On Death and Humor, and White House aide Kelly Sadler joking about John McCain’s Death
Imagine you’re a neanderthal. You’ve yet to develop language, and your other communication skills are pretty primitive. Now imagine you’re hunting in the woods with your Winchester Model 70 Featherweight (they had those back then).
All of a sudden you bump into something and your “fight or flight response” is activated. Should I point my gun at whatever this thing is, or should I run away, yelling at the top of my lungs? It turns out, that the thing you bumped into is, in fact, another neandertal from another part of the city (those were a thing too). You point your gun (because that’s your first reflex) and they other neanderthal points his at you. You can’t speak, but instead of shooting each other you break out into laughter. Because laughter has always been a way to disengage the fight or flight response, and it’s thought to predate language. Laughter calms things down. It’s an actual scientific factoid.
It even calms things down around death and dying, which is why you’ll often hear jokes and laughter at funerals, or in other death situations. It helps calm the mind from fear, grief and other things that cloud our thinking when we’re confronted with the reality of mortality.
A couple months ago we had a death call at a person’s home. We got there and there was tension in the air. One side of the family was in the house with the decedent, while the other side had been forced outside of the house. The family inside had four bodyguards standing at the door in case the outsiders tried to go in and see the deceased one last time.
When I got inside the house, I was asked — because apparently, I look both nice and stupid — if I could go outside and try to calm the outsiders down. I told the family inside the house that I’d do it if they allowed those outside the house to view the deceased as I removed her out to our van.
“Fine,” they said.
I went outside and brokered the deal: you guys outside can view the deceased when I take her out of the house just as long as you don’t try to force yourselves into the house.
“Deal,” they said.
When I came back inside, the family asked me if they agreed to the terms.
I looked the husband in the eye and told him we solidified the deal by drinking a round of Jack Daniels.
It really wasn’t a funny joke. But because our brains crave the calm of a good laugh when things are stressful, the whole room erupted in laughter. The tension broke. Instead of anger, there were tears. And instead of fighting, even a hug.
Is a joke really that powerful?
Yes. Yes, it can be.
And that power can go both ways. A well-timed, well-intentioned joke can, in the right circumstances, can be a force for good.
In other circumstances, it can do the exact opposite. This is the case for Kelly Sadler.
Here’s the low-down if you haven’t been following the news. I should note that her comment has been hedged by calling it an in-the-moment joke:
Kelly Sadler, a communications aide in President Trump’s administration, reportedly said during a meeting Thursday that Sen. John McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel “doesn’t matter” because “he’s dying anyway.”
I started to pay rather close attention to politics around Clinton’s second term. By the time Bush v Gore rolled around, I was hooked on the political soap opera. For about five years I studied political theory in my spare time, browsing through the old stuff from The Federalist Papers to Locke’s work, and even writing about it (essays that I would never, ever share publically). Today, I stay up-to-date on the political world, have my opinions, but generally stay away from the fray.
Politics have been tense for as long as I’ve known them. But they’ve never been tenser (and yes, I looked it up … it’s “tenser” and not “more tense”) than they are right now. It’s. Hot. No two words in America (and maybe even the world) are more divisive than “Donald” and “Trump.” For those who support him and those who don’t, those words have separated friends, families, and neighbors in the real world. There are a lot of thoughts and feelings. In the world of social media, both sides of the political spectrum have objectified the “other side” to the place that we no longer view “them” as people, but as “enemies of the American way.”
I used to think funeral homes held a lot of tension, but there’s clearly another house on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. that holds more. Kelly Sadler works there. She’s staff there. I know what it’s like to work in a tense environment.
Let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with making jokes about mortality. Everyone in my family jokes about their own and each other’s mortality. Even my grandfather — who is likely closest to his end in our family — gives and receives some funny lines about his future.
But, there are two general rules I follow when I make death jokes: intent and proximity.
One. I always mean well when I make a joke in a death context. It might be to break the ice, to calm the bereaved, or to just make someone smile. It doesn’t mean my joke is funny, it doesn’t mean it will be received well, but — for the most part — people know I’m not being mean.
Two. If I’m not relationally close to the deceased or the bereaved, it’s off limits. As a funeral director, I’m invited into the inner circle. I’m given a pass to be myself around the bereaved, which is why this whole job is an honor. So, there are times when I’ll make a joke as a funeral director like I did in the story above. But, if I don’t know the deceased, if I’m not a part of the inner circle, if I’m not close, keep your jokes to yourself. Death is natural, but love makes it sacred. Treat it as such.
I don’t know Kelly Sadler’s intent behind the John McCain joke. She may have meant it as malicious (it certainly sounds malicious), or she may have been attempting to relieve some tension in the room (a very legitimate possibility considering the current political tension). I do know it seems to have been perceived as malicious by the McCain family.
Where she’s wrong is with proximity. She’s not close to John McCain. In fact, her boss is rather estranged (as you may know John doesn’t want Donald at his funeral).
I know she issued an apology to John’s daughter Meghan, but as a public servant, there needs to be a public apology. Because it was made public. Because death and dying transcend political squabbles. Because death and dying are sanctified by love.