As a laughter professional I aim to inspire people to live joyfully – using laughter, playfulness and mindful breathing to create positive change and using it as a tool to improve both our physical and psychological well-being but how often do we consider dying joyfully and what does that even mean?
My experience of working on the care team in two Children’s Hospices is etched in my heart forever and my current work running Laughter Yoga sessions in my local adult hospice has got me thinking.
So let’s first consider what dying joyfully might actually mean. Well, as everybody is unique, has had different life experiences, has different likes and dislikes then the meaning of dying joyfully will be unique to each individual and it may not be something that many have even considered. Think of dying joyfully as making a choice to laugh and be joyful as much as possible following a terminal diagnosis.
Facing our own mortality is not something we often spend time doing until it is thrust upon us. But ultimately, death comes to us all. Some get to plan ahead following a terminal diagnosis, some deaths are sudden and unexpected. Death is one of the few certainties in life and though some may feel this is a sensitive topic or one that they prefer not to think or talk about others are more comfortable about exploring and discussing the finer details. When it is thrust upon them some prefer to continue as before others may prefer to make plans. It is an intensely personal experience and there is no right or wrong way of travelling through it. Some people may feel uncomfortable or that it’s not appropriate to laugh during such incredibly difficult times but I suggest to you – “it’s OK to laugh.” And when we know our time is limited it throws up a whole new way of thinking and being.
If we could plan more joyful moments in those final years/months/weeks/days what would we choose to do? And how would your family and friends respond to it? Don’t be afraid to tell people what you would like. Big or small joys most people are willing to oblige however they can – you are not putting them out. In fact, you are probably making them feel helpful and pleased that they can do something practical for you.
Picture this – a close family member/friend has just received a terminal diagnosis. Once the initial shock has subsided you will all begin to go through the stages of grief even before the death. Some might have years, some months, weeks or even days. If you’re the person with the diagnosis you may, at some point, start thinking of things you want to fit into your short time left. You may also begin thinking about how you can alleviate the pain, anxiety and sorrow you can see and feel in the faces of those you care about. Though that is not your job it doesn’t stop you thinking about it. You are likely to experience a huge range of emotions. Recognise them, accept them, feel them and feel free to express them. One of those emotions may well be fear. Don’t let fear sabotage the time you have left. Turn to face it, step through it and use it to your advantage. You may write a bucket list (or a f**k-it list) or you may just take every day as it comes. It’s perhaps a time to celebrate every day more than ever. Actually, it’s not a perhaps – it IS time to celebrate each and every day. Of course, they’ll be times when you feel like crap so when treatment and symptoms are raging at you be kind to yourself.
One simple thing that you can do is make a practice of creating and finding small joys. It might not always come easy and some days you may feel far from achieving any joyful moments. But the more you practice the easier it gets. You don’t have to go full on swimming with dolphins or sky-diving. Sometimes it’s the small pleasures that actually bring us the most pleasure. Finding things to chuckle at in the most unlikely places as well as the obvious.
Laughing in such difficult times can help in alleviating stress, lift the energy and lighten the load. It can alleviate sadness if only for the brief time you are laughing. Laughter is also an effective way to release anger. It can be a challenge to laugh whilst contemplating your own death or the death of a loved one but that can be when we need it most. If you’ve spent a joyful life and spent many-a-time sharing laughter with those around you or simply by yourself it doesn’t have to stop with a terminal diagnosis. In fact, that really is the cue to laugh more than ever. Fitting as much laughter into the time left as possible.
Laughing in the face of death isn’t as daft as it might seem. It can be incredibly empowering and it may enable you to feel some control during a time when other things seems to be spiralling way out of your control. It can be a final “up yours” to a situation not of your choosing and not in a manic sort of way but in an “I’m having the last laugh” kind of way.
Similar to selecting silly, funny or wacky songs for the funeral or memorial celebration which is quite common these days the end doesn’t have to be morbid and tragic. It can be beautifully peaceful or it can be raucously joyful – you get to choose. You can choose to flip the whole terminal diagnosis and death experience on it’s head.
Joy can come from watching funny comedy clips, sharing funny memories, hugging everyone within reach, sitting out in the sunshine or rain, going to a cafe, or whatever is within your means that someone can make possible for you. Laugh at the absurdities of life. Laugh at the moments of indignities. Laugh at the way your hair (if you still have any) looks in the morning. Buy some funny wigs if you have no hair. Colour you hair, moustache or beard. Have a funny tattoo (some people are advised not to have tattoos during certain treatments notably chemotherapy so do check first) or get a funny fake one and bare to all! Wear funny hats. Dress like you are going somewhere fancy every day. Listen and sing along to funny songs. Eat your puddings first – with chopsticks.
Most of all just laugh. Laugh more. And laugh again. So much joy can come from unconditional laughter – laughing just because you can and it feels great. Be playful and silly. Watch how the people around you relax and join in the laughter. Even when they have no idea what you are laughing about. If laughter is difficult and doesn’t come naturally at first start by just smiling and try to visualise yourself laughing.
The benefits of laughing unconditionally come from the body-mind connection as opposed to the mind -body connection. So your laughter creates the happiness. The motion (laughter) creates the emotion (happiness). There’s a saying “We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh” by William James. Laughter can bring light even on the darkest of days and can create a feeling of acceptance. Laughter and play can be a wonderful way to express yourself without having to verbalise your thoughts especially as there may be times when you really can’t find the words. Laughter can help you cope with obstacles as you encounter them either by equipping you with a hardened resolve or equipping you with the ability to accept what is.
Do you know that laughing and crying are inextricably linked? Laughter may turn to tears and tears to laughter. Let what happens happen and try not to suppress any of it.
You may plan ahead for when the final few days/hours/minutes come. Perhaps you choose to be surrounded by family and/or friends, perhaps just having one person there to hold you or perhaps having just a few people around you who are gently chuckling with memories of your antics or reading aloud silly poems. Perhaps with some of your favourite funny songs or comedies playing in the background.
For friends and family to have joyful moments during such difficult times is not an act of uncaring and disrespect. It can be seen as an honour to the person dying – continuing to live as would have been wanted. A way of coping. A special, heart-warming time of love and caring. The whole experience can create beautiful memories for loved ones.
If this resonates with you or if you would like to discuss anything in this article, have found you have lost your laugh or perhaps you would like me to work alongside you and your family please get in touch. I can, of course, also come to you to share some laughter yoga tools and techniques for tapping into your joy or perhaps you’d like to gather your family and friends together for a love-filled, laughter-filled, totally connected Laughter Yoga session.
LIVE – To the best of your ability and with whatever energy you can muster. The time is now.
LAUGH – At every opportunity and then some more.
LOVE – Authentically and wholeheartedly with everything you have. Hug lots.
Yours truly, joyfully, and lovingly yours
I don’t claim to be medically qualified or an expert in palliative care. I’m a qualified, certified Laughter Yoga Teacher with a keen interest in improving quality of life though laughter, playfulness and connection whatever stage of life you are at. Most of all I’m a compassionate, caring human being.