Blog Alumni, Faculty

Dr. Melissa Mork: Navigating Grief with Humor

By Linda LaFrombois on Tuesday, July 9, 2019


Melissa Mork was standing at the podium in her Nazareth Hall classroom on a mid-April day in 2017. She was about to begin teaching her Principles of Counseling class about crisis intervention when her phone rang. It was her husband, Scott.

She stepped out into the hallway to take the call. The words Scott spoke would forever change her life: “Don’t panic. The doctors found a lump.”


Scott was the healthiest man she knew. Sturdy is the word Melissa uses. They had recently celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary when Scott noticed some pain in his back. It was enough to be an inconvenience but nothing that really concerned them. Perhaps Scott pulled something in his back at his job or while volunteering with rescued horses at Courage Kenny, a therapeutic riding program for children with disabilities.

But the pain continued to grow worse. And while doctors were somewhat dismissive, a chiropractor took an X-ray to see what they might find. The X-ray revealed a quarter-sized tumor in Scott’s lung.

Four-and-a-half months later, Scott passed away.

“The most significant event of my entire life has been the death of my husband—and parenting two teenagers through that grief process,” Melissa says. “But the Lord has equipped me systematically throughout my life in preparation for that event and for what came after.”

New Course to Help Those Experiencing Grief

Beginning Monday, July 15, 2019, Melissa will teach a free six-week, online course sponsored by 98.5 KTIS and the University of Northwestern called “Navigating Grief with Humor.” The course, which is open to the public, includes an option for students who enroll at Northwestern in the next year to take an exam for only $25 to earn two psychology credits.

The curriculum, as well as a recently released book also titled Navigating Grief with Humor, was created by Melissa, a longtime grief counselor and professor of psychology at Northwestern.

“My goal is to help those who are going through a grief process and to help the helpers,” Melissa says.

Topics in the course include the types of grief, the tasks of grief, resilience, coping strategies, the benefits of humor in grief, and finding purpose and transformation in grief. Participants will be instructed through video, reading assignments, discussion forums, and weekly quizzes.

Help for the Helpers

Unique to the Navigating Grief with Humor course are weekly sections specifically for those who desire or need to support someone who is grieving.

“Sometimes you don’t know what to do and don’t know how to help; you’re at a loss,” Melissa says, “so there is a section each week specifically for the helpers.”

“I’m excited about this course because it is an opportunity for people to look at grief through a different lens and to look at humor through a different lens. We see grief as all dark and heavy and hard, but there is beauty and gratitude and joy in the grief process as well.” —Dr. Melissa Baartman Mork, Department Chair and Professor of Psychology

Humor in Grief

While the study of psychology and bereavement have long been a part of Melissa’s personal and professional life, the idea that humor could be an integral and healing part of the grief process was planted during another season of deep personal tragedy.

She was a junior in college when she was wakened by a knock on her apartment door. The police officer standing on the other side of the door informed Melissa that her mother had been killed in a car accident.

At the funeral service, the pastor asked everyone to turn to a person near them to tell a favorite story about her mother, Trudy.

At first, she says, there was silence broken only by sniffles and whispers. But then as people started sharing stories about her mother, there were giggles and chuckles, and then there were snorts, guffaws, and laughter.

“I suddenly realized that that laughter was giving me so much comfort, because suddenly I could remember my mother with joy, and that it didn’t have to be all sad.”

The Gift of Laughter

Laughter has sustained and brought healing to Melissa and her two children, ages 17 and 13, following the death of their husband and father.

After she watched her children say goodbye and kiss their dad one last time, Melissa drove her children home. They held each other close through sobs of grief until each grew quiet. Then her daughter said something funny about Scott that struck them all as hilarious.

The tears hadn’t yet dried from sadness, and now they were laughing so hard they were crying. Melissa heard their laughter, and she knew her children were going to get through their loss.

As they have navigated grief for the last two years, Melissa and her children are able to talk, cry, and reminisce about Scott, but most of the time that they are reminiscing, there is laughter.

“It’s such a beautiful way to keep him in our house and in our family and in our hearts. That is at the core of how we’ve navigated this,” Melissa says.

Certified Humor Professional

Though blindsided by Scott’s illness and death, the Lord had been preparing Melissa for this journey of grief she was being called to walk as a new single parent. In 2012, five years prior to Scott’s death, she had taken a sabbatical from teaching to study the psychological benefits of humor in grief.

In the years following, Melissa also completed a rigorous three-year program to become a Certified Humor Professional, one of only 50 such specialists in the world.

And though she had been studying humor as part of her specialization for a long time, the experience of laughter with her children in the hours following Scott’s death made her see in a new way that people can find humor and laugh freely and still grieve; that grief and humor, sadness and joy, tears and laughter can all be present and can greatly aid the healing process.

Melissa firmly believes, through extensive research and heart-wrenching personal experience, that humor and grief are far more than laughter and sadness; both contain gratitude and beauty and joy.

“It’s such a paradox, because without one we couldn’t fully experience the other,” she explains. “If we didn’t have darkness, we wouldn’t recognize what light was. I see the same thing with grief and humor.”

The Benefits of UNW Programs

When asked why a person might choose to participate in the six-week online course or study psychology at Northwestern, Melissa’s immediate response is because it’s Christ-centered. A biblical worldview gives insight into the human heart and mind, as well as into the healing found in Christ, that secular teaching cannot provide.

And then she quickly recalls another foundational element that makes the psychology program at Northwestern—and the Navigating Grief with Humor course—so valuable to students and to those who are grieving or supporting those experiencing grief. The psychology program at Northwestern, unlike elsewhere, is clinically oriented. Students learn theory, but they are also intentionally taught how to apply what they’re learning to life and to helping others.

“My goal in the classroom and in the Navigating Grief with Humor course is to provide practical applications with everything we learn in order to help students have a better understanding of themselves, of somebody else, and of God,” Melissa says.

“I’m not teaching them content so they do well on an exam; I’m teaching them so that they do well in life.”

Photo credit: Bobeedy Photography