I’ve found that the humor exhibited by University of Michigan students is usually pretty dark. If, back in high school, I had joked about wanting to get hit by a car, my friends probably would have stared at me in horror and told a guidance counselor that I needed help. But here in Ann Arbor, the same joke will most likely be met by a chorus of “same,” “me too” or even, “Hey, college is expensive — go get that insurance money.”
Joking about death has become pretty commonplace on campus, and a way for a lot of students to express their frustration over never getting any sleep and always being under an intense amount of stress. And though I love dark humor — I’ve been known to casually joke about waiting for the sweet embrace of death — I also have conflicted feelings toward how University students casually talk about wanting to die.
For people who have actually experienced a friend or family member dying or who have had thoughts of suicide, these types of jokes can be perceived as insensitive, careless or even triggering. I know that after my father passed away, I had a hard time finding any jokes about death to be anything less than insulting, even if they were not at my or my family’s expense. I once broke into tears after a friend joked about wanting to die after they turned 30 so that they wouldn’t have to get old. Others may feel differently, but I know that for a while after experiencing a death in the family, hearing jokes about wanting to die made me uncomfortable and upset.
But I have to be honest — dark humor and making jokes about death can be a really good coping mechanism. With all the stress that we are under here at college, sometimes just being able to laugh with a friend about our mutual desire to no longer exist in this dimension can help make a long night of studying just a little more tolerable. I have yet to meet a fellow student who is sleeping enough or who feels content with their lives and because of this, it’s easy to understand why the atmosphere around campus would get a little grim.
Making wholesome and pure jokes when you’re running on two hours of sleep just isn’t going to cut it. Even I have found myself making jokes that a few years ago would have insulted me. College really puts a person through a lot mentally and emotionally, and dark jokes and humor are sometimes what a person needs to make it through.
This sensitive issue can sometimes be portrayed as black and white — people who make jokes about death should be more sensitive and stop, or, on the other side, people who are sensitive to jokes about death should just have a sense of humor. I believe that, concerning matters of death, a black and white approach will only create more tension and won’t allow for a nuanced discussion.
It’s true that making these kinds of jokes can lead to hurt emotions and misunderstanding for some, but I also believe that people should be allowed to cope with trauma in whatever way they feel is best. If that means making a few death jokes, I’m really not going to complain, as I’m going through the same stress and experiencing the same feelings of inadequacy as every other student on this campus.
Still, I believe that everyone should remain sensitive to the challenges that others may be going through, and I also think that some part of me will always find jokes about death distasteful. But what is also distasteful is a school system that prides itself in running students into the ground and creating a general atmosphere of stress. I believe that we should also remain sensitive to the students forced to deal with the distress that this University has put them through, and the unhealthy coping mechanisms that arise.
Students who normalize death should be villainized — in my opinion, it’s one of the healthier unhealthy coping mechanisms. I hope that students can begin to see how their jokes surrounding death and suicide can be hurtful and dismissive to some. But, I would also like to see a school system that actually tries to help students learn, and not just put them through mental and emotional stress in the name of competition.
Elena Hubbell can be reached at email@example.com.