Death and Laughter

A guy enters a bar and sits at an empty seat. After a glance around the joint, he realizes he’s the only customer. No big deal. He’s thirsty. The barkeep arrives to take his order.

The guy says, “Beer, please,” and soon he’s enjoying a tall, cool brew.

The barkeep shoves a bowl of peanuts near the customer and then mutters about a chore in the back. He leaves.

Barkeep shoves a bowl of peanuts...

Barkeep shoves a bowl of peanuts…

After his first sip, the guy hears someone whisper, “You are a good looking fella.”

He checks right and left . . . no one around. Another sip. He munches a handful of peanuts.

“Nice hair cut.”

Our befuddled customer slowly rotates on the stool, peering into the bar’s darkest nooks and crannies. No one! Just before his next sip—this time more a gulp—there’s another whisper:  “Love the shirt you’re wearing. It is so your color.”

The barkeep returns, hefting a tray of wine glasses and beer steins.

“Hey,” the guy begins, “a strange thing–”

“Been hearing voices, haven’t you,” the barkeep interrupts. He eases the tray down and nods toward the half empty bowl of nuts. “It’s those peanuts. They’re complimentary.”

The physician at one of our hospice meetings told this silly joke. We were waiting for a key medical document to be retrieved from the files and, during the lull, he told a joke that one of his patients had shared with him earlier in the week. At the meeting, moments before, the doctor, nurses, social workers, chaplains and home health aides had been reviewing the death of a month-old child and discussing how to care for a 59-year old woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka, Lou Gehrig’s disease) who’d just been admitted to our care.

Was the joke gallows humor? Or was it inappropriate? I hope not. Even in the worst of times, whether a dying patient, a weary caregiver or one of the hospice staff attempting to find ways to help, we can’t forget laughter. We tell old jokes. We recall a childhood prank. We reveal the embarrassing story behind our silly nickname. We laugh together, with each other and for each other. Death will come. We won’t be ready for it. It is always that way. But we are yet alive and though we weep and shout and question, we also can grasp those precious moments where at least a hint of joy is part of our shared journey.

(Like all medical fields, hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with what and how I share about my experiences. Names will be changed and some events combined and/or summarized.)

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