Laughing Matters: What Laughter Teaches Us About Living and Dying
By Jennifer Mathews, MA
I never expected to laugh for a living. Nor did I expect my primary focus someday to be death and dying. But a funny thing happened on my way to my current life: after some twists and turns, these two paths became the same road.
For most of my life, I allowed my mind to dictate what made me laugh. We each have different funny bones, of course, and my sense of humor used to be fairly sarcastic. As an economic and social justice activist, I tended to laugh primarily at witty political satire. I thought there was too much pain and suffering in the world for frivolous amusement.
My life partner Kate Asch, on the other hand, could laugh for 10 minutes nonstop with a friend while I wondered what was so hilarious. When I asked, she’d say “nothing” in between snorts. She laughed easily, for no apparent reason. So when we decided to take our first laugher yoga class, one of us was clearly more enthusiastic. And the other was a bit more anxious (hint, that was me).
Needless to say, I was quite surprised when we both became certified Laughter Yoga teachers a few months later. I did the weeklong certification for personal development, not as a career move. Yet soon thereafter, I left my job at a nonprofit, and Kate and I began offering laughter trainings on the west and east coasts as our main work in the world. And guess what? I loved it!
Jen and Kate
The momentum built quickly. We created a laughter CD. We were invited to conferences. We trained laughter leaders on the west and east coasts. We hosted free weekly classes in Mount Shasta, California, and locals referred to us as “the laughing girls.” Laughter became our life.
Then a few years later, when life was unfolding beautifully, a more dramatic and unexpected shift turned everything upside-down: Kate was diagnosed with advanced stages of cancer at age 41. She died 12 weeks later. Suddenly, the woman I called my soulmate was dead. That’s when death became my life.
I knew that according to conventional wisdom, I would likely be devastated. We are taught that grief is proportional to the depth of our love for someone. But early on, I discovered there isn’t a “grief-to-love” ratio. Instead, I mostly experienced gratitude and deep inner peace. I celebrated that Kate had been promoted to her “next assignment.”
And it was time for me to begin my next assignment too.
I spent the next five years asking myself what contributed to my experience of connection and happiness even after the love of my life died. I knew I wasn’t sugarcoating my emotional wellbeing. I was truly feeling centered and in awe of life. What influenced such a positive response to Kate’s death? At the top of my list was my spiritual practice, which included unconditional laughter.
I’d like to share a story of mine that Marilyn Schlitz included in her book, Death Makes Life Possible:
After Kate died, I was faced with the true test of what we both taught — using laughter as a way to cope with challenges and to shift energy. I remember one day when I was driving home, I felt the heaviness of missing Kate and knowing I wouldn’t see her when I walked in the door. I thought, “Well, Jen, here’s your chance to practice what you preach!”
As I drove down Mount Shasta Boulevard, I decided to experiment. First I just told myself to smile. Then I faked a soft laugh. I certainly wasn’t feeling happy in that moment. But I decided I would laugh for at least ten seconds. Laughter yoga is a body-mind practice, and so I simply asked my body to laugh. All it takes is willingness. Before I knew it, the laughter grew and became more genuine. I could feel my whole mood change. I wasn’t focused on the future I’d never have with Kate. Instead, I was enjoying the present moment.
To further explore and share what I’ve learned, I’ve created a workshop called ”Laughing Matters: What Laughter Teaches Us about Living and Dying.” (See the details below.)
Kate Asch prepares for
World Laughter Day, 2008
The “yoga” part of laughter yoga is the breathing and the natural deep exhaling, as well as the yoga of inner alignment. Learning to laugh for no reason — simply deciding to laugh and allowing my body to join in — taught me lessons that could be applied to anything in my life.
I could no longer pretend that my inner joy depended on external circumstances. I couldn’t even use death as a reason to be sad or heartbroken. I knew if I was willing, I could choose to tap into the energy of joy and playfulness, no matter what. I knew I could redirect the downward spiral of grief, without repressing it. I could choose to allow emotions to flow, and I could choose where I focused my attention at the same time.
For me, the most important lessons are about willingness and choice. When Kate was diagnosed with advanced cancer, she was willing to acknowledge she was dying and to have open conversations about this reality. She was willing to choose to be engaged and honest about her experience.
In this process, we both learned to let go of the person we knew as “Kate Asch.” One of the first laughter exercises I ever did was to say my name in front of a group, and then to laugh. Something about that deeply resonated inside of me. Who am I? Who is Kate? Am I my name? Am I my mind? Am I my body? Unconditional laughter points me in the direction of greater truths, without providing the answers. Together, we can embrace the mystery.
One of the favorite things I learned is that giving myself permission to enjoy life is one of the best ways I can honor loved ones who have died. Kate showed me again and again that joy is a courageous act, especially in challenging times.
A few weeks after she was diagnosed, one of Kate’s brothers and his family came from Vermont to spend the weekend with us. When it was time for them to go, we stood on our front steps as they all got into the rental car to go to the airport. As they began to drive away, Kate quickly turned toward the house. She promptly pulled down her sweatpants, exposed her skinny bare ass, and “mooned” them in the afternoon sun. I could see our teenage nieces laughing, tears streaming down their faces, as they waved from the backseat. The point wasn’t to make them laugh or diminish the pain of this final goodbye. Kate’s bold move was to remind them to not take life too seriously, and to remember how to find lightness in even the most difficult moments.
They still talk about their last view of Aunt Kate, with smiles on their faces. The lessons of laughter and playfulness inform not only how we choose to live and how we choose to die, but also how we choose to respond to just about everything.
Try unconditional laughter for yourself with this simple exercise: Begin by giving yourself a deep breath. Exhale. Then give yourself another deep breath, smile (even if you don’t feel like it), and let out a big sigh with your exhale. Give yourself one more deep breath, smile, and laugh it out on the exhale! Laugh it out gently, enthusiastically, quietly, audibly, whatever you’d like. Notice how you feel inside. Repeat throughout the day. Enjoy!
Workshop participants in Vermont open up to hearty laughter.
As part of Reimagine End of Life, a weeklong community-wide collaboration in San Francisco, I will be offering my workshop “Laughing Matters: What Laughter Teaches Us about Living & Dying” at the Women’s Building in San Francisco on April 22. Click here for details and to register. (I’ll also be offering this workshop in Shelburne, Vermont on May 22, and in Portland, Maine on June 10.)
Click here to watch a 3-minute video in which Jen invites you to the workshop and offers more insight into how to let go through laughter.
Jennifer Mathews, MA, is a spiritual cheerleader, facilitator, and writer who lives in Mount Shasta, California, and travels around quite a bit. As a certified Laughter Yoga teacher, she combines insights from laughter with how we perceive and respond to life’s challenges, including even death.
Jen’s blog, “Seeing Death in a Different Light,” offers practical tools and life-affirming perspectives on death, grief, joy, and optimism. She organizes and facilitates conversations on death and dying for the Ashland Death Cafe.
Jen, a founding member of the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon, is an active member of the Community Outreach and Education team promoting the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible. She’s hosted community screenings and led discussions on the film with over 1,000 people across the U.S., as well as the UK and Ireland.
Click here to listen to a 34-minute interview with Jen on “Self-Care Practices for Life Beyond Loss.”