The appropriateness of black humor

Sunflower

May

It’s suddenly become very quiet in here. Laughter dies away, awkward silence chasing away the echoes. The new aide stands there, fuming and furious.
“I don’t know what you all think is so funny,” she snaps. Her anger is pitched much higher than our mirth and I wince. “Show some respect, would you? It’s not appropriate–”
“To laugh?” I ask. “To enjoy the memories of the woman we’ve all cared for? Mrs. Z was a hilarious lady and how is it not appropriate to laugh at her final joke?” Other aides around the table nod in agreement.
Taken slightly aback, the new aide blinks rapidly and tries a different approach. I’ll give her points for courage: she is most definitely not afraid to speak her mind. “You’re laughing about a dead woman. What if her family hears you?”
She’s once again interrupted, but this time it isn’t by me. The break-room door opens and in steps Mrs. Z’s daughter, as if summoned by our words. Her eyes are red, her cheeks stained with tears…and she looks blazingly angry.
Aw, hell. A part of me wonders why a family member is in the staff break-room, our safe haven from the floor–but that question is almost completely drowned by sheer panic. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I said, it’s just that I chose the place I said it with great care..all for nothing now. Any doubt that the daughter heard our conversation is quickly laid to rest.
“What final joke?”
I seem to be voted spokesperson by the entire break-room. Well, I suppose I was the one telling the story…”Her dentures wouldn’t stay in. When I was getting her cleaned up, they kept, um, popping out whenever I’d turn my back. She always hated those dentures,” I add wistfully. Mrs Z used to spit them out any chance she’d get and I swear she would aim for me half the time.
Mrs. Z’s daughter doesn’t laugh.
She smiles. It’s kind of weak and watery, but there’s no doubt it’s genuine; the anger fades from her face. A couple rough swallows later, she speaks again.
“Sounds like Mom. Feisty to the last,” she sighs. “Did you get them to stay in? I didn’t even notice.”
A collective sigh seems to go around the break-room. Everyone looks relieved, except the new aide who mostly looks confused.
“No,” says another aide, setting down her sandwich and speaking for the first time, “she sure couldn’t. May is stubborn, but she’s no match for your mom.”
“Nobody was,” the daughter agrees. “Um, I’m just here to, um…” Her throat seems to close around her words and she just waves a hand clutched around a somewhat squished Danish. Someone must have pointed her to the break-room as having the closest microwave.
Someone stands and takes the Danish from her, popping it in the microwave. Not another word is spoken until the microwave beeps and the Danish is returned to her.
At the door, the daughter pauses. For the first time, she looks directly at the new aide who was scolding me. “Thank you for thinking of my feelings,” she says, “but Mom always preferred her jokes to be laughed at. Said it made her feel useful, to make you guys’ day a bit brighter, like she wasn’t helpless after all. I’m glad…she was able to one last time.”
The door shuts and a different silence falls on us. Most of us are furiously blinking back tears.
Finally, the aide with the sandwich turns to the new girl. “Your problem,” she says, waving the sandwich around to punctuate her words, “is that you still think grief only wears a sad face. Everybody knows May loved that lady and the only thing she’s guilty of is terrible timing. Don’t get bent out of shape and don’t tell me how to grieve my resident.”

One the most shocking things coming into long term care (or indeed any part of the medical profession) is the humor. It’s so markedly different from anything else in the outside world.
It’s often seen as calloused, disrespectful and symptomatic of a lack of compassion. While that might be the case some of the time, I’d submit that it is not the case as often as you’d think.
Humor is how we cope. It’s how we deal with what we have to see. It’s just that what we see is wildly outside the norm of American culture that our humor falls outside the normal bounds. We see bodily fluids, crumbling minds, lots of shit and death…and so our jokes reflect that.
That being said, there is a time and a place for CNA humor and in front of grieving families isn’t it. I’m just grateful the daughter understood the substance of my story and didn’t stop at the unusual surface.