A Chaplain Sleuth in a Murder Mystery?

Being a chaplain myself, I could not resist getting my hands on a whodunit whose detective is a female hospital chaplain. Having a protagonist with a day job like that  is not totally outlandish, because chaplains and detectives have more in common than you might think. But before I go on in this vein, I’d like to introduce you to a few samples from this suspense-filled comedic and at times “offbeat” murder mystery, which is one reason I am writing about it here. The other reason is that the portrayal of healthcare chaplains in literature is of interest. Set in North Carolina, A Murder in Mount Moriah by Mindy Quigley opens with a Civil War reenactment. Despite all the bullets in the guns being blanks, one of the soldiers is shot for real.

The following refers to the shooting and then describes Lindsay’s routine as an on-call chaplain at night. It just so happens that during her shift she comes across the man who was shot and sees his wife there as well as she enters his hospital room. As Quigley does throughout the book, her powers of description are well, powerful. That alone is an achievement, since most authors do not make the setting sound engaging. Her setting is practically a character itself. Here is her description of that encounter:

“The events of the previous night seemed like a dream. At the beginning of her night shift, Lindsay had fallen into a fitful sleep in the hospital’s tiny chaplain’s bedroom. Around 1 a.m. she had been awaked by a page from the ICU. She had zombie-walked down the dimly lit hallway and up two flights of stairs passing through the main intensive care room, where the beds’ occupants lay sleeping and still—a row of sarcophagi. At the end of the room, a little hall led to two private rooms. Lindsay knocked on one of the doors.

‘Come in,’ a woman responded.

Lindsay opened the door. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the fluorescent lights that blazed from the ceiling, illuminating vinyl seat coverings, laminate tables, and curtains that forged an unholy alliance between paisley and polyester. Vernon Young, a plump yet sturdy-looking black man in his early thirties, lay in bed, connected to an array of life-support machines and monitors. Kimberlee Young, his wife, looked up wearily from her sentry post at his bedside. She had an appealing chubbiness and freckles that dotted her pale white skin like confetti. Her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

In this next selection, which I am adding purely for fun, she describes a meeting of another kind: man vs. squirrel. Lindsay’s home guest Drew met his match while in the bathroom, and Lindsay started to help him by telling him to scare it away with some noise:

“Drew waved his arms noncommittally and made a low grunting sound through his gritted teeth. The effect was something akin to a talentless actor portraying a very unconvincing Frankenstein Monster. He took a step toward the squirrel. Instead of fleeing away, the squirrel made some kind of irrational calculus in its terrified brain; it dashed straight toward Drew. Drew hurtled himself backward to evade it. His knees buckled as he hit the edge of Lindsay’s large, claw-footed bathtub, and he tumbled head over heels back into it. The squirrel, in a surge of adrenaline-fueled frenzy, leapt upwards. With the grace of a kung fu master, it kicked off a wall, using its momentum to propel itself sideways out of the small opening in the window screen. No wires, no special effects. Just 15 ounces of raw squirrel power and the will to get the hell out of that bathroom.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

While the book unfortunately does not illustrate “best practices” of how chaplains offer spiritual care, it does remind me of the more metaphorical  connections between chaplains and detectives. Both have to be brave about entering the unknown. Both try to solve mysteries of the human heart. Both try to find the deeper issues and get to the heart of whatever is amiss. And detectives and chaplains strive to help those in spiritual distress reconstruct and make sense of their permanently altered world.

For those interested in reading more of A Murder in Mount Moriah, published by Little Spot Publishing, you can go to Mindy Quigley’s site for more information at: http://mintyfreshmysteries.wordpress.com/the-lindsay-harding-books/

Mindy Quigley

Mindy Quigley

 

The Long and the Short of It

The isle of Griefland has many unique geographical characteristics, including its varying distance from your home. Not only that, its size and terrain constantly mutate as well. You might become entangled in masses of vines unable to break free for a while, or have to drag yourself interminably over harsh rock after harsh rock. Or, as someone recently wrote in her blog, you might be forced onto a most capricious roller coaster there. A few of you might be lucky and just take  in poignant scenes as you sit on grass as soft as cashmere. Most peculiar of all, visitors never know in advance the length of their stay let alone the starting date. Not even “death professionals” can give an estimate. In fact, their own assumptions can throw off their estimate more than the average person’s.

Come again? Haven’t hospice personnel and the like seen zillions of cases and discerned some trends? Sure there are overall patterns, but like the weather and the stock market, on any one given day, the pattern appears totally random or idiosyncratic. Just because we have a hot day at the end of October in the United States does not mean that October is typically a very warm month. And it does not mean that the next day will be hot as well.

One of the two major mistakes I’ve seen hospice personnel make is overestimating how long a mourner will be in Griefland after the death. I once read about a chaplain urging the surviving son of a dementia patient to be in touch with his feelings and allow himself time to mourn. On the face of it, that sounds pretty wise: If you give yourself permission to feel and work your way through the sadness and anger and whatnot, then your departure date from Griefland can be sooner rather than later. That is generally true, just like October is generally on the cool side in the Western Hemisphere. Alright here’s the catch: This response came after the son revealed that “My Mom died the day she forgot who I was.” In other words, that was his start date in Griefland, which might have been months or who knows even years before he heard the crunch of shovels filling with dirt to throw onto the casket. Not only that, his departure date from Griefland might have been more or less before the start date of the funeral.( Note: if you are a budding death professional, the terminology goes like this: the mourner had engaged in anticipatory grief.)

The other mistake, as you might guess, is underestimating how long someone will grieve, or telling the griever in so many words that they have worn out their welcome in Griefland. Sure, the concern is unhealthy grieving (i.e. inability to do one’s job, not enjoy anything at all in life, not function with other surviving loved ones and friends), but there are cases where extended grieving is not dysfunctional. One of my most popular recent Tweets was to the effect, “Once the whole fandamily stops telling you to ‘get over it,’ that’s when you will be able to take the first tentative steps to doing so.” Whether dysfunctional or not, indicating that a griever is “overdoing it” impedes his or her expression of feelings. Ironically this keeps the grieving process stalled and therefore even extends our stay in that most frequented but least popular destination, Griefland.

Moral of the story: Grieving outliers unite!

A Suspense Story: Our Lives

One of the downsides of dying is that it can be like failing to find out whose hand gets asked in marriage in a romance novel or which of the semifinalists you have kept track of in a beauty pageant, horse race or ballgame will win. This may sound morbid, but sometimes while I am reading a gripping novel I pray that if I do have to die suddenly, let me at least get to the end of the story before I get to the end of my own. (Do you think like that too or is that just me?)

There are more personal stories people are afraid of missing out on, such as a grandchild’s wedding, a graduation, and so on. Then there are those matters, which differ from completing a crossword puzzle, seeing the outcome of a bet or missing a holiday, that are further out into the future. I will most probably have to content myself with not finding out if extraterrestrials exist or whether humankind will ever be able to transfer in a pinch to another planet, or whether the Beatles will endure as many centuries as Beethoven.

There is yet another kind of loss, and that is missing something or someone versus missing out on something or someone. Even though presumably the former is not possible once we are dead, we do and can anticipate such  losses beforehand. Besides loved ones, this might include any ongoing part of our lives, such as appealing food, travel, uplifting music and so on.

I suppose what people would miss or miss out on depends on personality and priorities. How about we make this post a workshop and see? That is, to be on the honor roll, you have to participate! I will even go first so you can work up some courage: Besides friends and family, I think I would most miss being out and about in obedient nature (That is, I am fine with setting aside forceful winds, flooding and immoderate temperatures.); chocolate of course; writing posts and collections of stories; and satisfying my curiosity about other people’s life stories. As far as what I most probably will miss out on as opposed to missing, as I just mentioned, I wish I could know if there are extraterrestrials and what they would be like. What might their values be? What might they understand and not understand? What might we learn from them and them from us? (At least as a consolation prize, I can answer these in the fiction I am writing these days.) In general, I will miss out on whatever technological advances are in store for humankind, and how and whether worldwide problems such as mental illness will ever be eliminated or at least better managed.

As I started this post, I did not completely think through what I would list beforehand. This is the genuine deal. What I learned, and least anticipated listing, was writing. This makes me reflect on how valuable it has been in making my life an adventure through the interaction it has generated. I relish all the comments I have received on this blog, emails and Twitter for example, and of course all the feedback on my book.

Now it is your turn, in the comments below, to try out this exercise. You might find out something new about yourself. Not only that, you may become more aware of who and what is most important to spend time on now. And who knows? Perhaps seeing each others’ answers below may increase our awareness in unforeseen ways. Care to join in this experiment?

***********************************************************************************

Announcement: The Angry Coffee Bean Café in North Arlington, NJ on 89 Ridge Road will present “The Spoken Word,” my writers’ group first public event. Eight writers (some published such as I) will read from various genres. The event starts at 6:30PM on Monday, November 10th.

My “how-to” guide to writing a eulogy got published in the LA Jewish Journal Oct. 15th:  http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/item/biographer_for_a_day

The Pleasures of an Untasted Beer

“How can not drinking the beer be satisfying?” a member of my audience asked with irritation. She was reacting to another person at my book discussion in the local library who was a hospice volunteer. She had just told a story about one of her patients, who I’ll call Seth. He had described to the volunteer his urge to have a beer in such nostalgic terms, the advertising department of any brewery would have loved to get ahold of the words he poured out. On the next visit, the volunteer brought the longed-for beverage, presumably after getting medical clearance. It was in a thoroughly chilled can, its thin coating of moisture revealing its recent history of refrigeration. Seth’s hands reached out as the volunteer approached, her hands meeting his until the transfer was made complete. She could hardly wait to see the pleasure he would have as the prized liquid hit his tongue. But simply holding it and rolling it in his hands sufficed. He was too weak to drink it, or not thirsty. Yet he was contented as anyone who had had their fill of their favorite kind of beer at some pleasing backdrop such as an outing with their buddies to the playoffs or a school reunion picnic.

“How could just holding the can be enough?” the doubter kept persisting. This sufficed to get the discussion flowing liberally. “Of course,” someone else put in. “Don’t you see? Seth saw the beer and enjoyed the cool sensation of the can.”

“Yeah,” someone else added. “Seeing the beer probably brought back memories of all those good times he had when he could drink it. And you know, he must have liked the volunteer going to the trouble to bring it to him.”

I sealed up this discussion by remarking that when people get close to dying, more and more subtle things can please them. In the excerpt from Encountering the Edge that I had read to them prior to the volunteer’s story, the link between beer and its consumption was twice removed: With nary a can of beer in sight because Sam was not allowed to have it, I sang, In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here. The smile on his face reflected all the contentment of a beer connoisseur who had successfully demonstrated his own sensitivity to subtle variations in flavor.

Movie Review: Departures (“Okuribito”) 2008

If you think being a hospice chaplain is not your cup of tea, just wait till you see this film. What could be weirder, you say, than being a hospice chaplain? Maybe a Japanese “encoffiner.” A what? A deliberately misleading classifieds ad draws an unsuspecting unemployed cello player to what he thought was a tourist company. But surprise surprise, and with the help of an advance, the boss cajoles the young man into learning how to ritually prepare a body in front of the mourners and gently place it into a coffin. This is a young man who has never even seen a coffin before, let alone touch a dead body.

As I watched his first days on the job, and subsequently other people’s reaction to his new career, I thought about the beginnings of my own. Both the movie and my own story share many elements: the sense by some in society that the young man and I were contaminated by our work; that there was the “eesh” factor; that we were plain old weird.

As the movie progresses, I suspect that along with me, the average viewers feelings evolve with the protagonist’s and ultimately with those of his wife and of the broader society. We feel less afraid, then curious, and then finally, in awe of a ceremony that can get family conflict out in the open or help mourners release their feelings, or take “honoring the dead” to a refined level.

This movement from fear to admiration is the main plot in the movie (This is no spoiler, because the way this happens is of supreme interest.) But there is another significant plot not referred to at least in the very short reviews I read: The protagonist felt unresolved intense anger at his father for abandoning him when he was quite young. As he confronted these feelings—I  cannot tell you how without it  truly being a spoiler—this somehow forced me to confront my own feelings about people I have not yet been able to forgive for abandonment of a different sort, and thereby be done with some of this hurt at long last. What more coveted review can there be for a movie or book or other creative work than for the reviewer to say that it provoked a healing change within?

Disclaimer: I saw this movie for free on television on September 20, 2014. I was not required to write a positive review and was not asked to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Announcement:

See this link for a comprehensive article about Jewish perspectives on hospice care. I was one of the rabbis interviewed in this September 15th article by doula Amy Wright Glenn:  http://jewishexponent.com/judaism/2014/09/the-growing-appeal-of-hospice-care

The Sound of One Phone Ringing

 

Offhand the answer to the following question might sound as obvious as choosing between getting a back rub while relaxing at the beach versus doing the back-breaking work of moving furniture around. If you were a grieving family member of a patient on hospice, would you prefer that the bereavement counselor telephone you or visit in person? If I could see a show of hands from my readers, my guess is that most of you would be wildly waving your hands in favor of the home visit. And if you could explain why, you and a few others chiming in might say something along the lines of, “A phone call is impersonal and quick. It doesn’t take much effort. A visit involves travel and a real time commitment, so that would show the counselor really cares. Besides, there’s nothing like someone being right there with us and understanding what we are feeling by seeing our expressions and gestures. Not only that, we can get a hug that way or a pat on the arm.”

In terms of supervisors evaluating the work of their hospice team, home visits, implicitly or explicitly, trump phone calls. So even hospice professionals themselves assign more value to home visits. They “count” more. I sometimes got skeptical feedback from the supervisor when “all I did” some days was to document that I made about a dozen phone calls.

Ah, but hold the phone. It wasn’t like I was being lazy about going out into the wintry mix and traveling twenty miles. It wasn’t like I was hinting that I was busy or did not let on that a visit could be in their future. If I do not include the calls where the bereaved did not wish to talk with a counselor at all, almost everyone I called preferred a phone call over a visit. You might then say that is because a grieving person can feel unworthy and small. Indeed. Thus if he/she did not out and out decline a visit and seemed at least lukewarm about my proposal, I assured them that for example I would “be traveling right in your area” and the like. Even with that sales pitch, there were relatively few takers. I did start to feel like a pushy salesperson by mentioning visits so much, so as I became a more seasoned chaplain, I learned that what mattered most was to get a conversation going then and there.

Some mourners not only wanted to talk on the phone when I called to offer condolences and see how they were doing, but also wanted to receive subsequent calls. I got to know one of them well enough to reflect why so many in her position did prefer calls over visits. For one thing, she did not have to worry about tidying up the house. For another, she could shed tears without my being aware of it. Nor did she have to feel obligated to talk a relatively long time; accepting a visit implies more of a time commitment. That is, a phone call gives the mourner more control over the length of the interaction.

By far the most interesting reason is the ability to hide feelings, which is something to explore in a future (next?) post. For now, it is of note that the bereaved can be low in energy, and that a visit may be far more taxing than a call. As in much chaplain work, the crucial element is not whether I talk with a person via the phone or Skype or face-to-face or for how long. My job is to deftly clear away the debris of small talk and thus join them in their effort to unleash what they most urgently need to say.

**********************************************

Recent  Event:

 

September 18th Grief expert Chaplain Chaz Wesley  interviewedme on his radio program, From Grief to Grace. Here is the program  link:  Author Karen B. Kaplan on ‘From Grief To Grace, with Chaz Wesley’

Eulogy with a Surprise Ending

Two sons and their wives wanted a funeral that did not cut corners—at least insofar as meeting with me at length beforehand went. Above all, they wanted a eulogy that would do justice to who their mother was. My first goal was to get enough facts and emotional outlays from them about Mom to do just that.

And the second goal? As I often tell mourners, meeting with them about a eulogy serves another purpose. It’s not just about getting a hold of enough anecdotes and imagery to craft a minibiography to capture their loved one’s life story. The other goal is to use our discussion as a goad to do the heavy lifting involved in grief work. One way to get grieving to kick in is to talk about the loved one,  recall memories, and make sense of the loved one’s life. This can involve being aware that they are talking about her precisely because she has died, thus having to rub up against that, um, “grievous” reality. The discussion also guides them to expressing and releasing all manner of emotions about her, another task of grieving that must be done to reach emotional and spiritual healing down the road (way way down).

In the case of the eulogy below, I was moved by one of the son’s reaction to it afterward: “You told me a story about my mother that I never heard before.” I first paused, not fully understanding his use of English as a second language. Then I realized he meant that he came away with an increased understanding of why his mother was the way she was. As a biographer for a day with that family, I could not ask for anything more. The eulogy, with substituted names and cities is as follows: (The choice of names is not meant to imply anything beyond their approximate nationality.)

*                                       *                                        *

Galina’s two sons Vlad and Nikolay and their wives Dominika and Natasha and I sat outside together yesterday to build a picture of Galina’s life. Weather-wise, it was the kind of day that was flawless—sunny but not burning hot, just enough clouds to give the sky some variety and balance, and breezes so gentle that none of us had to fold our arms together to keep warm.

In describing their mother, the very first word that came to mind was “elegant.” The second word: “strong.” That is a rare combination, but then Galina was that rare kind of person who liked to stand out from the crowd. She was “spiritual” the sons said, and had “an exotic point-of-view.”

Perhaps she was unusual because she not only suffered the adversity of having to be evacuated from Kursk during World War II to Siberia and live there with little to eat, but also retained a passion for living. She was defiant; she would not let the lean years of her life deprive her of relishing the good times. She got her college degree in education and pursued a career for forty years that gave her pleasure and gave her life meaning. She taught English to junior high and high school students in Moscow and served as a model for them to aspire to. She invoked discipline to help her students aim high. She was more literally a model for them because of what she wore, like the most stylish and up-to-date outfits, with a matching handkerchief peeping out of a suite jacket and make-up and jewelry that made the statement, “I enjoy being me!” Besides her career, Galina made the most of being alive by nurturing the good in her family, by doing whatever it took—and in her country that took a lot of chutzpa and ingenuity and stubbornness—to get her children a decent education and that unheard of acquisition, a 3-bedroom apartment.   She also embraced the intoxicating stimulation of traveling the world over. She refused to let the bad times color the rest of her life; that itself is a model for us all.

“Elegant” and “feminine” yet “strong” and “powerful.” These are unusual adjectives to say in one breath. Yes, she was a complex person, who on the one hand nurtured creativity and on the other ruled the household as well as the classroom with discipline. Yes, she had conflicting forces within her, the suffering and losses she endured versus that fire of resilience that nothing could smother, short of death itself. And even then, as she at last gently released the last sparks of fire, perhaps she knew they had found a new home: in Vlad and Nikolay and their wives Dominika and Natasha, in Viktor, Anna and Svetlana . May Galina Levkova’s memory continue to provide blessing.