What's Funny About Dying?

05/11/2015 05:35 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016
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"Men are like linoleum; if you lay them right you can walk all over them," Lorraine told me with a wink.

Many dying patients cling to a zest for life and a sense of humor that endear them to hospice workers. Lorraine was one of those people. The hospice team adored her. Whenever I think of her, I can hear her deep smoker's laugh and feel the lush velvet of her gowns. The fabrics she favored were ones you might choose for drapes or a sofa, only on her they looked elegant.

I met Lorraine late in her illness. Like many cancer patients, she had survived for years with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. When such treatments were no longer helpful, she and her husband Jeb decided it was time to seek hospice care.

When I enter a home for the first time, I'm always drawn to family photographs displayed on a table or hung on a wall. Often faded and covered with a film of dust, they tell the story of lives past and children long since grown. Here's a pretty young girl clutching a high school diploma; there is a serious young man in military attire. A smiling couple in wedding finery look confidently into the future.

What captured my attention upon entering Lorraine's bedroom was a large, ornately framed photograph of herself: a beautiful young blonde, hair cascading from beneath a rakishly angled cowboy hat, eyebrows plucked to a thin line, lipstick bold and dark. Looking over her shoulder with a mischievous glance, she seemed to say, "Look at me; see who I was. Just remember, I'm still that person."

In her prime Lorraine was a singer and actress. A drama queen, she delighted in entertaining us with outrageous stories that always starred her in highly improbable adventures. Also, she offered us lots of advice such as, "When life gives you lemons, stuff them in your bra."

When she could no longer summon the strength, Lorraine often asked the hospice staff to dress her in some ornate gown that hung loosely on her emaciated frame. One day she asked us to take her to Kmart, which had become her favorite store. After dressing her in a plum-colored velvet evening wrap and her favorite stiletto heels, we picked her up and carried her to the car. A few minutes later we plunked her into a wheelchair for a whirlwind tour of Kmart. The only purchase Lorraine made that day was Clairol semi-permanent blond hair color. "I'm semi-permanent too," she laughed.

Although there is little that is funny about dying, some of the events that unfold during the dying process are genuinely humorous. Laughter and humor go a long way toward easing the sadness and stress that accompany the end-of-life.

Laughter is powerful medicine. It can help decrease stress, control pain, relax muscles, elevate mood, boost energy and bring joy.

Consider Juanita. Among her many gifts, Juanita is an expert hair stylist. She cuts her own hair, my hair, and the locks of many other hospice workers. She even makes hair jokes. After going out on call in the middle of the night, she reported to work early the next morning, sighing, "I'm so tired my hair hurts!"

For special occasions Juanita will style a patient's hair. Once she volunteered to create a fashionable look for Mary, a 93-year-old hospice patient for what would clearly be her last birthday party. Everyone in the nursing home where she lived was invited.

After Mary was showered, shampooed and dressed in a stylish new pink pantsuit, Juanita began to blow-dry and brush her hair. Humming happily, she moved behind Mary's wheelchair and in her cheerful singsong voice, Juanita gushed, "Oh Mary, there's nothing like a good blow job in the morning, is there?"

Instantly the happy buzz in the room fell silent. Mortified at what had slipped out of her mouth, Juanita turned off the blow-dryer and stammered, "Oh, oh, oh, I'm so sorry, Mary. I didn't mean to say that!"

Slowly turning her head to look up at Juanita, Mary chuckled and said, "Oh honey, that's so funny! We don't get to talk dirty around here very often."

When people laugh together, bonds form. Think of your own experience and the times when shared laughter brought you closer to other people. Humor has many expressions. There is laughter that erupts when you recognize something amusing in another's comments, or the laughter that accompanies a flood of gratitude when one narrowly averts a near-miss accident. Shared laughter can also ease the difficulty of absorbing bad news or defuse the tension of an escalating disagreement.

Laughter in the sickroom lightens the mood for everyone. Contrary to the view that dictates that others should be somber and silent in the presence of a dying person, bringing laughter or even just a smile to a dying person is a priceless gift.