A Tragic Vacation: Kübler-Ross and Laughter as an Antidote to Grief
March 24, 2015

A helicopter made it in to us during a lull in the storm late Saturday afternoon and flew us out to Golden. From there we drove over Kicking Horse Pass down to Lake Louise and east to Canmore. Just past noon yesterday I caught a flight from Calgary to DIA.

I've been going up to British Columbia to ski tour every winter for more than a dozen years now. Doing so has become a much-anticipated part of my year, something of a mini-sabbatical in which I leave aside my daily concerns and hopefully contemplate the bigger things.

This year our trip was marred first by accident and then by tragedy. A few days before we arrived, our friend Rod Martin from Nakusp, BC, slipped while leading a group of skiers up into an alpine bowl. The snow they were on was sunbaked boilerplate, in the words of one of the group “an ice skating ring turned sideways.” Despite his climbing skins and ski-crampons, Rod slid down slope three hundred feet before hitting the first tree with his head and then bouncing pinball fashion a further 300 feet. We visited Rod at his home the day after he was released from the hospital, his neck vertebrae newly fused by a surgeon in Kelowna. 

We expect Rod to be featured next year in advertisements for the K-2 ski helmet, that he was wearing and which took the brunt of his first impact and probably saved his life. This sobering visit provided an excuse to spend a few hours at Halcyon Hot Springs soaking in their lithium infused waters. I've written about the effects of lithium after an earlier trip to the area. 

The real tragedy occurred a few days later when our close friend Robson Gmoser was caught in an avalanche while skiing near Sorcerer Lodge. He did not survive. Robson was to have guided us during a week of skiing at the Battle Abbey Hut.

The Battle Abbey Hut was built by Robson's father Hans Gmoser in partnership with William Putnam in 1978. It is located in the Battle Range west of Golden, BC. Access is gained only by helicopter. Hans was the first to develop the concept of using helicopters to assist skiers in accessing backcountry ski terrain. In the case of Battle Abbey, guests, supplies and staff are transported to and from the hut once a week. The skiers then spend the week climbing and skiing under their own power. Hans went on to found the company Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) using helicopters to ferry skiers up to the start of each ski run and in doing so invented an industry. While Han's company CMH and the idea of heli-skiing 'took off', Battle Abbey quietly remained, a relic of an earlier era, a time where sweat equity had meaning and when skiers 'earned' their turns.


Battle Abbey Hut

Some of you may have noticed the large photo of a group of snow covered mountains over my desk. Battle Abbey is located at tree line just off center of the picture.

Robson, not to sound trite, grew up on skis, and was not just an exceptional skier but was widely thought to be one of the most competent mountain and wilderness guides in Canada. He began working for his father at 16 and so had more than 30 years experience guiding guests when he died last week. One wants to say, "he was too good for that to happen.' Too good a guide, and more so, too good a person. The very idea that he could have been caught in an avalanche has been hard to accept. In particular because the snow conditions this season have been atypical, far more stable and less prone to slide, than anyone can recall.

The results of this accident may in part be hard to accept because Robson had such a buoyant personality; he would always surface with a level of cheerfulness that made observers smile. 

The term buoyant is fitting as Robson joined us one August some years ago for a trip down the Grand Canyon. While Robson was a competent sea-kayaker (working summers along the west coast of Canada or in the Arctic), he had little experience whitewater kayaking. He looked in control paddling the easy water, but he did less well in the big rapids, often coming out of his boat and getting trashed. We routinely located him, when he finally surfaced, by his laughter. He quickly gained membership in the Grand Canyon Swim Team, based on the time spent in the river. 

The news reports that I have read about Robson all mention this laugh. Robson had a laugh that was contagious and I suspect we evoke this memory because even now that laugh still has the power to cheer us and bring some solace. It was the sort of laugh that told you life was good and that you were lucky to be alive.

My memory of his brightly colored helmet and vest bobbing amid the waves of the Colorado River, comes to mind as I try to fathom that he did not, could not, and will not bob to the surface in the avalanche which carried him 1500 feet down a mountain side, over a cliff and then buried him too deeply to survive.

Indeed these are the first symptoms of grief that the famous Kübler-Ross described, the denial stage, where we still do not fully believe in our new reality.

We flew up to Battle Abbey by helicopter last week, on schedule, but without Robson, and made the same climbs and skied the same pitches we have done with Robson for decades; King's Landing, Steepness, Schooner Pass and even the trudge up from the valley floor to the hut called the Grizzly Trot. 

We spent more of our time at Battle Abbey laughing, rather than crying, doing so as a way to celebrate a life well lived and in memory of the good humor Robson brought to every situation. 

Is laughter a cure for grief or just a symptom of denial? Since the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced her theory in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, her ideas have become widely accepted both by health professions and the general public. 

We are all thus familiar with Kübler Ross and the five stages of grief. 
These are:

[Often referred to by the acronym DABDA]

Were we collectively stuck in the first stage of grief or did our habit of laughing, a habit we stubbornly maintained in Robson's memory, somehow ease the process and bring some measure of relief? Reading the medical literature it may have been the later.

Dorrine Moore wrote back in 2000, that “Laughter provides a physical release for accumulated tension. Humor and laughter can be effective self-care tools to cope with stress. ...... Laughter provides an opportunity for the release of uncomfortable emotions that, if held inside, might create biochemical changes that are harmful to the body. Humor turns an event that might cause suffering into a less significant occurrence.” [1] 

Allen Klein has numerous postings online suggesting laughter as an aid in overcoming grief, along with a Medline piece in 2012 issue of the journal Caring. [2] 

The strongest evidence I’ve come across about laughter and grief is the clinical trial done by Dale Lund and colleagues. In a study a of 292 recently widowed men and women, age 50 or over, most of the participants perceived humor and happiness as being very important in their lives and that they were actually experiencing more of these motions than they would have expected. What is more, "Experiencing humor, laughter and happiness was strongly associated with favorable bereavement adjustments (lower grief and depression) regardless of the extent to which the bereaved person valued having these positive emotions." [3] 

Perhaps we were not imagining the benefit we felt retelling old stories of past adventures with Robson. He was in all ways an admirable person.

In our modern lives sudden death is relatively rare. We are accustomed to diagnosis, slow decline and eventual death. Even cancer is now often viewed as a chronic illness, even if eventually fatal. It is rare to go from superbly, high function in both physical and mental capacities to a sudden cessation of life. We are accustomed to knowing in advance that our time is limited. There is time to prepare and get accustomed to one’s imminent change of status.

I find myself remembering lines from a children’s book called Lifetimes: 

There is a beginning and ending for everything that is alive. In between is living. 
All around us, everywhere, beginnings and endings are going on all the time. With living in between……
” [4] 

The news piece that best conveys who Robson Gmoser was appeared in The Globe and Mail and was written by Ian Brown:



[1] Moore DB. Make them laugh. Therapeutic humor for patients with grief-related stress or anxiety. Adv Nurse Pract. 2000 Aug;8(8):34-7.
Full text: http://nurse-practitioners-and-physician-assistants.advanceweb.com/Article/Make-Them-Laugh-1.aspx

[2] Klein A. Grief relief: looking for laughter in loss. Caring. 2012 Mar;31(3):36-9.
PMID: 22594078 

[3] Lund DA, Utz R, Caserta MS, De Vries B. Humor, laughter, and happiness in the daily lives of recently bereaved spouses. Omega (Westport). 2008-2009;58(2):87-105.
Free full text: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2646184/pdf/nihms53706.pdf

[4] Bryan Mellonie. Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children Paperback – October 1, 1983