Laughter Just Might Be the Best Medicine:
Using Humor to Cope, Connect, and Communicate
By Lisa C. Greene
Reader’s Digest has a wonderful feature called “Laughter, The Best Medicine.” I’ve gotten many a chuckle over the years of reading that magazine and now my kids are enjoying it, too. We could use a good laugh every now and then. Our lives are pretty stressful as we cope with the realities of a serious genetic disease called cystic fibrosis.
The ability to find humor in tough times is a gift to both ourselves and those around us. A sense of humor can help us handle the challenges of raising a child with special needs. A mom shares:
“My son with cystic fibrosis had just gotten a Mic-Key Button (an entereal feeding tube). He was fascinated with it and kept pulling his shirt up to look at it. We were at a store waiting in line and an 8- year-old boy was staring at my son’s stomach. So he says to me, ‘Hey! Your son has something in his stomach!’ I just don’t know what came over me at that moment but I replied, ‘Oh! That’s his on/ off button. He’s a robot!’ That boy’s eyes were as wide as saucers and his poor mom hustled him away into another checkout line at the far side of the store. He’ll probably need therapy when he grows up!”
There are many benefits to laughter:
1. Laughter keeps you healthier. The health benefits of laughter include boosting energy, strengthening immune system, diminishing pain (from the releasing of endorphins), and increasing blood flow which helps keep your heart healthy. Plus, it just feels good!
2. Laughter is a great stress reliever! Laughter physically relaxes the entire body and drains away tension. When we feel frustrated or annoyed, a sense of humor can help us get through the moment. When we are confronted with an uncomfortable situation, a sense of humor can help keep it light:
“I went to the grocery store to pick up some food for my child with CF who has trouble keeping up her weight (due to malabsorption). The cart was filled with high fat, high calorie items like whole milk, bacon, potato chips, donuts, macaroni and cheese, butter, etc. I am a bit on the heavy side and, as I was unloading the cart at the checkout counter, the clerk looked at me, looked at my food choices and said, ‘You might consider buying fruits and vegetables instead of all of this junk food.’ And I just laughed and said, ‘No, we’re trying to gain weight.’ You should have seen the look on her face!’”
3. Humor can defuse power struggles. Using humor, without making fun of the child, can be an effective strategy with strong-willed children and ensures that the process is fun for the parents. Using humor, fun and creativity are gentle ways of setting limits with children. For instance, instead of demanding “Take your insulin shot right now!” a parent might affectionately ask, “Rob, do you think your blood would attract ants right now with all that sugar in it?” Most kids respond with, “Awww, mom” and perhaps some eye rolling but they generally head right off for the needle. Telling a strong-willed child to “do it now” is more likely to start a power struggle.
4. A sense of humor provides a sense of connection and support. One of my best memories at a CF Conference was standing around for over an hour chatting with four other moms of kids with cystic fibrosis. As we shared our “funny CF stories,” we laughed and we cried. “At last!” I thought. “Here is a group of women that understand the humor behind ‘poop, gas and germ-o-phobia’ stories!” One mom shared this story that we could all immediately relate to:
“We had just gotten a new puppy so my three-year-old son (with CF) was acting like a dog. He would crawl around the house, wag his tail and bark or pant whenever someone talked to him. We took him to the CF clinic for a routine visit. A medical resident (who looked like a teenager!) came in to ask questions and take down our information.
He says to my son, “Hi! How are you?” Pant, pant, pant. “Why is he doing this?” “Oh, he thinks he’s a dog.” “Oh. So, how are you doing today?” Pant, pant, bark! “What’s wrong with him?” “Nothing. He’s three.” The resident was clearly perplexed. He decides to interview us instead. After a few moments, we look over at my son who is LICKING the exam table!! UGH!! My husband and I are stunned. What do we do?? I’d rather have him lick the bathroom floor at Walmart than the exam table at the CF clinic! We look at the resident for direction. He looks at us.
“Oh my GAWD!” this doctor-in-training shrieks, “How do we BLEACH his TONGUE!!!”
(Moral to the story: Carry Listerine wherever you go when your son thinks he’s a dog.)
5. Dark humor can facilitate dying and death: Sometimes individuals in the process of dying may joke about their pending death. For some people, using humor is simply their way of expressing feelings. Humor can be a very effective tool to de-escalate a painful situation and to allow some communication about difficult issues where none may be otherwise possible. Certainly it is not appropriate for all families but can be very effective in those who appreciate it as long as it isn’t being used to avoid facing the issues.
There have been studies, and in fact whole books written, about the use of humor when dealing with terminal illness and it appears to be a very common phenomenon. Outsiders may not understand the humor and can even, understandably, be appalled at how people can joke about something as serious as terminal illness and pending death. What is very interesting about the studies is that families with a sense of humor tend to be emotionally healthier than those who don’t engage in humor. Somehow, it lightens the load.
6. Using humor to inspire and heal. I once read an article about a comedian named Robert Schimmel who had cancer. He said, “Cancer sucks, but I believe that my finding humor in my darkest moment helped me get through it.” As he went through his experience, he noticed that people with cancer seemed to fall into one of two camps- transmitters or transformers. Transmitters broadcast negativity onto others: they are grumpy, complaining, self-focused and cynical. And then there are the Transformers who change the world around them. They are positive, outward focused, optimistic and joyful in spite of their circumstances. He found that humor could change a transmitter into a transformer!
Humor may not be effective in every family and that’s okay. Every family is different especially when we add in cultural differences. What works for one may not work for another. Each family must find their own way along the difficult road of dealing with illness and death; each path will look different. The important thing is that whatever path taken, it lighten the load for that family and facilitate closure for those who may be left in the world of the living.
The goal in the use of humor is not to offend or make light of difficult and painful situations. I hope that by giving you a chance to giggle that you will find comfort, hope, respite and an effective parenting tool. My personal hope is that I can be a Transformer along this sometimes rough and lonely road. Peace to you on your journey as well.
Lisa C. Greene is the mother of two children with cystic fibrosis, a certified parent coach, and a public speaker. She is also the co-author with Foster Cline MD of the award-winning book “Parenting Children with Health Issues” which is based on the popular Love and Logic parenting program. Visit www.ParentingChildrenWithHealthIssues.com for articles, free audio and other resources.
Copyright 2009-2012 by Lisa C. Greene. All rights reserved.