By Tony Pirrone, Chaplain, Hospice of the Panhandle

As a chaplain for Hospice of the Panhandle, it is my goal to help people improve the quality of their life, at the end of life. I have the privilege to journey alongside patients and their families, and the honor of being invited into their lives. My primary focus is to assess for spiritual needs, provide active listening, encouragement, emotional support, pastoral counseling, read and discuss faith-based devotions or sacred texts, and prayer. One of my personal goals for my patients is to simply make them smile. Making light of and finding humor with a dying patient may seem strange, but there is something to the old saying, “Laughter is the best medicine.”

Meet Jim & Marsha Magnotti

A few months ago, I made my initial visit to the home of James Magnotti and his wife Marsha. Mr. Magnotti, or Jim as I have come to know him, has a terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Jim has all of the “normal” issues and challenges as you would expect; frustration with his loss of energy and independence, worry and anxiety about making sure Marsha is taken care of when he’s gone, anger and bitterness in response to his prognosis, guilt and resentment in response to some heavy family dynamics and yes, fear of the end-of-life journey itself. But none of that stops him from making jokes, laughing and enjoying life.

Jim and Marsha have been married for 44 years and they’re not going to let pancreatic cancer stop them from living life and doing so with laughter. A typical visit at the Magnotti residence begins with a time of fellowship and discussion about how they are living life and dealing with the end-of-life journey. Most of the discussion is emotional, tearful, and requires a lot of emotional support and encouragement. Jim usually uses this time to vent about his frustrations. Marsha uses this time to vent about Jim’s stubbornness. Regardless of the heaviness of the time we spend together, we also come around to humor, laughter and smiles to complement the tears. Jim always has a humorous story to share.

Finding Humor in Hospice Care

At one of my recent visits, Jim recalled an appointment at the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg where he is receives palliative chemotherapy. He remarked and joked about how the registration staff member always asks for his last name and “last 4” and he wondered if every veteran knew the “last 4” meant the last 4 numbers of their social security number. Jim took it upon himself to try something new, funny and unexpected. When the registration staff asked for his last name and last 4, he responded, “Magnotti, and the last 4 were Jane, Doris, Alice, and Marsha” and then began singing, “Marsha, Marsha, bo-barsha, me-my-mo, Marsha.” Marsha recalled that when he began singing her name the other veterans in the waiting room laughed hysterically. Of course, Jim offered me some advice, “If you ever use that joke make sure the first three names are fake or you might get into trouble with your wife.”

Hospice care is about improving the quality of life, not death. The Magnottis exemplify living life to the fullest and doing so with, grace, love and laughter. I find my time with them to nothing short of uplifting and fun, never any of the doom and gloom one might expect.

The late English playwright and novelist Somerset Maughan said, “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.” We certainly can’t escape death and dying, but the Magnottis are living proof that we can embrace the journey and do so with humor, smiles, laughter and never a dull moment.

About the Author

Tony Pirrone has been a chaplain for Hospice of the Panhandle for two years. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from American Public University and a master’s degree in Pastoral Counseling from Liberty University. Tony also serves as a lay pastor for the United Methodist Church (Hedgesville UMC and Mt. Zion UMC in Berkeley Springs). Prior to coming to Hospice, he worked for 30 plus years as a business manager/administrative officer for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda Maryland and the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg. To find out how hospice can help you or a loved one, call (304) 264-0406 or visit