I went to visit my family recently after two months away from them—the longest amount of time I’ve spent away from them to date. I was feeling lonely in the city, with just a couple friends, an imaginary cat, and endless varieties of tea. I knew it was time to go home. Past time. And that all I needed was a hug from my mom, my brother, my sister. I needed to hear them laugh. To watch corn fields flash past the window. I spent less than twenty-four hours with them, and it was the happiest almost day I’ve had in a long time. But when everybody had gone to sleep and I was still up doing my homework, I sat on the living room floor and just cried for a good twenty minutes. They weren’t tears of happiness or loneliness. I think I just needed a good cry.
In Chicago, where I have to be alone and be an adult and show everybody how strong I am emotionally and mentally and physically, I hold everything in. I cry less, because crying doesn’t feel like strength. I laugh less, because when something hysterical happens and I turn to tell a friend about it, there’s only a stranger on the bus.
If the stranger is fortunate enough to witness the same event, though, we share a moment. We share laughter. We share a piece of life. Laughter brings people together in a shared experience.
On that trip home, I visited my great-grandma in the hospital. In the seriousness of what was going on—the fact that I was making a brief visit home just to make sure I’d get to see her one last time—I was expecting a quiet visit, soft voices and soft touches, the sort of thing that happens in movies. But my great-grandma, great as she is, spent the time of my visit telling us all, half-jokingly, about how she doesn’t want to sit and talk with people. She wants to sit and be silent.
She did most of the talking.
An article by Psychology Today points to evidence that laughter can make mental stress less debilitating. It allows blood vessels to relax and has an effect on the body that is similar to the benefits of aerobic exercise. Laughter replaces more negative emotions in a way that is almost medicinal. According to the British Medical Journal, laughter also has some ability to increase pain thresholds.
I think that, especially when you’re facing the fact that someone you love is on the verge of no longer being with you, the emotional boundaries are fragile. You can burst into tears at any second. But you can also burst into fits of laughter, so loud and pure that it heals the broken pieces inside of you. Maybe tears are the breaking that has to come before the healing laughs.
That’s why when somebody tells a good joke at a funeral, you laugh even with tears streaked across your face, when you feel like you shouldn’t be laughing so you laugh harder. When it’s over, for a moment, everything is okay.