Allen Klein, a former silk screen designer, became an author and speaker about the therapeutic affects of humor — he calls himself a “jollyologist” — after his wife died 20 years ago from a terminal illness. His latest book, “The Courage to Laugh: Humor, Hope and Healing in the Face of Death and Dying” (Jeremy P. Tarcher), advises that “laughter and tears are both valid in the dying and grieving process.”
Rabbi Maurice Lamm, former spiritual leader at Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, Cal., is founding president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice. He is the author of “The Power of Hope: The One Essential of Life and Love” (Simon and Schuster, 1995), based on his decades of experience as a pastoral counselor. The rabbi writes: “Keep laughter at hand and it will be there when you need it.”
Klein and Rabbi Lamm discussed their views on the subject with The Jewish Week.
Jewish Week: Humor and death seem to be very contradictory. How can you talk about them in the same breath?
Klein: I interviewed a hundred or so people for this book — people with cancer, people with AIDS, people who were dealing with loved ones with Alzheimer’s, people who had lost loved ones to fatal accidents. And over and over they said, ‘How can you not find humor here?’
Sometimes humor comes up at the strangest times. It’s there to show us that we can get on with our lives. It gives people hope and it helps people cope, even if it’s only ten seconds of laughter. It gets them out of their tears.
One woman told me that her husband was killed in a plane accident. She said, ‘I hadn’t laughed for a month.’ She said, ‘They were doing a big [memorial] ceremony in our town. I didn’t want to be there.’ She went to the shopping center with her friend, and in the middle of the shopping center she started to laugh. She looked at the clock. She said, ‘Right now they’re doing a ceremony for him and I hear my husband saying, ‘They’re doing a ceremony especially for me and what is my wife doing? She’s out shopping.’ ”
The woman said that little bit of laughter helped her realize she could get on with her life.
Often we feel guilty when there’s laughter in those situations, or we walk on eggshells. Often it’s the patient who will initiate the humor.
At what point is it disrespectful to laugh?
Klein: In a crisis there’s often no humor.
Rabbi Lamm: There’s a word saychel. Saychel means common sense. People who have common sense will know when to do it.
What are the limits? What are the guidelines?
Klein: You don’t want to go into a grieving or to a terminal situation with a battery of jokes. I tell my audiences ‘Just listen.’ Be with the patient. Get to know the person. The guideline is, if something funny comes up and you’re laughing together about it, that’s great. Don’t try to force humor in a situation. Just be with the situation, and if laughter comes up, great. If tears come up, you cry.
Rabbi Lamm: I did a funeral for a lady who fell down dead in the supermarket the day before her daughter was being married. It was horrendous. We all came [to the funeral] ready to cry. I mentioned that the lady used to come to lectures and not want to eat rubber chicken at these conventions just to hear the lecture. Her husband let out a guffaw and the members of the family laughed — they knew it was her.
How is this consistent with Jewish tradition?
Rabbi Lamm: Jewish tradition doesn’t say ‘Laugh!” A religion can’t say ‘Laugh!” But a religion can provide the name of one of its forefathers to be Isaac –— or Yitzchak, who laughs.
Klein: In the chasidic tradition, one of the ways you get through tzuris is through laughter. They knew then it was a good coping mechanism.
Rabbi Lamm: Look at the chasidim who lived in the 18th century, who lived through the worst poverty and homelessness and futurelessness — they were the ones who developed singing and dancing and chasidic humor. The Polish Jews who lived in the worst circumstances are the very ones who developed humor.
There is nothing in Judaism that prescribes humor for death — it would be gross if it did. For people to be able to see humor in an otherwise totally bleak situation is very helpful. We shouldn’t remove hope from people. We shouldn’t tell people, ‘Don’t laugh.’ We should not only tolerate it but encourage it. Laugh with the person.
I think God gave us the gift of laughter in order to be able to allow us to cope.