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Humor and laughter are ubiquitous in human interactions. Terminal illness, however, is often accompanied by circumstances of anxiety, fear, and sadness. Hospice/palliative care emphasizes quality of life and the importance of human relationships. In this context, humor finds its place in authentic person-to-person connectedness. This article presents findings from a clinical ethnography that investigated the phenomena of humor and laughter in an inpatient palliative care unit. As a participant observer, the lead author accompanied 6 nurses throughout their day-to-day activities, twice weekly over 12 weeks. In addition to more than 200 hours of fieldwork, informal conversations were held with patients and families and semistructured interviews were conducted with nurses (n = 11), physicians (n = 2), a social worker (n = 1), and a physiotherapist (n = 1). Humor was pervasive, varied in the setting, and occurred across a range of intensities. Both clients and team members used humor to build relationships, contend with circumstances, and express sensibilities. Humor was affected by differences in people, differing circumstances, ethnicity, gender, and degree of stress. Participants relied on intuition as well as a constellation of other factors in discerning whether or not to use humor. Techniques for assessment included identification of cues such as expression in the eyes and timing as indications of receptivity. Combined with caring and sensitivity, humor is a powerful therapeutic asset in hospice/palliative care. It must neither be taken for granted nor considered trivial.
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