Alive & giggling - being fiercely alive until we are dead
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
Sometimes I am asked "how do you manage to work in 'such a depressing field' as death??!" Well, a good deal of the time I don't really work 'in death' as such - death is a *clicks fingers* moment, while end of life and after death are often best considered as spectrums and/or arcs of time.
That being acknowledged, since I am death positive and work in pre- and post-death spaces, as well as with grief, a really good sense of humour is vital in order to maintain a healthy balance and for me to practice optimal self-care, and laughing with the ones we love is a particularly precious part of life. Often too, when we remember someone after they have died we smile or laugh as we look back on silliness or a joyous moment. So, to honour the role of humour and comedy in both life and in death, today - in February, host to the international day of love on the 14th - we will look at humour, laughter, the positive, and the silly, and the roles they can play in love and loss.
Come along Gentle Reader - you KNOW it will be fun!
I could have gone for the cheap and easy shot photo or video at this point, offering you the ultimate soundtrack for laughing about death from the incomparably hilarious Monty Python, but there is something about my own sense of humour that urges me to save the low-hanging obvious fruit for later. Which is, of course, a pretty good joke when we remember that none of us know how much time we have. Ask Lynn Ruth Miller, who sums up the perks of dating as a senior thusly: "You don't have to meet their parents!". Miller is also emphatic in her zest for life, reminding us all that we make the mistake of thinking we have the luxury of time to do everything we plan to. As seasoned Gentle Readers are aware, I am a consistent advocate of planning now, talking now, thinking and arranging NOW - because we never know when our luxury will end. Lest we forget, British stand-up comic Ian Cognito literally died on stage in 2019 and had made a joke about dying of a stroke only minutes before. I am not privy to Cognito's end of life arrangements, but I do sincerely hope he had all his planning in place and signed off. If not, the joke's on him!
Joking about death has a well-established history. The late USA social commentator and comic George Carlin had decades of straight talking jokes about death, suicide, funerals, the impossibility of knowing what happens after we die, and was a trailblazer in terms of confronting society's discomfort with these topics. One of the things I admire most about Carlin's comedy - apart from the intelligence of his humour - is his commitment to death literacy long before it was fashionable. Carlin has a legacy of live performances where he discusses suicide, the implacability of death, our own mortality, and the odd humour in resisting acknowledging the end of life. In fact, Carlin - to quote Shakespeare - often played upon a cultural resistance to death literacy in the manner of Orlando addressing Jacques "I do desire we may be better strangers" (As you Like It, act 3, scene 2, line 254), and a good deal of Carlin's comedy is firmly rooted in the tensions surrounding the need to talk about death and our social insistence that there is nothing to talk about.
For my own stress relief and pleasure, I tend to avoid watching the news at night (I also limit my feed scrolling during the day, very important to detach from screens and news feeds for healthy self-care!) and I enjoy panel comedy shows. 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, QI, The Last Leg, and Would I Lie To You - I am a fan of Spicks and Specks, too, and try to catch their rare reunion specials when they come out. Between SBS and the ABC I am reasonably well-served for humorous content (apologies to international Gentle Readers, I am being quite Australian-centric at this point, but there are many streaming services for all of us to engage with after all). If there's nothing on free to air or catchup, I turn to Netflix for a wealth of stand up comedy content, specials, and even some scripted comedy series and films to help make me laugh. Research does show that laughing raises a body's immunity function, decreases blood pressure, and helps with general wellbeing, so there are sensible reasons to turn off the violence and drama of the news or a murder mystery show, and tune in to something that gives you a giggle.
From the never-to-be-forgotten Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch featuring Michael Palin and John Cleese, to Betty White hosting SNL (try 2.10 minutes in for a typical Betty White take on ageing), to the NZ-based Instagram account of The Swim Reaper, there is probably something out there to help you laugh at ageing, death and dying in pop culture. Don't forget though, that there is always the opportunity to laugh together without a screen, or you can respond back to the screen to create laughs - think Gogglebox, but without the awkward camera crew watching on and taking notes. You could be like the couple in the photo above and make faces with food, or play charades with your after-lunch down time. Either way, keep it lighthearted and playful, and don't film or take pictures unless everyone consents. It is OK to keep it old-school sometimes, and take the pictures with your mind instead of a camera phone, although there is the well-known comedy gold inherent in pulling very silly faces for the lens, so if it works for you all pin your ears back and go your hardest. You might print them all out, make up a collage, and keep it up on the wall to remind yourself of what a great life you have, and what fantastic people you know.
Try not to judge another person's sense of humour, or what they find hilarious. Our senses of humour are incredibly personal, and are also shaped by family and community mores. For example, the French generally find slapstick humour funny while the Brits tend towards wry, intellectual humour when they aren't doing nudge-nudge gags. Both of these are general trends in social culture, and while not universal to everyone from these countries do give an indication of how some of us develop the kinds of funny-bone responses that we do. Sometimes, it's just funny to us. So be kind and - as long as the sense of humour is not malicious or deliberately nasty - hang on for the immediate joke, then perhaps share one of yours in turn. We can learn about each other through laughter, as much as we may through sorrow.
Laughing is a social experience, too, - by which I mean we laugh more with others than we do when we are on our own. Sometimes when we laugh by ourselves we are often recalling a funny memory and so are laughing with the people we were with in the memory itself, or if watching a film or TV the actors/performers become part of the 'we' that makes us feel safe and included in laughing out loud. We also are more disposed to laugh once we have started up, which helps explain the 'warm up' acts for comedy shows (as well as those hideously fake laugh tracks on some TV sitcoms). As the point of laughing with those at end of life is to help make happy memories, as well as to support everyone's sense of wellbeing (including your own!) don't shy away from joining into the laughter - particularly when someone is at end of life. We are all fiercely alive until we die, and with the weight of expectation lifted by a terminal diagnosis, many people can live joyously in the moment while they are 'dying'. The wonderful and witty British comic Alexi Sayle investigates the importance of humour and laughter to those at end of life in a short clip available from Dying Matters on YouTube, which includes some gorgeous stories of the jokes and pranks the people at end of life themselves enjoy. A particularly important aspect of this Sayle film is the emphasis on the fact that we don't die when we receive a terminal or life-limiting diagnosis (well, perhaps some of us do, but this is vanishingly rare), therefore neither does our sense of humour.
Of course, one wonderful way to find laughter is to go support live performers - even if no one around you wants to have a giggle with you, there will be an audience of enthusiastic listeners around you who will laugh right along with you. And you are supporting hard-working comics - stand up comdey is incredibly tough, so you don't always have to go to the big headlining acts to watch hardworking and well thought-out comedy. Smaller clubs and open-mic nights can be great fun, and festivals often showcase incredibly funny performers too. FYI for the death positive people out there: there is an Australian palliative care nurse and End of Life Doula who is also a part-time stand up comic. Carolyn Mandersloot not only performs on the comedy circuit, I have seen her incorporate stand up comedy in her conference presentations, so if you can catch her live at any time I encourage you to do so. Try to look around for the compassionately humorous every day in your own life; it may be standing right next to you in a hospital corridor or an event registration queue, you never know...
Thank you for taking a humour break with me today. I will end here with my own personal favourite of death jokes, for your delectation. Feel free to pinch it for yourselves, I didn't write it but it is a good one:
Q - Why do we nail down a coffin lid so tightly?
A - To stop the oncologists getting in!