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This week, First Person explores the process of dealing with love and loss.
“Laughter through tears is my favourite emotion,” Truvey Jones, a character in Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, says. She’s at a funeral, reflecting on the unfairness of life and death. Then someone makes a joke and people laugh. In spite of their grief, they laugh.
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Grief is exhausting. When my dad passed, there were streams of friends, loved ones and co-workers coming in to offer their condolences. Friends that I hadn’t seen in years came over to offer their sympathies and the opportunity to catch up and talk about something other than my loss was so welcome. “We should get together again under better circumstances,” we chuckled.
Nobody really knows what to say to someone who is recently bereaved. For the bereaved, it is a rollercoaster of emotions as each new visitor confronts the reality of death and considers their own grief. Some people contemplate their own mortality; reflecting somberly on the age difference between themselves and the deceased. Most people offer their own mini-eulogy; saying something kind about the deceased and then sharing an anecdote to demonstrate their point. Somewhere in the midst of that process, beneath the shock, sadness and heartache, there is laughter.
Dad didn’t want his wake and funeral to be sombre. Whenever we went to a wake, he would say, “Let’s pay our respects quickly and leave before someone starts the Rosary.” It was hilariously inappropriate and it summed up the way most people feel about death: We know it exists, but we do not want to acknowledge it and we do not want to linger in its presence.
A few days before he passed, I was hanging out with Dad. I was sitting in a folding chair at his bedside, wearing a surgical mask because I had the sniffles and his immune system was affected by chemotherapy. At one point, he became serious and told me how he wanted his funeral to go so that his wishes wouldn’t be lost in the many, many voices of our extended family and their opinions and suggestions. What he said was simple: closed casket (for everyone by my mom, brother, sister-in-law and me), portrait at the head of the coffin and the lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s My Way printed on nice paper and put in a frame at the foot of the coffin. He didn’t want people to be weepy and awkward, he wanted people to remember him as he was when he was alive: vibrant and witty.
I dismissed him as being dramatic and he did his best to smile as I reassured him that many people survive their chemotherapy. But he was insistent: cremation, not burial. After the service, there should be lunch for everyone at a local Indian buffet, as they had a decent banquet hall and decent food, and grief is exhausting, so everyone needed, as he put it, “to have a good scoff.” His remains were to be kept in a nice urn on the fireplace mantel in the family room so that he could keep tabs on what was going on at home. He didn’t want to be laid to rest in a mausoleum wall, surrounded by strangers. To him, being alone would be a fate worse than death.
I listened to what he said and made a mental note of it. He asked me to write down some general information about the household. I wrote it all down, referring to him affectionately as, “Dramatic Dad.” He was always so melodramatic when he was ill. That was on a Wednesday. On the Thursday, he was admitted to hospital. On Friday, he looked much better after the transfusion. On Saturday, we shared our last inside joke and our last, “I love you.” I just didn’t know that they were the last ones. I think he did.
But before the last, “I love you,” there was the laughter. My cousins and I had an adventure that day, we’d been stranded in a parking lot because of a flat tire after lunch, which led to a series of comical events summed up by Dad as something “that would only ever happen to you guys.” We took a break from the laughter so he could eat something, a little pineapple. (I had to feed him because he was too weak and his arms were too bruised from injections and IVs for him to do it himself). He asked me to take some more notes about bills and accounts, then he made a joke that caused my cousins and me to double over in laughter. We probably would have stayed longer and laughed more, but visiting hours were long over and he needed his rest.
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It was a simple joke, a two-word commentary about some commotion in the hospital, but that joke was Dad’s patented mix of facetiousness and timing. Many of the mourners at his wake spoke of similar jokes and puns he was famous for and his colleagues mentioned his morning pep-talks (“Go take on the day!”) and his seldom-fading smile. The more people I spoke with, the more we laughed.
Laughter through tears: simultaneously experiencing the joys, love and humour of life, as well as the suffocating heartbreak, sadness and sorrow that accompanies grief. Laughter through tears is a tangible, candid reminder that we are completely alive and complexly human, even in the presence of death.
Rebecca D’Silva lives in Mississauga.