, in our garage.
I went upstairs to look thru her jewelry, and very loudly, I heard her voice say, “Keep the rug.” Now, it didn’t matter if I really heard this voice or I imagined the voice. What did matter was it felt familiar, comforting, and I was having a wonderful, silly argument with my mother. I answered back,” If you wanted the rug so much, you shouldn’t have died so soon.”
Again, I heard, “You should keep the rug. It’s a good rug.” I countered with, "I don’t need the rug, it stays in the garbage.” And Mom, having the last word, said, "Keep that rug."
I finished sorting the jewelry, and went out our back door to the garage. There was the mint green rug on our step. Yes I was as they say, totally freaked out. I asked my husband if he put it there. He answered, in my mothers accent, "Why did you throw this out, it’s a good rug.”
I still talk to Mom, in my heart. Occasionally we argue. My mother in law died 8 years later, and my husband understood my grief process much more. I took risks to grieve the way I needed to. I hope this article gives you permission to grieve at your own pace and in your own way, with laughter and tears.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Debra Joy Hart is a CT (certified thanatologist) as well as an RN. Believe it or not, she is also clown, a minister and a certified laughter leader ( expert). For the past 5 years she has travelled to Peru, Canada, Japan and around the USA giving messages of health benefits of humor, laughter and mirth. Within those talks, Debra Joy speaks about gentle humor and loving laughter at times of crisis and thru grief. She loves her husband unit, her 3 grown children, her 6.5 grandchildren, and 2 obnoxious cats. Feel free to reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.