Death isn’t funny.
It’s often tragic, sad, painful, shocking, even gruesome. But there’s nothing funny about losing a loved one.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself laughing to the point of tears at my grandmother’s funeral. My grandma had died at the age of 69 after a bitter fight with ALS, leaving my family heartbroken. The priest at her funeral began by sharing stories of our memories with her — stories we’d told him and one another, stories we’d collected that told of the life of an incredible woman. He spoke of her devotion to her children and grandchildren, her humor, her joy, and — of course — her love of Guinness.
And then, he pulled out a bottle of Guinness from the pulpit, set it on her casket, and said, “This one’s for you, Ann.”
I cracked up. And I wasn’t the only one, either. Because my grandma would have thought that was hilarious. Because it was hilarious. Because it was just so her. That breaking of the ice, that moment of shocking joy, helped us feel my grandma’s presence among us. It helped us remember who she was, say goodbye, and find that joy she brought to us in one another.
My grandpa still has that bottle of beer, and it serves as a reminder that grief is complex, weird, and — yes, sometimes, a little funny.
I don’t say this to make light of the experience of death, or the pain that goes along with losing a loved one. Those are real and all-encompassing. And yet, when we grieve, we don’t do so linearly.
Humor, levity, and joy are not a part of our grieving process because we are unfeeling, crass, broken creatures. Joy and sadness are both a part of death precisely because they are both a part of life. Our lives are messy and complicated, and we learn to let emotions and experiences exist and coexist without questioning or judging them.
When we find moments of levity within the grieving process, I believe it is our way of fully embracing the greatness of what we have lost. When I think back on my grandma, I reflect on the magic she brought to my childhood. I think of her quirks, the things she’d always say, the foods she loved the most. I think about the fact that she never got to meet my husband, and while that breaks my heart, I also find joy in knowing how much she would have loved sipping a beer with him.
I’m so grateful that my grandmother’s funeral mass had such moments of joy and humor, because it so fully encompassed for me who she was. If I were to ignore the levity that has come along with the grieving process, I would be doing myself — and her — a disservice, closing off my heart and remembering her as a caricature of who she was. When we allow ourselves to feel every emotion that comes along with grieving—pain, sadness, fear, anger, humor, joy, confusion — we become raw and vulnerable. We allow ourselves to accept the gravity of loss, to remember and continue experiencing the love we experienced from the ones who loved us well. And we are transformed, carrying that love and that joy with us as we live honoring their memory.
Death isn’t funny. But grief sometimes is. So the next time you feel guilty for experiencing joy amid very real pain, give yourself the grace to experience those emotions with one another — and if you’re so inclined, crack open a Guinness and drink it with a smile.