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The above title may seem inappropriate to some. “Death is not funny,” they might think. The idea of laughing at a time of loss seems antithetical to the emotional upheaval the bereaved is feeling. Yet, for those who work in the field of laughter and humor, it is perfectly understandable to laugh at a time when you least feel like it. The healing benefits encompass body, mind and spirit and help to ease the pain.
Each of us will be touched by grief. It might be our personal journey through a death, divorce, serious illness or any other type of loss. Perhaps a friend or family member is grieving. We may be asked to speak to a group that has experienced a tragic loss. When giving a general presentation, it is important to recognize that at any given time there could be audience members who are privately grieving. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” While we cannot help others with the pain of paying taxes, we can assist them through their grief.
Why laughter? If laughter is the best medicine, then is there anything that cannot be eased by using it? When a person is grieving several symptoms are common. Their immune system is suppressed. We are all aware of the ways in which laughter can help to boost the immune system. Another common trait is the difficulty in concentrating. This is a great gift when someone is faced with a loss. We could not function if we were to face the enormity of the loss all at once. So, the brain slows down and lets the reality creep in little by little. This process could take weeks, months or even years, but the slow recognition of how life is now forever changed is part of the natural process. This also means that the bereaved live by Post-It notes. Simple tasks are forgotten and they rely upon taking copious notes to remind them of the tasks of the day. Many people have found themselves at the grocery store in tears because they cannot remember what they went there for. Again laughter can help with brain function and memory retention. Stress levels rise, sadness and depression increase and it becomes difficult to find joy for even a moment. Erma Bombeck’s words, “If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it,” exemplifies this attitude.
Many have found that laughing feels good following a loved one’s death. In my current study into the relationship between laughter and death, I have heard many diverse opinions. One person wrote that “Laughter is a way of lifting that heavy burden of loss and all facets of grief if only for a few minutes. It is a wonderful respite.” Telling stories about their loved one helps them to cope. Others have created their personal Humor Plan of Action (HPOA.) This is a way to schedule laughter into their day. It may be from reading the comics or watching a favorite sit-com or movie. Some may turn to gallows humor – making an uncomfortable moment lighter. One woman visited her mother’s grave and found the ground to be cracked and parched. The soil had settled unevenly and it appeared like a hole was forming. She turned to her brother and said, “It looks like Mom is trying to get out to get her cigarettes.” Some people find it difficult to laugh again. They may want to, but do not find anything funny. Others may find it objectionable to laugh at such a time. One woman found that others stopped offering her comfort as they took her laughter as a sign that she was fine. For many guilt accompanies those moments when they experience happiness again. Living with loss can be a very contradictory experience.
What can we as humor professionals do to help our clients, our loved ones or ourselves? Give people permission to laugh if they feel like it. Educate them as to how the physical act of using therapeutic laughter, or laughing for no reason, can help them. In a presentation, give the broad spectrum of reactions people have when faced with this topic. Let them know that there is a place for every emotion when grieving. Laughter, anger, tears and bitterness are all appropriate emotions. I tell my audiences that it is important to identify what you are feeling and visit that neighborhood, but don’t build your house on Anger Alley or Offended Lane. Recognize that guilt is a common partner to joy when grieving. Since no two people grieve alike, we cannot possibly have all of the answers to the complex question of what place laughter will have in their journey. We can only encourage them to find ways to incorporate simulated or authentic laughter back into their lives.