Something I’ve noticed again and again in my work – whether in bereavement counselling, working with people with hoarding disorder, or with clients facing all sorts of loss or stress in their lives – is that despite society’s deep discomfort with and judgement of it, humour, often tasteless, irreverent or downright ‘suck-your-breath-in, -swivel-your-eyes-about-and-hope-no-one-heard-that’, can provide respite and comfort in a way that one can hardly imagine unless one has experienced it.
Of course, any halfway competent therapist will notice pretty quickly if there’s a disconnect between what their client is saying and how they’re saying it. Sometimes people are unaware they’re laughing while recounting something clearly very painful and raw, or seemingly making entertainment for their audience of one (me) out of something that is hugely distressing to them. It can be very useful to gently highlight this and explore it. Humour can be a coping mechanism when something is hurting, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all, as long as there’s some awareness of the function it is serving. Then we can begin to bring whatever is behind the laughter into the light and look at it together.
There’s a contradiction in the way society reacts to loss: on the one hand, there is often (though not always) unspoken pressure to ‘move on’ and come to terms with things – whatever that means - and on the other, there can be judgement from others and internalised guilt about finding any pleasure in life at all. A friend of mine once described the aftermath of the death of her beloved mother and the realisation that as well as drowning in her own grief, she had the added agony of witnessing her father’s. They both felt it was somehow wrong, even if it were possible, to enjoy anything at all. And then one day, making tea in the kitchen after they’d been watching the TV news and her dad had forgotten to turn the television off straight away as he usually did, she heard him laughing long and loudly at one of his favourite classic comedy shows, screened – by happy coincidence - right after the news. One very small moment, to be sure, but for my friend, it felt like a heavy weight had shifted slightly and become easier to bear. That laughter was the sweetest sound she had heard in a long time and marked the beginning of them both being able to turn their faces to the sun again.
A client* who had recently undergone radical surgery for breast cancer surprised and delighted me during a session by leaping out of her chair and re-enacting the disastrously inept prosthetic bra fitting she had been subjected to in a department store. By the end, we were both weeping with laughter at just how almost unbelievably awful it had been. Somehow, converting her ordeal into a pantomime made her residual fear about her health and her feelings about her changed body a little more manageable.
On another occasion, a client whose very elderly grandfather was in his final months described a family outing to a posh restaurant to mark Fathers’ Day. By this time, his grandad’s diet consisted mainly of chocolates and sweet sherry, and he had lost a lot of weight and was very frail. Nevertheless, when a lady they knew walked into the restaurant, he hauled himself out of his wheelchair to greet her - and his trousers fell to his ankles. With impeccable timing, a passing waiter simply bent down and impassively yanked them up again, before discreetly going on his way. As Ilistened to this story, I could hear the layers of pain and imminent loss beneath my client’s laughter, and somehow the network of generations of family, love and caring he’d been describing in the preceding weeks came to life between us in the room in a new, more vivid way.
So how can we actively harness humour to help us when we’re in distress? There’s a different answer for everyone. One thing is certain: it can’t be forced or imposed on us. If my friend had suggested to her father that they watch ‘something funny to cheer us up’ I’m certain he would have refused or they would have silently endured it together, wanting it over as soon as possible. But when the right moment came along unplanned, her dad was able to respond instinctively to something that made him feel better.
We can also choose to make humour a power for good and for healing in our lives if we actively create or seek it out - as my clients did - looking for absurdity wherever we find ourselves, or some kind of crazy beauty in the everyday, however ‘inappropriate’ or in dubious taste it may be. Find it, savour it, and then if you can, share it with someone with whom you feel safe, who won’t judge you and who will look at it the same way, laugh and cry along with you, and not be afraid.
(*Identifying details have been changed, and clients and former clients have thus given their consent to my writing about our work together)
Photo credit: Tabitha Turner