Laughter Therapy: The Lighter Side of Loss
I call myself a "Jollytologist." I go around the country presenting speeches and seminars on humor. This unusual career began shortly after my wife died as a result of a rare liver disease. At first it seemed strange to me that my career in humor would emerge out of a loss. But as I began to work in the death and dying field, and saw how humor helped both care givers and patients, it seemed less bizarre.
Certainly illnesses such as aids may not be a laughing matter. Still, life goes on and funny things happen in spite of illness and death. Anyone who has worked in the death and dying arena knows, for example, that humor will frequently rear its head during the strangest of times. It is nature's way of giving us a perspective on a situation and allowing us to rise above it. Humor helps us keep our balance when life throws us a curve ball.
How do I know that humor can help us bear the seemingly unbearable? I know because I have not only experienced humor's positive effects in my life but I've also seen it in other people's struggles as well. In my first book, The Healing Power of Humor, I relate the humor I found during my wife's illness.
Years ago, my wife, Ellen, lay dying in the hospital, a copy of Playgirl by her side. Suddenly, she opened to the male nude centerfold and insisted it be put on the wall.
"I think it's too risque for the hospital," I said.
"Nonsense," she replied. "Just take a leaf from the plant over there and cover up the genitals."
I did as she requested. This worked well for the first day. Everything was okay for the second day. By the third day, however, the leaf started to shrivel up and reveal more and more of what we were trying to conceal. We laughed every time we looked at a plant or a dried-up leaf. The duration of our levity may have lasted only ten or twenty seconds, but it brought us closer together, revived us, and steered us through our sea of darkness.
More recently, I have seen how my friend Rick used humor when he was dying of aids. Once I went into Rick's house and there on the wall was a Star of David, a picture of Buddha and a crucifix. And Rick was a Quaker!
I said, "Rick, how come you have all of these diverse religious symbols?"
He replied, "You never know who's right so I'm covering all my bases."
I'm convinced Rick lived so long with aids because of his sense of humor. Every year he would have a birthday party and every year he would poke fun at the fact that he was still alive. One year his invitation read: "Rick's Fourth Annual Last Birthday Party."
Even his obituary, which I'm sure he had a hand in writing, was poignantly funny. It read: "Rick Sapporito -- Quaker, Marine, Housewife."
And I continue to find humor from people who are facing life-challenging losses. Even the Internet. America Online for example, has hundreds of messages posted in its aidssection under "The Lighter Side of HIV." "Despite the seriousness of HIV," the chat line says, "many of us have found that sharing a sense of humor about it can help immensely."
Seriously ill patients, like those who contribute to these chat lines, know firsthand what George Bernard Shaw meant when he once said, "Life does not cease to be funny when someone dies any more than it ceases to be serious when someone laughs."
Allen Klein is a nationally known professional speaker and the author of three books -- The Healing Power of Humor, Quotations to Cheer You Up, and Wing Tips. Klein is currently seeking people to interview for his next book, The Courage to Laugh. He is looking for light-hearted stories about HIV/AIDS. Contact him at: 1034 Page Street, San Francisco, CA 94117 or 415/431-1913 (phone), 415/431-8600 (fax) or e-mail at ALLENKLEIN@aol.com.) Allen will be a semi-regular contributor to this column beginning with this issue. Look for his next column in the April 1997 issue.