Dying – can it ever be a laughing matter?

When we think of the emotions surrounding death and dying traditionally we think of sadness, of fear, of emotional turmoil and of grief. I wonder if there might be another way of thinking about it. Obviously this won’t be for everyone and I respect however anybody going through this journey wants to feel. I do not mean to trivialise it, just to describe one of my coping mechanisms.

Chris and I were enjoying a quiet evening in together last night; not something that happens all that frequently these days with the busy lives we both lead. A lovely dinner and a couple of glasses of wine later and I asked “would it be fat to have another bun for pudding?” Chris replied to this without blinking an eye “yes but you’re dying darling so does it really matter?” We both then fell about hysterically laughing. It was one of those genuinely funny moments in life where you laugh so hard you cry and your abdominal muscles hurt. But how can that be? Some might say a joke about a 31 year old that faces the reality of her own mortality in the foreseeable future is distasteful.

Well I’d answer that question with the fact that I am a fun loving individual. I always have been. I enjoy a joke as much as the next girl and one way I have of coping with what my future holds is by using my sense of humour. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely wasn’t making jokes on day one but soon after I started to use humour to help me get through the day.

How does this manifest? Well anyone who works with me will know that my standard response to a “how are you doing?” question is a smiley “still alive and kicking thank you!” I constantly talk about “when I pop my clogs” or “when I’m pushing up the daisies”. I think some people around me were shocked by this attitude and language at first, but it’s amazing how infectious it is and how it normalises this huge life event that is approaching for me.

For example my boss recently asked “what are you up to this weekend Kate?” to which I replied “off to Amsterdam for a loved up weekend with the husband.” The exchange continued “you really do have a fantastic quality of life don’t you?” My response to this was “well apart from the fact I’m dying of cancer!” The boss “well yes I suppose there is that…” We both laughed. Mum shares the dark sense of humour. She bought me an expensive handbag a few months ago. When I said she’d spent too much money on me, her quick and witty reply was “well you won’t be needing your inheritance will you!”

Having a good laugh always makes me feel better and I am absolutely sure that my positive attitude has helped me to remain well without treatment for such a prolonged period of time. I really hope I can take the humour with me to my death bed and continue it right until the final moments of life. I was incredibly impressed by the Twitter response suggesting an appropriate hash tag for me to live tweet my final days and hours. Fellow tweeps have clearly picked up on my sense of humour with suggestions like #deathbedlive, #goinggoinggone and #toinfinityandbeyond. However I also received many tweets asking if I was serious. In answer to those people I am ‘deadly’ serious about it! I think it would be a very useful learning experience for everyone and you never know it might even trend!!

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27 thoughts on “Dying – can it ever be a laughing matter?

  1. You are extraordinary! Having resisted Twitter up till now you may just have persuaded my to ruffle my feathers and fly. I dont want to miss the ‘dying for a laugh’ gags.

    • how in gods name can you have a good death is it an enjoyement and to actually suggest to laugh at death you must be twisted not dr but nurse kate grainger the only reason you support this saddistic pathway is because you use it regular and its your guilt feeling or trying to hide the wrong you will have your judgement day.

      • I think everyone must chose their own way to face death. I don’t think there is a wrong way or a right way its a matter of personal choice. Although you may be dying you are still living and I think, and its just my personal opinion, that you should try and not let the fact you are dying run your life. We must all die one day. Its part of life. Just as laughter and tears are. The fact you may be dying doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experience both joy and sadness.

      • Seriously? If you can’t say anything nice – and we all know that that’s what god would like – best shut up, I think.

  2. I think dark humour has been brushed off as a ‘defence mechanism’ for far too long. I can’t pretend to relate to having a terminal illness, but I have chronic health problems and I can honestly say that laughing about it is the best coping technique I have! People don’t seem to realise that humour has no limits, just so long as it’s laughing at the bad thing (e.g. the cancer) rather than the person on the receiving end. It is also a great way to educate others, and be honest about your life without having to be have miserable conversations all the time.

  3. I whole heartedly agree with laughter being the best medicine, my wife (32) has been given very similar news only weeks after our daughter was born, if it wasn’t for our attitude towards life/death I think the rest of the family would have a harder time dealing with it.

    We all have finite time here, and although we’ve not had a good prognosis, we don’t know when it will happen, any one of us could be involved in a car accident tomorrow and be snuffed out without any thought or preparation of the friends and family leaving it very much harder to deal with. Life isn’t always fair, we should all live life to the fullest while we’re able.

    As the significant other I’m always asked “How is she?” to which my normal reply is not much more than “She’s doing alright” what do people want us to say, I find it much easier to deal with criticism than praise, it’s not about me coping incredibly well, it’s more about just getting on and dealing with the situation.

    In our mind there are only 2 ways of handling the situation, you either deal with it, or you don’t. We’re not about to start NOT dealing with it.

    PS. We’re also in Bradford

  4. Laughter is wonderfully uplifting and let’s face it, there are two certainties in life – you’re born and you die (unless abducted by aliens and cryogenically fiddled with!).

    Beautifully written, living life to the max and I admire that. Just how my mother dealt with it a few years back, a comedian to the end.

  5. Hi Kate,
    I’m so pleased to have come across your article as I share your views 100%. Although
    I am not ‘terminally ill’ in the sense that you are. However I have had my share of burying
    people I love, including my daughter, parents, and most recently my brother and sister who shared a double funeral last year as they died a week apart. My sister was 50 and my brother 46. Both had soft tissue cancer which my sister had lived with for 7 years primary in her ovaries. My brother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer v unlucky and managed 9 months. His death we were expecting but my sisters was a shock. Humour is so important amidst shock and grief and without it, we would be less human in my view. Humour makes our pending mortality bearable, authentic and true. As you say it may also keep you going that much longer! Memories are all that are left when someone you love dies. So to remember the times that you laughed together and had fun reignites that laughter within and helps you through the grief of separation. My mother ( I’m adopted so have buried my adoptive parents) has buried 3 of her children. I wasn’t sure how she was going to cope with losing two children at once as this was my first experience of attending a funeral with her. I met her 22years ago. My adoptive parents were very open about death and both shared a great sense of humour. I was concerned that my own black humour might slip out and upset everyone. My sister had died in France just two days before my brother checked himself into the hospice in Dublin. My mother ever practical in her thoughts sent out an email to our international family (162 of us in 12 countries)
    Saying that Mairin’s funeral service wd take place on June 2nd, she had died on May 24th. I arrived in Dublin on the 28th. I was so relieved on meeting my mother that her first comment was ‘well it would be good if Aindriu would hurrry up and koin his sister, then we can have a BOGOFF!’ What’s that I asked
    ‘buy one and get one free funeral!’ she quipped
    I hugged her, laughed and said ‘you really are my mother!’ On the day of the funeral after all the solemnities were over in church we gathered in the crematorium about 200 of us and all joined in with Mairin and Aindriu’s favourite song ‘always look on the bright side of life’ then we had a great party. Laughter and love so important for in the midst of life we find death. Kate don’t apologise for upsetting anyone’s sensibilities. You are doing us all a favour and service in being so open about your personal journey towards death. We are all on the same road different times and in different ways. So lead us through your laughter it’s your choice! And thank you cos laughter eases the pain.

    Lots of love
    Maria

  6. Do whatever you need to do and whatever helps you- I picked up on your blog just after I lost a close friend to Bone cancer last year; once the initial shock was over, I laughed at mad and inappropriate things with her all the time in the two years between diagnosis and her departure, we had a real gallows humour about it and it helped her face it and me. I always wondered whether when she had gone I would regret the darkness of our humour or that people would think it was inappropriate, but I actually don’t, it’s the good laughs and the sick humour that made some of the best memories with her and it sustains me when I miss her friendship; In her funeral she chose the poem “death is nothing” and this and the humour we shared and the legacy she wanted to leave; those memories keep her the same real person she was and sustains her as a household name it always was, the laughter and memories definitely help keep things in a real perspective of who she was and the friendship we shared. xx

  7. Dr Granger, How I welcome your writing, your spirit, your humour. As a non-healthcare-professional – and spurred on by tweeps – I’ve been writing BestEndings.com – my own exploration of end of life stuff. My conversation opener that never ceases to crack ‘em up, break the ice is:
    ‘ I want to die with tequila: swabbed on my lips if necessary.’ I also discovered that the New Yorker’s cartoons about death n dying have increased 200 fold in the past 8 years (it’s the basis of a study called ROLFL) One of my favs has a woman in front of a congregation, at her mother’s funeral saying ‘Mother wouldn’t have wanted us to feel sad. She’d want us to feel guilty.” I’m doing a TEDtalk based on my having found humour and happiness in my journey to learn about life’s end. My inention: To Exit Laughing. Thanks for giving me more motivation (and hope that I can make it happen) Kathy

  8. Kate, just heard you on Five Live. What an inspiring interview. I’ve worked in Bereavement Services in hospital and also in the funeral service so have no fear of death. After all, it’s the only thing that we know for definate that is gonig to happen to us. I think we all should talk more about death in a matter of fact way and not shy away from the subject. I recently watched a programme about the Planners and one of the objections to a new crematrium was that children would see big black cars with boxes in them and would ask questions and they shouldn’t be exposed to this. We need to be truthful with children and answer their questions when they come up. Good luck Kate. I shall follow your blog with interest.
    Love to you and your family
    Jan

  9. Just heard you on the radio! Keep at it and don’t let the bugger get you down!

    my wife died in 2007 of a squamous cell carcinoma of the heart, so I know something about how you are feeling and feel you are doing everything you can. My wife suffered tremendous pain, a lot of which came from an experimental drug that was tried, which ruined her mouth and gut. But help was at hand to sort out her mouth, from her dentist of thirty years, who had some awful tricks that helped up his sleeves. Our vet was also a help! Never ignore any stone, as there might be a gem under it.

    The funniest thing my wife did, as she lay dying was to try to fix me up with a blind date with one of her widowed friends. Sadly, the lady didn’t think my wife was serious until too late.

    my son also died of pancreatic cancer in 2010. He just smoked a lot of strong dope and died peacefully. His doctor incidentally approved.

  10. Dr Granger,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feeling with the world for all to see. As a medical student, myself, the things you write about are invaluable lessons into what it’s like to be a patient and are things that I have never thought about before. Your attitude is so refreshing and I look forward to reading your books which I have just ordered.
    Thanks again for your words of wisdom.

  11. Dear Kate
    Its all rather humbling to read your post and some of the replies its inspired. I believe it’s important to talk openly about death. We must all one day face our own or that of others we love. Its not something we should seek to hide away. We all want a good death but if we don’t talk about it how can we be sure it will happen.
    I’m sorry to read your dying at such a young age but by talking about it so openly and positively you shed a lot of light on a subject to often left in a dark corner.
    As I heard someone say the other day who had Motor neurone disease I’m not dying with my illness I’m living with it.
    So I hope you go on living and laughing right to the end and do have that extra bun

  12. Wonderful Kate. I looked after my Mum when she was dying and the banter was very similar, it helped both of us to cope. Please help yourself to the extra bun and carry on taking everything you can from this life for as long you can.

  13. Thank you for sharing. I lost my husband in 2008 after only been married not even 3 years. If we had lost our sense of humor it would have been so much harder. Yes, we were angry at times but more often than not, we laughed.

  14. How wonderful to read that this outlook is possible — my default for uncomfortable situations is always to crack wise and giggle. Good to know that I’m not alone in this, and that it works right up to that big door we will all go through!

  15. This was a wonderful read and I think your attitude is really refreshing and important.
    Whilst I don’t suffer from a terminal illness I do suffer from a number of chronic illnesses and I try to be as upbeat and humorous as I can. It helps others feel more comfortable with suffering or death and, if in your case your time is limited why waste what you do have being sad about it, I think I’d rather enjoy myself really.
    And boo to all the people who think that this kind of attitude is disrespectful or inappropriate.
    At my best friends funeral last year we played the imperial March from star wars as her coffin was being brought in. The elderly people in attendance were tutting but it made me and her mum smile on a very hard day. Laughter is incredibly important.

  16. Surely laughter is what makes life – and so therefore everything as we know it – not only bearable but memorable and positive. Keep on laughing. In the face of overwhelming odds, laughing will keep you, and those around you, afloat…. I think you are amazing.

  17. When I was bringing my sister, Janine’s cremains home, I forgot for a moment that they were in my carry-on luggage. (I learned you aren’t allowed to put them in checked baggage.) When the security screener at the airport pulled my bag off the conveyor belt and asked me to open it, I said, “oh, I forgot my Kindle” the screener said “no, that’s not it” then I realized what had caused the scanner to react and the screener to be alarmed. “Oooohhh” I said “That’s my Sister!” the Screener gulped and awkwardly took the cremains to be inspected separately, trying to be considerate, saying something meant to apologize and be respectful. But while down at the end, getting my shoes on and trying to recover my composure, I picked up the bag of cremains and said “Why, Janine, You’ve lost weight!” My kids and I just cracked up. Janine would’ve appreciated the joke, but I bet the other passengers around us didn’t get how we could be laughing at such a time.

  18. Most importantly, I’ve never known a better reason to have two puddings. Bloody go for it.

    Had a dear friend be warned off cakes and treats towards the end of her illness as her blood sugars were a mess. Since finally indulging her very sweet tooth (having always maintained a slim figure until BOOM – STEROID FACE) was one of the last things she still really enjoyed you can guess how seriously we took that advice.

    Being dealt a shitty hand is miserable enough, being miserable all the time on top of that is a step too far! Having a laugh is so important in keeping a sense of normality amongst mayhem. Bring on the schadenfreude, I say.

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