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Women's Health

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Laughter: The Best Medicine for Chelsea Handler

The comedian, author, and talk-show host talks love, laughter, loss, and her new book 'Uganda Be Kidding Me.'

Using Laughter to Deal With Grief and Loss

The theory that many brilliant comics draw their humor from a well of sadness might be true in Handler's case. At age 10, she lost her oldest brother, Chet, when he fell off a cliff while hiking. His sudden death devastated her family and continues to affect its members, decades later. "I'm 40 now, and when people leave, I think, 'Are they going to die?'" she says.

When the star's mother went through the final stages of breast cancer in 2006, Handler felt that loss acutely, too. But, unlike when her brother passed away, she had time to process her grief.

"When my mom died, we had 6 months to a year to emotionally prepare for it," she explains. "It was so sad, but not as hard. I think the things you don't recover from are the things you have no warning for."

"Sudden loss is unfinished business," agrees Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, professor of gerontology at the graduate school of The College of New Rochelle.. "But one isn't easier than the other. The loss of a younger person leaves unanswered questions. Was it preventable? There may be guilt, anger, and plenty of 'if only's.'"

Handler left little room for "if only's" with her mother. When the cancer took a turn for the worse, the comedian remained at her mom's bedside. She recalls how her father, who is still living, refused to accept the inevitable.

"My mom said, 'You have to explain to your dad that I'm actually dying, because he doesn't believe it.' And my dad is sitting right there, reading the used-car section, or whatever. I yelled, 'Do you hear what Mom is saying? She says she's going to die! You need to say goodbye to her.' And he said, 'I won't say goodbye. We'll just keep her alive no matter what we have to do.' And I said, 'No. You don't keep someone alive for you. You let them die for them.' That was the only time in my life I really had to be the adult."

The sorrow in her voice is clear as she relives the moment. A beat passes, then the comic in her can't resist: "Yeah, that lasted 3 weeks."

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