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A Laughing Matter

For a series called A Matter of Life and Death, I admit that I’ve probably talked a lot more about the latter. (Sorry.)

“Can she keep this up?” you might be wondering. “This whole writing-about-death-all-the-time thing?” And the answer is, yes—with the help of a sense of humor.

Humor is essential for coping when tragedy strikes. Humor has saved me from depression, it has comforted me during the darkest moments, and, most importantly, it makes me feel connected, instead of utterly alone and parentless.

Some people say laughter is cathartic; some people may say I have a slightly twisted sense of humor. Either way, joking around—about my hardships specifically—gives me a break from the pain. And I really believe that laughter alters brain chemistry. If nothing else, being able to laugh during my months of pain bolstered my confidence and made me believe I could get through it, that I would survive this tragedy. Although nothing good comes of a terminal diagnosis or the death of a loved one, a reprieve from pain can be found in the humor. And often you don’t have to look very hard to find it.

When I first moved to San Francisco after my mother died, I found myself at a party with a bunch of new friends. When someone learned I’d moved all the way from the east coast to California, he quipped, “That must have really sent your parents to their graves.” I erupted with laughter.

Or how about the meeting with my mother’s financial advisor shortly after her death, when I was told that, from a tax perspective, her portfolio had done well, but we didn’t have enough loses to offset the gains. My immediate response, through a chuckle, was, “Well, I can think of one pretty big loss this year!” I cracked myself up with that zinger.

Laughing in these situations makes me feel better about the situation. But the best part is being able to share these jokes with friends and family, the people who get me and see the humor, too. Something about being able to laugh with each other—the feeling that we’re connected and in this together—makes simultaneous, instinctive, and possibly off-color laughter the absolute best medicine.

After my mother’s funeral we sat shiva. After the first night of shiva drew to a close, I pushed the furniture to the edge of the room, turned the speakers up, and my friends and I danced our pants off. My mother was no longer in pain, and I had survived her death and funeral. We honored her and celebrated her with a nontraditional shiva that turned into a legendary party. Years later I refer to it as Shivapalooza, and my family and I love texting shiva puns and jokes to each other. “Shiva me timbers!” when someone’s surprised. “You’re giving me the shivas!” when someone’s nervous. The list goes on.

Humor is personal. Maybe you don’t find these things funny, and I respect that. But if there’s one piece of advice I have for those of you dealing with heartache, hardship or tragedy, it’s to find your own humor. Find it in anything. Laugh, and laugh with others. It’s important. And I believe it’ll help you get through anything. Especially when you have no other choice.

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