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.


News ‘n’ Notes

Grief expert Chaplain Chaz Wesley will be interviewing me for an hour on his radio program, From Grief to Grace, on Thursday September 18th from 6 to 7PM Eastern Standard Time. This is the link:

You can see my guest post for the blog, Expired and Inspired, in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. The post itself is currently (August 22nd) listed as the third top “trending blog post” for the whole paper. The blog is edited by a Jewish burial educational network (Kavod V’Nichum) The link:

Coming in October: a book signing in New Castle, Delaware.

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:
Note: I recently wrote a guest post about why I wrote Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died which you can read here:

Not Even Chocolate Lasts Forever

For some mysterious reason, I’ve noticed lots of recent references to chocolate in Tweets and posts by several different people. It didn’t take much for me to fall in with this trend and let myself be beguiled by it as well. At first blush, I figured the most pertinent association with offbeatcompassion would be the phrase,“death by chocolate.” It may be pertinent, but it does not evoke any memory or story,so no help there. Luckily a real link between chocolate and my career comes to mind: Just as there are plenty of stories about my patients, I have my share of stories about all the fascinating dynamics that took place in my hospice job interviews.

One of the most memorable was what I dub the “chocolate” interview. After going through the preliminary steps to being considered, I could see from the onset that the interviewer (let’s call her Constance) had virtually decided to hire me on, sight unseen, given my years of experience. She not only did not pummel me with provocative questions nor overstep the boundary between being curious and being intrusive, she scarcely talked with me at all about my qualifications. Instead, about 85% of the interview was about chocolate. Yes, chocolate. The joys of dark chocolate, favorite recipes, chocolate festivals, a certain line of brownies overpriced due to their receiving an award, and her policy to have chocolate at the ready for all her employees when they came out of the field and into the office for respite from facing death. “I believe in treating my staff well, “she asserted. “And chocolate is one important way of doing so.” I could not argue with that. Never mind the pay. When could I start?

Constance talked so sweetly (literally), I wondered when she would spring some trick question. I was almost letdown that she didn’t. Seems she was very focused on sweetening her offer with her appealing personality and lack of desire to lord it over me as my supervisor. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks after I was hired, Constance, who herself was brand-new and had even sold her home and relocated, was fired. The higher ups did not look kindly on her free spirit, nor mine, and it wasn’t long until every piece of chocolate as well as yours truly had disappeared for good from the premises.

When a Patient Just Says No

Chaplains, like anyone in the helping professions, can do more harm than good on a given occasion. Oftentimes a patient will let me know I “flunked” by not inviting me back for subsequent visits. This could be a matter of “bad chemistry” or my inadvertently making an infelicitous statement.

I vividly remember one such “thanks but no thanks” visit where my intense curiosity probably was the culprit. Sally lived in a mobile home. Not having been in one before, I was all eyes when I drove into the mobile home community. At least in that particular block, the home owners were very creative. All sorts of handmade and otherwise quirky decorations marked the outside of the homes there. Once I got into Sally’s home, I looked all around at the layout and at various pictures on the walls. I suppose I also asked some intrusive questions. Thus, curiosity got the better of me over focusing exclusively on the patient and on what she wanted to talk about. I did focus on that to be sure, but not exclusively. I was too distracted by the venue. Of course that might not have been the reason. For one thing, she had to talk in a whisper, and due to my auditory processing disorder (I hear, but my brain processes speech sounds slowly or partially), the noise of a machine she had to use for breathing competed for my attention as well. Unlike the visual stimuli, this aural competition was involuntary.

At any rate, the other chaplain working at the same hospice emphatically gave me Sally’s message the following day that from now on she wished to see only that other chaplain. I felt embarrassed about how my curiosity got the better of me. And I felt conflicted about balancing burdening a patient with an explanation of my disability, versus the inexplicable confusion she might have felt about why I had trouble listening to her.

As much as I felt ill-at-ease for disturbing the patient in some way (many ways?), I knew it was not a question of rejection, which is how many of my colleagues construe such experiences. There is in this a sorrowful irony in feeling dismissed by those who are themselves so vulnerable and hurting. It is as if such colleagues are saying to themselves, “Gee, even the neediest don’t find I make the grade.”

But sometimes saying no might not be a matter of flubbing up the visit at all. It can be a way for patients to express anger at their disease at whichever chaplain happens to cross their path that day, or even as a way to exercise the power of sending someone on their way. Anyone in the helping profession who takes a request to stop providing services has to ask themselves what the deeper personal issue is that makes them frame such a request as a rejection in the first place. As with the rest of humankind, chaplains and allied colleagues have their limitations, some of which can be modified such as overt curiosity, and some of which cannot, like the lack of ability to hear speech in the face of competing sounds. I suggest we reframe working with our limitations as a learning opportunity and as a reminder to be humble in the face of a fellow human’s turmoil. A “no” is just a “no.”



Encountering the Edge is now available on Kindle on 

A reporter from The Observer, a regional newspaper, interviewed me about hospice care and some anecdotes from the book. You can see what I look like nowadays plus the story here:

And thanks to the exemplary citizens of the women’s Queen Adelaide Club in Australia for the impromptu book signing!

Unearthing Reasons for Some Unlikely Careers

Why I would enlist in a career as a hospice chaplain must be quite a puzzler to many. To tell the truth, I have my own list of allied professions that I could not picture myself doing, such as being a funeral director. That may strike you as illogical, since both deal with death, right? And privately, I bet everyone thinks the same thing about both professions: Why would anyone want to be in a career like that? This reaction is kin, I am sure, to when laypeople gaze upon a priest or nun and instantly think, “How can they (presumably) have given up sex?” Of all the career choices in the world, why pick ones such as these?

After officiating at a graveside ceremony recently, the funeral director and I had a chance to “hang out” and chat after all the mourners had cleared the scene and the grave diggers were going about their task (another career that is not for me). As required, the funeral director had to wait around anyway until the burial was complete. The conversation turned to comparing our jobs, and neither of us would want to trade with the other. She said, “You have to deal with the people when they are still alive, and face all their feelings about it. I could never talk to them about it. When I see families, their loved one is dead and I just go ahead and make the arrangements.”

I then told her I would be squeamish about handling the bodies and doing any work required to prepare them for burial. I would also miss establishing relationships with patients and their families, however short-lived. In the end, I asked her what people have asked me, and that is, “Why have you, and most in your profession, chosen this kind of career?” This particular director answered that it was because she was afraid of death! She even felt that was true for many of her peers. “They are trying to deal with their fear through this career and become more comfortable with death through being around it.” To me, that is quite an extreme and roundabout way to go about reducing fear. I asked some funeral directors on Twitter about this, and they felt that giving fear of death as a reason was “a stretch.”

I suppose that the reasons both on the surface and under it (approximately 6 feet under) vary from person to person, just as they do for chaplains. I think some funeral directors grew up with their parents being involved in the same profession. I think some find meaning in this career as a community service, and feel empowered by their ability to help in this way. Now that is something I can relate to: unlike so many people, my ability (and that of chaplains in general) to stand steadfastly with those facing the Beyond or those who are first setting out into the alien landscape of bereavement, gives me a special place for me to occupy in the scheme of things. Searching for a place to belong, professionally and otherwise, has been a prominent theme in my life story, and I have found that place in pastoral care and in teaching.

If you are a funeral director, hospice worker, mortician, grave digger or the like, can you express why? Can you dig deeper, so to speak, as to some of the psychological or philosophical reasons for your career choice?


Announcement: Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died (Pen-L Publishing, April 2014) is now available on Kindle.