09/05/2014 11:22 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

Joan Rivers, Grieving and Laughter: 4 Tips for Healing after a Loss

I can't believe that Joan Rivers is dead. As someone who has worked in the intensive care unit, I fully expected her to recover and to come out with great stories and jokes about her experience with the healthcare system. She had an indomitable spirit, lifting us up in some of our darkest moments. Although I did not know her personally, I will miss her ability to laugh at her own foibles -- she dared to be hilarious at a time when women were told they couldn't be funny, and to do so with style.

Joan Rivers overcame adversity, and yet sought humor in every situation. She was quick with quips about others, but also the first to make fun of herself. She made jokes about then-taboo topics like abortion and being gay in the 1960's before they were openly discussed, diffusing taboo subjects with humor so they could be brought into the light. One of my favorites regarding plastic surgery was, "I have had so much plastic surgery that when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware." She healed from personal tragedies in her life, such as her husband's suicide, with laughter and jokes, her brash humor letting those around her know that she would survive. About Joan's mother's death, she said, "When my mother died, I kept going by doing joke after joke. I get rid of things through very black humor." Laughter is unifying and desperately needed at times of stress, including during grief.

I know that it can be difficult to bring laughter back into your life following a significant loss. Many people who are grieving even feel that they shouldn't laugh, that others would judge them. As with most aspects of your grief journey, you will heal as you let yourself experience all of the emotions on life's spectrum, and you will find yourself laughing when you are ready. Joan's daughter, Melissa, said, "My mother's greatest joy in life was to make people laugh. Although that is difficult to do right now, I know her final wish would be that we return to laughing soon." Following Joan River's own desire for others to laugh, below are some tips for easing back into laughter following a loss.

How to Return to Laughter after a Loss:

  1. Watch a comedy. Find a list of "50 Funniest Movies of All-time" online and start working your way through them. If you have never seen "Bridesmaids" or "Dumb and Dumber," "Bringing Up Baby," or "What's Up, Doc?" pick one and see if you can make it through without laughing, or at least smiling.
  2. Find a Laughter Yoga group near you. Dr. Madan Kataria, a laughter guru, says that the practice can be particularly useful in grief: "Laughter exercises coupled with deep breathing changes the physiology, thereby changing the mood state and helping a person to view the situation differently. It is a cathartic exercise which helps release pent up feelings and makes people emotionally balanced."
  3. Keep a box of index cards close at hand, and when a happy memory of your loved one comes back to you, write it down. Keep them together and when you are feeling especially blue you can reread them.
  4. Share stories with others. George Bonanno, a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, tells us that certain cultures value joyously celebrating the life rather than focusing on the present sadness, "African cultures tell lascivious tales about the deceased, and in South America, former Surinam slaves have a story-telling feast that can go on for two weeks." You may not be able to gather a group for weeks, but hold story-telling evenings with others who were closed to your loved one, perhaps sharing your funniest stories about that person.

For more ideas on rediscovering laughter, Christa Scalies, author of the e-book Suicide Sucks: Move through the Pain of Suicide Loss and Learn to Laugh Again, was a guest on the Open to Hope radio show and shares tips on how to ease grief through laughter. I know how working together can knit the mother-daughter bond even closer, as I collaborate daily with my daughter, Dr. Heidi Horsley, for Open to Hope, co-hosting our radio and television shows. My heart goes out to Melissa Rivers and her family as they grieve the loss of this courageous and inimitable woman. I know she will be deeply missed.