It’s no secret that many of us engage in, and possibly rely on, dark humor to get through tough days. I find myself frequently reassuring responders that there’s nothing wrong with the black, sick jokes, as long as we keep them among ourselves.
A few years ago I got a taste of how they feel to the public when I arrived at an accident that a close friend was directly involved in. My friend was feeling responsible for serious injuries to the victim. I identified myself as a critical incident responder and asked a police officer how the victim was doing. He gave me a very grim look, twirled his finger and said, “Circling the drain.” He waited a beat for my reaction, then smiled and said, “Just kidding. He seemed to be okay when they transported him.” For a moment, my heart had sunk, wondering if the victim was going to die (he didn’t, but his injuries were critical). When I realized the cop was joking, I felt a moment of anger, but reminded myself that dark humor is a coping mechanism. I doubt most ordinary people would feel anything but angry at the apparent insensitivity. Go ahead and make the sick jokes, but don’t laugh out loud on the scene of a tragedy – even if all you are doing is directing traffic.
Here are a few good pages about the psychology of dark humor.
It’s Good to be Bad: The Psychological Benefit of Dark Humor – Contains really sick jokes, if that’s what you are after.
Humor as Weapon, Shield and Psychological Salve – Includes discussion of the Nazis’ fear of humor. Possibly quite timely in the current U.S. political season.
Awfully Funny – A deeper dive, with research references.