Laughter is ‘a spark of light’
I suppose I’d always considered laughter to be important in the healing process, but hadn’t really thought much about it. Ironically, it was April Fool’s Day four years ago when the therapeutic power of humour was demonstrated to me.
I was giving a eulogy at my father’s funeral on the day that my son Eric turned seven weeks old, and I was sure I wouldn’t get through it without losing my composure.
Remembering a conversation with Dad in which he said that when his time came he didn’t want his funeral to be too serious, I opened with a joke. The tension in the church fell as everyone laughed. That chuckle let me clear my head and get to the end of my speech in one piece. It certainly didn’t take away the pain of knowing that my father wouldn’t see my son grow up, but it helped me get through the next part of my grieving process.
A few months later, my son Eric was identified as having global developmental delay. Doctors were telling my wife Jodi and I things like: “we may never find a cause for his delays” and “we can’t predict if he will ever walk or talk.” We went home to the Maritimes for Christmas, and the laughter that a visit with our family always brings helped us stay grounded so we could use our energy to help Eric with his new therapy regime, rather than focusing too much on the fear of the unknown.
In Eric’s physical and occupational therapy sessions, we pushed him to try things that were exceedingly difficult. As I cheered “you can do it” over and over, I came to the realization that if I was going to ask him to confront a difficult task, I should challenge myself to do something that I found hard. Unlike Eric, I had the luxury of choosing this task, but pushing myself in some way would help me feel a little better about working him so hard. I decided to force myself to try something I’d dreamt about since elementary school, but never really imagined I’d have the courage to do: stand-up comedy.
When I took the stage at a local ‘open-mike’ show, and the audience laughed at the material I’d written, I felt a buzz like I’d never felt before. Making a room full of people laugh was therapeutic for me, and that release once again helped clear my mind so I could get on with the important job I had: helping Eric.
I continued to perform at amateur shows and noticed that people in the audience would approach me afterwards to tell me how much they needed a laugh that night to relieve the stresses in their own life. I loved these reminders that the healing power of comedy is a two-way street: the audience’s laughter gives me the charge I need, and at the same time provides them with an important tension release.
Last year, about two years after I started comedy, Eric was progressing well with his therapies when a dream visit to the Maritimes with his mother and brand-new brother Alex turned into a nightmare. At his grandparents’ cottage in Prince Edward Island, it was clear that something was wrong with Eric. Shortly after arriving at the hospital in Charlottetown, he began to have seizures, which took several doses of medications to control. When he didn’t regain consciousness, he was airlifted to a children’s hospital in Halifax where doctors confirmed that our three-year-old child had suffered a major stroke.
I’ll never forget the moment, late at night, when the neurologist broke the news to us. Everything was suddenly blurry and out-of-focus. I didn’t know if I could deal with what he was saying. Then, as he continued explaining the situation, he found an appropriate opportunity to make a light joke. As I laughed, the fog cleared, and I felt better about facing the challenge ahead. Jodi and I have mentioned that laugh several times – agreeing that the tiny spark of light in that very dark moment helped us both move forward. We’re thankful to the doctor for it.
After that stroke, Eric had to relearn almost everything from scratch, including his gross- and fine-motor skills and expressive communication. When he was well enough to return to Toronto, he spent several months at Bloorview, first as an inpatient, and then in the day program.
Doctors are still trying to figure out a diagnosis to explain Eric’s developmental delays and strokes (plural, because in May of this year he experienced two more major strokes which have put him back at ground zero in terms of his recovery). Dealing with the unknown in Eric’s case has been extremely difficult. It makes it hard for Jodi and I to keep our minds in the present, rather than getting lost in worries about what might come.
Eric’s team at Bloorview recognizes two important things: that Eric’s recovery is dependent on the entire team, including Jodi and I, and that the whole team will benefit from, and be more successful as a result of, the therapeutic value of laughter. Every day, I see therapists, doctors, nurses and other team members sharing a laugh with the kids and families they work with, and I remember that it’s those light moments that help us all keep moving ahead.
If your child is recovering from an illness or injury or dealing with a disability, it's important that you keep those two things in mind. The way you deal with the situation will impact the way your whole family copes, and allowing yourself a little laughter therapy is sure to improve your ability to keep your mind focused on the important task at hand.
I’m not suggesting that everyone take up stand-up comedy, but that you think about what makes you laugh, and try to find opportunities to laugh a little everyday. It’s okay, even important, to laugh at a joke when you’re going through difficult times.
I think the easiest way to keep laughing is to watch and listen to our kids. Children are naturally hilarious because they don’t have the same inhibitions as adults. They’re sure to say or do something funny every day. And they love to make their parents laugh, so taking your cues from them can provide your kids some laughter therapy as well.
If you need a little more in-your-face laughter, treat yourself to an evening out at a live comedy show (there are shows happening in Toronto every night of the week – a quick internet search will help you find one that fits your sense of humour), or a funny movie, or just a few minutes with other adults sharing a laugh over a cup of coffee.
Contrary to popular belief, laughter is not inappropriate in a dark situation, it’s critical. As a parent, your family is depending on you to keep your head in the game, so take advantage of laughter’s power to do just that.