Dead funny: why we use humour to deal with grief

by | Oct 25, 2018 | Grief and Everyday Life |

Here at DPC HQ we’re all about the #banter. The DPC wouldn’t be the DPC without a shed load of dead parent jokes; it’s what our friendship is built on. But we are well aware that not everyone enjoys joking about death. Many people see or hear us laughing about it and think it’s us putting up a guard like a coping mechanism. Which to be fair I suppose it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. So why do we do it and is it a legit way to deal with grief? Or is it us trying to shield ourselves and delay the inevitable?

Are Dead Parent Jokes Normal?

You may or may not have heard us talking on the podcast about times where we’ve made dead parent jokes and it’s made everyone around us feel awkward. There are so many times when I’ve held myself back from making a joke or comment cuz you know, you’ve got to read the room. But if there is at least one other DPC member in the room, I’m guaranteed to make that joke.

I’m the biggest advocate for laughter in any situation. Anyone that’s worked with me in the past year or so will know this – I laugh a lot (much to the detriment of my colleague’s ear drums).

Before writing this blog I did a lot of reading of articles and studies about why we use humour to deal with grief. There is so much science behind it! Which was kind of surprising but also not. To me it just seems obvious that laughing makes us feel better and that’s why we do it. But there is so much more to it. No doubt you’ll have seen or heard about laughter therapy. This is where people literally just stand around and laugh out loud! Laughter is amazing. It’s not only a scientifically proven stress-reliever but it’s also a bond-builder. How many of you are friends with people that have the same sense of humour as you? Or have a partner with the same sense of humour? It’s a massive part of who we are and who we choose to hang around with.

You can actually die laughing

In terms of humour’s role in grief – every single article I read told me it’s normal; that more often than not people use humour in times of grief.
 So, if everybody’s doing it, why does it seem so odd? Much like we don’t sit around talking about our bowel movements (unless you’re Kathryn Hooker) – it’s natural and literally everyone goes to the toilet. But it’s uncomfortable to talk about and there’s a big taboo around it. But often joking about it makes it easier.

Sidenote: So the funniest(/not really funny) thing I came across when reading around this subject, is that there is actually a disease where people literally laugh themselves to death!!??! That.. is not funny. And I now have anxiety that that is the way I will die..

Have you ever been sat with a group of people and they start making “private jokes” that they find absolutely hysterical but you’re just sat there like “errrm this isn’t funny”? For those not in on the joke it can be uncomfortable and seen as offensive, so I really must caveat this here and say don’t start making jokes about people’s dead parents unless they do so first. You’ll know if the person you are talking to wants to and they will give you signs to encourage it.
Ok so we know it’s normal and everybody does it (even if it’s behind closed doors). But WHY do we do it? Spoiler alert (and to my delight) it’s in the science!!

Grief, laughter and essays; what the scientists had to say

Neuroscientist V.S. Rakmachandran suggests in his book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness that the reason we laugh in these situations is to put the circumstances into perspective and make them seem less threatening.  We do this both for ourselves and for those around us and such behaviour serves a purpose whether the circumstances are dire or not.*

For example, when it’s the day before a deadline and you’ve not started yet and someone asks you how many words you’ve done and you say “zero.. ha ha ha” with that nervous kind of laughter – it’s not actually funny. That’s you trying to make light of a situation and to signal to the other person that you’re ok about it (even if you’re not). It makes it easier to admit to that person that you’ve not started and it doesn’t leave the other person feeling guilty for asking you about it.

It’s important, and something we stress heavily on our podcast, that you remember the happy times. But it can be hard to do in the day to day trenches of grief. Something that I do is I take every anniversary/holiday as an opportunity to do this. I’ll obviously be a bit sad and cry if I need to but I make a conscious effort to look through photos and tell stories with friends and family or just remember them quietly to myself. Not only does it put a smile on your face, it helps you to appreciate and be grateful for all of the good times you had together. I feel very lucky to have had 20 years of happy memories as many people aren’t so lucky.

A study from the University of Berkeley found that widows and widowers who could smile and laugh when remembering a loved one experienced less anxiety and depression. Many bereavement groups incorporate laughter where members are encouraged to share humorous experiences associated with their loved one – see, we knew we were onto something. Even Sigmund Freud wrote about it; he said that a high appreciation of death humour was a mark of maturity.

Seriously, go and listen to our podcast

On Episode 5 of the Dead Parent Club Podcast we interviewed my friend Beth Rendall. Beth has an amazing sense of humour and has the ability to make light of every situation. I highly recommend this episode to put a smile on your face (as well as all the others of course).

P.s. if you’re in the mood for a dead parent joke (I mean, who isn’t??) check out this tumblr page for some of the best!!! (Seriously me and Kat spent an entire evening scrolling through these.)



The Healing Power of Laughter in Death and Grief