The Christian Scriptures say that, “Laughter is good medicine”. Sadly, it’s often in short supply in homes where a Caregiver and their LO lives. Dr. Natalie in her, Careblazer’s Survival Guide, says that we should strive to find humor wherever we can. Her example is, when your LO is being insulting and rude you could think, “Well, it’s good to know mom’s mouth still works, even if her brain doesn’t.” I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where a room is filled with anger and tension, and then someone cracks a joke and things calm down.
When someone is dying the family can have a lot of anger and tension. My colleague and friend, Sam Johnson, has been an Episcopalian Priest, for over twenty-five years. Like most pastors he has had his share of death watches, funerals, and wakes. Sam’s dad had died years ago, and his mom is in her 90s. After she retired she became a Snow Bird, spending her winters in Florida. Both of his sisters also winter in Florida and so when his mom was rushed to the hospital they were right there. His younger brother just happened to be on vacation in Florida. The prognosis was not good, the doctors said that his Mom had, at best, a few days to live. My friend, Sam, cleared his calendar, found someone to cover for him the following Sunday, and caught a flight out of Toledo, Ohio the next day.
He got into Orlando around dinner time and hurried down to Winter Haven to see how his mom was doing. Sam knew that his sisters tended to be control freaks, but he didn’t get the memo about not telling his mom the truth about her prognosis.
When he got there, he found out that his younger brother was camping out in his Mother’s hospital room and hadn’t left it in the past four days. Sam’s nieces and nephews had flown in from all over the United States and his kids were flying in the next day.
It was a bit of a family reunion with hugs and jokes and the usual friendly banter. Sam’s brother Steve, and younger sister Doris, went down to the visitors lounge with their children. Father Sam and his older sister Sarah were alone with his mom when the nurse came in to answer some questions that Sarah had asked her earlier. The nurse explained about their Mother’s prognosis and Sam noticed that Sarah was trying to shut her up. The nurse then went to his Mom’s bed and was taking care of something.
Sam turned to Sarah and said, ‘Why were you trying to shush up the nurse? Mom has to know what is going on here. All of us are here, every grandchild that can get time off is flying down to see her and Steve is by her side twenty-four hours a day. Mom is not stupid; she knows what it means when everyone is showing up for a death watch.” Sarah gave him a dirty look, stood up and left the room. Sam wondered, what the look was for.
The nurse asked Sam if he would mind stepping out of the room for a few minutes, so he decided to return to the Visitor’s Lounge. He was about half way there when he saw Doris coming around the corner. By the look on her face he could tell she was angry about something. She got right into it, “I don’t want you using filthy words like, “Death Watch,” in Mom’s room. What if she heard you say such a mean thing?”
“What? Death watch isn’t a mean or filthy word. It’s just what people do when they are with someone who is dying. It’s an honorable tradition that people have done for centuries.”
“I’ve never heard that word before, and that’s NOT what we’re doing. What kind of priest are you? Do you go into your parishioner’s hospital rooms and announce, “How’s the death watch going?”
“What do you mean? Of course, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Why are all four of us here? Why are most of Mom’s Grandkids flying into town? And why is Stephen camping out in Mom’s room if we’re not expecting her to die?”
“YOU think You’re so G-Damn smart! Why don’t you go back to Toledo!”
He held Doris by both shoulders and said, “All I’m saying is that Mom Must be aware that she is dying. Why pretend that she is not? Let’s just be honest and open about it. What if she has some final things, she wants to say to us? Listen, I’ve known families where everyone knew the person is dying but no one will bring it up. The patient says to me, “I know I don’t have much longer, and I’m at peace about it. But don’t tell my wife.” The wife tells me, “He won’t be with us much longer, but don’t tell him, I’m not sure he could take it.” I said to his wife, “That’s funny, he said the same thing to me.” The stress level went down because they could speak the truth and walk it out together.”
Doris pulled away from Sam and gave him a double barrel flip off. “F-You! We didn’t have stress till you walked in the door and started shooting your mouth off. Why don’t you go F-Yourself?” With that she stormed off towards the Visitor’s Lounge.
Sam followed her into the Visitor’s Lounge. When he walked in, he could tell it was three against one. “I agree with Doris,” Sarah said, “I don’t want you talking about Death Watches or her prognosis in front of Mom! I’ve been to a lot of funerals, but I’ve never heard that word before! Besides, I didn’t come here to watch Mom die, I came here to love and support her.”
“That’s right!” interrupted Stephen “We are here to love Mom. Why not call what we’re doing a Love Watch? We’ve got to keep it positive, be hopeful. Hopeful and positive will help us stick together. A Love Watch is hopeful and positive. That’s a great combination, Hopeful, positive, positive and hopeful. A Love Watch. Don’t you agree Doris?”
“None of us have heard this term before and we don’t want to hear it again. Maybe it is a term that you Episcopalians use in the Midwest, but no one else has EVER heard it and it sounds mean and terrible. We didn’t come to the hospital to watch mom die, we came to support, love, and comfort her. You know, she’s always been afraid of death, so we have agreed to speak of her prognosis amongst ourselves not in her presence. If you can’t do that then please go back to Ohio.”
Sam looked at his brother and sisters. The look on their faces said he could go along with the plan or leave. He doesn’t remember ever receiving such animosity from any church member’s family, no matter how dire the situation was. “I just want to say that I have never walked into a hospital room to announce, or discuss, a death watch. The only reason I brought it up with Sarah is that she was trying to tell the nurse not to discuss mom’s prognosis in front of mom. I just cannot believe that mom doesn’t realize the truth about her condition. I promise not to use that term in front of mom again, nor will I bring up her prognosis. However, if she asks me, I will not lie or shade the truth.”
Sam said he left the hospital that evening wishing he were anywhere else on the planet.
Sam drove to the Orlando airport the next day to pick up his Son and Daughter. On the way back to Winter Haven, he told them about the scene in the hospital. When he was finished his son, Bill said,” That sounds like something out of a movie. A Comedy no less.”
“It really does,” countered his daughter Mary, “Something from the theater of the absurd.”
“I can see Uncle Steve bouncing around the room, yelling, ‘Hopeful and positive, positive and hopeful!’ Boing, boing, boing, like a pin ball.” “Yeah,” interrupted Bill, “and I can see Aunt Mary flipping you off and then saying, “Why don’t we pray together?” For the next twenty minutes the two got him laughing as they took turns quoting their aunts and uncle in a most disrespectful, but funny, way.
He said that the humor was so healing that by the time he got to the Hospital all the anger, sadness, and depression was lifted. Truly, Father Sam believes that laughter is good medicine.
The thing I love about Father Sam’s story is that it is true, I didn’t make this story up. (I have his permission to use the story. The names have been changed because none are innocent.) He really was insulted, berated, and dismissed by his siblings. Like the rest of us he was angry, hurt, and confused by their actions. However, when his two children started making jokes and laughing about it, he was set free from all his negative emotions.
Suppose that instead of laughter, his children had decided to support his sadness and anger. They could have said, “Oh dad, I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’ve always thought your sisters were control freaks, but for Doris to flip you off and use such profanity…. No one deserves to be treated with such disrespect and contempt.” Sam and his children could have had such a miserable drive from Orlando to Winter Haven. It might have felt good to tear into his brother and sisters, but it would have only added to the anger that was dividing them.
Please understand, I’m not saying that humor will work in every situation, or that you must become a comedian. Dr. Natalie has several ways to cope with the unpleasant things you have to deal with. For me, humor is a very powerful, healing, way in which to cope with the irrationality of my dear wife Harriet.
(Have you gone to the Careblazer web site, or You Tube and downloaded your FREE copy of the, Careblazer Survival Guide? It provides some great foundational teaching to help you get through this alive. Your LO has a terminal disease, but it doesn’t mean that both of you have to die.)
Next week we will examine another coping skill that Dr. Natalie speaks of in the Careblazer Survival Guide.
May God bless and strengthen you all the days of your life.