Judith Claire Mitchell didn’t mean for “A Reunion of Ghosts” to be a funny book.
“I wanted it to be a serious book with funny characters,” she said. Those characters — Lady, Delph and Vee — are three sisters who decide, in light of their troubled ancestry, to engage in a suicide pact. The result is an unexpectedly humorous story that examines the fraught territory of family history.
“There are certain things that make us very human,” Mitchell said. “One is (competing in) Ironman. No other animal would do that, it’s crazy.”
The other thing? “Laughing in the face of horrible darkness. We all do it, because none of us is going to get out of this alive.”
When we suffer terrible losses, we come together at wakes, funerals, support groups, etc., and bond through our grief.
“Humor is the great equalizer,” said Sara Tripalin, a behavioral health counselor and owner of Peace of Mind Therapy on Madison’s West Side. “It allows for meeting on common ground, if only for a moment,” in the midst of grief, which can be an isolating and singular experience.
Tripalin leads a support group for people affected by cancer at Gilda’s Club, an organization founded in the name of comedian Gilda Radner. Radner, who starred on “Saturday Night Live” in the late ‘70s, died from ovarian cancer in 1989. The Gilda’s Club mission encourages a community of support for those affected by cancer.
In her work as a grief counselor, Tripalin encountered cancer survivor Lois Stauber of Madison, who has been living with recurrent ovarian cancer. Stauber said the community support she’s found at Gilda’s Club and other places in Madison has been helpful. She likes “being with people who are in the same boat.”
It’s the community that can foster a connection, which is often deepened when people can learn to laugh at their situations.
“Humor can create a sense of feeling connected, it can help us feel our humanity,” Tripalin said. Maybe we’re not actively thinking about doing a stand-up routine or intending to crack people up who are experiencing loss or sadness, “but that little sliver of joy, just for the moment, represents hope.”
Stauber said her experience with support groups has helped her heal, as well as her attendance at Death Cafés around Madison. A Death Café is a place where people, “often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death,” according to deathcafe.com. The movement’s objective is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their finite lives.”
Stauber attends the Death Cafés as they spring up in Madison, because, as she said, when she started venturing into the territory of facing death and dying, a lot of questions came up. Questions like, “What do I really think about death?”
“Not, What have I been told about death?” Stauber said. “It’s fascinating and very helpful to catch up with people who don’t go down the traditional ways of being with death,” she said.
For instance, she and a friend have a running joke about who will get to attend whose memorial first. Stauber demands that, if her friend is in the room when she passes, she’ll sing “Happy Deathday to you.”
“I told her that she can grieve afterward, I don’t care. But if you’re truly with my spirit, that’s what I need,” Stauber said. Her friend was slow to get on board, but Stauber said that they’ve agreed that whoever is left behind will sing “Happy Deathday.”
“Death and dying are distinctly different experiences for the people dying and the people staying behind. We should have different words for it.”
Dark humor in literature
Ann Wertz Garvin, the Stoughton author whose books “The Dog Year” and “On Maggie’s Watch” infuse humor with tragedy, tends to look at life through the lens of comedy.
“I have this way of thinking that everything is funny and a little bit sad,” Garvin, a professor at UW-Whitewater, said. She calls upon her 15 years working as a nurse to inform her writing.
“Humor unifies everybody,” she said. “I think it’s a release of tension from the horribleness that’s occurring to us, and it gives us control over something we have no control over. The best way to unify people is to make them laugh.”
She cites literary influences like George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, and the late Erma Bombeck as authors who have gotten it right when it comes to dark humor.
Bombeck “wrote about the humor of being a human being, and how difficult that can be,” Garvin said. Mitchell also uses some lighthearted moments to deal with the subjects of suicide, cancer, and genocide. It’s just how she navigates the world, she said.
“We suffer terrible losses and yet we get together and laugh.”
It’s a way of bringing things into perspective. And, as the cliché goes, misery does love company.
“Nobody likes to be alone in the world,” Garvin said. “Everybody wants to be attached, and I think humor attaches everybody to those things in a way that makes us all feel like we’re not alone.”