I have some people close to me who are sad at the moment, for different reasons, juggling a variety of challenges that life cruelly hurls from time to time. And sometimes the trigger for the sadness may have passed, but the feeling lingers. Like a bad flu you just can’t shake, the gloom sits in your bones. At times, it can seem as though there is an epidemic of sadness around us. This week I read in the press about two different cases of death by suicide: both American, middle aged, successful, wealthy – apparently they had it all, but the laughter had gone. It can touch anyone. We can be quick to blame it on the time of year, on a dearth of light in the winter leading to S.A.D. – that seasonal adjustment disorder. But when it rolls into spring and summer, what then?
When your position is one of friend – not doctor or psychologist – the only thing we can do (and must do) is to be there, hang out, listen, and if you can find something to laugh about – even the very smallest thing – then laugh. “Laugh till you weep. Weep till there’s nothing left but to laugh at your weeping. In the end it’s all one.” These are the words of Frederick Beuchner, an American writer and theologian. It’s a catchy phrase, but when you are in the throes of either laughing or weeping, they don’t feel like ‘all one’. It’s so much easier said than done to. managing weather the storm of weeping and bring oneself to laughter and lightness. After a tragedy, laughter can come with feelings of guilt; knowing that others aren’t there to share your laughter, your celebration. But it can be the best medicine.
I understand the incongruity of laughing at the most tragic and heart-rending time and how important it is bring laughter to sadness at the right moment and with the right people. We are built to hold tears and laughter close together. I watch how children fall, get hurt, and cry as if they are breaking in two, and within the same five minutes they can be up on their feet and laughing. I believe you can clench grief and heartbreak and sadness to you and belly laugh at the same time. Just as I believe that with each belly laugh the clench is loosened and the sadness dissolved just a little.
At my dad’s traditional Irish Catholic wake, the Legion Of Mary came to the house to say the rosary with my family in the room where Dad was laid out. Three local women from the Legion – a group of lay people in the church concerned with prayer and spiritual work – led the family in prayer. The intonation and tempo of the rosary rolled in and out like soft waves breaking on a shore. It was a sombre time. We prayed for twenty minutes and then the women left the room to just us, the family. We were silent apart from some muted tears. Until my youngest brother broke the silence murmuring, “Since when was a legion three?” We all laughed so hard that my mum had to tell us to be quiet for fear the many visitors to the house would hear us. We needed that laugh to melt a little of our sorrow.
For me, the Stephen Sondheim song, ‘Send In The Clowns’is possibly one of the saddest songs of all time. Its slow, reflective and simple melody dips up and down mirroring life’s undulations. The lyrics are filled with regret, yet the words clutch at the ember glow hint of possible hope and happiness, with the refrain ‘send in the clowns’. From the musical, ‘A Little Night Music’, the song is a reflectionon the ironies and disappointments of the character Desirée’s life as she looks back on missed opportunities and lost love: “Isn’t it rich? / Isn’t it queer? / Losing my timing this late in my career / But where are the clowns? / There ought to be clowns / Well, maybe next year.” It’s all falling apart, send in the clowns, cry until you laugh, it’ll be better next year.