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gallows humor empower abuse survivors through humor

I know that it might sound strange, but sometimes gallows humor can empower abuse survivors and others to manage the stress of a seemingly hopeless situation.

I know that it has been helpful in my own life. But it is not a tool that everyone is comfortable using.

What do I mean by gallows humor? You probably have a mental picture that comes to mind—something that is deadly serious and awkwardly funny at the same time. 

The term was coined to describe a condemned person’s final statements before being executed, which often contained witty remarks directed at themselves, a family member, or a government official. 

(You can insert your joke here about the killer crowd who were present. Go on. You know you want to.) 

Why would a condemned individual make light of their impending exit? 

Maybe it was a way to deal with overwhelming anxiety or express their unique perspective and wisdom to a captive audience. Or perhaps, they just wanted to get the last word in? 

Today, we can observe examples of grim humor in many high-stress trauma-related fields, such as the military or medical professions.

My scholarly friends contend that gallows humor attempts to treat serious, frightening, or painful life experiences from the victim’s perspective. At the same time, I was hoping to receive an empathetic response and laughter from the audience.

(Imagine Bob Newhart reading the previous sentence, and it will be much funnier. Or get a helium balloon and try reading it yourself.)

How does gallows humor help me, and how can it empower abuse survivors? Can it work for others who are facing a hopeless situation? 

Gallows Humor can empower abuse survivors. Unfortunately, some people will not see the humor in the darkness.

Gallows humor is a coping mechanism for me to address a seemingly hopeless situation and the stress that came with it.

I’ve written about my encounter with a potential predator while looking for a support group in other places. Unfortunately, I left that meeting in shame and determined to remain silent about the experience. Then, one day, I cracked a joke with a friend about the incident.

Once I laughed at the absurdity of the situation, I couldn’t stop, and the sick jokes kept coming. I gained a new perspective about the incident, and I rediscovered a voice that I had forgotten—my own.

Truthfully, not everyone appreciated my grim sense of humor. But fortunately, I quickly identified several individuals who became the loving and supportive community I desperately needed. 

So, how does this help you or anyone who is facing their own seemingly hopeless situation?

Gallows humor can be a defense mechanism or a coping mechanism against hopelessness and empower abuse survivors.

Of course, depending on the day of the week, it might be a defensive or coping mechanism or both.

Truthfully, I don’t care how you classify it. The question is whether it can be effective in helping you process your own unique, seemingly hopeless situation. 

It is difficult to tell when a situation is truly hopeless. But, so often, we cannot separate our perception of the event and reality. And we will sit immobilized by our indecision unless something happens to shake us out of our reverie. 

Anything that allows you to act positively and regain forward momentum is a win in my book. Unless, of course, it involves a car with no brakes.

Sick humor can empower abuse survivors and others to break their silence, regain control of our life narratives, and express a new perspective on the incident. 

When faced with trauma, abuse, or a hopeless situation, our instinct is to grow silent and hide in shame. 

We fear that others will not believe us or diminish the suffering we have experienced. 

So we sneak in an off-the-cuff remark and test the waters. And then we do it again. 

Speaking up allows us to address our worst fears head-on and regain control of the narrative of our lives. 

Speaking of narratives, I hope that Will Ferrell will be free to play me when my life story is ready for the silver screen. He has the gravitas to pull it off. 

As we speak up, we gain a new perspective on the experience. It is a perspective that the world needs to hear and one that we need to express.  

Grim Humor can empower abuse survivors by fostering a sense of community.

For those who get the joke, it creates a place of safety. There is strength based on shared beliefs and experiences. We can find empathy, respect, and security in this supportive community.

Together we can find strength and encouragement to be defiant in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation. 

A Word Of Caution: Gallows Humor Is Not For Everyone.

There are times when it is inappropriate. How do we know the difference? 

Maybe you went too far. Or you didn’t know the other person. But, unfortunately, you rarely know you crossed that line until it’s too late.

There is an adage that comedians reference when another comedian goes too far; they will say they failed to read the room. 

A word of advice? Learn to read the room. Pick your friends with care and explore your limits. If that doesn’t work, pick your nose. ee, I’m reading the room right now and edited that last comment out. It went too far.

We would be wise to consider the audience whenever we share our darkness

If you listen to someone expressing grim humor, be patient and know that sometimes their laughter may precede tears, a season of depression, or an angry outburst. And this may be in the same conversation.


Would you consider sharing this article with someone struggling through a difficult time? Maybe this column and a little gallows humor are what they need.

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My mission is to help individuals and churches become safe havens for the broken.

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