Discovering the Secret Funny Side of Death
On disguising pain with laughter and on appreciating deep relationships
These days, everything needs to be fun. “Come on, we’ll have a fun time at the pub… Did you see Miriam this week? She had such a fun time in Norway!”
When you’re sensitive to language use and human interaction, this can either drive you into sarcasm or remind you of the simple yet funny things in life. This story deals with the latter, even though it begins with the death of a loved one.
The Good, the Dead and the Funny
My dad died in 2016. One of his best friends just a few months after that. Both fought cancer for years.
Well, “fighting” is not the right term, I guess. Their families tried to fight it for them. They, on the other hand, both walked around, carrying that cancer thing in their back pocket. Just occasionally would they take it out and examine it like a rusted screwdriver.
I guess my parents’ generation — especially the male part — isn’t too big on sharing emotions or fears. So mostly, I heard complaints.
“Stop Wearing a Hard Hat While You’re Watching TV, Mom!”
Do baby-boomers suffer from productivity addiction?
Complaints about organs not working or muscles shrinking. Not because they were vain, but because they couldn’t do the things they were used to anymore. Raising a water bottle became a workout.
While factually, this may sound tragic, it could always give you the impression these guys were working on a broken engine.
Since I never dared to ask, I can only assume what my dad wanted to achieve with this mechanical approach to his own life. My best guess? — Protect the family.
And it worked, but it took me a few years to figure it out.
He didn’t want us to worry or suffer for him, so he kept all of those dark thoughts to himself.
When he had a weak moment, he sent us out of the room. He always made sure he was fully clothed when we visited him at the hospital, so we couldn’t see how much weight he had already lost.
Only once I walked in too quickly. Dad was sitting on the bed with his back to the door. This time, no shirt. I still remember the questions that ran through my mind afterward. Never had I seen a human body that had neither fat nor muscles to protect a shoulder blade anymore. Perhaps on TV, but not in person.
That day, my dad was furious because he didn’t expect me to come in. He wanted to keep up that ideal image of a typical day for as long as possible.
His biggest fear was to sit in a wheelchair staring out a window while drooling onto his own shirt. And to be honest, I’m glad (for him) that he passed away before it came to this, as weird as that may sound. Not because I believe he’s “in a better place now,” I don’t. It’s just comforting to imagine that his “ideal scenario” almost came true.
So, what about that funny side?
Besides all the deadly severe images and thoughts that I will forever associate with his face, he also taught me that you’re supposed to have fun in life.
Picking your own tombstone, I’m guessing, is the equivalent of not having a fun time for most human beings. It’s what cowboys need to do in the movies right before the bad guy aims at them and asks for “any last words.”
Still, here’s how my dad managed to put a twist on choosing — or refusing — a tombstone.
And I hope it gives you the ability to see and appreciate the little nuggets of joy in your own relatives’ or friends’ lives, in case you lost someone, as well.
My dad’s friend Frank was already sick, but you could sort of tell that he had a little more time around here than my dad did. Nevertheless, he considered it essential to plan his own funeral ahead of time, and he believed that everyone should do so, as long as you have the chance.
My old man? — Not so much. He trusted that whatever we’d choose would be fine, as long as we didn’t fight over it.
Imagine two weak men on a graveyard. One is pushing a walking aid while the other never stops chewing cough drops to trick his lungs into believing they’re still working.
They walk past the graves of their classmates and former neighbors — not to actually remember them. Mostly they want “to see what they like and what’s trending.” They walk over the graveyard the same way others walk through the aisles at the supermarket.
My humor may have gotten morbid over those last few years. But just the thought of them badmouthing other people’s tombstones while limping over the graveyard is hilarious to me. Our town is big on gossip, give me a break.
But actually, my description doesn’t sound right. One of the two weak men doesn’t pay as much attention as the other one does. That would be my dad.
His friend goes on and on about the advantages of a grave covered by grass (in Germany, you sometimes get to “choose” what kind of grave you want):
You see that? You see that? What more could I want? That way, Mary doesn’t have much work. No need for planting or watering anything. They just mow over me every couple of weeks and that’s it. And look, there’s a nice oak tree giving some shade. It’s really the nicest corner of the entire graveyard.
Well, that’s great, Frank.
Do you know where you want to be buried?
Nah, that “burying thing” doesn’t sound like it’s for me.
Said it, and walked away with his squeaking walking aid.
While my dad joked about buying Christmas lighting for their graves or burying them up to the hips so they could water the plants themselves, Frank was beside himself.
He didn’t want to convince my father to get a golden casket.
Actually, he simply wanted to tease out some reaction. Anything showing his friend was dealing with the same thoughts and doubts, that he was also scared.
Not that he mentioned that, but you could tell by his account of the events when he came by later that week. — “Can you imagine? He just said nothing and walked away. He has cancer!”
But my dad wouldn’t have it. Not that he was a particularly tough guy — he was, but that’s not the point.
He simply kept most of these thoughts, feelings, and doubts to himself, and he occasionally shared a single concern with my mom, my brother, or me.
But that was never about cancer or his death. If he said something, he was worried we might forget about his hidden savings book or how the heating works (which I did, but that’s a different story).
Even though I wish my dad would have been more open in some moments, I still enjoy the way he approached life and his nearing death.
It made it so much easier for us to talk to him normally, to say goodbye in our own weird way through a slap on the knee.
All his conscious life, he behaved like a living human being. He didn’t ponder how much more likely he was going to die as opposed to others. Neither did he ask everyone over to say his final goodbyes or to give us one last piece of advice.
Two years ago, that drove me insane. Today, I understand it. And I realize the next paragraphs may come off as cheesy from the mouth of a millennial. Still, I’m hoping they give strength to those who have to endure a similar situation.
Making your own death an actual topic doesn’t create an honest environment. You tend to overemphasize, and later on, you feel sorry for it. I had the most cheesy, over-the-top exchanges with my dad when we were both trying to address what was coming next.
You pack the I-love-yous on top of apologies for the most mundane mistakes on planet earth. Even saying nothing could sometimes be more honest than heaping on a forced expression.
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What to make of this
Today, I don’t think back to the unresolved issues with my dad, or to the apology that I forgot when I sat next to his deathbed. I think of the last jokes we cracked, the last time he gave me a nickname or cursed the doctor.
You will always have open business when a loved one passes away. To believe you won’t is either arrogant or naive. Instead, enjoy your future memories while you’re creating them. Breath in every moment that makes you your most individual, unique self in concert with your loved ones. Be strong for them if you have to.
Whatever tools you broke or debt you have, they’ll forgive you. But once you miss out on those memories, they’re gone.
Try to show your loved ones your true inner self. I believe that is the best parting gift they can get, and you’ll see it in their eyes once you did.
Accept the fact that this is not about you, you’re staying right here (for now). This is their journey, and you’re here to support them in whatever way they see fit.
If you do that, I promise that one day, you’ll look back on some beautiful memories instead of a forced discussion about future plans or a scratch in dad’s car.
Be human. Thanks for reading!
Florian Führen is a story coach and novel proofreader. He just finished his first book to get his doctorate in Medieval Studies. After that, he’ll take his first steps into the literary world as an author with a satiric stage play. If he’s not writing or coaching, he’s probably tweeting @FuehrenWriter. Care to brush up your story? Get in touch to work on your next creative project!