Now Or Never·First Person

After my mom died, I found the comedy in the tragedy

To take the stigma out of grief, comedian Shohana Sharmin used sketch comedy as a tool to show her audiences — and herself — how to find light and laughter in the aftermath of loss.

As a comedian, I felt a little less alone every time I made someone laugh

A smiling younger woman leans close to an older woman with a big smile. They are both dressed in traditional Bangladeshi clothing.
Since her mother, Hasina, died in 2017, Shohana Sharmin, left, has poured her grief into her stand-up comedy. (Rakib Haque Photography)

This First Person column is the experience of Shohana Sharmin, a Bangladeshi Canadian comedian. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

To take the stigma out of grief, comedian Shohana Sharmin used sketch comedy as a tool to show her audiences — and herself — how to find light and laughter in the aftermath of loss.

Six years ago, my mother passed away. She battled lung cancer for eight long months, but in the end, her body could no longer keep up. One afternoon, she quietly slid into a coma. 

Our family spent an excruciating week at the hospital watching her slip in and out of consciousness, growing weaker and more disoriented each time she woke up, less and less like the woman we knew her to be. 

Eventually, it was time to let her go. The doctors took her off life support, and she died peacefully in her sleep. She was 59. I was 27. 

Grief is the loneliest feeling in the world. It is devastating and isolating, and it made me feel like an alien who couldn't connect with other human beings.

In the aftermath of my mother's death, I found an unexpected community: my fellow comedians who had also experienced loss. 

My friend Jackie and I once spent nearly two hours standing in a corner at a comedy party swapping "parent ravaged by cancer" stories as we hugged, laughed, cried, and then laughed again. 

We looked absolutely unhinged and it was absolutely glorious. Staying up into the wee hours of the morning, snort laughing about someone farting during a eulogy - that's a rare, special kind of bond.

It was love at first cry, and it is the connection I found with these people that kept me going.

A woman in a sari looks at the baby that she is holding.
Growing up, Sharmin says she butted heads with her mother, Hasina, but there was also a deep love. (Submitted by Shohana Sharmin)

Throughout my grieving journey, I've been surprised by the peculiar ways in which we as a society deal with loss. If I had a dime for every time someone told me, "Time heals all wounds," I'd be on a yacht right now.

The first time I had a funny feeling about grief was at a mall. 

A few days after my mom's death, my sister-in-law and I were picking up a few things for a trip home to Bangladesh for my mother's burial service. Being bombarded by club music at a H&M store in Toronto a mere 72 hours after seeing my mom take her last breath was a surreal experience. 

I saw a woman trying to get her out-of-control son to stop running around, and suddenly felt a surge of rage unlike any other. 

I wanted to shake this kid and yell, "How dare you, you little monster? Why do you get to keep your mom but mine has to die?" 

After a few seconds, I realized I was angry at a child because I was jealous he had a mom. 

At that moment, I had to laugh. Navigating grief in a society that teaches us to hide our sadness taught me that the aftermath of tragedy is comedy.

You see, humour is a connection. There's a reason every clichéd dating profile lists "sense of humour" as one of the top qualities in a partner. When you laugh at something together, you are in a Venn diagram with that person sharing that moment, and all is right in the world. 

Growing up as an extreme introvert, the only way I found of breaking through my shyness was through self-deprecating humour. Every time I made someone laugh, I felt a little less alone, because I was sharing my Venn diagram with someone. Humour allowed me to connect with people. 

As the years passed, my grief evolved and is still evolving, but I kept thinking about this idea of the isolation of grief and the connection in humour. 

A woman sits on a stage dressed in white with a big smile on her face. An out of focus man looks at her.
Sharmin, left, on stage in 2019 performing Dead Parents Society, a sketch comedy revue. (Dahlia Katz)

In 2019, I decided to take this idea of grief and connection and create a dark sketch comedy revue called Dead Parents Society.

My goal was to take the stigma out of grief, and show that we can find light and laughter in the aftermath of loss. 

Grief is universal and connects us to the most basic truth about our common humanity: everyone you know has lost a loved one at some point in their life. So why don't we talk about death outside of hospitals or funerals or therapy? Why have we marked these designated spaces to unpack our loss in hushed tones? 

As comedians, I feel it is our responsibility and privilege to shine light on all parts of the human experience, and make art that reflects the truth of the human condition. We as a society should be able to openly talk about death and dying, without lowering our voices so that we don't make others uncomfortable. We should be able to discuss death with our children, whether for a beloved pet who's going away to a farm, or even our own mortality. We should embrace the fact that we are only here for a short time, and accept our highs and lows without judgment. We should break the silence and isolation that surrounds grief. 

Five actors perform on stage, including two women wearing fake moustaches and oversized blazers.
Sharmin, second from the left, found community among other comedians who had also lost loved ones. (Dahlia Katz)

Writing comedy about grief is not an attempt to make light of death. I want to honour and find humour in all parts of human mortality — the parts that we're comfortable with and the parts that we can learn to get better at. My hope is that we can all walk around feeling a little less awkward about dealing with grief.

Shohana Sharmin is a Bangladeshi-born comedian, writer and theatre artist. She is the creator and a cast member of Dead Parents Society, a critically acclaimed award-winning dark sketch comedy revue. She wishes she could be more like her mother.

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