When a person uses the phrase, “I’ve never laughed so much in my whole life” when recounting a special moment in time, one would be forgiven for thinking that these words of endearment may be reserved for a joyous honeymoon or a weekend spent with old friends.
However, this endearing description was actually the way that a well-respected nurse described her tenure working in a palliative care environment.
While many would not expect such a positive review of working in an environment that is solely focused on providing comfort to the dying, it’s important to remember that the burden of grief is not for the staff to bear.
“It’s natural to be saddened by the death of a patient, but I think having to deal with morbid or emotionally taxing experiences forces you to find humour in that situation,” said the anonymous nurse.
“One time a manager came in and took the lid off a container of urine and began sipping it while the rest of us looked on in shock, but laughter quickly ensued when he calmly looked at us and asked us if we would like some apple juice.”
Most people will attest to the fact that there are certain jokes that they would be willing to share with friends that would not be appropriate for the workplace.
But for those working with the sick and vulnerable, many of the jokes that get shared at work may not actually be appropriate for friends and family.
Shared experiences in difficult environments forge close bonds that allow individuals to share thoughts and ideas that would not be fit for sharing in most cases – and this includes humorous observations.
Dark humour may be frowned upon by some, but for others, it presents an opportunity to release complex emotions when bursting into tears is simply not an option.
It is also the comedy of choice for many who serve in defence forces and other occupations that require individuals to set aside their natural emotions in order to complete their job.
So it should come as no shock that dark humour is also used as a coping mechanism for the selfless individuals who dedicate their lives to caring for the sick and vulnerable.
Recently, a team of researchers at the Medical University of Vienna completed a study which indicated that people who have the darkest sense of humour actually have a higher IQ when compared to those who don’t enjoy dark comedy.
If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry
Personal Care Assistant, Jackie (surname withheld), has spent many years working in aged care homes across the northern suburbs of Perth and also credits the palliative care environment as a special place to work.
“It was such an honour and a privilege to help people through that time in their life, but in order to do it, you need to be able to have a good sense of humour about death because that is what keeps you grounded,” said Jackie.
On a very warm January morning, a large group of family members huddled together in the room of a deceased resident in Jackie’s facility.
As the hours ticked by, Jackie and her colleague struggled to convince family members to leave and when they did manage to enter the room to prepare the man’s body or the funeral parlor, a problem became evident.
“They had the man sitting up in the bed, but by the time we were able to get to him six hours had gone by and rigor mortis had begun to set in,” said Jackie.
“He was a very large man and it was proving to be difficult to maneuver him, but just as we had finished putting a nice clean shirt on him and we turned the body towards me, I felt something wet dripping down my legs.
As Jackie looked down she realised that a large amount of fluid that had been congealing in the resident’s mouth had dribbled all over her legs and into her new shoes.
“I had a million emotions going through me. It was obviously not nice, but all I could do was laugh,” said Jackie.
“I think I said ‘Ohh my god, there’s dead-man-juice on my foot’ and my colleague began laughing and then we just continued on.”
“We even began talking to the deceased gentleman and asking him how he could do such a thing at a time like that. This made the situation lighter, and if I did not joke about it I would have been crying.”
When she is not the unfortunate butt of the joke, Jackie does her best to inject some happiness into the lives of her fellow co-workers by mixing dark-humour with food.
While researching the bristol stool chart at university, Jackie noticed that there were a variety of stool-chart-inspired cakes.
The birthday of an upcoming manager presented Jackie with an opportunity to try her own hand at making a ‘stool-cake’ of her own and to raise the spirits of her manager and her fellow colleagues.
“It was exactly what everyone needed,” said Jackie.
“My children even know about the Bristol stool chart now, and I regularly get messages from my daughter telling me that she did a ‘number 3’ today.”
“As healthcare workers, we see the parts of life that people don’t like to see, but finding humor in trying circumstances allows us to carry on and prepare for the next day.”
Photo credit – Jackie