Photo by Anthony DiPietro​​

After my husband, Matthew, and I first discussed the approaching reality of his death, he said to me, “So, are we allowed to laugh at this too?”

We were 28 and 31 at the time, married for just over a year. Matthew had been sick with a rare cancer for more than four years. Throughout our relationship, we had been confronted with serious and tragic issues well before our time, and we had found humor in some dark corners. As we coped with a life-threatening disease and its treatments, the trite old phrase “laugh to keep from crying” rang more true than ever.

In fact, during Matthew’s illness, we learned it was therapeutic to use humor to acknowledge the absurdity and tragedy of certain experiences we were going through. Laughter helped us to confront issues head-on while not letting them completely overwhelm or depress us—at least not too often.

It also brought us closer together as we found plenty to laugh at.

Early on, we laughed through the decision to utilize a sperm bank and the discussion about who would inherit Matthew’s semen in the event of his death. We hadn’t even discussed marriage or living together yet—but, God forbid the worst happened—I was going to get the semen!

We later laughed through a visit with his oncologist during which I was excused from the room. By that time we were living together, but the oncologist needed to examine an area of Matthew’s body that made their relationship instantly more intimate than what Matthew and I shared.

Toward the end, we laughed discussing his wishes for his memorial service: “Eh, just tell my mom to put out a kugel.”

Of course it is tough to laugh through the day-to-day anxieties, exhaustion, side effects and pain of being treated for cancer or caring for a loved one who has the disease. But for Matthew and me, humor had always been a huge part of our personalities and our relationship. Cancer wasn’t going to change that.

Soon after Matthew’s diagnosis we got a puppy, and his goofy, gawky puppy-ness brought a lot of laughter. Sometimes we played a karaoke video game at which Matthew was epically, hilariously terrible. Frequently we invited friends over to our place when Matthew couldn’t get out of the apartment, ensuring we stayed socially connected and continued to experience—at least on occasion—feeling like normal 20-somethings.

Laughter can fill different needs at different times. For us, laughter was initially a reminder that we could still have fun. And if we could still laugh, we thought, maybe we could beat the cancer. Then, when we knew we couldn’t beat it, laughter kept us connected—to each other, to our friends, and to who we were before cancer.

It was after plenty of painful discussions and tears when Matthew finally asked me if we could laugh, even through his dying. I replied, “Of course, why would this be any different?” 

Michelle Johnston-Fleece was the primary caregiver for her husband, Matthew Fleece, who died in 2004. Now a patient advocate, she is the director of state initiatives for the Cancer Support Community’s Cancer Policy Institute.​