The Healing Power of Humor
When the British edition of my first book came out, I was upset to see the book jacket that my London publisher had chosen for Living Through Personal Crisis. It had a drawing of a curious-looking little dog and a broken vase which the little dog seemed to be examining quizzically. I thought the cartoon-like sketch trivialized my work, which after all was written to help hurting people such as bereaved parents, war veterans, cancer patients and those suffering from broken relationships.
"I see why it's upsetting you," the literary agent replied, "but you have to see the book jacket as the British see it. The British don't take things straight on," she explained. "It's too much for us." Humor is an important coping and survival mechanism. It's the saving grace of many persons, I finally realized, even in dire circumstances.
Among the triumphant survivors I interviewed or studied in the literature, humor emerged repeatedly as a weapon of survival. In mourning someone, we frequently laugh at the things they once did or said. We are comforted by the laughter that rolls into tears.
Jan and Ed like to remember an incident that took place when Mark, the son they lost when he was only seven, first saw his Aunt Mary nursing her new baby. Although Mark had many times seen his mother nurse his younger brother, the event filled the boy with questions about new babies. Having been told by his mother who carefully used the physiologically correct language that his own brother had come out of his mother's tummy through the vagina, Mark was curious about Mary's baby. He went over, kissed the baby on her forehead, looked at Mary and asked, "Did she slide out your lasagna?" It is a story that Jan and Ed fondly tell again and again.
Manny Lawton says in his wonderful book Some Survived: An Epic Account of Japanese Captivity During World War II, that those who survived the infamous Bataan Death March in the Philippines rode like animals in crowded railroad cars to a prison camp. One American soldier who survived the three day march—in which 11,000 soldiers died—told Lawton that the situation was so depressing that he found himself striking up friendships with optimistic and humorous men. Here is somebody who was a prisoner of war, standing with others like a wooden match in a tiny matchbox, on his way to probable torture—and he's making it a point to cultivate relationships with fellow POWs with whom he can laugh and think positively!
It's important for all of us to choose thoughtfully the company we keep during personal crisis. We need to limit the time we spend with any family members or friends who drag us down. Part of becoming a triumphant survivor is deciding to maximize the time we stand ourselves alongside optimistic, light-hearted, hopeful people.
Laughing at ourselves can also be useful. For many the healing power of laughter relieves the sting of a serious loss. I know a man who has an artificial plastic eye, and he often speaks of it with good humor. "You can tell which is the artificial eye," Terry quips, "because it's the one with the glint of human kindness." He also likes to tell the story of the woman he once dated who wasn't very bright. "Why did you get a glass eye," she asked, "so you could see through it?"
Lynn: A Cluster of People Helped Her Triumph
Diagnosed with a severe case of Crohn’s disease, Lynn was only twenty-seven years old when she had to have an ostomy. She was fitted with a small bag for waste products, worn close to the body and needing to be emptied several times a day. Shortly after her surgery someone from the Ostomy Foundation came to visit her in the hospital. The visitor was an attractive woman, upbeat in her attitude, who spoke encouraging words. The woman said that she herself had had an ostomy and that it hadn’t stopped her from living an active and fulfilling life. To Lynn, the woman didn’t look different from any other woman. “I made up my mind,” she said, “that the ostomy wasn’t going to stop me either.”
There were major setbacks. Lynn went home after fifty-six days in the hospital to a strained marital relationship. Rodney, preoccupied with satisfying his own needs, was grumpy and emotionally unavailable. He was feeling sorry for himself because of his wife’s surgery and went off for a week-long holiday with a buddy.
Two months later Lynn, critically ill, was hospitalized for another stay. Her husband rarely came to see her. She didn’t know that Rodney had asked her father and stepmother for the key to their summer vacation condo, claiming to be worried about Lynn’s health and needing time away. Actually, as everyone later learned, he was having an affair with another woman at her parents’ beach house, a woman who was an acquaintance of Lynn’s who had recently come to the hospital to cut Lynn’s hair! It was a devastating betrayal.
Two weeks after Rodney graduated from the pharmacy school that Lynn had worked so hard to help her husband pay for, Rodney announced that he was leaving her. He admitted to having been unfaithful many times, including during her hospital stay. “I saw no reason to live,” Lynn remembers. “I was depressed. I slept all the time. I didn’t want to talk to people. I felt sick and stopped eating—a form of suicide.”
“I was angry at the disease, angry at the ostomy, angry that I had put him through school and lived with all his promises that we were going to have a house and a family.”
Lynn shared with her mom, dad and sister the despairing times. “I told them I was ugly, a freak, that I had nothing to live for. They said ‘You’re not ugly. You’re not a freak.’ And dear old Dad said that someday Rodney would realize he had made a mistake.”
“There was a long period when I was pitying myself,” she recalls. “I hated myself and felt hopeless. My parents each let me have my feelings of anger for several weeks. Then Dad said, 'Knock it off, this is ridiculous!'" Lynn’s dad later told her he didn’t mean to be angry with her but felt it was time for her to start working on getting it together because they loved her. Lynn’s mother said the same thing in a gentler way. “It’s time to start getting better,” she said.
Lynn realized that she was “tearing up her family” by refusing to eat and by giving up on herself. She was shocked by her father’s harsh words but touched by his tender ones, and she knew that both themes came from his caring. They were words she needed to hear. Lynn remembered the woman from the Ostomy Foundation who had talked with her about wearing bathing suits and sexy nightgowns, even after her ostomy. Lynn decided, “I’m going to be like her.” She began to assume a new attitude.
She received support and caring from her relatives, her fellow teachers, and her high school special education students. Her father, her mother (his first wife) and Doris (his second wife) put aside any differences between them and pulled together to give Lynn the support she needed. She and her sister became close, Lynn says. “Although she is four years younger, she is very motherly to me. It’s sweet and sometimes amuses me. She has a heart that is humungous.”
Despite struggling with low self-esteem, Lynn risked going on a blind date that her sister arranged. It turned out he was a nice guy, and they married three years later. They have two little daughters now, even though she was told that she would be unable to bear children.
“Now when I go to see someone who has had an ostomy,” says Lynn, describing her hospital visits with the Ostomy Foundation’s volunteer program, “I wear something close to my body, tight-fitting clothes. I tell them I teach full-time, swim and water ski in the summer, work out at a gym, play racquetball, and write school curriculum. Then I tell them I have had an ostomy and sometimes I lift up my clothes and show them the bag.”
Triumphant survivors, like Lynn, are people with determination. They accept support from their loved ones, often seek professional counseling, and—over time—many find the strength to help others who have had similar losses.
Jan: Deciding to Forgive Changed Her Life
Probably the most difficult part of the grief process is getting on the other side of the consuming feelings of anger that often keep people stuck in depression and unhappiness. Whether you are dealing with an ugly divorce, child custody battle, family estrangement, a betrayal of some sort, job loss, debilitating illness, or other anger engendering situation, the following story offers some valuable lessons in how people heal.
A year and a half after Jan and Ed lost their seven year old son, Mark, Jan felt a need to meet the woman whose car had struck Mark and killed him. The still tormented mother felt she needed to forgive the person responsible for her little boy's death.
First she talked it over with her priest, expressing to Father Jake her intense desire to tell the speeding driver what it was like for her that Mark was dead. She also discussed her need to forgive. "It feels like my bitterness toward her will kill me," Jan explained. "I don't want to walk around with this anger and hatred for the rest of my life. It just feels crushing – like it will consume me and kill me!"
Father Jake was compassionate. He understood why Jan yearned to confront this woman, so he made arrangements for the three of them to meet in his office several days later.
The priest prayed with the two women. He said a prayer about courage and healing and prayed that they would be open to each other.
It was a gut-wrenching experience for Jan to express her anguish and anger. "The report that we got a year after Mark died said that you were distracted and driving too fast. But because of Mark's age, it was assumed that it was the child's fault. You didn't even get a ticket!"
Jan paused, then continued, "Your children are perfectly alive. Our family is devastated. We'll never get over this. And you are perfectly free."
The other woman at first gave a feeble reply then said, "I teach second graders. Everyday I have to go to work and look at a room full of little boys your son's age. For awhile it was horrible, and I was going to just quit teaching forever. But then I decided I had taken the life of a child and I owed something in return. I couldn't give back the boy's life but maybe, I decided, I could go back and try to be the best possible teacher I could be." Suddenly Jan experienced the person who had robbed her of Mark as a human being who had made a terrible mistake. Jan was actually able to feel some compassion toward this woman whose car had struck down her son.
"I want to forgive you," Jan explained, starting to cry, "even though I don't feel like forgiving. I want to be alive for my son John, for my husband, and even for myself."
"You don't have to forgive me," the school teacher replied, now weeping with Jan. "I would understand if you couldn't forgive me."
"But I need to forgive you," Jan said. The two women embraced. For a moment they wept in each other's arms and experienced the tragedy that had brought them to this place.
"That meeting," remembers Jan, "was one of the hardest things I've ever done."
Over a period of many years, I have stayed in close contact with Jan and her husband Ed. I know that Jan's compassion and empathy have only increased toward the school teacher whose human frailty caused Mark's death.
Being able to forgive has enabled Jan to live her life in a full, loving, giving way. She was free to enjoy raising her surviving son, John, get pregnant again, and cherish bringing up their daughter Kate.
For a time, Jan worked as a nurse and physician's assistant. She trained bereavement counselors in the hospital where Ed treats cancer patients and has conducted break-through breast cancer research. Today their children are thriving young adults.
Jan is now in her mid-sixties and was recently awarded her Ph.D. Her doctoral research and other writings have focused on hope and resiliency in the lives of bereaved parents. Jan Romond is an inspiration to anyone and everyone who knows about her journey. It was my great pleasure to serve on her doctoral committee.
Traits of Triumphant Survivors
People who go beyond brokenness, overcoming tragedies and hurts, do some things differently in a grief and healing or transition process. Triumphant Survivors think and behave in ways that lead to recovery. So can you.
- You can establish positive memories, loving moments shared with others.
- You can search relentlessly for answers and find whatever help is needed from friends, family, experts, helping professionals, your church or synagogue or mosque, books, healing activities, or support groups.
- You can develop survival strategies such as dealing with pain in small segments.
- You can make an early decision to go forward and actively reinvest in living.
- You can learn to live with the past by getting whatever help is needed to face life squarely and to live in the truth.
- You can remind yourself that prior to recovery it is necessary to deal first and fully with the pain and that your healing process may take longer than you and most others expect.
- You can fight off and resist feelings of helplessness by deciding not to remain passive and powerless, engaging in active learning or decisive action when the time seems right.
- You can leave encumbrances behind—old resentments, grievances, axes to grind, remembered injustices—the harbored memories that grow increasingly heavy. You can decide not to waste your life by permanently losing yourself in sorrow, defeat, anger, fear or guilt.
- You can decide that you want to learn and grow.
- You can look for inspirational role models.
- You can associate with and learn from people who have the ability to laugh, enjoy, and see humor.
- You can make a firm decision that you want things to work out well, want to recover, want to build a new life for yourself.
- You can consciously decide to be in the company of life-giving, positive-thinking, hopeful, nurturant, kind, and understanding people.
- You can decide that meaninglessness is intolerable and set out to make sense of things and construct a meaning for your life.
- You can reach out to help others while you yourself are still hurting.
- You can accept the best life within reach.
- You can do the best that you can.
- You can go forward, knowing the sorrows and hardships you've had to come through—but looking ahead far more than looking back.