Sandra Dick: Laughing in the face of death is about coping

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It was somewhere between the diagnosis and the realisation that things weren’t suddenly going to get better that we allowed ourselves to laugh.

Quite inappropriate, of course. But when my husband was handed what amounted to a death sentence, the best way to get through it – in our house at least – was to try to have a laugh.

We sniggered – well, I did – at his flesh-coloured surgical stockings, like ankle length Spanx, the dark American tan hue not quite matching his hairy white feet, and gave him silly nicknames as his skin turned a sickening yellow. There was the sitcom absurdity of his “nearly transplant” when, with five minutes to go, the op was cancelled and five minutes later we were outside arguing over who had change for the car park. (Although it’s fair to say it took longer to see the funny side of that incident).

Around the same time came comedy gold as we chose songs for my mum’s funeral, only to realise with hours to spare that the mournful lilt of Bach’s Air on a G String would be familiar to many from the old Hamlet cigar adverts, conjuring up images of Gregor Fisher, an unfortunate combover and the entire congregation lighting up as the coffin made its final journey.

All that might sound terribly inappropriate and juvenile, but how else are we to cope with the very worst that life chucks at us?

When author Iain Banks, who died at the weekend, revealed the news that he was suffering from terminal cancer in April, it was with the same Gothic dark humour that permeates his books and a masterstroke of understatement. “I am officially Very Poorly”, he wrote, before adding he’d asked his partner, Adele Hartley, if she would do him the “honour of becoming my widow”.

“Sorry,” he added, “but we find ghoulish humour helps.”

Of course, it’s hard to smile when the grim reaper is waltzing down your garden path, but when life is at its most challenging, “having a laugh” seems the only way to stay sane.

I suspect it’s always been that way, from the gallows to the First World War, when trench humour at its blackest thrived. Today, as Twitter and Facebook instantly reacts to global horrors and tragedy, the first sick joke – followed by the first righteous person to squeal at how it’s in such bad taste – is never very far behind.

Life is fragile and when it’s hanging by a thread, it’s scary. You can howl at the moon – all of which has its place – but far better to engage funny bone and, in the immortal words of Monty Python, always look on the bright side of death ...