Gallows Humor

By Dan Limmer

Gallows humor is defined as grim and ironic humor in a desperate or hopeless situation. In EMS we certainly see these situations—and we are no stranger to gallows humor.

I’m developing a presentation called “When the Grim Reaper Wins: An EMS Provider’s Guide to Death with Dignity. It certainly isn’t a pick-me-up presentation, but I believe it is necessary. As individuals and health care systems begin to look at death differently, so does EMS.

The presentation covers several topics including death notification (more necessary now that we call codes on-scene), the stages of death and dying (which are more than bullet points and EMT exam question fodder) as well as the stress that can accompany scenes involving death.

This is where gallows humor comes in. I’ve been researching resiliency and how EMS responds to tragic situations.

A lot of people believe that gallows humor is a mechanism for dealing with stress in difficult situations—and in some ways, it is. But I believe the ability to share that humor is what helps us cope, while also garnering support with a group of like-minded individuals at a difficult time.   Especially when it’s shared with that tight-knit group in which we don’t fear reproach.

Jokes told alone just aren’t that funny.

Literature frequently mentions this concept of social support. In both maintaining wellness and preventing PTSD, the concept of belonging is solid and necessary.

“Patients who experienced a traumatic incident but reported less stress in the aftermath had a few things in common. The first was social support. The belief that a person is being cared for, that they are not alone, and that they are part of a team or system has significant benefit in reduction of post-traumatic stress.”

I see posts every day imploring people to reach out for help if they feel depressed or suicidal. Let’s plan ahead. Go deeper. Be proactive and value seemingly simple everyday interactions that create the foundation for inclusion, social support, and long-term mental health.

Every day, we have the chance to be there for one another. Not just in times of crisis. The gallows humor may be the frosting but community in EMS is the cake.