Dear Sean

He finally broke the silence by telling a joke. It was a joke about a priest, the Pope, and a Labrador. It seemed like the wrong time to tell a joke. Still, I forced out a phony laugh for his benefit.

DEAR SEAN:

My stepson lost his father when he was ten. It’s a long story, and a traumatic one involving suicide. And he’s been coping with it okay, I guess. But the thing is, he makes a joke out of everything, it’s hard to get him to take anything serious.

And the other thing is, I don’t know if I should encourage him to keep acting funny or not. I know he’s hurting inside. I want him to feel like he can talk to me if he needs to, but I can’t get through to him when everything is a big joke.

Sincerely,
CONFUSED IN NASHVILLE

DEAR CONFUSED:

I was twelve the first time someone said I was funny. My father had taken his life only a few months before someone told me that.

I’ll never forget the day someone used those words. I was telling one of my all-time best stories to a group of friends—a tale about wetting my pants in the third grade. It’s a real crowd pleaser.

After my story, Lynn—a girl who the seventh-grade boys considered to be hotter than an oven mitt—told me I was “SO funny.” I almost passed out.

Her words stuck with me for a long time. In fact, you could say they’re still with me.

As it happens, my father had been a funny man before he died. He had a horrible childhood. To cope with this, he became a class clown, a prankster, and a joke-teller.

He was lightning with a joke. He memorized thousands. He could tell stories that made people laugh until they dehydrated. He was the life of parties, jovial, giddy, wild, irreverent, and funny.

But he was none of those things in private.

At home, often he was quiet and sad. Sometimes, he would curl into a ball and cry like a ten-year-old.

Once, I found him in the corner of the garage, seated on the floor, cross-legged. He was staring at nothing.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

He only looked at me. He said no words, he only wore that awful look.

I crawled into his lap.

He finally broke the silence by telling a joke. It was a joke about a priest, the Pope, and a Labrador. It seemed like the wrong time to tell a joke. Still, I forced out a phony laugh for his benefit.

He wore a smile. He said, “I like to hear you laugh.”

He told another joke, about Mister Mushroom, who tries to get into a nightclub.

The mushroom knocks on the door and the bouncer says, “Sorry, no boring mushrooms allowed.”

The mushroom says, “Hey, I’m not boring! Look at me, I’m a fungi!”

I pretended to laugh again.

His jokes kept coming. And even though we were together, my father seemed a million miles away. He could be three different people all at once. Sometimes he was Daddy; other times he was someone I’ve never met.

My laughing eventually got to him. He began to chuckle. Then our laughter was out of control. His face turned so red, it looked like he couldn’t breathe. Tears formed in his eyes. He cried openly. And I’ve never seen a man hurt like he hurt, nor laugh like he laughed.

When he died, it was like someone had cut off our family’s face. That same year, I suppose I learned how to be funny.

I memorized a million jokes. I told funny stories to my friends. And I learned something my father had known long before I came along—laughter makes a sad person forget ugly things for a few minutes.

And to this day, when I hear other people laugh it does something to me. It gives me permission to laugh. And I need to laugh. It’s medicine to me.

Then again, you’re talking to a fool who makes his meager living standing on a stage, telling funny stories, or writing things intended to make people laugh. Some of my stories are funnier than others. Some flat-out suck. A few come to mind.

But I’m lucky. Because I’m not sad anymore, and in my line of work—if you can call it “work”—this means I get to meet people like you.

So I’m sorry I don’t have any advice. I wish I did, but you can probably sense by now that I don’t know much. Even so, if I DID have advice, I would tell you this:

Learn as many good jokes as you can. Tell them often. Then learn a few more.

Make that sweet child laugh until his gut hurts.

He needs it.

24 comments

  1. Sue Cronkite - August 18, 2018 7:08 am

    Wisdom in a nutshell. Let me tell you a joke……

    Reply
  2. Nancy - August 18, 2018 12:09 pm

    Love to laugh, love your blog, love that you care! Love you!

    Reply
  3. Maria - August 18, 2018 12:22 pm

    I won’t disagree since humor does have the power to heal. I would add the suggestion that you find a good therapist where he can express himself, his fears, anger, frustrations so he’s not just packing it all down and ignoring all that built-up hurt. And keep loving him!

    Reply
  4. Naomi - August 18, 2018 12:41 pm

    Dear Sean, no one really understands depression unless they experience it themselves. They tell you things like, “What do you have to be depressed about; you have everything anyone could ask for”? I spent my entire high school years trying to keep my mother from committing suicide, something,, as a young girl I didn’t know how to deal with. My grandparents put her on the psychiatric floor of the hospital where she tried to strangle herself with her bathrobe belt. She had several shock treatments. She was a miserably unhappy person but she also liked to tell jokes. Her sister and her brother committed suicide. Her brother had a family that loved him and a multi-million-dollar business, everything anyone would want. My brother, who has all the trappings of the world, suffers from depression. I also have bouts of depression but I know what the triggers are–usually things going on with my children (health problems, getting hurt and being in pain), things that I can’t control and things that I can’t fix. I was divorced in 1973 because my husband thought that I wasn’t good enough for him (leaving me with a 10 year-old and a 7 year-old and no child support). He died of cancer when he was 51. We also reach a point in our life when we have to deal with our own mortality. I had polio when I was a child which has caught up with me in my 70s; I had colon cancer in 2014, and just recently found out that I have arthritis in my spine. Although I grew up in Orthodox Judaism, I got saved in 1980. People say they have never been depressed are lying. I don’t think anyone can get through this life unscathed.

    Reply
  5. Jack Darnell - August 18, 2018 12:53 pm

    Life’s answers? Too many questions. Good entry my friend.

    Reply
  6. Pecos Kate - August 18, 2018 1:08 pm

    Indeed, laughter is good medicine.

    Reply
  7. Susan Swiderski - August 18, 2018 1:13 pm

    Laughing on the outside helps us deal with the darkness that threatens from within. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. This is a heartbreakingly poignant post, Sean.

    Reply
  8. Barbara Wilson - August 18, 2018 2:22 pm

    My son died 24 years ago, he was 18. He was full of wit, could bring me out of a blue mood in a heartbeat. After he died, I didn’t laugh for years, even felt guilty if I even thought about laughing. Then, it dawned on me that he would want me to laugh, to move on with life. They say laughter is the best medicine and it’s true. Whether laughing makes you feel good or brings tears, it’s a form of healing. Eventually, the healing is done and your laughter is real, you can feel normal again, and you learn to live with the grief. Love your stories, love the way you care about others. You’re doing a great service to everyone you come in contact with. Keep it up!

    Reply
  9. Edna B. - August 18, 2018 2:25 pm

    Reminds of that old song “laughing on the outside, crying on the inside,”…….I hope the kid gets some help. I love your stories, Sean. You have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  10. Carol - August 18, 2018 2:26 pm

    Thank you for your stories. Even the ones that make me cry!!
    Give that child love, laughter and above all your time!
    Things look worse and hurt more when you’re alone!!
    Love ya!!

    Reply
  11. Anita Dewberry Ryan - August 18, 2018 2:53 pm

    “Laughter makes a sad person forget ugly things for a few minutes.” That sentence really touched me when I read this article. Your articles don’t usually make me laugh, but they do always touch me in a way that gives me hope! Love your articles! Be blessed!

    Reply
  12. Betty Foster - August 18, 2018 3:49 pm

    Sigh… Beautiful

    Reply
  13. Debbie Phillips Hughett - August 18, 2018 4:02 pm

    My parents divorced when I was 12. My father passed a year later. Construction accident.

    Reply
  14. Pamela McEachern - August 18, 2018 5:28 pm

    Best ever!

    Peace and Love from Birmingham

    Reply
  15. Minnie Bourque - August 18, 2018 8:09 pm

    Such wonderful, warm, precious advice. I hope this child’s Mother follows it. It will help heal her, too.
    Thank you, Sean, for your wisdom!
    Minnie

    Reply
  16. oldlibrariansshelf - August 18, 2018 8:35 pm

    My granddaughter lost her mother to an accidental drug overdose. The mother had already lost custody because of her drug use so her daughter never got to know her. I fear there are many more children her age who are losing parents to drugs. I thank you, Sean, for your words of wisdom. It is tough on a child to lose a parent. I’m glad you managed to become a writer so that you could share your experience with many who need to hear it. Survivor. Writer. Sean of the South.

    Reply
  17. Judy - August 18, 2018 11:40 pm

    Ah! But you did give her advice…and very good advice….”…laughter makes a sad person forget ugly things for a few minutes” … “Make that sweet child laugh until his gut hurts. He needs it.” And you speak from so similar an experience that makes it even more valuable.

    Please don’t stop sharing your stories because we all need more to laugh and smile about. Laughter is great medicine.

    Reply
  18. Jack Quanstrum - August 19, 2018 2:27 am

    Just love your story. There are answers to complex things, but laughter is the great equalizer!

    Reply
  19. Jack Quanstrum - August 19, 2018 2:38 am

    Meant to write, there are no answers to complex things. Laughter is the great equalizer!

    Reply
  20. Barbara - August 20, 2018 8:07 pm

    You’re Awesome!! Love your stories!! Always !!!

    Reply
  21. BJ - August 21, 2018 12:33 am

    My husband’s father left this Earth by his own hand the day before my husband’s 19th birthday – like he was giving him a present.
    He was a very intelligent, charming, and funny man. I was dating my husband and once, his father made me laugh uncontrollably when he told his stories.
    But it wasn’t enough to save him.
    He left behind five children, from nineteen to ten.His wife had died three years before. All have grown up to be wonderful people, perhaps, in part, because he left them and the four younger were raised by their aunt.
    Your writing about your father is a balm to those who have lost their fathers.
    God bless you.

    Reply
  22. Janet Mary Lee - August 28, 2018 6:42 pm

    You are wise! And lovable! And caring! Keep it up!

    Reply
  23. Diane Rinaldi - October 14, 2018 1:24 pm

    I love your stories because they’re all experiences of real people. You help us to see with your insight and inspire us to be compassionate and kind. You’re a good man, Sean of the South. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us!

    Reply
  24. Robin Mitchell - October 16, 2018 9:34 pm

    Dear Sean,

    Thank you. My own father went for a loaf of bread when I was 6. I never saw him again. Does something to a little girl. Found out that he married a 16 year old in Florida, with 2 kids a year later. He raised them as his own. Never heard a word on my birthday or Christmas. In 1999 I found out he died of Lou Gehrigs and that he had abused the other children. I flew to his grave in Blacksburg Va, and with my hand I tore up his grave. The “wife” told me she knew about me all along. Despictable.
    But I went on to raise my own children with love. I’m 62 now, and it still hurts. I thank you for your stories of hope and love. I really do. Makes me feel so not alone. You are making a difference.

    Reply

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