How to survive nearly anything through laughter

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Our very own accidental Modern Family photo circa 2013. Timed photo by Debi Kuhlman, not pictured. (She was running to get in the photo when one of her granddaughters yelled, “There’s dog shit,” and ran away.

Dark humor and sarcasm are similar in that some people find them offensive. If you are one of those people, read no further.

My family specializes in hospital, danger, and funeral humor. One or two of us can pull off sarcasm, but not as well. Dark humor can take the form of simply laughing out loud in grim situations, whereas sarcasm takes more actual work. Maybe we’re just lazy like that.

My sisters and I burst out laughing in the middle of my mother’s funeral.

We had carefully selected the music to be uplifting, even happy. She was such a wild, bright spirit that it seemed wrong to be mournful. As far as I know, there weren’t any sad songs or somber hymns that she liked.

Things were progressing well until the song “If Ever I Should Leave You” from Camelot came on. Mother and her new husband had played it at their wedding to celebrate late-in-life love. What we hadn’t considered is that it was a favorite of all of us when we were children. We sang the entire soundtrack around the house. Plus, it was actually a song about impossible love. The first bars played, my sisters and I burst into tears. Elaine leaned over and whispered, “I guess we didn’t quite think that through,” at which point we burst out laughing. Her husband was mortified but we didn’t care.

We really didn’t have to make up jokes for the eulogy. We mostly quoted her. My favorite was when we were on vacations and we kids became tired, hot and cranky. She told us, “You will have fun whether you like it or not.” So we did. If she told us to stop doing something, and we didn’t, she would say, “Okay, keep doing that. I will have you do what I tell you to do!”

Later, at her grave site, we told stories about her. Many were humorous and they reflected her own sense of humor. My cousin told of when she said to him, “I was never so disappointed as when I learned that Love Field is just an airport.”

At a less serious occasion, a few days before she died, she embarrassed my son at his middle school talent show. He had insisted I tell her not to kiss him in front of the other kids. She agreed. Instead, when the show was over and he came out to where the audience was, she stood up across the auditorium from him, yelled his name, and started throwing him loud and exuberant kisses. He couldn’t help but laugh.

After she died, we had the usual silly bickering over possessions.

Mother wasn’t a hoarder, but dear heavens, every closet, the laundry room, and a storage unit in the back yard was full of memorabilia, old dress patterns, all of her voluminous square dance dresses, and every toy we or the grandchildren had ever played with.

It wasn’t enough that there was way more stuff than the three of us wanted. We had to do a tug of war over little things. Like a vibrator. Not even the fun kind. Just an old, slip over your hand and try not to pull out too many hairs from the body part you placed it on kind. I’m pretty sure no one would even consider using it genitally. But my middle sister, Debi, and I both wanted it.

She finally won when she said, “But my husband is dying!” As my youngest sister, Elaine, said to me later, “Well, by all means, if that vibrator will save his life, she should have it!” Maybe it did. He is still with us fifteen years later.

My father had a tendency to make us all laugh with unintentional dark humor.

I drove behind a large truck into standing water during a rain storm. The truck stopped, then took off again, leaving me and my toyota, which began rapidly filling with water, behind. I barely made it out and up to higher ground, before the car was swept away. The ridge I reached descended on the other side to a golf course, so the water rushed rapidly over it while I clung to a tree. I could feel my sandals being pulled off my feet. After being rescued, I called home to let my parents know what happened and that I was okay. My dad, as dads often do, expressed his fear through anger. “Haven’t I taught you about driving into water?” he loudly demanded. My answer, accompanied by the laughter of hysteria, “Apparently not, Dad.”

Another time was at his brother’s funeral. His brother was an alcoholic, a rounder, and definitely not a church-goer. Hence, the pastor conducting the funeral had never met him. The weak accolades from the preacher were funny in their own right, and some of us snickered at each one, but he also called the deceased by the wrong name. Repeatedly. While the rest of us suppressed giggles, Dad finally shouted out, “His name was Roy.” Cue our crazy family laughter.

So, okay, none of these are knee slappers.

Not even the timed photo above where we were all looking down for dog shit, or over at the niece who ran away from the dog shit. But hilarious or just mildly funny, humor has gotten us through many a dark time. Dark humor isn’t always obvious, or even funny to those not involved. Some of the most hysterical ones I’m not at liberty to share, because the tragedy is deep and involves others. Those others, family members, earn their humor stripes by making fun of their own trauma. Maybe someday they will share that humor with the world themselves. My son is a comedian, so at least he probably will at some point. And my Mother will be laughing right along with him.

Psychotherapist, Hypnotherapist. Leans Left. Mindfulness practioner before it was cool. M.Ed., LPC.

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