A few weeks ago, I asked my friend Jessica if she had any ideas for future posts. Jessica replied, “What about the role of laughter in illness?” Initially, I rejected that suggestion. After all, what part of ALS was funny? I reflected back to my husband Brian’s courageous struggle with the disease, and I didn’t recall us sharing any light or humorous moments. However, the more I ruminated on the topic, the more fascinated I became. I was familiar with the old adage, “laughter is the best medicine,” but could this expression apply to patients with terminal illness?
My investigation started with a phone call to my daughter Leah. “Did you and your Dad share any funny moments when he was sick,” I asked? Leah recalled that Brian and his sister Joyce had a good laugh creating silly and outrageous epitaphs for Brian’s headstone during a 2008 visit. My friend Jessica also concurred that Brian made some humorous remarks to her. With my new-found knowledge, or memory jogged, that Brian occasionally expressed humor about his illness and mortality, my interest was piqued. But what did the experts have to say?
In fact, what does “Laughter is the best medicine” mean? According to various sources, this saying refers to the potential health benefits of laughter, including a reduction in pain, anxiety, and fear. Another important health benefit may be the sense of well-being and improvement in mood. According to Cancer.Net, “Laughter can provide a sense of perspective when you are faced with challenging circumstances.”
While researching the role of humor specifically in ALS, I came across an inspiring article from the Washington Times, “Couple Uses Laughter, Love in Fight With ALS.” The following captures the importance of humor and positive outlook for ALS patients and their families: “The amazing thing about Kip? He can’t move a thing on his body. He can’t speak. He can’t breathe on his own. But he’s still so funny—so funny and charming. ALS isn’t an immediate death sentence. Your quality of life can still be fulfilling with this disease.”
In another example, ALS Worldwide published a post, “Humor Is a Great Medicine”, Ken, an ALS patient, stated, “As I continue to fight this ugly disease, joking helps me get through the most challenging times. It is critically important to keep a sense of humor when you have ALS. There are funny and absurd moments to be found every day if you are aware. Humor is what helps me stay positive and it makes this disease more bearable.”
In retrospect, I realize that Brian was being himself despite his disease—a person with a good sense of humor who could laugh at himself or the absurdity of a situation (unfortunately, ALS provides plenty of material). I, on the other hand, never found anything remotely funny about caregiving or ALS. In reference to my earlier anecdote about the epitaphs, I remember feeling appalled and disapproving that Brian and Joyce were engaging in what I perceived as morbid behavior. In reality, I think everyone finds their own way to cope with challenging, life-altering situations; some use humor like Brian, whereas others use escapism and denial, like me. Reflecting back, I wish I had seen the bigger picture, so we could have shared some laughs together, as we did when Brian was healthy. Only now do I acknowledge that humor can be a positive attribute and coping mechanism when facing terminal illness and mortality. It makes us human and allows us to live life to the fullest.
Have you and your loved one shared any funny moments? How do you feel about humor in the context of terminal illness? Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section. Let’s continue the conversation.
Idelle Winer was primary caregiver to her husband Brian, who passed away in 2010 after a 5-year battle with ALS. A retired medical publishing professional, Idelle offers her unique perspective on a variety of caregiving topics in our feature Caregiver Confidential.