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There are two possibilities

By Heather Oman

Yesterday, my father told me a joke.

Two soldiers were running from the enemy. One says to the other, “What’s going to happen?”

The other soldier said, “There are two possibilities. Either we outrun them, or they catch us.”

“What happens if they catch us?”

“There are two possibilities. Either we escape, or they put us in prison.”

“What if they put us in prison?”

“There are two possibilities. Either they eventually release us, or we die.”

“What if we die??”

“Well, there are two possibilities….”

He told me this joke as we were waiting for some medical tests to come back. There have been a lot of “What will happen?” and “What if?”s going on my family this week, and my dad (like his dad before him) likes to use humor to lighten dark moods. And his jokes are actually usually pretty good. Longish, and sometimes you wonder “Holy cow, dad, WHERE IS THIS GOING?” but the punch line is usually worth it.

My parents live approximately 3 hours from my home, and as I was driving home, I pondered this joke. For some reason, the joke was oddly comforting as we tossed out speculations about what would happen if my father’s tests came back with bad news. I suppose true humor is suppose to do that—alleviate stress, bring comfort at odd times, release tension.

I wonder if we use it enough.

We’ve talked here at Segullah before about grief, and how for all of our Mormon doctrine about hope and life eternal and the glories of salvation, Mormons aren’t always that good with grief. We rush to comfort those who stand in need of comfort, but lots of times we do it badly. We want to give hope, but somehow want to do it by pretending that hope and sorrow can’t co-exist (they can). We accentuate the hope (which is good) and ignore the sorrow (which is bad).

I know I have been on both sides of this equation. I know that at times I have done a poor job of easing somebody’s emotional burden, but I only learned that after I went through some trials myself and received some well meant but badly executed comfort. As I thought about comfort and mourning and burdens, I wondered:

Can humor be used to mourn with those that mourn?

I read Christopher Reeve’s autobiography, “Still Me”, which was his memoir of his life-changing accident and subsequent adjustment to life as a quadriplegic. I don’t remember a lot of details from the book, but I remember his description of this anxiety and fear he had about his injuries, and a feeling of hopelessness.

Then some obnoxious doctor came in, speaking in a strange, Russian accent, covered head to toe with medical gear, talking about how he was Reeve’s proctologist and could he PLEASE move that annoying neck tie (referring to Reeve’s breathing tube) and bustling about like a crazy man. Reeve was horrified and mystified at the same time, when lo and behold, he recognized this crazy doctor as his good friend Robin Williams, who was doing what Robin Williams did best—making people laugh. Reeve described how important and precious that time was with Williams, how the humor was something he had desperately lacked, and desperately needed. He referred to Williams in his book several times as a bright light in a dark time.

Humor. I think it’s important. I’m not sure how you can best use it, or when you should use it, but I still think it’s important. Somehow it fits into the comfort paradigm. Or at least, I think it does. What do you think?

We still don’t know what the future will bring in terms of my father’s health, but I imagine as we go, we’ll need lots of prayers and lots of comfort.

And some jokes. Good ones. C’mon, people, let’s have ’em.

About Heather Oman

(Prose Board) lives in the south with her husband, her two kids, and her wiggly black lab. She is a licensed speech language pathologist, but spends most of her days trying to teach her own kids how to say please and thank you. She is a member of the Segullah Editorial Board, and is the founding member of the blog Mormon Mommy Wars.

18 thoughts on “There are two possibilities”

  1. I only know terrible jokes. Especially jokes in groupings.

    What did Tarzan say when he saw a herd of elephants coming over the hill? "Look, it's a herd of elephants coming over the hill!"

    What did Tarzan say when he saw a herd of elephants coming over the hill with sunglasses on? Nothing, he didn't recognise them.

    And: why shouldn't you give Elsa a balloon? She'll just let it go.

    I hope those bring a smile! I definitely live on the more serious side of things, so this reminded about the usefulness and power of humour is helpful. Thanks 🙂

  2. How sad that it was Robin Williams who was able to bring comfort to Christopher Reeve through humor, but in the end he could not find that same comfort himself. This story makes me sorrowful for that reason.
    I guess one reason we don't often use humor to try to comfort one another is we don't want to be accused of treating something serious lightly.
    But when I had thyroid cancer (an admittedly easy cancer to deal with) and my miscarriage, I much preferred to be around those who kept things light hearted, rather than those who could only tell me they were sorry and kept a sad face.
    I suppose one of the human dilemmas is that we all grieve differently. That is why we often end up saying the wrong thing, and hopefully we can remember to be forgiving of those who are, in the end, only trying be being comfort.

  3. My daughter told me this yesterday. One scientist: "Tell me the joke about potassium."
    Second scientist: "K."

    Every person grieves differently, and every loss is different, whether it be loss of health, a job, a pet, or a loved one, or a different loved one. In most cases I've known, before a person CAN see or be comforted by humor, they must be mourned WITH.

    My beloved great-aunt died last weekend. Her funeral is today in another state and I can't be there. She was nearly 96, and all the family is relieved (though with teary eyes) for her sake that she didn't linger long after falling and suffering multiple breaks two days earlier. As we go through her lived-through-the-Depression-so-never-discarded-anything house just around a few corners from mine, there's a lot of laughter. My biggest laugh so far? The discovery of a beautiful little antique glass bottle … labeled and filled with her late husband's kidney stones. He passed in the mid-70s, though he probably passed the stones much earlier. (Pun intended!)

    On the other hand (of possible reactions), even in my relief for her release and return to long-gone loved ones, I'm forever going to miss her sweet, rose-colored, glass nearly-full (never just half-) day-to-day presence. I ache in her absence. My most sentimental sob-inducing find so far? A 3×4-inch scrap of paper drifted out from the pages of a huge stack of ancestral research. On it that sentimental woman had jotted down my youngest daughter's birth information (name, time, size, etc.) when I called her from the hospital that morning … She'd even written down "Teresa doing well and breakfast just delivered to her room."

    When I became a widow at 44 it was completely unexpected. Blindsided by grief, I deeply resented those who said, "You're kidding!" or "You're joking!" to the news of my 47-year-old husband's death. (Four years later, I understand they thought they were as blindsided as my daughters and I.) I also resented (and was repelled by) those who in any way tried to make light of our loss. What I (and my daughters) needed was to be mourned with before we could be comforted.

    On the other hand (of possible reactions), I quickly recognized, took solace in, and quickly developed the dark widowed humor of others who'd experienced the deaths of their spouses. (Now there's no need to shave your legs in the winter, no one will steal the covers from your side of the bed, you can have the last word in every argument, stick a red paper hourglass on a black T-shirt and you'll never have to create another Halloween costume…) Coming from people who hadn't walked in widowhood's path, their comments would have felt like minimizing slaps in the face; coming from a community of the also-widowed, they felt like encouraging "you'll get through this — I did" pats on the back.

    (In one widows and widowers group, one of the longest-running, most commented on threads was about leg shaving. If that isn't funny, I don't know what is!)

  4. When my nephew broke his neck, he spent weeks in a medical care unit before going to rehab. The ward was full of young quadriplegic men when I visted … and they kept my nephew's spirits up by calling out the worst imaginable "What do you call a man with no arms and no legs who …" jokes. My boy laughed just as cheerfully and called out the answers as raucously as any of them.

    I couldn't join in, but I cheered them on. I think sometimes you have to be utterly unselfconscious to strike the right note of humor in times of grief, and what a blessing it is when someone can do that.

  5. Ardis, I think you hit on something really important: I think the humor works best when it's from someone who can empathize completely, perfectly, with the situation, and then chooses to find the funny places. You have to earn the right to make jokes in the face of tragedy. So the other quadriplegic men who joked, they earned the right to those jokes in that circumstance.

  6. I once heard a fireside talk by a man who was attacked by a Grizzly in Wyoming and lost a lot of the musculature in his legs as a result. When he was in the hospital, some of his friends sent him a note saying something like: "Haven't heard from you in a while. What's been eating you?"

    It's odd how comforting it is to watch a Seinfeld rerun when I'm going through tough times.

  7. I had a family member who was going through a really rough divorce. I said to her one day after some really difficult things happened, "Well, look at the bright side, at least you are not in Jr. High." She found that really funny. This wouldn't work would someone that had a good Jr. High experience, but I don't know many people who did.

    If you are in the midst of mourning and you need some comic relief, buy the books"White Trash Cooking and White Trash Cooking 2" and read them.

  8. When my mom died I had no idea that we would have to put the grieving process on hold because so many people who came through the line at the viewing needed us to comfort them. That was not helpful at all. And unless someone has been in your position, their words don't really help.

    When my mom was in the ICU I got kicked out because I was making her laugh too much and the oxygen kept dropping. Humor is my go to in most situations. But when it comes to grieving you have to tread lightly.

  9. Oh ladies…all your thoughts have lifted me so. I have a dear friend who has been out of state for 18 months trying to adopt her grandson from a very abusive situation. It has been a nightmare to be pitted against her son, suffering from PTSD….etc, etc.

    She is in the depths …and I have been writing every other day just to keep her connected to her old life and sometimes to keep her sane. I will share some of your jokes in today's letter.

    Laughter is SO GOOD for the soul!

  10. Yes, Emily and Ardis, that's exactly it! Laughing at oneself is at the root of the best comedy. Joking around within shared circumstances is one (sometimes very funny) thing; joking around at someone else in their trials is another thing entirely.

  11. Reading ridiculously funny books helped me emotionally and physically while in a Post-surgery recovery room following a miscarriage, then a D&C, and then two blood transfusions. I was laughing so hard that it freaked out the nurse.

    I sent along the same books to a friend dealing with a new lupus diagnosis and dealing with a tremendous amount of pain as she faces an uncertain future. I know that it won't change her outcome, but if it makes her smile and laugh, she'll feel better, even for a little time.


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