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Laugh Again

So many everyday expressions refer to death in different ways. We insert them into our vocabulary because it is a part of life itself. “My car died right in the middle of the intersection.”
“Got in the car to head out to work this morning and the battery was dead as a doornail.”
We don’t always associate in negative terms, we’ve found ways to use them in celebration, as well.

“Woo-hoo! Did you see that? She killed out there tonight,” praising a performance at a concert.

A loud, cheerful high-five for a team win: “They slaughtered them, ten to zip!”
In excitement, possibly while watching a race, be it political or otherwise, “These two are in a dead heat.”
From shock to anger to sadness, sometimes to relief and accep- tance. When it comes to death, our emotions run the gamut. Each person must deal with grief in their own way and in their own time. And, whether it’s a friend, relative, or beloved pet, we offer our con- dolences in terms of people’s loss.
“Sorry for your loss” becomes our go-to response.
But, what if…. What if we view it in the other terms people use for death? “Beloved wife, mother, grandmother, passed away peacefully surrounded by family and friends.”
Passed away. Crossed over. Moved on to a better place, another plane of existence.
Through the centuries artists have imagined the dead as winged beings, glowing among the clouds. Humanity created a place of light and love and called it Heaven, we send our pets over the Rainbow Bridge; peaceful places free from pain and strife. And yet we don’t deny there is still grief attached. Scientists believe energy doesn’t die, it simply changes form. Based on that, for many people we are energy and therefore we can’t die. The energy, that which we might call a soul, changes form from the physical body to something we can’t see or touch or hear.

Close to three years ago, as I was right in the middle of writing the third installment of “World of Deadheads” series of paranormal humor novels filled with fun-loving ghosts, my niece was killed trying to save a young boy from abuse. I first saw her when she was about six months old and knew by the glint in her eyes she would be a handful. Indeed, she was a pistol. I called her my Wild Child and it’s most likely not a secret among the other nieces and nephews that she was my favorite. On the way home from the funeral I decided she had to become a character in the book, salty language and all.

Between relatives and close friends, she was the sixth death in less than a year, followed by six more over the course of the next several months. That was a long year. It seemed no sooner had my wife and I gotten over one when another came to smack us in the face.
After the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001, I wrote a short play called Fusion, now included in The Grief Dialogues production. It’s a thoughtful piece – at least I hope so. The characters ask the audience, those attending a nationally televised memorial, what they did wrong? Why did this happen to them? I wanted to address how we deal with grief on a collective basis.
We hold open services. We build memorials, erect statues. But how do we contribute as individuals, besides creating a mound built with bouquets of flowers, stuffed animals, and handwritten signs and placards?
To be honest, most of us usually don’t pay much attention to death until it hits us close to home. For instance, the Sandy Hook massacre stunned me as it did everyone else. It struck a major chord around the world. But, for those not directly involved, life went on even as we all tried to make sense at the senseless killing of innocent children. Years later, while the families toured the country sharing their hurt and anger and offering ideas on gun control, the rest of us had pretty much put it out of mind.
Each subsequent mass shooting again brought the country together for a few short days, or perhaps weeks; the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, the 2016 Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Then, 58 concert-goers were gunned down on the Las Vegas Strip while attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival. The largest mass shooting in U.S. history. And, it hit home. This time, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and family members were affected. No matter who you met in the community, they either had been there, knew someone who had been shot or killed, or they were part of the emergency response teams having to deal with the carnage. How do you handle the tragedy when it hits that close? What can you do to help comfort those who grieve? What can you offer when, due to where this took place, victims spanned the globe?
Death is no laughing matter. But, Stanford conducted a study to see how well people coped with tragedy and death. Those who could find humor fared much better than those who took a negative view. Now, we know scientists are not happy until a study can be substantiated.where this took place, victims spanned the globe?
Therefore, a different Stanford team did a second one, which they presented at the 2011 Society for Personality and Social Psychology Humor Pre-conference, and again found that “optimistic joking is the more powerful emotional regulator.”

I remember when my maternal grandmother died. In an adjoining room of the funeral home an aunt cracked jokes. In the main room, relatives were appalled at what they viewed as crass behavior. In reality, it was how she processed her emotions.

Obviously, considering most of my fiction is about dead people, the majority of them funny, my view of death is that it’s simply a different form of life. The writer’s group I belong to joke when introduc- ing me: “He writes dead people.” I typically follow that up with, “Yes, but they’re funny dead people.”

In the midst of dealing with the killing of 17 students and faculty when a kid opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, a group of local Las Vegas writers were putting the finishing touches on Vegas Strong: A Charity Anthology to commemorate the Route 91 Festival horror. But we wanted to offer stories of hope and life rather than sadness, grief, and loss. It’s a collection of stories about Las Vegas which have nothing to do with the tragedy itself. Each one is about a spot in the valley the author finds unusually beautiful, or a fond memory of a particular experience.

My entry, titled “Mary’s Zombies,” is neither, really. It’s about what I would do in the face of the zombie apocalypse. And it’s funny. I wanted to bring humor into the mix, to give readers a reason to smile as they thought about Las Vegas.
In the face of death, we need glimmers of light and hope; to let people know it’s okay to go on living, to laugh again.

Paul Atreides is a theatre critic and columnist for, and contributor to Desert Companion, a Nevada NPR/PBS publication. The “World of Deadheads,” Book 3, Nathan’s Clan of Deadheads, is the latest in his paranormal humor series; all three are available through Amazon. Current works in progress include Of Monsters and Men (working title), a novel about domestic violence, and Sins of the Fathers, a drama for the stage.

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