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Laughing Through Our Tears

Humor, mourning, and memory.

Key points

  • Grief can be relieved by humor.
  • "Sorry For Your Loss," a solo performance by Michael Kruz Kayne, proves that mourning is not predictable.
  • Humor reflects a Buddhist perspective and encourages resilience: what better resource for the pain of grief?
  • In psychotherapy, spontaneous laughter during suffering does not necessarily reflect denial and avoidance.
Fer Gregory/Shutterstock
Fer Gregory/Shutterstock

Can we laugh through our tears? It might help. This past week, I was fortunate to see the solo performance of Sorry For Your Loss at the Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village. I knew that the performer, Michael Kruz Kayne, had lost someone, but who? The answer: an identical twin infant, named Fisher, whose teenage twin brother, Truman, is thriving. The performance is emblematic of the personal, idiosyncratic journey of grief, because Kayne tells us that he did not want to talk about this death for 10 years, but now finds it is all he wants to talk about. So much for mourning lasting a year.

At the end of his monologue, Kayne proposes a vision that is the heart of this blog. He notes that our close relationships are part of the “algorithm” of our lives; he speculates that audience members are—right that minute—deciding to whom they will send texts about the performance. Identically, he says, people who’ve died are part of our living algorithm; they are nearby, “in another room”. His final disclosure is that his solo performance is, in fact, a way to keep Fisher alive for himself, his family, and the universe.

Kayne expresses what I believe about death and the vital presence of those we’ve lost, but he is a much, much funnier person than I am. He’s a comedy writer for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and his testimony is a seamless web of anguish and hilarity. How is our ability to laugh related to our suffering from grief? Sigmund Freud proposed a groundbreaking connection of humor to unconscious thoughts and impulses in Jokes and the Unconscious. In Freud’s (1928) words, “Humor is not resigned; it is rebellious. It signifies the triumph not only of the ego, but also of the pleasure-principle, which is strong enough to assert itself here in the face of the adverse real circumstances.”(p. 2)

Breslavtsev Oleg/Shutterstock
Source: Breslavtsev Oleg/Shutterstock

I think we’ve culturally viewed our comedy writers as daring but considerably neurotic. They present as self-deprecating but what if they can offer wisdom?

The importance of humor in dealing with trauma and loss has received new attention in two very important frontiers of psychology.

There has been an infusion of Buddhist thinking into psychotherapeutic practice. Most psychotherapists today recognize the usefulness of mindfulness as an adjunct to exploration. But less frequently noted is the recognition of humor in Buddhist practice. As John Riker points out, “Buddhist humor, especially Zen humor expressed in koans, does not revolve around releasing sexual anxiety (as in dirty jokes) or releasing pent-up grandiosity by asserting some kind of group superiority in making fun of other groups. Rather, it revolves around laughing at the impossibility of human existence in which we need to cling to order, structure, permanent ideas, or values in a universe in which all finally dissolves into the great flux of being.”

The release we feel when we laugh is very close to the release we can experience when we face that we don’t control our destiny and we don’t own anyone in our lives. These are strange ideas for our effortful and “optimizing” culture, but they can be grounding and reassuring.

Additionally, humor is currently frequently linked to resilience, the ability to survive trauma. We have to dedicate ourselves as a psychological profession to understanding resilience, since we’re living in a time of uncertainty and crisis. The ability to carry on, make meaning, and be somewhat hopeful is crucial.

Daniel Hoz/Shutterstock
Daniel Hoz/Shutterstock

Interestingly, research thus far indicates that the ability to laugh is related to resilience. Friedberg and Malefakis quote Victor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust and developed a resilience-based therapy, logotherapy. Frankl noted that “It is well-known that humor, more than anything else in the human makeup can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if for a few seconds” (Frankl, 1963, p. 63).

What does privileging humor mean in terms of coping and psychotherapy? Clients in therapy should be open to laughing in moments of enormous distress, without feeling that they are avoiding their pain. And it is crucial for therapists to recognize humor as a strength, not necessarily a distraction from experiencing that pain.

I’ve treated comedy writers myself and, I must say, not one of them made me smile or laugh, certainly not when they were talking about their own struggles. I just assumed that they were relieved to be away from their day job and its routine and pressure, but it is possible that they thought I’d be unreceptive to their sense of absurdity. If so, this constitutes a loss for them, for me, and for therapeutic effectiveness. There’s a lot written about “playing” in psychotherapy, but I think we might consider letting ourselves laugh a bit more.


Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s Search for Meaning: an Introduction to Logotherapy. A newly revised and enlarged edition of From Death-Camp to Existentialism. (I. Lasch, Trans.). Beacon Press.

Freud, S. (2003). Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Penguin Classics.

Friedberg, A., & Malefakis, D. (2018). Resilience, Trauma, and Coping. Psychodynamic psychiatry, 46(1), 81–113.

John H. Riker (2020) Empathy, Compassion, and Meditation: A Vision for a Buddhist Self Psychology, Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 40:5, 327-339, DOI: 10.1080/07351690.2020.1766323

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