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When Life Gives You Death, What's So Funny?

A visit to the lighter side doesn't change the situation, but helps people cope.

Over plates of grilled salmon and roasted chicken, the lunch crowd is cracking up. To the health-care professionals at a conference about hospice, speaker Allen Klein can’t help pointing out, “You’re laughing at ways to die!”

Klein often wears a clown nose but is neither jester nor comedian. He nearly flunked speech class in college. Yet for 20 years he has made a career out of noticing the lighter side of life’s lemons, from job burnout to death, and crafting wellness and motivational strategies. He has authored 19 books and led workshops in 48 states, tailoring the talk to the organization. The recent talk in Berkeley, California, was titled, “Humor and Hospice: How can you laugh at a time like this?”

People can, and they do, and it helps. Klein’s clients range from the Association for Death Education and Counseling to the Oregon Bar Association. The most gratifying work he’s ever done was with a retreat for severe burn survivors. He worried about this presentation, thinking, “What am I to tell them how to laugh?” But then there was a man wrapped in blankets, blind and with no hands who said, “Call on me!” whenever Klein asked for a volunteer, and an elderly black man who was silent until Klein called upon them to perform a song or poem about being a burn survivor. The man broke out a fabulous rap.

Klein’s aim is not to entertain, but to help people use humor to deal with life’s most stressful situations.

As Rabbi Earl A. Grollman writes in the foreword to Klein’s book, Learning to Laugh When You Feel Like Crying: “While death, dying, and loss are no laughing matter, those who find a bit of humor in the grieving process know that they will survive.”

Klein got into this line of work through tragedy. His wife was 31 when she was diagnosed with a rare liver cancer. It was before liver transplants or hospices were common, and she died within three years. Their daughter was ten.

“My wife, Ellen, had a great sense of humor. She got a copy of Playgirl with a male nude centerfold and wanted to put it up in her hospital room,” Klein recalls. He wasn’t so sure about the propriety of full frontal genitalia in a place where most people post scenes of flowers and smiling grandchildren, so they decided to pin a leaf off from a plant to the possibly troublesome area. The leaf did its job for a few days and then shriveled up and fell apart, which struck the Kleins as funny.

“That little bit of laughter helped us, momentarily, to gain a different perspective. It wasn’t going to change the situation, but it helped us move through.”

And that is why Klein showed a cartoon called Dumb Ways to Die to the hospice conference.

The cartoon features colorful pill-shaped characters dancing and singing, for example,

Get your toast out with a fork

Do your own electrical work …

Dumb ways to die, so many dumb ways to die!

Klein also riffed on the humorous side of fatal illness, funerals, even suicide and executions, as represented in many media. How do cartoonists portray death? Often as a skeleton or a black-robed figure carrying a sickle. Klein showed one of snowmen at a funeral, apparently carrying the deceased in a bucket.

How about comedians? Few hit the mark like Woody Allen: “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Klein showed funny funeral scenes in movies such as Steel Magnolias, and brought down the house with a clip from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” . Mary chides another mourner at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown: "This is a funeral. A man has died. We came here to show respect!" But then she can’t stop giggling herself. Who hasn’t been there?

-- Posted by Sheila Himmel

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