Laughter doesn’t take away the seriousness of tragedy, but it can help you cope with it. “When you can laugh, then you can go on and talk about things, it’s a bonding,” says Marie Bethke. She and her husband, a retired firefighter, lost their son on 9/11 at the World Trade Center. She found that laughter was, indeed, the best medicine. Within weeks she had enrolled in a workshop to be a Certified Laugh Leader. It was her way of honoring his memory and helping her through the difficult times.

Aided by the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, a national, non-profit professional organization based in Trenton. Bethke is in charge of a World Laughter Day program on Sunday, May 7, from 1:30 to 4 p.m. in the enclosed garden on the grounds at Mercer County Geriatric Center, 2300 Hamilton Avenue, Hamilton. Ronald McDonald is coming, as are AATH members from all walks of life. The ranks include nurses, physicians, social workers, or human resource managers, but also scholars, psychologists, psychotherapists, counselors and allied healthcare practitioners, business executives, educators, clergy, hospital clowns, speakers, and trainers.

AATH has a wide smile, slung hammock-like under its initials as a logo. It was founded in 1988 by a group of healthcare professionals, primarily nurses, to educate health care, business, and education professionals about the therapeutic uses of humor and its offspring, laughter. It has a new headquarters at 247 East Front Street in Trenton’s historic Mill Hill district, and it moved there from shared space on (you guessed it) April 1, April Fool’s Day.

Anyone can join who aims to incorporate humor in his or her life and work. Paula Hartman, AATH’s director of member development, observes that the 550-person membership includes “people who have gone through adversity and found that humor helped them get through it and find the joy of life.”

“Humor helps you cope, it’s healing and cleansing,” says Bethke. Born and raised in Trenton, Bethke’s father was in the Air Force, and her mother was a homemaker. She graduated in 1956 as a registered nurse with an associate’s degree in gerontology from the Helene Fuld School of Nursing. She also is a Certified Laughter Leader, a designation she earned at an AATH conference four years ago. With five children and 11 grandchildren, she is retired, volunteers for Heart to Hearts (which co-sponsors the day, along with three hospitals), and runs a chapter of the Red Hats, an organization for older women.

Bethke traces her laughter legacy back to her favorite aunt, Aunt May. “We would just look at each other and bust out laughing over nothing. She had a lot of troubles — she lost a little girl — but she could laugh. I remember just feeling good when I was around her. She liked to give us a spring tonic, castor oil and orange juice. Rather than fight about it, we would laugh about it. We’d start giggling and I’d make the faces and the medicine would go down. Even up into her 80s, we would laugh together.”

Laughter helped her break through the wall that prevents uneasy co-workers from communicating with a bereaved colleague. “At first people wouldn’t talk to me. They shunned me,” says Bethke. So after she became a Certified Laugh Leader she did a workshop at her workplace, the New Jersey Department of Labor. Some of the “silly” exercises “stuck,” like the Aloha laugh, which goes A LO ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, and the fake high five, where you pretend to high five somebody and then miss. A cadre of workers in that department are still using those techniques to remind themselves to laugh.

“I always laughed, but this gives me permission to go out and laugh,” says Bethke. “When you start out people look like you are really nuts. But it’s contagious.” Most of her work is as a volunteer but sometimes she asks for expenses. “Wherever I go, to nursing homes or to businesses, I get more out of it than I give, I’m sure.”

Bethke believes that celebrating World Laughter Day is a fitting memorial to her son Bill. He was 37. She remembers her last conversation with him. — it was on Sunday, September 9 — and was full of fun and laughter, she says. “Bill was always a laughing, happy person.”

Observed worldwide on the first Sunday in May, World Laughter Day is meant to send a message that world peace can be achieved through laughter. It was founded in Bombay, India, in 1995 by Madan Kataria, a physician who had found laughter helpful in healing. Concerned about the direction of the world’s events, he simply went into a park and started laughing. Soon he was joined by others, and now India has 900 “laugh clubs.” Psychologist Steve Wilson met with Kataria in 1998 and founded World Laughter Tour. Wilson staged the first World Laughter Day in the United States in 2001 in Washington Square Park in New York City.

The free community event in Hamilton, billed as “a couple of hours of fun and play,” will include music, crafts for children, clown faces, bubbles, rides on a firetruck, materials for making wagons and birdhouses, laughter exercises, and yoga breathing. Sponsors include Heart to Hearts Inc. (a women’s wellness organization), Robert Wood Johnson hospitals, Capital Health System, and St. Francis Medical Center.

AATH, a co-sponsor, disseminates evidence-based information through conferences, publications (its quarterly newsletter is called “The Humor Connection”) and reports on colleagues’ international activities. It facilitates networking, operates in a wide variety of clinical, corporate, and classroom settings, and acts as a clearinghouse for information on humor and laughter as they relate to well-being and programs contributing to it.

AATH defines therapeutic humor as “any intervention that promotes health and wellness by stimulating a playful expression of the absurdity and incongruity of life’s situations.” There are many varieties, and AATH focuses on four: business, healthcare, education, and spirituality. But therapeutic humor has no age range. Babies, children, adults, the elderly — we all laugh, and we laugh the same way.

AATH’s most recent conference had sessions on “So That’s Why it Feels so Good to Laugh,” “This just in: Humor Cures Everything,” and “The Power of Parody.” Even the titles or the sessions can provoke a guffaw: “Reflections In A Bedpan: What Your Patients Won’t Tell You,” “Using Humor in a Weight Management Program,” “Laughter, My Drug of Choice” and “Damaged Care.”

AATH has an international reach. Nimrod Eisenberg and three other clown doctors from Israel worked with youth in Thailand two months after the massive tsunami. Nashville-based singer-songwriter Jana Stanfield recently raised $50,000 for orphanage repairs in Bali. And Saranne Rothberg, founder of Tenafly-based Comedy Cures, performed last fall at a remote Burmese orphanage.

Laughter is social, AATH has found, occurring more often when people are engaged in social interactions than when they are alone. (This theater critic has observed that chuckles are contagious in theater audiences. Even those slow to laugh may catch the mood and join others’ laughing.)

Humor can be an intervention in psychotherapy, and practical applications of its use can help individuals work through stress, illness, grief, and phobias. To wit: nurse-author Fran London uses therapeutic humor to help families and patients cope with the change that illness and injuries bring, and among her several books is “A Nurse’s Guide to Therapeutic Uses of a Rubber Chicken.” Rice Lyons, a Princeton-based therapeutic humor specialist who founded LAFF (Life After Forty Five), holds sessions for a group of handicapped people who call themselves “The Broken Funny Bones.”

Health guru Dr. Andrew Weil says of laughter, “I think it is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress, and preliminary research suggests laughter may also boost immunity, relieve pain, lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, and help protect against heart disease.”

There is also evidence that laughter can help you lose weight. According to Maciej Buchowski, director of bio-nutrition at Vanderbilt University, subjects burned 20 percent more calories when laughing, compared to not laughing.

Humor has always helped the underdog. As AATH president and author Allen Klein wrote about humor in Hungary during the Soviet-backed regime there, “Since they couldn’t be too literal at poking fun at Communists, they told jokes about animals running the government.” Klein comments, “How often jokes have been used against the oppressor.”

Finally, here’s advice from Ron Culberson, author of the book “Is Your Glass Laugh Full?”

May You grow older but never grow up.

May you laugh when the world is not laughing with you.

May your bladder withstand your laughter.

May you never act your age.

May you wipe that smile back on your face.

And may you live happily ever after.

While we need humor and its sister, laughter, to facilitate healing or coping, the laughs don’t always come immediately. “If we can’t laugh now,” writes Klein, “perhaps some day we might. Who, for example, would have thought that anyone would ever be able to laugh about the Holocaust where millions of people were killed? Yet here today the hottest musical comedy on Broadway, “The Producers,” is about Hitler.

One of the association’s bywords is a saying by comedienne Carol Burnett: “Humor is tragedy plus time.”

Association for Applied Therapeutic Humor, 247 East Front Street, First Floor, Trenton 08611; 609-392-3800; fax, 609-514-5131. Paula Hartman, membership development director. Home page: www.aath.org

AATH membership costs from $97 to $137. The next AATH conference will be in Panama City Beach, Florida, in February, 2007.

World Laughter Day, Association for Applied Therapeutic Humor, Mercer County Geriatric Center, 2300 Hamilton Avenue, 609-392-3800. Marie Bethke leads an afternoon of fun-and-games. Free. Sunday, May 7, 1:30 to 4 p.m.

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