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.

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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.)

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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.

 

Not for Sale

All the signs in the tiny town of Fitzwilliam in New Hampshire had the same bold and unadorned lettering, whether for selling antiques, welcoming travelers to a bed and breakfast, or announcing an art exhibit in the library. Only a diminutive place like that could be so consistent across-the-board; I bet the town council vote that must have been behind the phenomenon. The art exhibit sign announced that the artist was Bill Barefoot. Who could pass up checking out an artist with a name like that? Besides, it was the only art show in this town of some four thousand people and I happened to be passing by during the small window of hours when the library was open. The paintings were relegated to the perfectly silent top floor, far far away from the auditory trails of murmuring patrons and of the children’s unedited voices below. I figured I would see something banal like nearby New Hampshire landscapes. They were landscapes, and they were from the area, but pleasing. And they were for sale.

As I came up to the front to leave a trace of my presence in the guestbook as evidence that someone that day cared enough to have a look, I noticed one painting to the left, marked, “NSF”—Not for Sale. It depicted the artist as an aging man hugging his likewise aging Collie to his chest. Mr. Barefoot’s hair was whitish grey, as was the dog’s fur. They must have been there for each other in many ways for a good long time. It was the best of the lot, but not for sale. Too bad, I thought, for no other painting drew me into its emotional field. What a teaser a NSF sign is! I wondered if the dog were no more. What was the artist remembering and feeling during the embrace and afterwards as he painted it? What was the dog experiencing? I wondered why he could not part from the piece, and I pondered other artists who have displayed artwork “NSF.” From what I remember, the ones not for sale were always the better works. Or is this just the phenomenon of forbidden, and therefore much more unavailable, fruit?

After signing the guestbook with the comment that “I felt the most emotionally drawn to your self-portrait of you and your dog,” I stood before it again. Maybe for Mr. Barefoot selling it would represent devaluing the meaning of the work, or that of his feelings for his dog, or feelings about ageing, or of whatever else ranked of high importance. Or perhaps he feared lest the buyer would not look upon it as he had but just as a “pretty painting.”

At times it must be hard for a graphic artist to part with an original. (We writers are so lucky. We can sell infinite copies of our books, like the “same” flame lighting candle after candle. The notion of an “original” for me is somewhat unintelligible anyways. I do not feel attached to how this post is stored on my hard drive before I put it online.) I imagine that if Mr. Barefoot were to part with that painting, it would symbolically be one way of parting with his dog, or with something—perhaps his unverbalized emotions about aging– that defines who he is. He would not be quite the same without that painting, like a dog suddenly missing one toe. When someone close to us dies or leaves us, we are no longer the same; we go on minus the interactions we had with them. That which we have is lost is irretrievable, and no longer available at any price.

 

 

A Cold Case Solved

Like Detective Lilly Rush in the television show Cold Case, I have helped others unearth emotions that have lain unresolved for years and years. This time it was at a social hour taking place in the copious back yard of a mansion in New Hampshire…No no, my husband and I did not sneak in; our ticket to this privilege was making a donation to the Walden School, a summer music composition camp for children and teens. I was talking with one of the parents, and soon after she asked about my career, that gave her her own ticket to revealing an aspect of her mother’s death to me. “I just don’t understand,” she was saying. “Near the end, she was trying to tell me something.” Waiters bearing trays of dainty hors d’oeuvres traipsed by as she started to descend into progressively deeper layers of a mystery that had been haunting her.

I started at the surface, which I often do before making my way down to layer after layer of a person’s concerns to get some clues as to where to go. I also do that to see if they want to go further. If successful, I make it to the core. So I started out with, “What did she say to you?”

Anna [not her real name] replied, “Well she couldn’t speak really. I heard her moan. I could not make out what she wanted.” I moved down a notch with, “Sounds like something was unresolved there.” I waved away a tray laden with tinted glasses of pink lemonade as she elaborated, “I felt so bad; I did not know what her last wishes were.” For her, the mansion, the trays, the other people forming clusters on the lawn like grapes on a vine, had ceased their social demands. Her absorption in this intimate matter gave me permission to dig around the core: “Maybe we will never know what she had intended, but what would you guess she was after? What did she need? What do you think you provided her?” As tears came, I knew I had uncovered the core, that tender center of helplessness and love. Anna said, “I think she wanted to be hugged.” A pause, enough for one solid breath. Almost in unison we said to each other, “She might have felt isolated and afraid. She wanted to be comforted, to simply know that you were there, beside her.”

The party came back into existence as she swiftly removed herself from that vulnerable core, perhaps for Anna to approach again when she could be safely alone with her thoughts and emotions. Later one of those clusters comprised of a few “grapes” including me, were seated on steps leading down to the lawn. She saw us, paused to join in, but did not accept my invitation to sit alongside us. As the chit-chat skidded upon this and that pleasing topic, however, I found that she had sat down after all. Her irritation at my pressing against a painful spot had subsided, but I am sure the reawakened anger and regrets surrounding her mother’s death would not be so short-lived.

Win a Free Book (Mine!) By Taking This Quiz

…About ten minutes after I announced this giveaway (see below), I got the two winners!  This contest is therefore closed. However, if you want to try to answer the quiz just for fun….  You can now see the  correct answers under the first comment below. The commenter happens to be the first winner, a hospice chaplain in Oregon named Jacqueline Brodsky. The second winner, from California, sings to the sick and dying in Threshold Choir and her name is Cathy Baird. Congratulations to you both!

I am giving away two copies of Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died. What’s the catch? You have to pass this quiz! The first two people who email me the correct (i.e. best) answers to all five questions will receive a print book or e-book. If the former, I can send an autographed copy. The material on this quiz covers posts since February 12th through now, and it’s an open book test!

1. Eulogies should
a. reveal only the positive aspects of a person.
b. capture the essence of a person
c. be neither too long nor too short

2. Being a chaplain is a lot like being a [Careful—this is the hardest one]
a. banker or accountant
b. football player or boxer
c. detective or journalist

3. If you read my post, “Not Even Chocolate Lasts Forever,” you might conclude,
a. I would like nothing better than to experience death by chocolate.
b. I had a hospice interview whose primary topic was chocolate
c. I am concerned that someday I will become allergic to chocolate.

4. When a new patient turns down an offer of chaplain care,
a. this might be “nothing personal” and more due to the patient’s anger at the disease or at God,or that they may already have their own clergy.
b. this means the chaplain has to offer the care again and again and again until accepted.
c. this means the chaplain has miserably failed with this particular patient.

5. A big “no-no” in hospice work is for a chaplain or social worker
a. to offer to visit a patient more than once during the time they are on hospice.
b. to report patient pain to a nurse, even though the main task of others besides nurses centers on emotional and spiritual support.
c. to ask a newly bereaved family member to become a hospice volunteer as soon as possible.

The Paradoxical Comfort of a Painful Belief

Countenancing beliefs unlike mine is one thing; that is what legit chaplains do. But listening without protest to beliefs that cause suffering, physical or otherwise, to the believer is another. I remember Sarah, who would not take pain medications because she believed God meant for her to feel pain as a way to atone for her sins. And I think about Manny, who thought the cause of his cancer was divine punishment. They were not the exception; plenty of my patients attributed their disease and their impending death to moral failures—they did not attend church often enough, they were not religious enough, they were not good enough.

You, who may be free of such torturous thoughts and rejoicing in good health, may be dismayed if not appalled that I do not put up a fight when I hear such sentiments. Doesn’t passively listening have its limits? Isn’t it cruel to let someone think cancer is a punishment? Naturally my heart yearns to shout at those patients, “NO! You don’t have to torment yourself this way!” Problem is, it wouldn’t work. I am sitting pretty, far far from the shadows of death, while they are coping with it hurrying towards them. Not only that, having a reason, even an absurd one, comforts most people. There is nothing more terrifying to them than staring in the Void of having absolutely no reason at all.

Someone wrote to me recently who does think of disease as punishment. Because he is not on hospice and had indicated that he is open to debate, I said something along the lines of, “Suppose a baby has a terminal disease. What is it being punished for? Even if the parent were being punished, then you still would have the blameless baby also being punished.”

Now suppose he is won over and says, slapping his forehead with the folly of it all: “Oh, of course, silly me! How could I think such a thing?” He very correctly could go on to say, “But what good answer to unavoidable suffering could I replace this with?” That is, he does not want to conclude that there is no reason for his suffering beyond the literal physical consequence of a body going out of whack. No matter how vociferous his objection, I still must maintain that there is no moral reason for the suffering per se. My own view, based on my own previous experience with unavoidable pain, is that despite its purely physical cause it can in fact serve a spiritual purpose. Mainly, pain has reminded me of the delicate balance of all things in my body. It has also made me ponder how forcefully the body can act to fight off anything that threatens that balance, and it has made me puzzle over the mystery of my finiteness.

This post is of course a very terse answer to a question with miles and miles (kilometers and kilometers) of “what ifs” and “buts”. Let us continue the discussion through commenting below. I furthermore invite you to look at my related article: http://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/chaplain-shoptalk-payoffs-of-pain/