Rebecca Kennedy: Laughing When You Could Cry

I can’t cry. I don’t know why, I just can’t.

I can – of course – produce a few solemn tears when the mood strikes me, but that’s not the type of crying I’ve always coveted. The type of crying that I’ve always admired is the full scale, Dynasty-style, bursting into tears. I have a friend called Sarah whose ability to wail and lament at the slightest hint of melancholy leaves me seething with jealousy. I look at her wide watery eyes and quivering lip and think:

“What a fantastic display of emotion. I wish I could do that.”

I have tried in the past to have a good cry, but my tear ducts run barren just as I’m beginning to tackle whatever is haunting me. It’s not too long until I find myself searching YouTube for Sarah McLachlan songs, hoping to get my sad boner erect again. I guess I just don’t have the attention span or the water reserves for real, no-fucking-around tear shedding.

I once visited Sarah after one of her marathon cries. She was little puffy-eyed, but mostly she looked satisfied, relaxed and calm.  There was almost a post-orgasmic tranquillity in her demeanour. I was green with envy.

Sarah says that crying is good for you, it’s therapeutic. She tells me that she sleeps like a baby after she’s had herself a good, long cry. It’s the best release in the world; you can just grab a box of tissues and let it all pour out. But I can’t cry. And when you can’t, you learn the true value of crying.

Crying lets the world know that you feel. When the world knows that you feel, it knows that you’re not made of stone. Crying can effectively declare your sympathy. You don’t end up like me – hiding in the bathrooms at a funeral and poking yourself in the eye, trying to get a little teary, so your extended family doesn’t think you’re a sociopath who goes untroubled by loss and untouched by grief.

Crying can communicate a variety of emotions: sorrow, frustration, anger, happiness and empathy. It seems that crying effectively tells others that we have reached the pinnacle of our emotional capabilities. Crying tells our boss that our workload is too much or tells a careless friend that the banter has gone too far. Deadlines may suddenly be extended. Apologies can be made.

There seems to be nothing more fearsome then someone brave enough to profess their emotions and nothing more shameful than having been the catalyst for said tears. We cower around these salty cheeked heroes, producing Kleenexes from nowhere and saying the customary, “You’re alright, you’re alright.”  I think that we respect crying on a primal, ancient level. It’s as if our ancestors wept over their inability to capture the essence of prehistoric life in cave paintings, while the rest of the cavemen grunted solace their way. And so it became ingrained in our being.

We know that crying is good for you. We know that you’re just getting it all out. Life is hard, emotions are complex, have yourself a good cry.

But I can’t cry. So what do I do when I find myself stifled by my own emotions?

I find another release.

I laugh. I laugh hard. I laugh until I have to consciously try and stop myself so my lungs can fill with air again. I laugh until my nose streams snot and my face turns an unsavoury shade of purple. I laugh until my friends laugh, not because what I’m laughing at is particularly funny but because they can’t believe I’m still laughing at it, twenty minutes later.

Call it gallows humour. Call it a coping mechanism or emotional constipation, but this brand of humour works for me. Laughing when you could cry is a powerful tool. Tears release a natural painkiller, but laughter produces endorphins, our very own ‘I just wanna dance, where’s-the-shots-at?’ hormone.

And given the current state of affairs across the world, I think we could all use a wee endorphin boost. My generation certainly could. The Irish Millennials were stuck in school during the Celtic tiger years. There were no holiday homes in Bulgaria for us. Then we found ourselves exiting university and attempting to start our careers during the chaotic throes of a full blown recession. Our friends are fleeing the country like it’s going up in flames and the media seems to believe that we are narcissistic, selfie- snapping, self-deluded little sponges who don’t give a toss that our prospects have been decimated. Such is the misery of our plight that even Pope Francis has been heard uttering vaguely inspirational speeches to existentially sad millennials. (Er… thanks?)

The last time I exercised my ability to laugh at dire circumstances was after a job interview in (technically) post-recession Ireland. I won’t bore you with the specifics, but I will list some of the questions I was asked by my interviewer:

“Do you know how to send emails?”

“Do you know how to operate the Facebook?”

“Are you on the tweaker?” (I presume she meant Twitter.)

I left that interview crestfallen and disillusioned. All the hope I held for my future seeped out of me and pooled around my feet at the bus stop. I spent the rest of the evening curled up in a ball and hissing at my partner when he had the cheek to suggest that I might be acting a bit dramatic.

It wasn’t until that night when I had a Skype date with my dear friend and ex-housemate, Monty that I finally laughed.

“I’m not complaining,” I complained. “I know the world doesn’t owe me anything. I would just like to leave these interviews with SOME aspect of my dignity intact.”

“Dignity, huh?” Monty said, “Is this a new development? I don’t remember you having a lot of that when we lived together.”

“You can be a spiteful woman, Monty.”

“So, write a hateful status about me on the Facebook.”

And, with that, we howled laughing. I purged all the disappointment, frustration and hopelessness. I emerged from my Skype date a rejuvenated woman.

Incidentally, I didn’t get the job. It went to someone with more I.T. experience; perhaps he was more familiar with “the Tweaker” than me.


The late comedian Robin Williams once said, “Comedy can be a cathartic way to deal with personal trauma.” I remember the first time that I ever realised what death was. When I was eighteen, my auntie died. I was standing in the viewing room gawking at her waxy corpse. She didn’t look like she was sleeping. She didn’t look like she was at peace. She looked like she was dead. She was alive yesterday, now she wasn’t, full stop. No second chances, no last conversation, no goodbyes. Dead.

I stood beside her coffin, unsure what to do, how to process any of this when my uncle piped up and said, “You’d want to put some make-up on, girly. Your auntie is a better colour then you are.”

Now, when my family and I discuss my Auntie’s death, that’s the incident we focus on. It’s a story that I’ve told a thousand times. When I tell that anecdote, my family laughs.

We don’t talk about how unfair her death was. We don’t think about the how the weight of a loved one’s coffin rests on your shoulders long after you commit them to the ground. The punchline that keeps us shielded from sorrow.

These truths are hard and perhaps that joke wasn’t all that funny, but maybe we just needed to laugh. I believe that the instinct to giggle at a funeral is tremendously misunderstood. We don’t laugh to be disrespectful. I think we use laughter to remind ourselves that we are still here. Death may have claimed one of us but we are still alive. And what better way to celebrate that then with laughter, the very language of the soul?


A relative of mine is a paramedic. I go to him with the questions that I am afraid to Google in fear that the screen will display a message that reads:

                                     You are banned from using our search engine.

                                                     You are clearly disturbed.

I once asked him how people react when they know they’re about to die. He thought about it for a moment and said, “They laugh.”

He said that this peculiar reaction often leaves him baffled. He doesn’t know what causes it. It could be a mixture of shock and the cocktail of drugs they administer in the ambulance.  Perhaps it’s only fair. We enter this world as fleshly, screaming balls of hot tears. It seems only right that we should leave at the opposite end of the spectrum, laughing until our hearts literally stop beating. 

Humour in whatever way we wield it has power. Its beauty lays in its transformative quality. It can shed some light on an otherwise bleak situation, bond us to one another and elevate us above the unextraordinary. Laughter may not have the capability to create change but it can alter the way we feel about our circumstances. For me, humour is more than just a state of mind; it is the lens in which I see the world, reminding me that life’s strife is only equal to its absurdity.

Rebecca Kennedy is a fanatical reader, writer, doodler and feminist. Her newest short story will be published in the forthcoming 40th issue of Crannóg magazine.

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