South Asian Emotion: Laughter During the Grieving Process

man griefAftab opened his eyes slowly and he took in his surroundings. He was experiencing those few seconds right after you wake up when you forget everything that has happened and for a brief moment feel like everything is fine. But faster than he could brace himself, the reality hit him harder than a speeding train.

Three nights ago, he left the hospital and came home alone without his beloved wife, Farheen. She was very young, only 30 years old. They had only been married 3 years. Getting out of bed proved difficult as he felt as if his body was made of lead. It felt like a heavy weight was leaning on his neck and shoulders crushing him to the ground.

Walking into the kitchen he was relieved to see he wasn’t alone. Farheen’s parents were staying with them during her last few weeks in the hospital. They had let his parents, brother, sister and young niece into the house as well. He could not have asked for a better time to have a full house. The distractions were very welcome.

When they saw him, all of the family gave him sympathetic looks, allowing him the space to do what he felt like doing. He wasn’t hungry, but wished to feed little Asma her cereal. Even Asma, a 15 month old little girl could tell that banging her spoon on her high chair, something she always did as she ate, would not be appreciated. She was also quieter than normal as the adults watched Aftab in silence.

After a couple of minutes, Aftab smiled. Everyone was confused. Was this a smile that preceded a bout of uncontrollable smiling? Was he smiling because he was so devastated, he couldn’t do anything else? No one knew what to do so they waited. He chucked to himself and said,

“One time Farheen and I had taken a weekend trip. The hotel had free breakfast and Farheen always loved to eat oatmeal. I hate oatmeal but I had lost a bet so she said my punishment was to eat oatmeal with her one morning.”

He started laughing a little. “And you know Farheen. She likes to make everything into a competition so my punishment became another race. ‘Let’s see who could eat the oatmeal the fastest’ she suggested. I thought she was kidding until she counted down from 3 and started shoving oatmeal in her mouth.”

Aftab was laughing harder as he struggled to finish the story. “You should have seen her. This tiny 5 foot 2 person with a pretty small mouth just shoveling giant spoonfuls of oatmeal.” He had tears coming down his face because he was laughing so hard. “Her cheeks were puffed out to hear,” he gestured with his hands. “She looked like a chipmunk and was taking the race so seriously. She had no idea she was just racing herself because I was laughing at her so hard.”

The house erupted in laughter as each of the family members knew exactly what Aftab was talking about. Farheen was known for her competitive nature, making any activity into a game, a race or a competition. For what felt like 10 minutes the families just laughed. Even Asma, who at first was confused at the sudden change of atmosphere in the house, clapped and laughed alongside everyone.

As they calmed down, the heaviness of reality set in as they each in their own way counted how much they missed the light in their lives named Farheen.

Laughter during the mourning process is mistakenly seen as a sign of disrespect or an avoidance of the reality that a loved one has died. However, research is now pointing to laughter as a strong and positive coping strategy while you are grieving. Laughter is akin to walking outside and taking in a breath of fresh for a moment. It provides a repose from the constant stress that is placed on your body as you grieve.

Research conducted at UC Berkeley has shown what widows and widowers who can laugh or smile when thinking about their loved one within the first six months are less likely to develop depression or experience anxiety after the death of a loved one. Laughter acts as a temporary stress reliever and results in a healthier and more adaptable outcome for the survivor than if laughter was stifled or never present.

Because many South Asians grieve together and rarely leave the mourners alone for a pre-determined period of time after the death, laughter can play a significant role in feeling supported by your friends and family. They can also share positive memories which can help provide you relief  from the stress of mourning. This can also remind you that your loved one has positively touched so many people’s lives. In addition, family and friends can help to monitor the stress levels and may even bring up happy memories if they find that you could use a break.

As you grieve, allowing yourself to laugh from time to time can help you to better manage the difficulty and stressful nature of mourning. Deliberate avoidance of grief will never work, and will complicate your grieving process in the future, but giving yourself a breather once in a while is actually better for you in the long run than focusing on the negativity 100% of the time.

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